Promised Land is screening at Seattle Central College on Thursday, February 9th, and at the University of Oregon on Friday, February 10th. For other screenings in various cities, please see listings here.
Imagine that you live in a place your ancestors have occupied for thousands of years. Every landmark, every waterway, every plant and tree and animal is part of your heritage. You can stand in places that your grandmother, and her grandmother, and women stretching in an unbroken line back to a mythical point, told stories about, stories that defined your people.
You have stories passed down since the Ice Ages, which your ancestors witnessed. You don’t remember the ice because scientists found its traces in the rocks and on the land: you remember it because your tribe descended from people who lived with it, and your generational memories are strong.
Imagine that your roots here go that deep, that they stretch over ten thousand years into the past.
Now imagine that new people came, and took possession of your lands without permission. They uprooted you and cast you aside. They tore down your houses and stole your art. They changed your rivers and landmarks almost beyond recognition. They built cities on your land, the land that holds your ancestors, that was your inheritance and your future, and then outlawed you from those cities – not for any crime, but because of the color of your skin. They made it literally illegal for you to step foot in the cities they built on your land after sundown, and they only allowed you in by day in order to exploit your labor for their profit.
They made it illegal for you to gather together, to tell your stories, to carry on your traditions, to pass your culture on to your children. They tried to strangle everything that made you you: your language, your clothing, your art, your music, your identity.
Imagine you somehow survived all of this. You held on. You sang your songs. You spoke your language. You protected what was left of your land as best as you could. You learned how to survive in this new world without losing quite all of your heritage. In a city named for one of your forebears, you have done your best to survive as a people among strangers who are happy to take your art and your symbols and your resources without giving much of anything back.
And imagine that after all of this, those strangers tell you that they won’t recognize your tribe as a legal entity. That, despite the fact that you come from an unbroken line of indigenous people stretching back ten thousand years, perhaps more, in this place, you can’t check the box that says you’re Native American. You have to call yourself White, or Other. You can’t protect the things that belonged to your ancestors when they’re unearthed. You can’t protect your lands. You can’t even get back a tiny fraction of the wealth that was stolen from you, because they say you’re not one of the tribes who can get a grant or a scholarship reserved for those whose inheritance was taken by force, fraud, or both.
That’s the story of the Duwamish, told in the heart-rending documentary Promised Land.
Promised Land explores the plight of the Duwamish and the Chinook tribes, who have been fighting for federal recognition for decades. This isn’t an easy film to watch, because it makes an unassailable case. It shows you those tribes’ history and heritage. It shows what they went through when white people came. And it shows how they’ve been screwed over by local, state, and federal governments ever since they welcomed Europeans to their lands. It shows how hard they’ve struggled to be recognized as distinct, sovereign people, and why that recognition matters.
If your heart doesn’t break by the end, you haven’t got one.
Promised Land shows the plight of two tribes, but hundreds more across the United States are having the same struggle. There are hundreds of tribes who deserve federal recognition, and who haven’t gotten it.
We need to do better by the First Americans. Everything we have was built on their lands. Our wealth comes from their soil and resources. We have homes because we made so many of them homeless. And even those tribes that are federally recognized still aren’t respected. Treaties aren’t honored. Some of them, white people didn’t even bother to ratify because they assumed the tribes that signed them would soon be dead. Others weren’t ratified by the tribes because they took nearly everything from native peoples while giving virtually nothing in return. And then we white folk proceed as if those treaties, ratified or not, were meaningless bits of scrap paper. We still think we can use lands never ceded for our own purposes. We think we can run poisonous pipelines through those lands without even consulting the tribes who still live on them. We treat native people as if their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness doesn’t exist. WE treat them as invisible, and, when we’re forced to see them, expendable.
What’s happening to the Duwamish, the Chinook, and hundreds of other tribes is happening because of the same disrespect that lets us route a dangerous pipeline through treaty lands without a thought for the people there. Their inability to gain federal recognition stems from the same white arrogance that lets us think the tribes must always give way to our needs and desires.
Promised Land forces us to confront that shameful belief. It shows us the human and environmental costs. This is not a film that will make you proud to be an American. Until the treaties are honored and all indigenous tribes recognized, until we have learned to treat the first peoples here with dignity and respect as sovereign entities who can manage their own affairs and have a seat at the table when it comes to decisions affecting them, until we make restitution for the lands and wealth we stole, Americans should be far from proud. We can restore some of our pride by restoring their rights.
We owe them so much. It’s time we got started on making this right.
Here’s what you can do for the Duwamish and the Chinook:
- Call or write your Member of Congress and request they support the tribes’ bid for federal recognition.
- If you’re in Washington, call or write your representatives.
- Write to the President. Yeah, I know he doesn’t give two shits about people other than himself, but still. Let him know where you stand.
- Write to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.
- Get the word out on social media. Talk about the documentary, about Native American issues, and about the importance of federal recognition for tribes.
- Demand recognition from the cities where the tribes live (in the case of the Duwamish, that would be Seattle).
Please look up the unrecognized tribes in your own area, and ask them how you can help. Stand with water protectors at Standing Rock and other places where the tribes are rallying to protect their treaty lands.
Together, we can put things right. All of us will be stronger for it. And it’s the right thing to do.