Yesterday morning I got sucked into a vortex of reader comments on several articles about Native American issues. One story by NPR echoed our January feature story by Andrea Appleton, "Blood Quantum," describing the controversy over what percentage of Indian blood is required to enroll in a tribe. The second, from the Great Falls Tribune, described the Little Shell tribe's struggle for official recognition and its accompanying benefits. The third, from The Missoulian, reported Congress' second attempt to formulate an official apology to Native peoples for their treatment by the U.S. government.
All three articles inspired lively discussions. Some of the comments were well reasoned and thought-provoking. The majority were un-researched and inflammatory. Reading them reminded me of trying to hold a conversation with someone high or crazy -- if you're not careful you'll start doubting your own sanity. Anyone who reads much online news and participates in or reads discussion boards will recognize this kind of comment, written in response to the Missoulian article about the proposed U.S. apology. This is one of the milder, more coherent examples.
"And who's going to give me an appology for being white and labled a racist everyday of the week, my ancestors where in europe being persecuted back when all of this was supposedly happening to the indaians and now I'm getting lumped in and held responsible...It's like taking my money away to pay for something my friend's great grandfather MIGHT have done, and MIGHT have even done in good cause because someone had killed his family...Maybe we should just send all these minority groups off to fight wars to 'presever of freedom" seeing how they are the only ones who get to keep it, because I sure don't, I open my mouth and I'm called a racist. NO wonder no one trusts our government anymore."
And so on.
It's a gorgeous spring in Paonia right now. The lilacs are blooming and it is easy to forget about the hyperventilating, drooling beasts of nonsense and bigotry that roam through cyberspace. Who cares what they think, anyway?
That's an easy answer, and I wouldn't have questioned it, much less drawn further attention to the offending post, had its overwrought, defensive tone not been shared by a slew of other comments. They clearly feed on one another. Although it is tempting, and probably wise, to ignore them most of the time, taken together the comments reflect an identity crisis about who non-Native Americans are in relation to Native Nations. They also reflect a state of education and awareness in this country that has not provided many citizens with the basic facts of American history. Commenters express disbelief and lack of concern over grievances "hundreds of years old," which "may or may not have happened."
These posts reinforce the importance of programs like the Indian Education For All initiative in Montana, which strives to include more tribal history and education in public schools. The same initiative was rejected in Wyoming this year. It also calls into question the purpose and value of online discussion forums. Personally, I'm all for inclusive media that invites all to have their voices heard. I truly believe that valuable information can be shared in online discussion forums. Even inflammatory and factually inaccurate material is thought-provoking.
However, I also believe that there is something cowardly and disturbing about the mean-spirited, gratuitous venting that such freedom and ease of expression so frequently inspire, particularly when it hides behind a pseudonym. I'd like to hear what HCN readers have to say about this.