VIEWS AND VISTAS ON THE REPARATIONS TRAIL
Published in the January/February 2003 issue of the excellent socialist journal, AGAINST THE CURRENT
[ See articles --
including other Reparations pieces -- in the January / February 2003 ATC issue
via this link
By Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
These are my Native American thoughts on reparations. Some
involve our generally deplorable Native socio-economic situation --
as well as that faced by others. I'm also tendering some procedural
suggestions for handling funds such as reparations -- based on roughly
analogous experiences some Indian tribes have had in land claims cases.
I'm writing this on a yellow tablet from a high-up point, flanked by pines
and junipers and sage, and looking over at snow covered-mountain ranges.
But this essentially idyllic setting -- Audubon's "perfection of
primitiveness" -- could never block the cruel realities of which I and
many, many others of all ethnicities are so vividly and brutally aware.
I strongly support reparations -- and would like to see these flow
effectively to the broadest possible coverage of contemporary
victims within those groups which have been historically struck by
the devastating and tragically enduring impact of racism, genocide,
slavery and consequent economic exploitation and deprivation.
I was born of a full-blooded Native father [Micmac, St. Francis Abenaki, and
St. Regis Mohawk] and an Anglo mother from an old Western family -- and
raised in and around the vast Navajo Nation with my Native identity and
status and commitment always to the fore. For the whole of my life from
young adulthood on, I've been privileged by History to play an active role
as organizer on a number of key fronts: radical industrial unionism, Native
rights, civil rights and civil liberties. So far my Romany trail has carried
me over much of the United States: the Southwest, Midwest, Deep South,
Pacific Northwest, Chicago Southside and Chicago Northside, Upstate New
York, Navajo Nation, Northern Plains, and the Idaho Rockies. I've worked
with people of several racial backgrounds, a range of ethnicities, and
numerous tribes. All of them, and there have been a great many, have been
"people of the fewest alternatives."
The blood-dimmed epochs of the hideous past are causal headwaters and
obviously directly relevant. But it's the poisonous effects and the
chilling, lethal impact of this still widely on-going tragedy -- continuing
and pervasive racism of many cunning varieties and broadening
economic exploitation and all its cutting, draining thrusts -- to which my
great anger and that of multitudes is directed. The victims in
"this rich land" alone are virtually countless.
Here are three of many social justice campaigns carved forever into my
I was actively involved in the Southern Movement from 1961-67 in some of the
most repressive sections of the Deep South. I saw the brutal effects of
naked racism and rank economic poverty on Blacks in both rural and urban
settings. And I saw the things which eventually -- after much blood and
sacrifice -- changed for the better. And I've seen the many things then and
since then that have not changed.
The Southern Movement broke some hard-lines of resistance,
secured the right to organize and dissent, developed widespread local
leadership, brought about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, achieved
widespread desegregation and some integration, ended most open racist
terrorism, laid a basis for interracial and democratic unionism, and
produced broad Black political participation and activism.
But the really radical promise of the Southern Movement -- the emergence of
bona fide socialism -- did not, of course, materialize. Its social class
dichotomies, joined by the integrationist/separatist debates -- all of this
in the context of these initial positive victories, much tokenism, and
continuing racism and massive economic poverty -- combined to fragment much
of the solidarity which had initially characterized the Movement in its
springtime. Behind the scenes, the never-ending cunning maneuvering of
capitalism and the always ongoing manipulations of stratospheric corporate
liberalism and its more localized appendages, the War, the Machiavellian
usage of the Economic Opportunity Act -- and the FBI and its COINTELPRO
poisoning and hatchet-jobbing -- all had an extraordinarily destructive
impact. And much of this all was certainly going on nationally on a myriad
And in the old battlefields of the Southern Movement, racism and its
poisonous varieties continue, economic deprivation is multi-faceted and
rampant, barriers to fundamental change very much to the fore.
I saw the same basic situation with Blacks and Chicanos and Puerto Ricans on
the always sanguinary South/Southwest Side of Chicago in the years that
followed the Southern Movement. And there, too, some things changed with
tremendous effort -- but much indeed never did.
