Native American leaders spoke at a rally at Shepler Square on June 22. Fort Sill once held Apache prisoners of war, including Geronimo. (Photos by MARTHA NAKAGAWA)
By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Second of two parts
LAWTON, Okla.— Following a press conference outside Fort Sill, a rally was held at Shepler Square Park with more than 200 participants.
Michael Topaum, a Kiowa and Mescalero Apache, opened the rally with an indigenous prayer. Topaum is part of the same tribe as Geronimo, who was a prisoner of war at Fort Sill and is buried at the Fort Sill Indian Agency Cemetery.
“The U.S. government is desecrating our children,” said Topaum. “That individual … that is leading this U.S. government has no compassion for people that are not of his color. He shows it. He says it. We all know the truth about what’s going on over there. It’s happening again here in Oklahoma, and we need to put a stop to that.”
Duncan Ryuken Williams, bestselling author of “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War II,” led a Buddhist ceremony. He was given permission to bring a Buddhist statue that had been carved at the Manzanar WRA camp to be used at the ceremony.
Williams shared that 700 persons of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated at Fort Sill between March and June of 1942. Of those, 165 were from Hawaii, 350 were from the mainland U.S. and more than 200 from Panama.
“And amongst them were 90 Buddhist priests that had been arrested even before the smoke had cleared at Pearl Harbor,” said Williams, who is a Soto Zen Buddhist priest.
Lovetta Yeahqud, a member of the Kiowa tribe, had a grandmother who was forced to go to the Fort Sill boarding school and was herself part of the program, although by her generation, the boarding school had been moved to another location.
“I’m here today because of the children,” said Yeahqud. “My heart breaks at the atrocities they’re going through because I know what it’s like to be abused as a child. I know what it is to see children being abused by their own relatives, by strangers, by authority. And that’s why I’m here to let you know we are going to do our best to stop this.”
Jeff Haozous, former chair of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, shared that his grandparents had been prisoners of war with Geronimo. “They were victims of a white supremacist, colonial government that minimized people of color, people who were different and sent them away.”
Haozous said before Geronimo surrendered to the U.S. government, he demanded that the tribal families be kept together. “The government broke numerous promises to the Fort Sill Apaches, to the Chiricahua Apaches, and they continue to break those promises even today, but the one promise they kept, they kept the families together,” he said. “And perhaps that’s why our tribe is still intact.
“It’s so critical to take care of children. It’s so important to have children with their mothers. And any policy of a government of a white supremacist, colonial power that strips children from their mothers is simply inhumane and intolerable and unconscionable.”
Rev. T. Sheri Dickerson, a military veteran with Black Lives Matter, delivered one of the strongest messages of the day. “White supremacy is a thing,” she said. “So I want to speak to my white allies and accomplices for a moment because many of us who carry melanin in our skins are tired. We are angry. We are weary. And we are worn. I wake up on a daily basis, physically ill from the bulls–t that I am watching my country and now, my state continue to participate in these egregious and heinous acts just because they don’t look like you.
“So to my white accomplices and allies, it is time for you to step up and put your bodies on the line. This is a call to action, and we’re not just calling you to attend rallies and say, ‘We stand in solidarity.’ I’m saying get your asses down to the places where the faces don’t look like yours and say we matter.
“If you’re uncomfortable today because of the heat, I want you to imagine what it must feel like to triple the amount of people that are here, that are locked in cells half this size, that are not able to sleep, that cannot even experience normal bodily function, that cannot eat. And parents have to look into the faces of their children and say tomorrow they have to prepare them if you are taken because Mama and Daddy just want you to survive. This is about survival. And we are not supposed to be asking and seeking survival in a country that says we are a melting pot. If something needs to melted, we need to melt the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”
Rev. T. Sheri Dickerson, representing Black Lives Matter, speaks during the rally in Lawton, Okla.
Veronica Laizure, civil rights director for the Council on American Islamic Relations, made a call to do the right thing. “Slavery was legal. Apartheid was legal. The genocide of our native sisters and brothers was legal,” said Laizure. “It is time for us to stand up not for what is legal but for what is right.”
Nicole McAfee, director of policy and advocacy with the ACLU Oklahoma, said it was not an accident that Oklahoma was picked to detain migrant children. “We lead the nation in the rate of incarceration of people overall. We lead the nation in the rate of incarceration of black people. The number of indigenous people imprisoned in Oklahoma have increased 46 percent between the years 2008 and 2015. But what they did not count on is community. They think by assaulting us on all fronts, they can divide people, but I think this is just a small showing that people in Oklahoma care, that we’re willing to fight, that we’re willing to come together.”
Jordan Harmony, an attorney that specializes in tribal law, called the family separation policy an “assimilationist genocidal tactic.”
“We’re dealing with, not an immigration issue but a colonial, white supremacist issue,” she said. “There’s a lot of laws in place but we need to get away from this ‘Is this a legal or illegal immigration issue’ because it’s neither. You’re talking about forced relocation with violence happening in our countries south of the border that was placed there because of American interests. I’m talking about environmental migration because of a lack of resources and water that was depleted by American companies. We’re talking about an American government forcing migration.”
Edson Alvarado of Dream Action Oklahoma, a member of the Raramuri Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, said, “We’re here to resist the criminalization of our immigrants.”
Rev. Donna Compton of the Disciples of Christ, part of the United Church of Christ, said she was part of a three-car caravan that had driven from Oklahoma City. She said there would have been more but the rally coincided with the Oklahoma City Pride Parade.
“This could not be more important,” said Compton. “We’ve had a vigil in Oklahoma City for over a year, opposing American immigration policy. Then this started happening, and it’s just so far beyond anything anyone’s faith or morals would affirm. As a Christian, I know how much Jesus loved children, and we are grieving his heart this very day. What’s important is that we stand for the same principles here, humane principles, loving principles.”
Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho, shared a story about interviewing the son of Kanesaburo Oshima, who was shot and killed at Fort Sill while imprisoned at Fort Sill for no reason except for being of Japanese ancestry. Before the war, Oshima had been a prominent businessman in Kona, Hawaii and was picked up by the FBI shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and eventually shipped to Fort Sill, where he experienced a mental breakdown and started climbing the fence, shouting, “I want to go home. I want to go home.”
“As the son told me this story, this 80-year-old man, you could see in his face how he went back to being that 11-year-old and remembering the pain,” said Ikeda. “How devastating it must’ve been for the family because back then. That was a form of family separation. They oftentimes took the fathers away from the families and put them in camps.
“So when I think about this man in the prime of his life being so devastated that he would lose his mind, I think about the children who are going through this now and the trauma that they’re experiencing.
“As we know from our elders and their stories, the trauma doesn’t stop just there. It goes on for decades and decades. It goes on for generations.”
The success of the multicultural aspect of the rally was through the efforts of Mary Topaum, a Cherokee, Dakota and Sioux member with the American Indian Movement, and Leslie Ishii.