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Rosalea Barker: Three Little Magic Words

Let's talk turkey. After all, I am writing this on the second to last Thursday of November so it's a bird on everybody's mind, if not already on their lips. One even got granted clemency by the President in a televised ceremony at the White House a couple of days ago and thus gets to die of natural causes - in a bed of straw with its gumboots on, I suppose. (Yes, I have a long and sad history of believing everything I see on local news bulletins.)

In their last 10 weeks in office US Presidents have a tradition of granting pardons and Executive clemency, and with Clinton being from Arkansas, where the Governor traditionally does the same around Christmas time, people are hoping he was sincere in the promise he made in a radio interview on election day that he'll give a certain clemency petition "an honest look-see". That petition concerns Leonard Peltier, a member of the American Indian Movement who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the alleged murder of two FBI agents in 1975 during a shoot out at Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

But I digress. This is a happy time, right? A friend sent me an e-card in which three smiley buttons bounced into view, each assuming one of the accoutrements of the biggest holiday in America. A feathered headdress, a turkey beak, and a pilgrim hat. Darned if I could think of one thing any of those three could be happy about. Land dispossession? Being slaughtered? Seeing the simple things you valued be forgotten and buried under a ton of waste? Frankly, it was a relief to know that out there in San Francisco Bay this morning a Circle of Life was forming to call on the spirits to send healing and peace and unity.

For 26 years now the International Indian Treaty Council has been holding dawn ceremonies out on Turtle Island - aka Isla de Alcatraces (Pelican Island), aka Alcatraz, aka The Rock - on Unthanksgiving Day. The Circle of Life is open to all indigenous peoples, and speakers I heard on the live radio broadcast were from Africa and Palestine as well as from the Americas. An 87-year-old Native American WWI veteran played The Last Post and Amazing Grace on a trumpet taken from one of General Custer's buglers at the Last Stand, and a band of Aztec dancers and drummers performed.

About 2700 people attended the ceremony and the majority were young people. The speakers had a mixed bag of revolutionary rhetoric and healing words on offer, but the radio broadcast consisted of a lot of studio material as well as the live links, so I missed a lot of the contributions. There were two main calls to action over the next few weeks - demonstrations against the forthcoming visit to the Bay Area by Benjamin Netanyahu and protests on the day of President Fox's inauguration in Mexico in support of the rights of the indigenous people of Chiapas.

At issue in Mexico are the rights to "work, land, housing, food, health care, schooling, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace" for the impoverished population in Chiapas State. The issue with Netanyahu is, of course, the rights of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. Last year at this Unthanksgiving Day ceremony an Israeli woman working for a Middle Eastern children’s peace organization had brought a group of children from three refugee camps in Palestine to join the dance circle. This year two of those refugee camps have had to be evacuated and those same children lie awake at night listening to the missiles fired by the Israeli Army whistle over their heads.

Perhaps we should be thankful for the stymied presidential election. If there'd been a clear winner on November 7, there'd have been enormous pressure for the United States to get involved in that conflict. But, miraculously, the voters spoke with a forked tongue and the dogs of war are having to content themselves with courtroom battles in the land of sunshine and dimples instead. And at the heart of the battles are the three little magic words.

There is a very good reason the US Constitution starts with those words: "We the people". It might equally have started: "We the States", but the drafters of the Constitution were pretty damned hot on the idea of the rights of personal competency. Those rights had already been specifically included in the constitutions of several of the states that were now trying to create, in the late 18th century, a United States.

The idea of personal competency pretty much equates to the idea of natural rights - the rights of thinking, speaking, forming and giving opinions - to which anyone is entitled. Were 20 people to find themselves on a desert island, the prevailing wisdom went, each would be a sovereign in their own natural right. But then each would probably see that some kind of agreement about the aggregation of power as a group would probably be wise. That is, if they wanted to enjoy those natural rights instead of each individual having to spend all his or her time fighting the other 19 about whose sovereignty was the more sovereign.

And that in a coconut shell is what the Florida recount nightmare is all about. All rights not specifically given to the United States (ie the federal government) belong to the states themselves. But the Constitution bars the states from asserting any rights that are at odds with either the federal laws or the Constitution. And the Constitution sanctifies the rights of "we the people" above all else. So around and around we go - in a bizarre Circle of Law - with the only sensible solution suggested thus far being Ralph Nader's one that the presidency should be settled with a coin toss.

Oh, if you're interested in the outcome of that college football game last weekend, it went into overtime for the first time in the battle's 103-year history. And Stanford won. No doubt that brought a cheer from Stanford's former Provost Dr Condoleezza Rice. It must be awfully frustrating waiting to know if the Republican cabinet you're going to be part of will ever get formed. Perhaps the omens are with her.

Lea Barker California Thursday 23 November PT

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