Torch Talk

Leland King OjibweLateral Oppression – Football and the American Indian 

By now just about everyone has seen what Packer fans everywhere are calling the “Miracle in Motown”. It’s a story about a beat-up, down-trodden professional football team that somehow stayed alive in a game they should have lost and ultimately won. Right about now you have to be asking yourself what lateral oppression has to do with the Green Bay Packers pulling off an improbable victory. No, it doesn’t have to do with the second to the last play of the game in which the Packers tried the old Hook and Lateral play that ended with Quarterback Aaron Rodgers getting thrown to the ground by his face mask/shoulder pads. Instead, it has to do with people fighting for, rather than with, each other. Let’s take a look.

You see, at one time American Indians lived successfully and harmoniously. They lived in communal groups that took care of one another, flourishing for thousands of years. They lived in “tribes” or “bands” that looked to each other to provide the things they needed to survive. They protected each other, encouraged each other and held each other dear. Their very lives depended on cooperating for the greater good of the group.

In times of warfare or tumult, they stood strong in unity – it was the only way to ensure survival. The individuals in each tribe all had a particular job, skill or place within the social and political make-up of the community. Maybe Little Otter was a great hunter, or War Club knew how to make well-built, sturdy canoes. Perhaps Little Doe was skilled at quillwork or Yellow Butterfly had a knack for making the best wild rice. You get the picture, each person had something to contribute. Quite often, people were well-versed in many different things. This is how it was and how it is yet today. The point is, everyone had something they were good at and used their skill to benefit the tribe.

Same being said for the Clan system. Each clan, each family, held a place in the community and used their influence in that particular area to keep everyone productive and on track. These clans or “societies” held certain responsibilities within the community. The Bear Clan were known as healers and order keepers. The Turtle Clan were the mediators or intellectuals. The Pine Marten were the warriors. Everyone in the tribe worked as a team, with each having their assignment. That’s not to say that sometimes they may have been called to do something they didn’t specialize in but the fact is, they all supported each other. When someone was down, they picked them up, brushed them off and helped them move forward – survival of the tribe depended on it.

So now let’s get back to football for a second. For those who watched the Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions in Detroit saw for the better part of 60 minutes what appeared to be a Lions victory over the Packers. Throughout the first half of the game, the Packers resembled anything but a team. Rather they looked tired, worn down and quite frankly, terrible. Nobody seemed to do anything right. Any semblance of unity was nil. Things got a little better in the third quarter but yet you still couldn’t shake the feeling that they would drop yet another game they were expected to easily win.

Then came the final few minutes. The Packers put together a string of good play in all phases of their game: offense, defense, special teams. Each person did what they were supposed to do – and when they made mistakes, their fellow teammates picked them up. All for the greater good of the team. And then it happened; the final play, with no time remaining. The “Miracle in Motown” as it has come to be known. Aaron Rodgers scrambling for his life. Doing everything in his power to keep the play alive. The offensive linemen doing their best to block the defensive rush. The wide receivers getting downfield for the fourth time in as many plays, every one of them winded and exhausted. Rodgers to Rodgers, the Hail Mary. The “Miracle in Motown”. Sweet victory.

Now stop and think for a moment: what would have happened if one of the offensive linemen had suddenly turned after the snap and grabbed Aaron Rodgers and thrown him to the ground? What if Packers Receiver Devante Adams had shoved Tight End Richard Rodgers in the back as Rodgers went up to catch the ball? What if one of the bench players suddenly stepped from the sideline onto the field and tripped one of the wide receivers on their way to the end zone? What about Randall Cobb knocking the ball out of Rodgers hands as he attempts to bring the pass in? Better yet, what if they all gave up at halftime and conceded they would lose? The point being each player, each person, worked for the greater good with the end result being an incredible, come-from-behind victory. They didn’t work against each other – they worked FOR each other. They helped their teammates out when their backs were against the wall. They relied on and BELIEVED in each other.

