An Elder, A Young Man, and A Conversation on Native American Issues Past, Present, and Future (Part 1)

Last spring, I was interviewed via email for a study by a Russian student.  The woman asked some questions about how Indians are perceived in America, what differences exist between Native and white society, the fate of reservations, and how things came to be the way they are.  I transcribed my grandma’s answers to the questions as well.  Reading over the interview again, I thought I’d put it up here, with my grandma’s words and mine side by side.  Together, I think they cover a lot of ground, from the perspective of a young twenty something Lakota man, to the perspective of an elder Lakota woman who lived on the reservation most her life. (Part 2 here)

1.)       What do you think is the general idea of an average American citizen about a Native American? Do you think Hollywood movies influenced the way Americans imagine an average Indian? How do you personally imagine an Indian?

Mrs W: America, as a whole, has never tried to learn what Indians are like. They never bothered to learn what kind of people we are. The American Indian has always been in the back somewhere. For most Americans, their perception of Indians is formed by what they read in history books or newspapers, which are often biased, or inaccurate. They don’t know us. They don’t know anything about the culture. When you hear their remarks, they don’t know anything about us. Some foreigners know more about us than people in this country. As a whole, America is not interested, and has not gone out of their way to learn about native people. The American Indian was shoved in the back and forgotten. Most Americans have never seen an Indian, and don’t care about Indians.

Other races assimilated, the Indian never fully assimilated. The Irish became part of American culture. The African Americans became part of American culture. Native Americans never did. Because we haven’t been assimilated into the melting pot of America, the average American doesn’t know much about us. They don’t meet us on the street like other races that have come to America.

Hollywood knows nothing about us either. Hollywood and America are ignorance affirming ignorance. Hollywood movies did a great harm in portraying Indians as they did. I wish they portrayed us like humans, instead of subhuman animals that chase wagon trains, who are capable of only saying “Ugh”. The average American believes all Natives speak the same language, which consists of one grunted syllable.

The movie industry has not caught up with the present day Indian. We live in modern houses, we have schools, and we’re not out there shooting arrows at people. Most of us don’t even know how to shoot a bow and arrow. Few actually come to the reservation, and really try to see how Indians are, before they try to make a movie. We will never have a movie that’s really about us until we have an Indian director who knows about us and knows our culture. Movies haven’t done us justice. They’ve misrepresented the Native Americans of all tribes.

Tom: The average American believes Native Americans are extinct. I’ve traveled around the US, and sometimes, people are shocked to learn that Native Americans still walk the earth. They act as if they just saw a dinosaur, or a woolly mammoth, something that is not supposed to exist anymore.

Otherwise, Americans are informed about Native Americans through Hollywood movies. They expect us to chase wagon trains on horseback, live in tipis, speak broken English, and scalp people.  The media is no better than Hollywood.  The media is not our friend.  If you do see something about modern Native Americans, it is typically some overblown, inaccurate exaggeration of some of the problems, while neglecting everything good.  The media is always quick to show all the problems of Native Americans. Yet more often than not it is useless sensationalism.  Something for grandmas and grandpas in posh Florida condos to say “look at those poor Indians” to each other over Sunday breakfast.  Media about Natives is usually total voyeurism, a kind of tragedy porn, rather than anything that educates, or connects outsiders to our realities.

If you have ever seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, perhaps you will remember the character who is elated to see the media show up and film all the atrocities occurring.  Saying something to the effect “surely the world will see the struggle now and send help!”  And another character says to him “No, they’ll flip it on during dinner, say ‘how terrible’, continue eating, and forget it by the end of the night”.  The situation seems to be the same with Natives in America.  There are endless tv specials about how bad things are here, but none of it seems to have compelled anyone to help in a meaningful way.

