Like all Americans, I was outraged when I saw the video of George Floyd pleading for his life, only to have his pleas fall upon deaf ears and his life snuffed out at the hands of an overzealous government official. As Native Americans, we understand prejudice, we understand struggle, and we understand the trauma inflicted upon a people when government officials, sworn to protect the rights of the people, become oppressive.
The death of George Floyd demonstrates how far removed we have become from the ethos of respect and responsibility that made our Cherokee ancestors so strong, and that was embodied in the Declaration of Independence; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What is self-evident in 2020 is that for the African-American community, equality and human rights are subjective in the United States, much as they have been for Native Americans since Europeans first settled on this land.
We stand at a crossroads. The path we decide to take from this day forward will determine the future of our great nation. Will we continue with the status quo where we are not moved to action by the oppression of our fellow man? Will we continue to accept the violation of another person’s human rights because their race, socio-economic status or sexual orientation is different from our own? Or will we choose the path of respect and responsibility that is central to all successful human relationships? The path of respect and responsibility gives us understanding that with rights come responsibility, understanding that whenever we stand idly by and do nothing while another person’s rights are violated, we too are guilty of oppression. Guilty by omission.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” History will be our judge, and history is rarely kind.
George Floyd’s death has triggered protests all over this country. It is easy to say the protests are about police misconduct, but they are about so much more. The protests are about Americans across the country reclaiming the “self-evident truth” that the writers of the Declaration of Independence expressed so bravely hundreds of years ago: that all of us are created equal. Those of us who have suffered the trauma of oppression will no longer tolerate the oppression of our friends, our neighbors, or our fellow citizens. We cannot allow this message of truth to be lost in noise, chaos, and violence. It is incumbent upon each of us to exercise our right to free speech to make this truth known. But, to be successful- to actually get others to listen to us- we must remember that meaningful and respectful dialogue will be the mechanism for change. I stand in solidarity with my fellow Americans who engage in peaceful, law-abiding protest. I condemn those who use George Floyd’s death to promote lawlessness and destruction.
I have great faith that our fellow Cherokee citizens will do what is right. Doing what is right means defending the defenseless and being a voice for the oppressed. Our people know better than most what it means to have our individual rights violated, or to be denied rights that everyone else takes for granted. As a result, in 1996 the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians adopted the Indian Civil Rights Act and, by including it in the Tribal Code, made it the Tribe’s own law. A foundational right enumerated in the Indian Civil Rights Act, as in the U.S. Bill of Rights, is the right to peaceably assemble and the right to a redress of grievances. Personally, I support peaceful protest for any reason, it is a basic human right and one that I will not infringe upon. Like my father and his father before him, I served in the United States military to defend these rights for all Americans.
The role of government, I believe, is to protect the rights of ALL people. This includes maintaining law and order during a protest so that it remains peaceful and is conducted within the bounds of the law and ensures the protection of property both public and private. It is my sincere hope that my fellow Cherokees will choose to be a strong, but reasoned voice for those who have been silenced and no longer have a voice of their own. Let us never revert to violence and lawlessness, for violence only begets violence, and hate begets hate.
Only love conquers hate.
Principal Chief, EBCI