This is Part III of "The Native Papers" written by Virgin Islands historian Gerard Emanuel. Part I dealt with the Historical and Legal Bases for the Definition of a Native Virgin Islander. Part II addressed the right to self-determination.
PART III. The Native Virgin Islander - An Endangered Species
by Gerard M. Emanuel
Native Virgin Islanders residing in the Virgin Islands, particularly on St. John, are an endangered species. The last census indicated that they are now a minority. (See U.S. Census records.) The U.S. has all kinds of laws to protect endangered life forms such as the Bald Eagle, turtles, eggs, pandas, buffalo, certain lobsters, fish and plants. Here in the V.I. we have laws to protect turtles, eggs, sand, coral reefs, mangroves, Mahogany Trees and native lizards. For the latter, efforts have even been made to reduce if not eliminate their predators. Many of us do not seem to have a problem when plants and animals are singled out for special treatment from others in their populations, because they are endangered. If this is true, I am curious as to why some persons consider it unfairly discriminatory and “un-American” to similarly single out from others in the local population, a group that the federal government’s official records indicate has been diminishing with each census count. Moreover, research from the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) Eastern Caribbean Center (ECC) confirmed this fact when it conclusively showed that V.I. women have been getting a smaller number of children each time a count was done between 1970 and 2005. (See Research News from UVI/ECC, Dec. 2007, Vol. 1, Issue1, pp.1-4).
How could it be acceptable to be so concerned about preserving animals and plants and unacceptable to be similarly concerned about preserving a people, when solid data over the past 35 years clearly shows that Native Virgin Islanders are also disappearing? If I get a truthful answer to this question, I will be surprised. Unlike other life forms, a people possess an ethos. This can be defined as their guiding beliefs, fundamental values, thought processes, etc., that distinguish them from other groups. Ethos can also be defined as the distinctive spirit of a people or an era. Native Virgin Islanders had a distinct set of traits, which secured their survival up until the mid 1960’s. At that time, the population started to grow more from in-migration than from births. A population that was 26,000 in 1950 and 74% native, grew to almost 50,000 in 1965, and dropped to 44% native. While the native population only grew from 19,600 to 22,000, the number of non-citizen immigrants, went from 1,000 in 1950, which was 4% of the population, to 2,000 ten years later.
However, this segment of the population mushroomed by 500% from 2,000 to 10,000 in only five years (1960 to 1965), and became 20% of the population. I do not know of any other place as small as the V.I. that had such a great increase in its immigrant population in such a short period of time, without undergoing massive social, infrastructural and other problems. In fact, a court case was necessary at the end of the 1960’s to allow non-citizen children to attend public schools, partially because officials were concerned about the impact the tremendous increase in students would have on the school system. (See Hosier v. Evans, 1970)
In the mid 1960’s, for the first time in the 20th century, Native Virgin Islanders became a minority in their homeland. There were other impacts, some positive and some negative, of the demographic changes of the 1960’s. The V.I. experienced an economic boom like it has never seen either before or since. The government had surpluses in many of those years. Construction boomed. Tourist arrivals and spending increased. Real estate sales grew exponentially. Virgin Islanders grew a large “middle class”. Healthcare improved. Roads improved, etc. However, in spite of all these gains, Virgin Islanders lost their home. What had been primarily a home to natives, now was transformed (in less than one quarter of a generation), into an American playground and a place where the majority of people, were immigrants. Many of these persons had come to these islands principally for economic gain. Their contributions were invaluable to the economic boom of the 1960’s. Most natives in hindsight are thankful for their presence. Nevertheless, only a minority of immigrants seemed genuinely interested in unifying with all of the people, and developing a sense of community or nationalism. The rest were too busy making money, much of which was sent out of these islands as remittances.
Because of the ill treatment many had received by some natives, and by the federal government, former immigrants created benevolent associations. These organizations provided assistance not only to resident immigrants who were mistreated, but also to their relatives “back home” whether home meant the mainland U.S., the Caribbean or other parts of the world.
Now one might assume that natives led a large, well organized, discriminatory movement similar to what occurred by the Ku Klux Klan and other racists mostly in the southern United States. Such was not the case. In fact, immigrants who were “bonded”, left for the U.S. when they were not supposed to and natives who had sponsored them or loaned them money, experienced losses.