The Packers left Detroit with a win when every single player on the team could have given up. They should have lost but didn’t. Everyone expected them to lose that game but they won, they believed they could. They believed in each other. And nobody sabotaged anyone else.

This is where we go back to tribal nations and Indian people. Imagine if our communities stood up for each other like the Packers did Thursday night? What if, instead of keeping each other out, we brought each other in? Imagine if we lived life the way our ancestors did? Living in a way that benefited all? That’s how it used to be. Can you for an instant picture having our own qualified people in jobs and positions within our tribes, rather than the work going to those with little knowledge or understanding of who we are or what we need as a people? I often wonder just what we could accomplish if we built each other up. If we relied on each other’s expertise. If we held out our hands to those coming behind us, as we ourselves climbed those career and economic ladders, bringing our own with us on the way up. Put it this way; if our ways didn’t work well for us, how as a people have we lived to this point in time?

For far too long, lateral oppression has reared its ugly head on our reservations. How many times have we seen hard working, qualified members cast aside in favor of a person who lives 20, 30 or even 1,000 miles away from our reservation? How many times have we witnessed the new-comer get the best possible positions at the best possible pay, while the qualified and willing American Indian is left standing outside the front door? Or even more, how many times has the Indian had to push a broom for $7.50 an hour while the non-Indian gets the $50 an hour work-from-home consulting gig?

We understand these are modern times, and we need to diversify our workforce. Our tribal communities and entities are often the largest employers in the counties we’re located. In some instances, even if every tribal member or native around were employed by our tribal organizations, we’d still need non-Indians to fill positions within our tribal infrastructure. Please understand there are great, qualified non-Indian people who have devoted their lives to our communities. Many have mentored us and gone to war for us. We need non-Indian allies who have expertise in the things we do not! However, we often look past our own for personal or political reasons, which is not our way. How many times have we seen our own shut out from jobs because of jealousy, envy or long held grudges? What’s worse, Indian people who go the entrepreneurial route have even bigger obstacles to overcome. Aside from the everyday aspects of running a business, Native companies are undervalued or all together dismissed as incompetent.

We seldom take into account the far-reaching impact that hiring non-vested individuals has on our tribal culture. Little by little our ways are diminished. The more our people are prevented from leading the direction of our organizations, the more we lose. Our ways are further marginalized. The sad part is, we’re perpetuating this against one another under the guise of progress.

We hear time and time again about the poverty and economic depression in our communities. The statistics do not lie. Lack of jobs. High unemployment. High rates of drug and alcohol abuse. High rates of disease. Enormous health disparities. A once powerful and mighty people, many now reduced to monthly handouts from the federal government. This doesn’t build confidence and pride. It does the opposite.

We are contemporary, modern people with a gift that many long for. We have a connection to the earth. We have a connection to one another. We live in two worlds and have the power to change everything about them. There are bright, intelligent, strategic, visionary Indians doing great things in the world. Often the ones doing the most are the ones burdened with proving their worth every step of the way. They’re held to a higher standard, forced to prove their worth. We make them jump through hoops in their quest to measure up to some illusionary, fabricated qualification. They’ll never measure up, and all they want is to be accepted by their own. 

The truth is, lateral oppression is something we learn at a very young age. We hear our relatives, our parents or others talking bad about another member of our community. We hear them saying, “You know, John Turkey Feather thinks he’s so great – he grew up next door to us so I know all about him” or “Who does Danielle Mosquito Eater think she is dressing up all fancy? She’s no better than anyone else.” And that’s our indoctrination into lateral oppression. It’s a terrible, ugly thing. It keeps the best in our communities down. It keeps our relatives, our friends, our tribal members and their descendants, down. It prevents our children from having a better quality of life. It makes us doubt ourselves. It makes the best bead-workers question the love of their craft – a craft that has been in their families for centuries. It makes the middle aged, working mother of four question the value of her years of educational investment in obtaining her master’s degree. It takes the strongest warrior and makes him or her believe they have nothing good to offer their community. Quite frankly, lateral oppression is a tool of evil. It’s destructive. It counters all of the good happening in our communities.

