Wang Center Symposium Brings Awareness to Contemporary Dehumanization of Native Americans

PLU Symposium

“My government name is Richard Marshall,” said a man dressed in black dress pants, a light brown Kangol golf hat and a red vest adorned with Native American symbols. “But I use my Indian name because I want to remember what happened.”

These were the words spoken by Swil Kanim, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council, who, along with fellow Lummi Tribe member Jay Julius, gave a gripping speech at Pacific Lutheran University’s 6th biennial Wang Center Symposium.

The two day event, “Legacies of the Shoah: Understanding Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,” was held at PLU’s University Center on Feb. 20 and 21, and allowed for a variety of renowned speakers to bring awareness to historical and contemporary topics such as human rights violations and dehumanization in society.

When Swil Kanim claimed that he wanted to “remember what happened,” he was referring to the experience of millions of Native Americans who became second-class citizens basically overnight during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. Even today in the 21st century, Native Americans are still being exploited, and their land and customs continue to shrink by the day.

According to Swil Kanim and Julius, the pain of seeing their way of life being slowly destroyed is what drives them to share their stories. Both men recalled the experiences of their grandparents, who were forced into boarding schools thousands of miles away as children in order to become “Americanized.”

This sort of practice may seem like it is in the past, but in reality, it is still a matter of contemporary importance. In fact, it is a lot closer to home than many in the Northwest think.

PLU, the university itself, is actually located on colonized Native American land.

Although it is unlikely that the Lummi Tribe ever ventured from their home in Cherry Point, near Bellingham, Wash., all the way down south to Tacoma, their fight is one that involves all 47 Northwest Indian tribes. And it is a fight that PLU is doing its part to support.

The symposium attempted to find solutions to a number of seemingly unanswerable questions, and the one that relates to Julius and Swil Kanim’s experiences best asks: how is the trauma of these behaviors carried through from generation to generation? The unfortunate answer, for many at least, is to ignore it.

“There is a denied holocaust in the United States,” said Julius addressing a predominantly white audience. “In school, the word ‘Indian’ is often followed by the word ‘savage.'”

For the Lummi, this attitude of dehumanizing Native Americans is what is holding the U.S. back from treating them as equals. Historical prejudice is incredibly difficult to erase, and the metaphor of Indians as savages has been embedded into popular culture ever since the first Indians were forced off their land to make way for westward expansion.

The Lummi Tribe members traveled to PLU to spread awareness that their people are facing the possibility of losing sacred ground to a proposed shipping terminal that would be based out of Cherry Point, the 4000 year old home of the Lummi. The terminal would be used to ship coal from Wyoming to Asia, and in addition to it violating ancient land, it would destroy both the fishing culture and the way of life for the tribe.

Proposals of this kind are nothing out of the ordinary for Native American tribes across the country, and it is made worse by the fact that hardly anyone seems to notice that blatant dehumanization of Native Americans is still happening. But interestingly enough, this fuels Julius and Swil Kanim.

The two are so invested in their tribes well-being that Swil Kanim was reduced to tears at one point during his speech after talking about his honor as a human being and the honor of society as a collective whole.

Audience members were encouraged to ask questions or suggest solutions following the speeches, and the hope for the university and the Lummi tribe is that students and community members left the symposium a little more informed and a little more aware that injustice has no boundaries.

When asked if American society can one day break the dehumanizing view that Native Americans aren’t equals, Swil Kanim gave the perfect response.

“In this moment there is a sacred possibility of our honor, and I assure you that I believe in this country.”

Categories: Campus, Community

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