Bernie Sanders, The Left, & Indigenous Peoples

Listening to Bernie Sanders’ recent speech in Flagstaff, AZ at the Navajo-owned Twin Arrows Casino, I can’t help but think how amazing it is that the Diné, Apache, and Tohono Oodham are the loudest and most radical—cheering at taking down billionaires such as the Waltons (who own Wal-mart), the call for dismantling the largest prison system in world history, and saving the Apache sacred site, Oak Flat.

Yes, there are faults with Sanders and especially the democratic machinery that often uses our miseries as a way to garner votes. It’s not the man, Bernie Sanders, that I am moved by, but the coming together of Natives with other marginalized communities to demand progressive and radical changes for our communities and the dismantling of capitalist-colonial institutions.

To be honest, putting Sanders in the White House won’t bring these desired and necessary changes (Obama is testament to the limitations of populist movements and progressive, neo-liberal presidencies). And the prospects of a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump presidency are nightmarish to most of us.

We shouldn’t, however, denounce our own brothers and sisters who passionately and sincerely want radical change. We should be encouraging each other’s political development, not chastising ourselves from the vantage point of political obscurity, abstraction, and elitism. (I’m looking at you ultra-leftists and self-described anarchists!) I often see well-meaning “radicals” denounce Bernie Sanders supporters, often because they project their own fears, insecurities, and shortcomings onto progressive movements and people.

These kinds of attitudes generate a sentiment that tends to normalize right-wing tendencies of blaming poor people of color and poor Natives for their own lot in life. According to this view, poor people possess a false consciousness; otherwise, they wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart or go on food stamps. The solution is to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. This destructive sentiment often goes one step further by assuming that because Natives are forced to shop at Wal-Mart and subsist on food stamps they are somehow less Native. The radical thing to do would be to “return to the land.”

This assumption fails to recognize what most Natives face: 1) four out of five don’t live on reservation lands; 2) to “return to the land” actually requires a land-base to return to, which is often unavailable to those who do not own property (or possess capital to buy land) in cities and on-reservations or a land-base that is polluted or diminished; 3) most Natives are so marginalized from mainstream social, economic, and political life that any form of recognition is a progressive gain; and, finally, 4) no one wakes up in the morning and decides to be poor and landless or dependent on the federal government and mega shopping centers such as Wal-Mart.

There are encouraging possibilities emerging in this presidential election.

Look at how amazing the anti-fascists movements have organized across difference to halt Trump rallies. We should be encouraging the radical imaginations and possibilities of building a mass movement with Muslims, Mexican-Americans, Chican@s, Black Lives Matter, and the working poor—a movement that centers Native anti-colonial aspirations.

As the Italian Communist thinker and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci reminds us, as progressive people, we must maintain a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. The pessimism lies with understanding the limitations of electoral politics in a capitalist-colonial democracy. The optimism lies within maintaining the utter love for our Native people and nations (and all oppressed people in the world for that matter) and fostering the radical possibilities for opening up and calling in (not shutting down and calling out) our relatives’ progressive aspirations. You can possess a pessimistic view of the world without alienating yourself from the love and kinship of your own people—that’s been proven over and over again by the power Native communities to adapt, challenge, and survive the conflagrations of colonialism. Every great, revolutionary Native leader has possessed these qualities.

Bernie Sanders’ followers—including Native communities—are ready for radical change. Instead of shutting down these aspirations, we should be deeply entrenching and fostering our thinking and orientations from these revolutionary positions. We have everything to gain from this popular movement toward radical and progressive politics and very little to lose.

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