In my lifetime, I have not seen this level of racial discrimination and hatred in our country since the 1960’s and early 1970’s. As a very young girl, too innocent to understand what was going on, but intuitive enough to know that something very wrong was happening, I remember seeing on national television these horrific images of police dogs and fire hoses turned on the demonstrators in Birmingham, the violence at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, and the burning neighborhoods of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. These images from Alabama and California flashed on TV screens across our nation and stayed with me for a long time.
I remember my family hovering around the television for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall, and then five years later hearing about his tragic assassination on the radio when I was riding in the car with my mother. My father’s very dear friend and business colleague was originally from Ghana, Africa and together they would have conversations over the years about the struggles of African Americans in the United States. Many nights, the conversations would suddenly stop and I would hear African drumming and chanting interspersed with guitar or ukulele and singing. Friends and family had come over to the house and brought their instruments and we sang and danced together.
During the same time period, the culmination of Native American struggles from previous decades was coming to a boiling point. Native Americans had endured broken treaties, forced removal from homelands into urban areas, illegal seizure of lands, and atrocious living conditions on reservations. I remember in 1970, my mother took in a Native American from the Klamath tribe to live with us and he spoke about his support of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Alcatraz Island in San Francisco had been seized by a group of Native Americans and we watched as the press covered the situation and interviewed the activists. In 1973 AIM and the Oglala Lakota Tribe occupied the village of Wounded Knee near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where soldiers in the late 19th century had massacred a Native American encampment. There are many different opinions about these two events, but one thing is certain; the Alcatraz occupation which lasted nineteen months and the 72 day Wounded Knee siege raised the public’s consciousness as to the suffering and conditions of Native Americans.
Native Hawaiians also were influenced by the 1960’s and the civil rights movement occurring in the continental United States. We had only become a state in 1959 and there was a massive influx of foreign investment and development grabbing up all of the land to create an exotic tourist mecca that many felt was needed to build the economy and create jobs. Hotels, condos, and retail shops were springing up everywhere to meet the demand of foreign visitors who had increased over 300% during the decade to 1.7 million tourists. The modern struggle for Native Hawaiian rights began out of anti-eviction and land struggles, specifically the eviction of residents of Kalama Valley in 1970. Like the American Indian civil rights movement, the Native Hawaiian movement began as a battle for land rights and later included addressing poverty, rampant social ills, and cultural equity struggles that were born from colonization. Land claims first appeared, as in Kalama Valley, as community-based assertions for the preservation of agricultural land against resort and subdivision use, and then later included protests against military occupation of Hawai`i lands. I am thankful for all of the early leaders, kupuna (elders), and my father, many whom have passed, who laid the groundwork, provided wisdom, and stood up against the injustices so that we could follow in their footsteps.
Greater ethnic awareness and cultural pride among indigenous Hawaiians in the 1970’s reflect the civil and human rights struggles by African American and Native American Indian movements in the United States in the 1960’s. Numerous Native Hawaiian groups and organizations formed during this time, asserting Hawaiian rights, justice, and cultural equity, then later to address Native Hawaiian self determination.
The African American, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian racial and cultural equity movements are not exclusive, and I acknowledge there are other ethnic and gender groups in America who have struggled with their own civil rights, but I chose to focus on a period of time, the 1960’s and early 1970’s, in which my personal experiences as a young person were heavily influenced by my Native Hawaiian ancestry and these other two groups. There was immense progress born out of these times over the following forty years with new legislation, government apologies, institutional reforms, and expanded human rights and protections. Cultural pride and revitalization grew, and racial barriers came down. New policies and civic engagement encouraged the creation of organizations and community groups to address the disparate social needs and monitor the effectiveness of new laws intended to improve civil rights and inequality.
It seems like we have come full circle since the 1960’s and that history is indeed repeating itself. The rampant ignorance and hatred spewing across social media and some news outlets is traumatizing and dangerous. It’s difficult to witness these racist rants and acts of violence at any time, and especially in the last few years, almost 50 years since the birth of the civil rights movement. Our nation should have learned the devastating results of racism paired with inequality, which is a breeding ground for poverty, social ills, and despondence; and which causes fear and leads to violence by hate groups and others. The recent shooting and killing of members in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and subsequent church arsons are horrible manifestations of hatred and deep seated racism.
People and scholars working in the field of race, inequality, and social justice are committed in various ways to share their knowledge and educate others on the deep roots of the problem, which many believe to be both institutional and implicit racism. These more “unconscious” and “invisible” forms of racism in our society are not as obvious, yet they are equally as damaging. However, this is a topic for another article. There are organizations in almost every sector, including philanthropy, that are wrestling with how to address these issues within the context of their work environment, programs, and communities. Grantmakers in the Arts is a national network of private, public, and corporate arts funders that provides leadership and service that advances the use of philanthropic and governmental resources to support the growth of arts and culture. The staff and board of directors, of which I’m a member, recently released a Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose and has made a commitment to advancing racial and cultural equity in arts philanthropy.
In spite of these deep challenges in America, I do hold hope that we can once again heal our communities, improve our human condition, and rise above these treacherous ills. It’s already happening in many places across the country and there are numerous organizations and people cooperating and committed to doing good. As in the past, and perhaps even to a greater extent today with the use of social media, we must learn to be adept and agile amidst chaos and confusion. We are inundated with a barrage of information every minute of each day. One day a tragedy occurs, the same day we witness great joy, the next morning we read of violence and then in the afternoon we come across a heartwarming story of courage, and so it is. Our ability to navigate through these extremes and stay focused on the truth is critical. We rightfully expose and condemn violence, hate, and greed, and all the “isms”; and continue on the path knowing that there is a lot more work to be done. At the same time, I believe our greater humanity rests with raising our consciousness amidst all of this discord, being of service to the greater good, and believing in the power of compassion to overcome darkness. Martin Luther King Jr. made the point succinctly, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Through the African American, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, and American Indian civil rights movements in America, and amidst our unique diversity, there is a thread that binds us all together like a patchwork quilt. It is the root of our existence and the source of our inspiration, and has helped us to survive the challenges mentioned earlier while at the same time being informed by the trauma and angst from those challenges. It is our arts and cultures that have always been there as the bedrock of our civilizations motivating us to express our greatest creativity through song, dance, painting, weaving, pottery and other arts practices.
It is our arts and cultures that have uplifted us, helped us through difficult times, healed us, and provoked us to think and act differently. Contemporary artists are challenging us and are continually forging new terrain expanding notions of Native art through literature, film, multi-discipline installation art, and performance pieces. At the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, we are passionate about the power of arts to inform and influence social change in our communities and nation. We are inspired by the creative process and the innovation that comes forth from people across the nation. We look forward to working with others to help heal our communities and nation.
—T. Lulani Arquette