As the 1960’s, came to an end, the traditional ethos of Virgin Islanders changed as well. Many persons went from being community oriented and other-directed, (living in the “big yard”, or in “long-row” homes, where a matriarch was always home to exert discipline on the wayward), to being experts in the ethic of individualism and materialism. Virgin Islanders lost the practice of the village raising the child as an essential facet of social discipline and control in their culture. It has been said over and over, (and I can personally attest to this), that when you walked on the street, regardless of whether it was on St. John, St. Thomas or St. Croix before the mid ‘60’s, there seemed to be a network of matriarchs watching you like “big brother”. If you did anything wrong or did not properly greet them when you passed their home or business, your parents were informed before you returned. Corporal punishment was swift and without any questions being asked. This was because there existed a great sense of trust that Virgin Islanders had in the integrity of these matriarchs. All who lived in a particular community were like an extended family, whether related by blood or not. If a matriarch did not know your first name, she definitely knew “to whom you belonged”, and could identify you as Miss ___’s child.
This means of social control reduced crime and kept communities together. Almost all of this and more of the pre 1960’s ethos were lost by the 1970’s. The new ethos of many Virgin Islanders mimicked aspects of North American culture that were invading their homeland and thrown in their faces daily. The tourism demonstration effect, the impact of television and other media, particularly from the United States, eroded the old and swept in this new ethos. Natives became preoccupied with trying to get the “Almighty Dollar” in order to engage in “conspicuous consumption”, and “keep up with the Jones’s”. They attempted to get every new product they saw on television. They seemed to forget the values that had preserved and protected them as a unified and proud people with a distinct culture, when they were poorer. Now they adopted some of the best but more of the worst characteristics of American culture, and the cultural complexion of the Virgin Islands experienced a face and body lift.
Today, natives are still trying to adjust and cope with the staggering results of this mammoth demographic increase along with the shift in their status from majority to minority and the adoption of a North American value system. Some of the other negative results of these changes were double-sessions in public schools, increased water shortages, electrical outages, greater impact on health and social services, roads, housing, increased crime, and the terrible treatment of immigrants from other Caribbean islands.
Our brothers and sisters from the rest of the Caribbean became the scapegoat for almost everything that was wrong in these islands, and were unfairly discriminated against as an unjustifiable reaction to their increasing numbers and the decreasing number of natives. Some Virgin Islanders felt threatened, became somewhat xenophobic but did not unite to protect and preserve their interests.
The above paragraphs may seem like a digression, but one cannot understand present day V.I. society without knowing, understanding and respecting the difference between pre and post 1960’s V.I. society and the impact of those massive changes from the perspective of natives. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, some natives began again to migrate to the U.S. Their presence in the population continued to dwindle and their culture and traditions started to disappear. All might have been lost had it not been for a few tradition bearers, who in spite of overwhelming odds, fought to preserve what semblance of pre-1960 culture they could remember. Every time a group of native people becomes extinct for whatever reason, all of the things, which they can contribute to the rich diversity of the human family, are lost.
The essence of this issue is first knowing and second accepting the existence of an endangered group of “people of” the Virgin Islands. The third part of this is respect. Once persons not only can do these things, but also see the value in doing so, then they can hopefully see the need for protection and preservation of this group in order that the “distinguishing character, and guiding beliefs” of this group and its culture, will survive and be promoted here in their homeland. You cannot say you want to preserve the culture and traditions of a people and not simultaneously acknowledge and respect the people as a distinct entity that also needs to be preserved. How can you have classical or traditional V.I. culture without the people from whom it emanated? This is the heart of the matter. To this end, laws have to be enacted in the constitution, and policies have to be implemented.
Native Virgin Islanders, who know and ground their research-based opinions in the knowledge and practice of their own ethos first and in the history of the U.S. and its relationships with territories second, have been called racist and un-American. This is what foments the unnecessary divisiveness. Supporting the preservation of native rights should not be divisive. This has to be even more important than doing the same when it comes to animals, plants and geographic areas. Areas that require special protection are called APC’s. A people who require the same consideration are called endangered natives. In other parts of the world, when natives start to disappear, special laws are enacted for their preservation. Instead of name-calling, let us work together to achieve mutual understanding and consensus in a way that respects all of our rights.
