Commentary: Tennessee must reject Santorum slights on Native Americans

Former US Senator Rick Santorum photographed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former US Senator Rick Santorum photographed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Another Rick Santorum outrageous statement came and went last month, flushed away like so many of his words.  His claim, however, merits reaction and debunking in many spots, notably here in Tennessee.

The former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania turned CNN commentator, speaking at a Young America’s Foundation event, pontificated about America.  “We came here and created a blank slate,” he declared.  “We birthed a nation from nothing.  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.”

Santorum and I both grew up in Catholic households in Western Pennsylvania, and we attended Penn State just one year apart.  I don’t believe we ever met, except perhaps for our mugshots glaring at each other from opposite sides of the opinion page of our college paper, The Daily Collegian.  So, let me take the privilege of responding candidly and directly.

Rick, your schtick of praising religiously-motivated colonials as a bridge to push radical right policies is growing old—and your aside here is both wrong and misguided.  In all that time in the Keystone State did you not notice Allegheny, the county, mountains, or river?  How about Monongahela, Susquehanna, or Youghiogheny?  You must at some time have gone to Aliquippa, Punxsutawney, or any of the dozens of other Pennsylvania places whose names derive from Native American words.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said there is little Native American culture in American culture. He must have missed the part of political science class in which Benjamin Franklin credited American federalism as infused with ideas borrowed from the Iroquois Confederacy.

It’s not just place names, Rick.  Plants cultivated by Native Americans probably have been on your dinner table—including corn, sweet potatoes, avocados, peanuts, tomatoes, chili peppers, chocolate (cacao), and several species of beans.  Native Americans were the first to raise both turkeys and honeybees for food.  Rick, next time you mix and mingle with your corporate buddies in cotton, rubber, and tobacco you may want to ask them about the vital role Native Americans played in the start of their industries.

Rick, your degree was in political science.  Did you miss the part where Benjamin Franklin credited American federalism (national government combined with state governments in defined roles) as infused with ideas borrowed from the Iroquois Confederacy?

Vine Deloria Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins, once quipped, “When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white men came, an Indian said simply, ‘Ours.’”

I do not intend to saddle you personally, Rick, with the ugly history of wars, broken treaties, and diseases that devastated our native population, but I do ask you to recognize it.  Here in Tennessee we only recently have begun to terms with our own history.  Our Democratic Party’s Jackson Day Dinner is now the Three Star Dinner.  Only slowly have we begun to come to terms Andrew Jackson’s role as an Army general in brutal campaigns against Native Americans.  As President, Jackson ignored courts, and pushed forward with “Indian Removal.”  Our history includes the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of roughly 60,000 Native Americans from the American Southeast.  One historian noted they were “bound in chains and marched double file” on foot.  Thousands died on the way to what is now Oklahoma.

Deb Haaland, our new Secretary of Interior and the first-ever indigenous Cabinet Secretary, recently called Santorum’s comments unfortunate and offered to give him some book recommendations on the actual history of Native Americans, a population living on this land for thousands of years before Europeans settlers arrived.

She may want to send the same list to Tennessee’s U.S. Senators.  Marsha Blackburn voted against Haaland, and Bill Hagerty didn’t bother to vote.  Perhaps their votes reflect their rejection of the Native American idea of careful stewardship of the land, rather than wholesale exploitation of it for things like environmentally disastrous fossil fuels.

In its current Trumpian incarnation, the Republican Party has taken on an anti-immigrant posture, one ironically called nativism even though it downplays Native Americans.  The radical right currently has defaulted to that old Santorum trick of trying to simplify history into neat white settler narratives—broadsides often delivered from places with native names or in buildings constructed by slaves.  It is a sad and divisive strategy for short-term political gain.  We can be trusted with our whole history, the good and the bad, so we can learn from it and become better as a country and as individuals.