It’s the 21st century. The white man’s arrival in 1492 changed the game. Unfortunately, we must play his game while doing our best to keep our ways alive. It’s a delicate and burdensome task. But we can do it. We need strong leaders who have a solid foundation under their feet and a basic understanding of our culture. We need to instill cooperation and an ethic of self-worth in our children. We need to create systems and institutions that give our people every chance to succeed, rather than keeping them down.

You may have heard the expression “crabs in a bucket” and related it to lateral oppression. I read somewhere the writings of an author who took exception to this analogy. His position was that by using the term “crabs in a bucket” you were convicting every tribal person of being party to the oppression. He said that when we use the analogy, we infer that we’re all crabs, pulling each other back down into the bucket as we get to the top – and he was right – not everyone practices lateral oppression. It’s hard to believe but some people really do build others up. There are tribal people out here bringing others with them to the top. We’re not all crabs.

Research into epigenetics has indicated as Indian people, we’re born with certain genetic codes that put the odds against us from the start. Studies have shown historical trauma is passed down genetically, perhaps built into our DNA. Here’s how it works: In the initial phase, a dominant culture perpetrates massive trauma on a population. This happens through genocide, war, and slavery. In the second phase the population under subjugation displays physical and psychological symptoms as a result of the trauma. In the third phase, the victimized pass the responses to this trauma on to future generations. Lastly – and this is where lateral  oppression comes in – the affected populations (American Indians) not only present the same symptoms as their parents or grandparents, but they take up the methods and systems the dominant society uses against them, and perpetrates the oppressive tactics against their own. Its part learned, part trauma induced, part genetic. In other words, it’s complicated.

It’s going to take a strategic effort to get us “decolonized.” This needs to start with our children at a very young age – I’d guess starting at birth. Using our language, practicing our ceremonies, and following our customs in our everyday lives, in the presence of our kids, is the first line of defense. The very oppression that has been imposed upon us is now a tool used by and against our own people. In that alone, I see a lot of self-hate. Who could blame someone for being a little bitter after five hundred years of trauma? When’s the last time you grabbed a hammer and whacked yourself as hard as you could on your hands or shins? Or took a baseball bat and clubbed yourself in the head? Every time we box our own out of a job, a house, an opportunity to better themselves, we’re whacking ourselves square in the head. If it weren’t so true, it would be funny. Unfortunately, this is our reality.

There is definitely no comparing the plight of the American Indian to a Thursday night football game, that’s for sure. But there are some marked parallels when it comes to our tribal socio-economics. When teams work together their odds of succeeding increase. I think the same could be said for tribes and tribal people. If we stopped the practice of lateral oppression, if we stopped preventing our own families from succeeding, we’d all win. And in this day and age, it’s going to take a lot more teamwork within our tribal structures, if we’re ever going to win. Because if you didn’t already know it, I’ll let you in on a little secret: everyone expects we’re going to lose – including those people who fill our jobs and take our opportunities away from us. If we keep going at this rate, it’s going to take a miracle if our tribes are to survive. Who needs the federal government to continue inflicting genocide on us when we’re doing a pretty good job of it ourselves? We’d better start practicing that Hail Mary.

If we continue on the path of systemic lateral oppression, those with no connection to our culture or communities will end up being the winners. And this unfortunately my friends, is no game. This is our way of life. Our very existence is at stake. So if it makes you feel better to lock your own out, to keep your own down, by all means, push your fellow tribal member to the ground as they’re going up to catch that game winning pass – because its only after you see the ball fall harmlessly to the ground you’ll realize you were on the same team – and that ball isn’t a ball at all, it’s our future. Yours, mine and our unborn coming behind us. 

About the author: Brandon Thoms is Founder and President of Torchlight Consulting, a public relations and communications firm serving Indian Country. He descends from both the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Eastern Band of Cherokee of North Carolina, and has been an advocate of treaty rights and Native American causes for over 30 years. 


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