Once, a few family members of mine went on a logging trip in Colorado. When it came time for dinner, the bosses brought stew on a platter to the Native Americans. The bosses gave them no forks or spoons.  They had heard in a movie that Native Americans only eat with their hands. Now, Indians eat with the same utensils as everyone else, just like they live in houses and drive automobiles like everyone else, but that’s how misplaced the world’s assumptions are about us. It is somewhat humorous, but also frustrating for Native Americans, that society is so ignorant when it comes to our people.

My concept of an Indian is based on the Indian people I interact with everyday. My family, the traditions they have kept alive through the generations. The philosophy of our leaders and wise men through the ages, the myths and legends told among my tribe, the history of the Lakota people, the Lakota language and its songs. My concept of an Indian is one of the few that comes from the culture itself, rather than silver screen falsehoods and romanticized half truths.

2.)       Do you think there are any differences between the Native Americans and the white Americans except for their origin? Are there any differences in mentality, national character? What are they?

Mrs W: I think that Native Americans have a different sense of values. The Native American has always wanted to have his land. The Native American is close to the soil. In Native American culture, they are close to nature. They love their land. They love being on their own little domain. They really don’t want to be anywhere else, or be like anyone else. They just want to be left alone on their land.

There are a lot of differences between us and the outer world. Not because one is better than the other or vice versa. Our ancestors always said we’re all created equal. We just have our own value system culturally, that we’d like to retain.

Indians respect the creation that god made. Indians believe in having respect for the things of the universe, for the animals, and the environment. They used to say we were dumb for having this respect for the earth. Yet now, with a hole in the ozone, polluted waters, polluted air, it seems the Indian wasn’t so wrong after all. The old timers used to say there was a balance to nature. The Indian never went out and ruined this balance. Progress of white civilization did that.

Tom:  The differences are huge between Native Americans and broader American society. In the beginning, when Native Americans first met the encroaching European society, it was a clash of philosophies that led to their conflict.

The Native Americans believed in their own gods. Europeans believed any god other than the Christian god was profane. Native Americans believed nature had a right to exist for its own sake, believed there was something beautiful in a land being undisturbed, unpolluted, unmarred. Europeans believed undeveloped land had no purpose, believed that people who didn’t use the land for an industrial purpose must be lazy and stupid. Indians believed in living free, nomadic, without distinguishment between classes, where all were equal. Europeans were more authoritarian, believed people should obey their bosses, obey their preachers, work hard and settle down, and social class meant much to American society.

Many of these differences carry into the present. Native Americans have different outlooks on life, different philosophies, follow a different religion than most of American society.

Legally, Native Americans are also different from the rest of American society. This is traceable to the US constitution, which allows for special legislation that pertains only to Native Americans. For example, jobs within the tribal system are supposed to operate by Indian preference. In other words, qualified Indians are to be hired for tribal jobs before qualified people of any other race. Nowhere else do you find such a policy in American hiring law.

3.)       In what way did the Europeans’ arrival affect Indian culture? How did the Indian culture influence the culture of the mainstream American society?

Mrs W:  Our whole world, life as we knew it, became different. When the Mayflower came, when the explorers came, our lifestyle changed forever. At the time we didn’t believe it would change, because we reached out and welcomed them. We didn’t think they’d come in and do what they did. We thought we’d all peacefully co-exist. That didn’t happen. They came in and took all the land, until they owned the whole place. They are still taking.

Mainstream America, when they first came to this land, learned much about agriculture from Native tribes. Many of the things we grew, they never heard of. We taught them, our ancestors taught them, how to survive in this country through farming. There are some good things they learned from us, though Indians don’t get any credit. It took until 1924 for Indians to be recognized as citizens of the United States. What did they see us as before? Savages. We were considered subhuman, and if we taught good things, we didn’t get the credit for it.

Tom:  The European arrival was devastating to Indian culture. Millions of Native Americans died because the Europeans brought diseases for which Native Americans had no immunity. Through assimilation policies, and institutions designed to force assimilation such as the Indian boarding schools, the US tried to “Kill the Indian to save the man”, as captain Richard Pratt said. Before the Europeans came, Indians lived freely, happily, and their way of life was unmolested and thriving. Today, Indians are caged on reservations, life Is hard, and the native languages and traditions are dying. That is the effect of European arrival.

