When Rick Santorum, a former GOP Congressman from Pennsylvania, and a senior political commentator with CNN, asserted that the founders of the United States “birthed a nation from nothing,” he added to our nation’s false and shameful legacy of erasure of Native people.
I come from a big family with many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews and in-laws. Most of my family members are Indigenous – the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land now called the United States. We live every day of our lives embedded in our Native identity. We live in the knowledge that this land is our land.
But once again, we were erased, made invisible by the words of a politician with national status.
We often feel like our invisibility is a never-ending story. It has deep roots in the narrative about the colonists/settlers who “discovered” this land they called the vacuum domicilium of what is now North America. Yet our lands were not uninhabited or unused at all. The approximately 60 million people who were here (as compared to 70-88 million in Europe at the time) and who spoke approximately 300 different languages, with established governments and thriving cultures, cultivated and grew food, fished its streams and hunted in its mountains and forests, built their longhouses and pueblos and maintained their cultures and traditions for centuries. Yet these cultures and people were not seen as human and did not count in the eyes of colonial powers for one reason and one reason only: it justified the wide scale taking of our rights to our land, through a genocide that reduced the world population by 10%, which scientists believe caused a global cooling period.
Just imagine that. Enough people died post-contact – people with hopes, dreams, children and grandchildren, including the ancestors of my extended family and the more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, causing the climate to cool down. That is the very antithesis of “birthing a nation from nothing.”
Santorum is a national figure with a platform on CNN. His assertion was and is patently false and a continuation of the shameful legacy our nation has had with Native peoples.
In his speech to the Young America’s Foundation, he went on to say, “I mean, there was nothing here…I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
These comments are wholly unacceptable. They perpetuate stereotypes and falsehoods and are a form of hate speech. We join others in Indian Country and among our allies in calling for his removal from his role.
Our nation’s Native people have had their concerns and their very humanity minimized again and again, to the point that we have suffered the loss of political status and visibility. Native peoples’ sacred spaces have been carved up for corporate profit, and the socio-economic impact of both the former Trump administration policies and the pandemic has resulted in the loss of tribal jobs, business revenue and exacerbated the lack of access to quality housing, education, and health care.
But we will not be silenced and made invisible again. We have fought since the initial contact for our voices to be heard, for our cultures to be honored, and for the good health and happiness of our people. In recent months, we have seen Americans – good people who recognize our humanity and our rights – respond in support of our visibility and our priorities.
We have seen school districts and universities eliminate racist and harmful Native mascots. Nationally known sports teams have changed mascots and offensive names and banned caricatures of Native people at their venues. We have seen a surge of support for Native peoples’ health during the pandemic. We have seen an interest in our histories, cultures and unique voices in the arts, literature and the history and culture of this nation. The values that we share such as a commitment to family have emerged as foundational to our good relationships with the American public at large.
When CNN gives people like Santorum a platform, it elevates ignorant opinions as viable or even as truths. Speech invalidating our humanity and cultures is hate speech. It has no place.
Would CNN allow someone on their platform who has said that Black people have no culture or that Jewish people’s culture is inferior? Of course not. So, why is it acceptable for CNN to give a platform to those who denigrate, minimize or eradicate Native people?
This is not the first time CNN has contributed to erasure of Indigenous peoples. The network referred to Native people as a group as “something else” during its 2020 national election coverage and incorrectly identified Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, as a white woman, an uncorrected statement as of this writing.
As the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, our motto is “Education is the answer.” We know how transformative education can be for an individual to lead an engaged life as a citizen.
Education is not merely the acquisition of knowledge. It has the power to heal and restore. Through education, we as Indigenous people and as Americans can live in ways that honor identity, culture and relationships.
Education is not just for Native peoples. We can insist as Indigenous people and Americans that our leaders and the news media, especially CNN, educate its journalists and staff about Native peoples and our cultures. We also urge our allies to contact CNN to share their views in support of Indigenous people and our visibility.
We understand that apologies are intended to minimize harm, but actions speak the loudest. Earnest attempts at self-education are one action that will help heal relationships and end the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their humanity, contributions and cultures.