When we tally the final cost of the government shutdown — whenever that may come — there will be plenty of concerning numbers. Unpaid wages. Lost revenue to businesses. The amount of canned goods given out at food banks to government workers who never should have been forced to visit them.
Here’s another number: 56,768.
That’s the number of people who attended the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington last January, a month that officials say is usually busy for the museum.
That’s the number of people who, in a single month, walked out of a building in the nation’s capital knowing more about Native Americans than when they walked in.
That’s the number of people, or as close to any estimate that is available, who won’t get that same opportunity this month if the government shutdown lasts much longer.
This matters because American Indians remain one of the most vulnerable groups in this country, and the cost of ignorance about them is already too high. Just look at this past week. It began with President Trump joking about a Native American massacre and ended with a group of teenagers in “Make America Great Again” gear harassing an elder at the Indigenous Peoples March in the nation’s capital on Friday.
Indigenous people from the Washington area and beyond had gathered for the march, hoping to be seen and heard.
People waved signs that read, “We will not be silenced.”
They marched in their traditional dress , demanding that part of their heritage be noticed.
Two women held a white sheet stained with red handprints, bearing the message, “Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.”
“It’s an important time in our country’s history, in our world’s history,” Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of two Native American women elected to Congress for the first time, told the crowd. “It’s time for us to make a move. It’s time for us to stand up for the environment. It’s time for us to stand up for our people.”
She called on those gathered to make sure people vote, so that the country gets elected officials “who care about us, who care about our issues.”
Elected officials who know better than to joke about a shameful slaughter.
Five days before the march, Trump referenced Wounded Knee in a tweet that was meant as a jab against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren, who in a much-ridiculed move released a DNA test to prove her Native American roots, discussed her plans to enter the 2020 presidential race in a video last month.
“If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!” Trump tweeted.
The outrage was swift and warranted. People reminded the president that the U.S. Cavalry slaughtered hundreds of Sioux men, women and children during the Wounded Knee Massacre on Dec. 29, 1890. To drive home that horror, many also posted black and white photos that showed bodies left on the frozen ground.
Queen Muhammad Ali, a film director and one of the speakers at the march, said she wasn’t surprised by Trump’s tweet and saw a positive in it. Even if it wasn’t his intention, she said, “He’s bringing light to issues people didn’t know about.”
“He’s bringing an uprising,” she said. “He’s making us say, ‘We’re here, and we’re not going away.’ ”
She was there to speak about American Samoa, to tell the crowd how half of the almost 56,000-person population in the U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean has diabetes or is on dialysis. But she also hoped people would look at those gathered as a unified front because many issues indigenous people face run across tribal and geographic lines.
Through a social media campaign, in which people described why they wanted to march, individuals spoke about personal struggles and broader ones. They spoke about the past and the present.
“There are approximately 1.6 million people living in the US without running water or basic plumbing in their homes,” wrote Emma Robbins, director of the Navajo Water Project. “Many of these folks are Indigenous, living on Native Nations, which is something we need to change. We deserve to have the basic human right to clean, safe running water.”
“I am a survivor of sexual assault and violence,” wrote Corinne Oestreich, a journalist who is Lakota and Mohawk. “Indigenous women are at a greater risk than any for Human Trafficking and violence, and I don’t want to see any more of my sisters represented by a Red Dress.”
“Today, I’m making the little girl in me feel visible,” wrote Sarah Rose Harper, who described herself as Eastern Band Cherokee. “I remember being 11 in the nineties and seeing the FIRST person who looked like me in a magazine. It was an advertisement in Teen Magazine for the American Indian College Fund. I tore the add out and kept it in my dresser for years. Looking at it made me feel something deep inside of me. I felt less invisible.”
“I march for the Lakota language that is dying,” wrote Terrance Hollow Horn, a hip-hop artist who is Oglala Lakota from Wounded Knee, S.D. “I march for any and all Indigenous languages. For the youth that feel like they’re forgotten. Rejected. Pushed aside. Told they ‘can’t.’ I march for those youth that lost their battle to depression.”
If you want to learn more about the issues Native Americans face, you can visit the National Museum of the American Indian at Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW.
Just not tomorrow, and probably not the day after that. Unfortunately, not until the shutdown ends.