Indian culture hasn’t influenced mainstream American society much. I think there are two reasons behind this. One is: the reservations serve as quarantines. Reservations are in such remote places, beyond anywhere most Americans are ever likely to visit, that after the 1800s, there simply hasn’t been much contact between Native Americans and broader American society. The second is: Native American culture and American culture were always something of an antithesis to each other. They are two philosophies that are at odds. To take one seriously often means to head in the opposite direction of the other.

So, on a large scale Native American culture hasn’t dented American culture. Yet in a smaller sense, sometimes Americans, and people from other nations, have found something intriguing about the Indian culture. Sometimes they choose to learn about it.

4. There are people who tend to think that Native Americans have to choose on whether they will completely assimilate with the mainstream American society or continue to preserve their traditions. Some people are concerned that assimilating with the mainstream society Native Americans can lose their cultural heritage. What do you think about the problem?

Mrs W:  I think if you asked most of the Natives, culturally, we don’t want to assimilate. But then, does anybody have a choice in the matter in this day and age? I’m not sure.

If you move to any city, do people really assimilate? Maybe a certain amount of them do. Yet you have little Italys, Chinatowns, small portions of the city where the same race lives together. Races congregate together, and keep part of their heritage, in any city. Can you say they assimilated? I think by the same token, there are some Native Americans of the modern generation, that may go into the cities and live like everyone else, but there are some that won’t. A certain segment of any race never fully assimilates, even in the melting pot of America.

Tom:  That I’m even writing this on a computer, and others are reading it on a computer, indicates we Natives walk in two worlds.  Yet I do not think we have to forsake our pasts and traditions to do this.  We can deal with the realities of the 21st century world that we live in, and still keep alive all that has held importance for generations.

5. Do you think that Native Americans have fewer chances to succeed in career or get an education than white Americans? Do you think they have fewer opportunities then the rest of the US population? Do you think they have fewer opportunities then other minority groups?

Mrs W:  I think under the right conditions, Indians could succeed as well as anyone. There’s nothing wrong with the brain of the American Indian. When the government put Indians on reservations, it was a lot of suppression, an attempt to control us. Most of their laws were written to hold us down. The education the US brought in was the same way. Indian education is meant to suppress, rather than to educate. It is not the same education the rest of America receives.

It wasn’t until recently that Indians could get higher education. There was no money for it. Indian higher education was a development of the last couple decades. Before then, no one could afford higher education.

It is getting better. But it still has a long way to go. As far as intellect, there is nothing wrong with us, and under the right conditions, we could thrive. We have some brilliant people, some average people, and some less than average, like any community. As time goes forward, we do have more college graduates. With the right opportunities, we have a certain amount of people that would do very well, that could keep up with anyone in the country.

We were suppressed. There are people who believe that Native Americans weren’t born with as much intellect as the white race. That was just an insult to suppress us. America tries to hold us down by making us believe we are inferior. I wondered as I grew older, why would they do that to a people? I always thought maybe there was guilt there, on the part of Americans, of everything they did to take over the land. They had to kill you, they had to drag you out like slaves. America’s shameful behavior toward Indians is on their conscience, and the only way they can justify that behavior to themselves is to pretend the Indian is inferior.

Tom:  Yes, Native Americans have fewer opportunities than the rest of the US population. This is in part deliberate. The government funded Indian schools are some of the worst in the country. They leave a student ill equipped to obtain a higher education.

The other part is generated by problems generally associated with a displaced people in poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, juvenile delinquency, bad role models for the youth. It is interesting for me to compare my own Lakota people to the Palestinian people. Both of us are displaced nations, and if you read of their stories, they face many of the same problems.


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