The Indians (Natives in the U.S.)

Navajo Nation, Pueblos, Santa Fe

(Written during the 6 week Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S. in 2012)

Glad we saw this part of America as well. The earlier cities we visited, had a diversity in the form of African Americans as the main ethnic minority. Here, there are hispanics, latinos, Mexicans, Navajos, apaches, tawas, tewas and so many others. Except the Indian Americans, the distinction between the rest is getting increasingly blurred. The Indian Americans (they live on lands called ‘reservations’) may want to stay as they are, culturally and tradition- wise. They want development and infrastructure, but, perhaps desire a more socialistic/community model of development than the capitalist America.

The Indians

One of them said, ‘Oh! You are the true Indians…Columbus went on to discover you!’ Phoenix and New Mexico lie in the South Western part of United States. These States, as many others have sizeable population of the indigenous Americans (tribes), called Indian Americans. Like in our country the tribes are diverse; but they can roughly be grouped into Navajos and Pueblos. Navajos have been the nomadic tribe. They have not stayed at one place. They have sheep and horses. If you drink alcohol there, you might be in prison for a day; but if you steal a horse, they will hang you. They hold the four mountains surrounding them to be sacred. Pueblos have been the settled tribes (and there are different types within them). Pueblos and Navahos have not gone along together. Navajos have been looked upon as people who steal. The story goes that one Pueblo festival which used to be held every September and was open to everyone was advanced to August. Why? Because, the Navajos, who’d come to that festival in September, on their way back would steal the harvested crop!

In India too, there are tribes that have been labelled as ‘criminal’/thief tribes. The police are very harsh on them. May be this reinforces their behaviour. The challenge lies in their development and mainstreaming them.

A treaty signed in 1868 between the Federal Government of USA and the Navajo Nation is the basis for the relation between them. Navajo Nation, the country of about 3.5 lakh people (only 1.5 lakh stay there now, others have moved out to live the American dream’) is a nation within a nation. On this treaty, only one person from Navajos’ signature is there. The names of the rest have been changed to English names and they have signed just as a ‘cross’ (ditto) below that. They have their own government, legislature and courts. The jurisdiction of State/Federal government extends to land rights (all land title belongs to the Federal Government and each individual has to apply for lease if he has to build home etc.)They will also enter if there are serious crimes such as a murder. The development assistance is minimal. Navajo Nation does not send a Congressman or a Senator to DC Washington, and lack of a real political voice may be one reason for this. Another reason could be huge cost of providing infrastructure, because there are no residential areas at one place and houses are scattered. They are governed by the Federal law, the traditional tribal law and the tribal government law, each having its own jurisdiction.

The President of Navajo Nation is unhappy that they are still not recognised as indigenous population. They want a voice in the UN (and not just an observer status). He is also progressive and wants some of the traditional laws which have outlived their value to be amended. But he has to convince the legislators, who represent various tribes. He has a veto power though, but we all know, decisions especially in close communities are better taken through consensus.

What has come to play an important part in development of these tribes? Casinos! Because they are governed by tribal laws, gambling is permitted here. Many tribes (and there is a variation- some conservative tribes are not allowing it) own a casino, whose revenue are used (
? how efficiently) for various development works of the tribe. Although it is bringing some cash to these tribes, how ethical is to use such a way which may have long term bad effect on the youth? The other sources of revenue are lease money from the mines.

There is 40% unemployment.

Pueblos are economically more developed than the Navajos. The history of Spanish colonialism, their resistance, some co-optance is obvious. Mesa (hindi mez!) means a plateau kind of an elevated hill. And that is where they live. The tribal laws, including policing the traffic on the highways/roads passing through them, apply in their jurisdiction. There are issues of water rights, and in a significant judgment, one Pueblo tribe won case against the State/Federal Government regarding rights over water.

The Indian American art/music is superb. Turquoise is their colour/gem.

There is a separate Department of Indian American Affairs in New Mexico. All of its officials are Indian Americans. This must be a factor that helps develop trust between the Federal and the tribal governments. They believe that the mistrust actually began with the treaties, before which they were self-sufficient governments managing their own affairs. They are trying to attain empowerment for different tribes, so that a tribal may not have to go out of the tribe to earn a livelihood but environment/infrastructure exists within the tribe to provide him opportunities. They also want some kind of regulation to exist to facilitate a socialistic development. They are concerned about the huge difference between the standards of education, health care, economic development and infrastructure within and outside the tribes. They are also concerned about the increasing drug addiction amongst the tribal youth.

Lack of development is a potential breeding ground for conflict; the thought reinvigorates passion to work with the tribals back home. 

Presidential vs. Parliamentary system

There may be advantages of Parliamentary form of Government (institutional memory- bureaucrats!), but few things about the Presidential system are impressive as well. The first is an absolute responsibility on the elected President/Governor. We have talked about the immense maturity it may require to vest executive powers fully with say a Mayor or a District Attorney earlier. The executive power lies with the elected official in Parliamentary system as well (actually with the council of Ministers), but the stark obvious difference is the flexibility the President/Governor/Mayor has to put people he thinks who can perform as heads of departments (Secretaries etc.). Now this is a power, which if abused can be dangerous (and an official was sulking that the Governor made someone Secretary just because she was accompanying him to Church every day!); but if used properly, the choice is immense. From academic experts to practicians to anyone who can deliver, can occupy that key position. With understandable limitations of this system, this system is also better delivering with a competent visionary leader.

The flexibility of Capitalism

Across different government departments- health, housing, child care, aging- there is also something obvious. The approach/models are built around ‘good’ business models for various private entities- the insurance companies, th private developers, the centres for child care/old age homes etc. Thus government is not directly (or may be to a lesser extent than in our part of the world) distributing welfare (context is only these programmes and not a direct social security kind of programme). In a way, this model may be more ‘effcient’ in some sense reminiscent of the proverb ‘don’t catch fish for a person, teach him how to fish’. But may not be, necessarily. The context and the development stage and the historic/cultural context of a Nation determines the approach.

The reinforcement that ‘partnership’ (with private entities, experts, philanthropists etc.) is an essential component of good governance is for there, sure.

On a different note, there are many departments in the government here, which perform specific functions. It may be desirable, back home to have a readiness, cutting the red-tape, to reorganise government’s functions, cutting down on those no longer significant, and adding the new ones  (urban transportation) as we chart the growth path.

Santa Fe, the city of Art

George O’Keefe, the internationally reputed American modernist painter remarked when she visited New Mexico- ‘there is something different about this place, the sky is different, the stars are different, the air is different’; and she drew it over and over again. On one landscape, she dreamt that God said, if she drew it enough, God would give it to her. She combined the real and the abstract, and that is the strength of her paintings. She believed that it was no big deal to draw a hill, or a tree; but the lines and colours, the abstraction made them great. To that extent, I have begun to understand that whatever you think is an art is an art. It is not important that others understand it. It is for you. (This is in great contrast to the work in government, where increasingly, communicating the citizens what, why and how is being done is important).

One of her great strengths is that she was doing something that she desired, irrespective of the trends around her. This is an aspect of leadership (Gandhi ji practiced it), that does not come easy.

The flexibility of American life was again witnessed through a lovely couple, Tom and Vivian, both ex-UN officials, who after retirement learn every day, have joined a community college, travel around the world. There is an aspiration that our journey towards this kind of flexibility (read increased opportunities) be fast-tracked.










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