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Rick Santorum’s ‘Native American culture’ crack was racist. But here’s why he thought it was OK.



Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, spewed what has become his trademark nastiness Friday when he said during a speech that there was “nothing here” before white people stumbled on what they later renamed “America.”

“We came here and created a blank slate,” he said to a room of young conservatives, members of the Young America’s Foundation.

But then he recanted: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Soon, Santorum’s rancid claim went viral. And while there was a wave of disgust from many people, Natives weren’t surprised in the least.

American history textbooks routinely — and, for men like Santorum, conveniently — leave out the deep and textured history of this continent’s Indigenous peoples, as well as the details of the shocking brutality of the white men who invaded our land and claimed it for themselves. So it’s no great revelation to us that their kin and/or ilk would now claim that there was “nothing here” before the white man arrived by chance and then encroached; they’ve been justifying their genocide that way for more than half a millennium.

Nationalists like Santorum would like you to believe there was “nothing here,” because if there was “nothing here,” then none of their ancestors did anything wrong.

If you, however, found Santorum’s comments ugly and shocking, do us Indigenous folks all a favor: Stop calling that white invasion a “settlement,” because it was a violent, vicious invasion. They weren’t just pilgrims or homesteaders; they were invaders who fought and killed us for our lands and our homes and did so often while waving the Bible as both a reason and a justification.

But the reason people still use identifiers like “pilgrim,” “settler” and “homesteader” is that racists like Santorum whitewash this country’s history and consistently push deliberately ignorant nationalistic narratives.

Nationalists like Santorum would like you to believe there was “nothing here,” because if there was “nothing here,” then none of their ancestors did anything wrong; if there was “nothing here,” then none of the people they venerate — and want you to venerate — stole anything or massacred millions of Indigenous peoples or raped Indigenous women or kidnapped and killed Indigenous children, and so on.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone as anti-gay or as bigoted as Santorum would desperately seek to ignore and erase Indigenous peoples and Indigenous cultures.

But white men did all those things to the Indigenous people of what you now call America. It’s documented; it’s all historical fact. And you can’t be the greatest nation in the world when you’re guilty of a genocide — which the U.S. is incontrovertibly guilty of committing against this land’s first peoples.

That genocide is why, today, Indigenous peoples are the smallest racial minority in our ancestral land. It’s not only because of the literal shiploads of diseases that early European invaders lugged aboard with them; it was also largely because of the racist hatred white men had (and some still have) for Natives and because of the violence they sought to carry out against us because of that hatred.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln: All did something vile toward Indigenous peoples.

“Nothing here,” Santorum said, despite all evidence to the contrary. Long before white people invaded, murdered and maimed us, long, long before they built big-box stores on our sacred sites — as Walmart did near Teotihuacán outside Mexico City — we had matriarchies, democratic societies, massive feats of architecture (like Teotihuacán and more) and thousands of languages across the North American continent.

Erasing Indigenous peoples from American history is a way of erasing white American brutality and savagery so they can absolve themselves of their complicity.

We even had what America would later call same-sex marriage: Indigenous two-spirit people — who are known in the white language as “gay” and/or “trans,” though the designation encompasses more than either white word can hold — are considered holy and a blessing in many tribes and nations.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that someone as anti-gay or as bigoted as Santorum would desperately seek to ignore and erase Indigenous peoples and Indigenous cultures.

His mind, and mouth, have, of course, gotten him into hot water more than once. In an interview with The Associated Press in 2003, Santorum infamously likened being gay to bestiality and pedophilia.

“In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality,” he said at the time. “That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”

And as a presidential hopeful in 2012, Santorum was said to have nearly slithered out the N-word when he referred to candidate Barack Obama while campaigning in Janesville, Wisconsin: “We know the candidate Barack Obama, what he was like, the anti-war government ni- uh, the uh … America was a source for division around the world,” he muttered.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that he also views Natives this way. Erasing Indigenous peoples from American history is a way of erasing white American brutality and savagery so they can absolve themselves of their complicity and feel comfortable living in homes built on stolen land — our land — and calling it their own.

America desperately tried to get rid of us. Yet here we stand, Rick Santorum. Our stories and histories and bodies are going nowhere, white man. We are resilient. We are stewards of the land. People like Rick Santorum are just guests, and, as the saying goes, both fish and guests stink after three days.

Santorum’s three days are long since past.



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