In order to understand the root cause of current day oppressions and injustices faced by specific minority racial groups, it is impossible to do so without fully examining and studying the history of racism, political struggle, violence, and oppression. Furthermore, when one is trying to comprehend the perpetuation of racial inequalities, it is a requirement to understand that racism is not just individual prejudices, but a collective social acceptance of racism that is weaved into institutional structures, making it difficult to uncover and discern.
However, institutional racism and oppression functions to make the oppressed unaware of exactly who or what is oppressing them which often leads to internalized racism, a type of racism directed towards oneself resulting in self-doubt and self-hate. Exile is a form of punishment that was executed by the United States government to dislocate and isolate Native American populations. Furthermore, it created a deep problem for present-day Native Americans who must choose to exile themselves from Native reservations in order to prosper in the mainstream world.
From the historical and systemic exile of Native American societies to the contemporary chosen exile many Native Americans seek off of reservations, the result is a collective loss of Native American culture and identity with historical roots and present-day consequences for both the oppressed and oppressor.
The historical exile of Native Americans created a space where the United States government could confine and isolate a culture they sought to obliterate and erase for years through the institution of organized political law. Historically, the United States outlawed cultural and spiritual practices of Native American culture, forcibly dislocated young Native Americans from their homes, and created the boarding school generation which ultimately, created generations of people paralyzed and crippled due to the amount of abuse they suffered.
The boarding school generation carried this historical trauma with them back to reservations where it infected the next generations like a silent killer. Native Americans experienced devastating genocide and brutal efforts to annihilate indigenous culture and to assimilate Native Americans into the mainstream culture. The choice many faced was between cultural assimilation meaning, they would have to abandon their cultural values or be isolated on reservations. The choice was between exile or the exile and abandonment of oneself.
Historically and presently, whites and Europeans have construed who they are by who they are not. They have created identities by establishing distinctions between themselves and the “others”. The exile and destruction of Native American life and culture were due to the distinction and lines drawn between a group of people who were different in color, language, and culture. In order to exile an entire population, people must believe that the “other” is less than and not quite human. Consequently, identity is formed around that. As Native Americans lost their identity, white Europeans gained their identity through the violent oppression of Native Americans. In order to exile an entire culture you must make the “other” evil, capable of committing acts people of the “superior” race could never think of. In the short story, “Indian Education”, Sherman Alexie writes, “I leaned through the basement window of the HUD house and kissed the white girl who would later be raped by her foster-parent father, who was also white. They both lived on the reservation, though, and when the headlines and stories filled the papers later, not one word was made of their color. Just Indians being Indians, someone must have said somewhere and they were wrong”.
This represents how stereotypes have stemmed from the belief of the “other” who is capable of committing heinous acts while the powerful group, in this case, whites, are incapable of except for a few bad apples. Furthermore, the construction of race was created in order to exploit people for labor and to take and own land. Today, it is in the institutions that distribute valuable resources, construct social, cultural, and economic power that perpetuate racism and the concept of the “other”. In the short story, “Assimilation”, Alexie writes from the point of view of a white man married to a Native American woman, “If white people are the mad scientist who created race, thought Jeremiah, then we created race so we could enslave black people and kill Indians, and now race has become the Frankenstein monster that has grown beyond our control”. The exile of Native Americans stemmed from the dehumanization of Native Americans that grew from the belief that others were inferior, savage, and inhuman.
The definition of exile is, “the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons”. However, how is one to be exiled from their place of birth by people who came unannounced and killed their culture’s soul. On and off the reservation, we witness the individual and collective loss of identity experienced by many Native Americans. We witness the choice of a young Native American to leave the reservation in the short-story “Indian Education”, Alexie writes, “But on the day I leaned through the basement window of the HUD house and kissed the white girl, I felt the good-byes I was saying to my entire tribe to all the Indian girls and women I might have loved, to all the Indian men who might have called my cousin, even brother I kissed the white girl and when I opened my eyes, she was gone from the reservation, and when I opened my eyes, I was gone from the reservation”
. The hopelessness and devastation experienced by present-day Natives are observed in the high suicide rates among young people and the internalized racism experienced by many which are the result of historical unhealed pain. How does one reconcile with a painful historical past while living in a modern world that completely ignores the pain experienced? Alexie writes, “I passed the written test easily same day Wally Jim killed himself driving his car into a pine tree. No traces of alcohol in is blood, good job, wife and two kids. ‘Why’d he do it?’ asked a white Washington state trooper. All the Indians shrugged their shoulders, looked down at the ground. ‘Don’t know’, we all said, but when we looked in the mirror see the history of our tribe, taste our failure in the tap water, and shook with old tears, we understand completely. The collective historical pain is present in the vast amounts of hopeless youth who seek to manage stressful familial webs and the burden of an entire culture who is in pain and suffering. Furthermore, mainstream culture ignores the pain by continuing to implement racist symbols in pop culture which represents how ignored this group of people truly is. How do you heal when a society you try and be a part of devalues you constantly, rejects your pain, and where you have no cultural or economic strength and power?
Reservations were a form of institutionalized racism and exile because they were excessively isolated and the conditions were extremely poor. Reservations had and still have high unemployment, low wages, and nominal healthcare. However, there is a deeper concern of a deep emotional wound that has not repaired itself, one that has created rampant abuse and alcoholism on reservations. Alexie writes, “That was the year my father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year that my mother started two hundred different quilts but never finished any. They sat separate, dark places in our HUD house and wept savagely” . It is the result of years of emotional, physical and psychological violence enduring through generations that resulted in the collective loss of culture. Today, the historical trauma is apparent in the high cases of abuse, addiction, violence, and alcoholism, which stems from a loss of identity due to the forced exile of Natives on reservations and the chosen exile many experienced when leaving reservations to attempt to live in a culture that has forgotten their name.