November is Native American Heritage month, and a good time to honor the legacy of our ancestors, but every day we should stop to think about our country’s beginning and that the United States would not exist if not for a great deal of sacrifice, blood, and tears by Indian Tribes across the country. While the Pilgrims landed on “Plymouth Rock” in 1620, the Spanish had already settled in to the Southwest beginning in the late 1500s, and with the coming of Europeans, some tribes suffered massive declines in populations due to disease and violence. Some Tribes were wiped out by 90 percent, while others were completely decimated.
Who, then, were left to do the work of survival? Planting? Hunting? Building homes and making tools? It makes me grateful that I am here, and that my ancestors had the will to fight hard to keep our culture intact. Imagine if 90 percent of your community were wiped out – for any reason. How would you go on?
This is the reality that Native Americans have faced for centuries since Europeans colonized the Americas; a reality that resulted in generations of displacement, disenfranchisement, assimilation, poverty, illness and addiction, and the decimation of the land and animals. Many of us have persevered and continue to preserve our culture, our language and our land; as well as to work toward representing ourselves in all levels of government and business, which is why I would like to be that voice in Congress.
When I think about our country’s beginning, I think about our environment and the legacy many Native Americans must have dreamed of leaving. I once read an historical essay that gave evidence that Indian tribes in the Northeast manicured their forests – they were strategic about what trees to cut down and where to plant fruit-bearing bushes; they cleared underbrush and pruned tree limbs; the always considered the generation after in every tree that was cut down. Likewise, Tribes that relied upon the ocean for subsistence never took more than what they needed, and as communities, they shared their good fortune.
In contrast, the United States was founded on ideas of independence, and with westward expansion, “manifest destiny” -- or, the belief that American people (European settlers) held a special virtue and were entitled to expand across North America, regardless of who occupied a place first. Today, we need a new commitment to the value of community, where all of us have what we need, where what we need is sustainable, and where our children and grandchildren are confident they can build healthy, happy lives with enough resources to sustain their families.
Several years ago, I gave a speech where I put forth the idea that Climate change began when the Europeans gained a foothold here and began over-exploiting our natural resources. With westward expansion came the killing of vast sums of animals. I had a California History Professor who once stated that if man could have been on the moon during the height of the buffalo herds on the Great Plains, he could have seen them from space. When at last they were killed off at 1,000 per day, the weather patterns in California changed. Likewise, flocks of passenger pigeons – that sometimes took a week to pass over a region – were shot down until they ceased to exist. Events such as this have caused imbalances, and we should work to protect what we have left.
This is why protecting the environment is a central part of who I am and who I will be in Congress. We must shift our thinking away from short-term gain toward long-term investment and sustainability, and always have the next generations in mind with every decision we make.
In spite of our agonizing history, Native American people find much to celebrate. The songs, the dances, the culture and traditions surrounding planting and harvests, the prayers that are sent upward for healing and peace, and the welcoming of children into our families, are all reasons for us to keep moving forward with optimism.
During this month, I choose to honor my ancestors by thinking, each day, about the sacrifices they made so that I could be here, and I will continue to work to protect what they left here for me. We should always remember that we are the generations that our ancestors thought about when they acted to protect our future.