There, I directed a large-scale community organizing project in an
immense piece of turf: from about 28th Street southward down to 63d and
from the Dan Ryan Expressway on the east all the way westward to South
Ashland Avenue and eventually far to the west of even that. Much of this was
changing racially as large numbers of White people moved out and very large
numbers of non-Whites moved in. Our program focus -- the grassroots
community organization of low-income people, and also related advocate
services -- involved primarily Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, some Native
Americans, and some Anglos who stayed behind and worked with us. In the
face of rigid opposition from the Richard Daley machine -- which sought to
cut off many city services in areas that became predominately non-White and
which quite rightly saw our work as a major threat on all fronts -- we began
to systematically organize multi-issue block clubs and single-issue action
organizations. White racist groups were prevalent on the frontiers.
Violence was endemic. It was a cat-clawing struggle: very hard, tedious,
and often super-dangerous work.
All told, we helped a vast number of people overcome the most profound
inter-personal alienation, fear, and apathetic futility to organize 300
multi-issue block clubs plus related groups in two large umbrella
organizations. We dealt with ever increasing effectiveness and success on a
wide variety of problems: civic services, education, employment, housing,
health, police/community relations, urban renewal -- and race. We made
enduring peace between a number of minority youth gangs -- and we defeated a
Daley alderman, installing a Black woman independent.
The solid work of all of this in that turbulent and bloody setting lives on
to this day. But some things did not change for the better: e.g., racism
continues as an integral component of the Chicago System, the Southside
schools continue in deplorable condition, minority unemployment and
subemployment are climbing ever-higher, and young people of color are
frequently in consistent crisis.
I was chair for many years of the all-Indian Native American Community
Organizational Training Center on the Northside of Chicago -- a program
initially geared toward the 22,000 Indians from 100 tribes that lived in
that part of the city. Many had been dumped there via the Federal
government's nefarious "urban relocation" program -- whose agenda
unsuccessfully sought the elimination of Native people through
"assimilation." These new urban Natives were trying to cope, not only with
the mysteries of big urban life but also with direct and institutionalized
racism, very heavy unemployment and sub-employment, a myriad of
health and welfare and housing problems, and deep alienation and despair
and alcoholism. Our program trained Indian people as community organizers
and activists and, eventually, the Center's purview reached well beyond
Chicago. We -- and other Native programs in the city and environs -- made
a positive difference.
But, again, some things -- racism and economic deprivation and all their
deadly fruits -- did not change substantially.
I was born, of course, right into the Native American situation. The cruel
realities affecting our people are not always widely known:
There are presently at least two and a half million Native people in what's
called the United States -- in about 600 tribes, each with its own
distinct culture, which are rightly perceived by their members, though not
by most Anglos, as sovereign nations.
Whether reservation or urban, the Native
American situation is characterized by severe economic marginality and
frequently outright desperation. Unemployment on the reservations, always
high, is now -- depending on the particular setting and circumstance --
between 50% and 90%. Urban Indian unemployment stands between 50% and
60% -- with many additional people working only part-time at odd jobs and
day labor. The average life expectancy for an Indian person is, depending
on whichever of the current estimates, 6 to 10 years below that of other
Americans -- with the Native health situation marked by, among other things,
the highest diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and suicide rates in the
U.S. The death rate for Native people via alcoholism is seven times the
national average. And alcohol also figures into the extremely high Indian
suicide rate which is almost 75% above that of all other races -- and 2-3
times higher than the national average for Native males in the 15-34 age
I see socialism -- bona fide socialist democracy -- as absolutely necessary
for all of the peoples of the earth. And I see reparations as an extremely
important approach on behalf of the vast numbers of current victims into
which the systemic impact of racism and economic deprivation continue to
cut to life's very bone, directly and indirectly, covertly and overtly.
Reparations can directly nourish the current population of victims,
boosting their important momentum for more fundamentally radical thrusts.
The very positive impact of all of this will be considerable for their many
generations of descendants to come -- and for our human society as a whole.
Reparations will increasingly be a very fundamentally visionary and tangible
organizing force -- both as a key component in a basic goal package and
very much so in its own right.
I do have some procedural thoughts. Our Native American situation contains
some uniquely exceptional dimensions which could provide helpful insights in
the handling of reparations monies and certain collateral matters.