It has appeared from the discussions on talk shows and in editorials, that consensus means acknowledging and protecting the rights of every one but the native. Every time natives start to talk about their rights, they are brow-beaten by others, who sometimes understand neither them nor their history of oppression, colonization and current need to exercise self-determination without interference. Virgin Islanders must have the right to choose who will be invited to make important decisions along with them. This should be done at a minimum. If any group’s rights are to be accorded priority in the Virgin Islands, especially when it comes to respect and protection, it has to be the rights of the natives. How can the rights of the indigenes of a place be less important than those of immigrants, whether they are foreigners or U.S. citizens? In societies where native rights are ignored, the natives become extinct or are severely marginalized in every way in their own home. What comes to mind is the story of the camel that requested to be able to put a foot in a man’s tent to protect it from the cold. The man, being kind in nature agreed, but as the night wore on, the camel kept on asking for more and more space. The man gave in until the camel eventually took over the tent and the man to whom the tent was home, found himself placed out in the cold. This man must have been a Native Virgin Islander, because part of the pre-1960 ethos of Virgin Islanders, involved treating others better than they treated themselves.
This story is very relevant to the Native Virgin Islander dilemma. As such, it is time for Natives to learn from the painful lessons of their history. Some persons who come here act like the camel. They get upset when natives tell them that they do not have the same right to exercise decisions of self-determination and self-government here as much as the native does. In some instances, these persons even feel that they have more rights. Since they came from America, which owns these islands as property, and since they have “their 14th amendment” American citizenship, these persons may feel that these facts give them as much or even more right to be here than the native, since natives are not 14th amendment citizens, and are merely part of the property that the U.S. owns. None of them will ever put it in such stark terms. They will couch their views and justifications in all kinds of euphemisms such as freedom, democracy, 14th amendment equal protection rights and protections, etc. As discussed in a previous article, when viewed from the perspective of our colonizers, especially regarding citizenship, they are right. However, when viewed from the perspective of natives, which makes these matters questions of self-determination and self-government, they are wrong. We must be able to come to some sensible compromise on these issues where the rights of everyone are respected, but with priority accorded to the historical context of oppression and colonialism experienced by the natives. This hopefully can be done without persons getting upset. However, we must not be afraid of emotions as long as they are guided by reason.
From the perspective of the United States, Virgin Islanders and their homeland are viewed constitutionally as mere property that it owns. I thought that the slave trade had ended 200 years ago, and that slavery in these islands ended in 1848. I probably am wrong, but I cannot see myself being overjoyed with being considered as property. Recently, Virgin Islanders observed the 90th anniversary of the “sale of these islands and their people” to the U.S. Yes we have made much progress under U.S. rule, but none of it was willingly granted. Our foremothers and fathers had to struggle and endure many trials and tribulations to eke out what semblance of “self-government” exists here. (If you have the delusion that we have true self-government, simply examine Section 8 of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, or review the history of unilateral changes that the U.S. has made to laws and regulations here. in order to become disillusioned. Sometimes these changes have adversely affected the people of these islands). The most recent examples were the changes that affected the EDC beneficiaries and the restrictions on fishing. This may be why the source of U.S. governmental authority over this territory, even after 90 years of U.S. colonial rule, still is the pejorative Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress full control over territory and property. (A careful reading of this clause will reveal that “Territory” means property). (See the citation below.)
“ The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States (...)”
Why isn’t Congressional authority over the V.I. located under Article I, where most of the powers of Congress are outlined? The same occurs with the District Courts. Authority over them comes from Article IV, instead of Article III. The difference is degrading in terms of independence, salary and tenure for District Court judges here. Therefore, Virgin Islanders are treated as property, and their sustained right to U.S. citizenship at birth may be tenuous at best. Remember Supreme Court Justice Brown said that unincorporated territories like the V.I. are “appurtenant to, but not a part of the United States…”. Sometimes natives feel that their friends and officials from the U.S. mainland act as though Virgin Islanders really are personal property just as a dog or a cat are the personal property of their owners. If this is the mentality of the persons who criticize natives for wanting to be treated as free humans, then I understand their reasoning, even though I totally disagree with it.
