The American Indian’s Perspective on Immigration

Few arguments arouse such extreme passion as the fight over immigration. The topic touches many aspects of everyday life and can be seen as a threat to traditional culture, an opportunity to broaden ideological diversity, an economic boom or bust, or a political game-changer. Wanting to further understand the conflicting perspectives on this issue, I traveled to the place regarded as the very heart of the debate, where major legislation has recently caused enormous turmoil in the social and political spheres.

To Chogan Tanguma, an elder in the Nipmuc American Indian tribe and member of the Wabanaki Council, the situation is perfectly clear.

“The white man must leave,” Tanguma told me firmly, before softening his tone. “Look,” he continued, “I get it. Many of these people are fleeing some sort of persecution in their homeland, and quite a few just want a better life for their families. I’m sympathetic to their plight. But we can’t just have foreign nationals waltzing in here, overturning traditions that have existed for untold generations, and claiming private ownership of land just because ‘God’ told them to. What’s a ‘God,’ anyway?”

In response to this perceived threat, Tanguma authored the controversial Algonquin Unity bill, formally known as SB 1070, which has in recent weeks generated buzz among community leaders both for and against the legislation. Essentially, the bill aims to restrict the ability of whites living within Algonquin-speaking territory to find work, and it proposes strict fines for American Indians who trade with Europeans that have not filed the correct documents with the Wabanaki Confederacy. The most infamous section, however, is a clause which would grant Algonquin warriors the right to question the legal American residency of anyone they thought looked suspiciously white.

Wikimak Aroostook, a mother of three from the Mattabesic tribe, thinks action is long overdue.

“Who do these white folks from…oh, what’s it called…from Europe think they are, marching over here with their ridiculous clothes and taking advantage of our natural resources?” she said, visibly flustered. “In my opinion, SB 1070 doesn’t go far enough. I don’t want my kids being taught in English, thank you very much. It was hard enough for little Achak to master Algonquin. I say out, out, out! If we just let anyone and everyone come, there’ll be English-speaking communities following Abrahamic religions as far west as the Iroquois!”

Aroostook’s stance is not an uncommon one in the Northeast. Recently, European immigration has surged as men, women, and children come from overseas in search of religious asylum, political refuge, and better economic opportunities. Though the population influx has put a strain on Algonquin school districts, medicinal plants, and water sources, there remain a significant number of American Indians sympathetic to the Europeans’ plight. “It’s the principle of the thing,” claimed Mattabesic Chief Advisor Hurritt Pennacook. “We do not own the land—we merely borrow it from our children. Who are we to deny our fellow humans access to the bounty of nature that we enjoy? How would we like to be treated if the same misfortune fell upon us? Say some force pushed us from our homes and left us in a strange, alien world, exhausted and frightened. Would we not hope to find a friendly, helpful local people?”

In addition to the moral component to the argument, many pro-Europeans argue that white populations provide economic benefits to regional tribes. Kitchi Wenro of the Lenape tribe gets a gleam in his eye whenever he speaks of European merchants. “Have you seen their wares?” he trills through a wide grin. “You can’t get axe-heads like theirs anywhere! Just last week, [the Lenape tribe] sold some Dutch guy the island of Manhattan for a whole 60 guilders (approximately 1,000 USD in 2006)! Tell me that isn’t a steal.”

Europeans, too, have grown increasingly vocal in response to SB 1070. The leader of Europeans for Divinely Ordained Sanctuary, John Brewer, agreed to speak with me.

“The Wabanaki Confederacy has to understand,” Brewer told me after a rally held at the site of a future English fort. “We aren’t moving anywhere. Actually, we’ve got kind of a manifest destiny thing going on, in case you haven’t noticed. If the fact that I’m a walking incubator for smallpox and half a dozen other virulent diseases isn’t proof enough of my right to this place, I don’t know what is. I hope Tanguma and his friends hurry up and learn English—it’s not like I can have a tte–tte if I can’t understand them.”

Whatever the fate of SB 1070, it will invariably heighten tensions beyond current levels. What’s more, the stream of European immigration shows no sign of abating. One thing’s for sure—the decision on this particular bill will set a precedent and steer the course of history for many years to come.

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