With the emergence of such funds, some sort of agency would be necessary in
their initial marshalling and direction. Clearly this should be a very
special kind of overall non-governmental entity which is carefully developed
and genuinely representative of the broad range of potential recipients.
Most Native tribes have formal treaties with the United States government --
signed in the old days under duress and poor compensation for a continent
lost along with many millions of lives. These treaties, part of the
"supreme law of the land" as per Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution,
have been violated again and again by capitalistic forces and their
governmental allies seeking Native lands and resources. This is the starkly
infamous "trail of broken treaties."
A major piece of the on-going Native American struggle for freedom is to
force the government to adhere to the treaties, to protect land and
resources and tribal culture, and to regain lost sovereignty. And often in
this "modern epoch," tribal nations are pushing land claims cases through
the courts -- litigation based on blatant violations of the treaties -- some
of these extending back into the latter 1700s and the 1800s and often
continuing to the present moment. These cases can take many years to
resolve -- sometimes several decades -- but there have been, ultimately,
many relative victories.
And these have produced compensatory funds: "claims settlements." These
are not reparations monies but are based on illegal Anglo violations of
legal treaties. And, when all is said and done, there usually isn't all
that much money. But, in its handling, there have been some very hard
First, it's now generally recognized that, when a tribe distributes land
claims compensation to its members on an individual, per capita basis,
the actual dollar amount will be minimal. And, given the frequent
economic marginality of the people, it's all very soon gone to non-Indian
business forces surrounding the reservation.
So, increasingly in this contemporary period, Indian tribal nations
receiving claims compensation are taking those funds and, instead of per
capita distribution, are developing projects and programs of benefit to the
entire tribe over the long pull: e.g., buying more land, pursuing tribal
economic development of its own resources, and setting up tribally-owned
I strongly support the concept of reparations monies -- however
they're ultimately used -- being channeled through all sorts of bona fide
grassroots peoples' organizations. And I very strongly feel the funds
should be used for solidly beneficial community programs of all kinds.
And, across this land, there is a great mountain -- a massive myriad -- of
solid grassroots organizations involving those of the fewest alternatives.
They range from the ancient and very vigorously vital tribal nations to
associations of neighborhood block clubs and community-oriented church
denominations to angry activist outfits. And there are a thousand or two
other variants -- to say nothing of those that can be appropriately
Although some organizations -- e.g., Native tribes, churches -- are
automatically tax-exempt and not-for-profit in the eyes of Internal Revenue
Service, this immediate de jure recognition does not extend to many other
grassroots entities. I would argue that organizations receiving
reparations monies not have to be 501[c] -- those formally deemed
tax-exempt and charitable by IRS -- and thus relatively narrow and
restricted in nature, scope and reach. I would certainly hope they could
be any legitimate peoples' organization, large or small.
And then there's another basic question: how are some individuals
determined to be entitled to reparations -- whether through organizational
programs and services or via direct distribution of funds?
This isn't a great problem for Native tribes which can determine through
their generations of formal records most if not all of their members and,
ultimately, related Natives. Urban Indian organizations, almost always
inter-tribal in composition, usually can determine who is an Indian.
But often questions arise there and they can get contentious and
divisive -- very fast indeed.
And this can get swiftly into the very complex question of defining, "Who is
a Native American?" I taught Federal Indian Law at the university level for
thirteen years -- and that thorny tangle was always good for several hours
of discussion. But, ultimately, this Native question offers some insights
to other groups -- when they have to wrestle with definitions both fair and
The Federal government, interested in keeping the Native population limited
in service-eligibility numbers, prefers a minimum of one-fourth "Indian
blood" [e.g., one full-blooded grandparent or one half-blood parent.]
Tribes, however, often have their own formal criteria which can vary
considerably -- sometimes involving a lower blood degree.
A good basic definition for general usage that I've developed is especially
appropriate to urban Native inter-tribal organizational situations: 
Someone who has Indian blood; and,  Sees himself or herself as
Native American; and,  Is perceived by other Native people as a Native
That definition, which involves both genetics and community, could be a
useful one in the general reparations context.
And, finally, as the great and good reparations drama takes on tangible
flesh and bone and blood and feathers, there should always be some
sort of appellate mechanism for any and all of the individual and
Nialetch / Onen
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
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