Being American does not have to mean what Arthur Schlesinger meant by it in “The Disuniting of America”. He wanted it to mean that all persons were to melt into some pot and lose the cultural distinctiveness they brought to this country. His analysis of the dangers of focusing too much on our racial and ethnic differences as retarding national unity, however, is accurate and very relevant to the V.I. situation. His melting pot concept only was applicable when America was considered to be a “white” country, where only Caucasians were the de-facto authentic citizens. Non-whites could never hope to “melt” in Mr. Schlesinger’s racial and ethnic pot. Their physical characteristics would always stand out and make them visually distinct from the majority of the Caucasian population. Thus, only the whites had the option legitimately “melting” into the pot.
Some persons still think that this is how America is supposed to be. However, it is not. Just like this cannot happen in the Virgin Islands, the time for this definition of being American has gone and has now evolved to mean subscribing to the ethos of the founding fathers with one key distinction. We the people must now mean all of the people. Being American today is like being part of a tossed salad. The new paradigm in the Virgin Islands just as in the U.S. must now be that all cultural groups are invited here, and while retaining elements of their cultural distinctiveness, they also need to subscribe to, respect and identify with the cultural traditions of Virgin Islanders. This may just be the win-win answer to unity in the Virgin Islands. This “tossed salad” concept is more nutritious and respectful than the melting pot). Food that has been melted has been denatured, and most of the essential live-giving properties have been destroyed. If the pot itself melts, whatever is in it will be poisoned. Is this what we want for our peoples and cultures? A tossed salad retains all of the life-giving properties of its constituent parts, while making a whole. However, the lettuce, which provides the foundation, is the main ingredient. The natives, their history, traditions and aspirations are the lettuce in the Virgin Islands’ tossed salad society. You do not have an authentic, traditional tossed salad without lettuce as the base.
Possibly, due to their belief in the assimilative or American melting pot theory, some of our friends do not even want to acknowledge the existence of the native people of the Virgin Islands, who have a distinct ethos that is rapidly disappearing. All they see is “America” and the American ethos here. They see little value in preserving Johnny cake and maufe. Believe it or not, I partially agree. It is not only the physical manifestations of a culture and a people that constitute their ethos. It is principally their values, the basis for them and the left and right brain processes they used to produce the excellent material products of their culture, notwithstanding the limitations imposed upon them by slavery and colonization. Probably the greatest aspect of our culture, is the way we think and solve problems, which is also inextricably intertwined with our language and other important non-material aspects of our culture. The physical manifestations could change, but when the non-material intellectual and spiritual ones disappear, the culture begins to decay and eventually may become extinct.
Anyhow, as far as some mainland V.I. residents are concerned, Virgin Islanders should be viewed as a monolithic group of assimilated Americans living here. Other than a few superficial expressions of our traditions, here should become a carbon copy of “downtown” America. Students of history like me should deny their education, forget this divisive, discriminatory foolishness about ethos and native rights, and simply just get along.
Get along according to whose definitions, worldview, ethos and most importantly, whose interests? Even in my former labor union, the charter members have more privileges than the members who came after; regardless of how long they serve in the union, how many strikes they have endured, etc. Special consideration is always given to those pioneers who endured the rigors of forming an organization. They are able to attend all functions freely and are recognized for their ground-breaking work. Why can’t the persons who are not the charter members of V.I. society, or their descendants understand and accept this principle?
One thing that the 1960’s taught conscious Africans living in this part of the world is that in order to survive, you must clearly unite, organize, define yourself and your interests for yourself, based on the specific context provided by your worldview, history, culture and other circumstances. As Professor Janice Hale of Clark University once wrote, “The power to define is the power to destroy.” You then need to find likeminded persons to help in the attainment of these interests. I wonder how many of us would even consider telling a Jew to forget his history, especially the holocaust and simply try to get along with the descendants of Nazis since they might be ideologically against what their forefathers promoted under Hitler? If the holocaust of Jews, which entitled them to receive reparations can be respected, why can’t the hundreds of years of African holocausts similarly be recognized, respected and the descendants similarly compensated by ensuring their ability to not only survive, but also succeed and prosper in their homeland? Who is betraying a racial motive now? Until this kind of respect and sensitivity for the people of the Virgin Islands as an endangered group with a distinct and dying ethos, is shown, there can be no hope for consensus and unity.
As one enlightened African philosopher has said, you cannot have peace without justice. Justice is a pre-condition and must include the recognition of the existence of the Native Virgin Islander as a group that should be protected and preserved at all cost. When this is done, then and only then can we collaborate and pursue peaceful coexistence.