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11/15/2009 11:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Culturecide," is a word coined in Indian country

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native Sun News

November 13, 2009

On this sunny November morning I find myself thinking about that tough, old Lakota chief from Standing Rock because his life exemplifies the clash of cultures.

On a day like today, Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull) was sitting on a bench outside of his log home on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation conversing with his two wives when a Christian minister rode up to the house in his buckboard.

The minister exchanged a few pleasantries and then got down to the business that had brought him to the home of the great Sioux leader. He told the Chief that it was un-Christian of him to have two wives. It went against the will of God. It was barbarian. It was the way of heathens.

Sitting Bull listened patiently, probably with a small grin on his face because he had heard all of this before from the white man, and said to the minister, "Well, there they are. Now you tell them which one has to leave."

Which of these Lakota women would you deprive of a loving home? It was an answer based on plain Lakota logic. But then Lakota logic had baffled the white man for a century. And well it should because it was logic based on centuries of cultural beliefs totally unknown to the European settlers.
The problems between the two races began because by not understanding the culture of the Lakota, the white man then disrespected it. He disrespected it by trying to remake it into something he could understand. If he could not remake it, he attempted to diminish it or destroy it.

Lakota logic and European logic did not blend. It was like trying to mix water and oil.

A Lakota man took more than one wife for many reasons. Perhaps a brother had died leaving a widow with children. In the Lakota way, the surviving brother then became responsible for his brother's wife and children. It was his duty to give them food and shelter. His brother's children became his children and his brother's wife became his wife. Unchristian? Uncivilized?

When the settlers moved west they saw it as their responsibility to disrupt the civilization of the Lakota. Just as the Spaniards made it an edict to either convert the indigenous people of South and Central America or kill them if they did not convert, so too did the settlers moving west try to convert a people by destroying their culture. Culture-cide?

Of course, changing a culture is something that cannot be done over night. As so many conquerors have discovered in history, the best way to create a new culture in their own image is to start with the innocent children.

Institutionalization seemed to be the best way. But in order to do this the new government of the United States needed help. It turned to the many Christian churches and organizations that were already intent upon saving the souls of the so-called heathens. In the late 1800s the government and the church convinced tribal leaders donate land to the Catholic Church (and other religions) in order to construct Indian missions that would be turned into boarding schools.

Institutionalization had begun.

In collusion between church and state, the boarding schools sprang up all across Indian country. They were precursors of the federal boarding schools like Carlisle and Haskell, schools intent upon acculturation. Stewart, Pine Ridge, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, were just a few of the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools that soon became familiar institutions across the west.

Hundreds of religious institutions from Arizona to Washington State to the Dakotas had already begun the tedious and intense process of destroying the different Indian cultures and traditions. The same thing was happening across Canada. They called the schools "residential schools" up there. A continent-wide, methodical destruction of language, attire, religion and culture of many indigenous tribes had begun. The same thing had already happened across Central and South America at the hand of the Spaniards.

This was done by the do-gooders and Churches. The thinking was at the time that if the Indian was made over in the image of the white man, this would bring an end to the Indian problem. The acculturated Indians would assume their roles in society and the headache they presented would vanish. They would become plain and simple Americans.

However, the process of acculturation did not provide for inclusion. Indians were not recognized as citizens of the United States. They were isolated on distant lands.

They were excluded from voting or participating in the governments of the newly formed states. The message was, "You can act like us, dress like us, speak English like us and worship our God, but you are not welcome to our table."

The process of acculturation was not a complete failure. Many Indians converted to Christianity and became, in the eyes of the federal government, civilized citizens. Those who did not were shunned. They were often looked down upon by the converted conformists. What is worse, this stigmatization forced the traditional Indians into various stages of poverty. They became the have-nots. The good BIA jobs went to the conformists.

While those who acculturated and converted to Christianity prospered somewhat, the traditionalists remained as the poorest of the poor. And this condition exists even to this day on many Indian reservations.

Modern terminology still points this out. When someone does not conform, they are said to be "off the reservation." And this is so ironic, because those traditionalists that did not conform were usually, "on the reservation."

But I believe those who have been shunned for many years, the traditionalists, are winning over the hearts, mind and spirits of those who converted. The traditionalists have remained steadfast in their beliefs; they have retained their spirituality and language, and have set the example for those who thought that by abandoning their culture and traditions they would be better off. But many conformists still wonder if this is the best and only way.

When Sitting Bull told the minister to select the wife to leave his home, he spoke volumes about the upcoming assault upon the culture and traditions of the Lakota people. Sitting Bull could have said, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. His latest book, "Children Left Behind" is available through publish@clearlightbooks.com or at amazon.com)