Lesser Encourages Students to Become ‘Upstanders’

When the French encountered Native Americans when they arrived to North America in the 17th century, many people believe they referred to the natives as “savage,” which meant “wild” in their lexicon. What many don’t know is that they were only describing the forest setting in which the natives lived. This was the beginning of stereotyping Native Americans as inferior people, according to Mishy Lesser, co-director of the Upstander Project.

Lesser spoke about the cultural genocide of Native Americans on Thursday afternoon. As co-director of the Upstander project, Lesser creates documentaries and learning resources to help teachers and students become “upstanders,” or people who take action against those who are targeted for harm.

Lesser and her organization are in post-production for a documentary titled Dawnland, which is focused on the plight of the Wabanaki Tribe in Maine and the injustice that has been directed at Native Americans as a whole in North America. The horrible conduct of child “protection” agencies, directed by the American government, led to widespread corruption of Native American children in the 1960s. Lesser woke up her audience to the nightmare many of these children lived through.

Without the help of Indians, many early settlers in New England would not have survived the brutal winters, Lesser said. Early colonists were grateful for assistance. Once European settlers gained a foothold though, and lost sight of their inferiority in the western territories, their idea of civility clashed with the ancient traditions of the natives. The preservation of Indian culture was forgotten in the push to expand “settled” land in North America, and by the early 1900s, Indians were being told by the government what they could and couldn’t have, even down to the natural resources on their reduced territories.

Lesser then mentioned the work in the 1930s of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer famous for coining the term “genocide.” He worked his entire life for the international recognition of mass killings and their prevention. When he came to the states during World War II, he gave many talks to a fledgling United Nations council in New York on the subject. His goal was to get some sort of resolution passed. Soon after, there was a convention ordered by the U.N. in order to decide how best to implement laws and regulations to prevent and punish genocide. In the end though, the conservative politics of the time won out.

“In the process of baking the bread … and many bakers hands were on the bread … [Lemkin’s] concept and vision were diminished,” she said. “He felt very deeply that the destruction of a culture was genocide, and might you guess who opposed that? The United States.”

In the 1960s and 70s, when the federal government promoted the unlawful separation of Indian children from their parents, no one was there to stop it. Forced to go to foster homes or boarding schools, these children were dressed like white children, were not allowed to speak their native language, and were systematically gentrified by the organizations meant to protect them, Lesser said.

Beyond the psychological abuse, teachers and parents of these displaced children were sometimes physically abusive as well. This corruption of a generation of Native Americans was exactly what Lemkin had hoped to prevent in his activism, but even a first-world democracy couldn’t prevent bigotry as widespread as this.

In the preview of Dawnland presented at Lesser’s talk, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Maine (TRC) sat down with Wabanaki Tribe descendants hurt by the federal program. The running theme was that the nightmare had haunted those involved for the rest of their lives. Although the TRC hoped that sharing the stories of the past and documenting them would help stop future atrocities, it was clear that the damage made was irreversible. Lesser was deeply disturbed at yet another example of white supremacy and ignorance in this country.

Lesser shared the words of Gkisedtanamoogk, a Wampanoag Indian who now works with the TRC. Gkisedtanamoogk believes that the power of the few must be used responsibly, or else it could cause pain for the many.

“The view from the boat is very different than the view from the shore,” he said.

Featured Image by Alex Benthien / For The Heights