Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
September 29, 2014
When I observe American Indians being deliberately deleted from nearly every aspect of American history, I usually refer to the old Jewish adage that goes, "What are we, chopped liver?"
Let me be very frank with you today. As I sit writing this column as I have every Sunday for the past 34 years I am terribly frustrated at the total lack of understanding and basic ignorance that still exists about America's first citizens.
First of all I don't even want to get into what you non-Indians should call us, or even what many Indians want to be called. Everybody born in America is a Native American so we can't claim exclusivity to that name. Our local newspaper uses the word "Native" when referring to us, but I always think of an old Hollywood movie where the white folks are sitting around a fire and they hear the drums beating and one says, "The Natives are restless tonight."
Let me just introduce my own feelings by saying most of us old timers (elders) prefer to be called "Indian." It is what we grew up with and we do not find it demeaning or insulting. We were born Indians and we will die Indians. Indios refers to God in Spanish and it is not a bad word.
Should the Nation's oldest Indian organization, The National Congress of American Indians, change its name? What about the National Indian Education Association or the Indian Historical Society? Are these organization living dinosaurs to be kicked aside by political correctness?
There are those who will never understand why I, Suzanne Harjo, Vernon Bellecourt, Michael Haney and Charlene Teters fought against the use of Indians as mascots for America's fun and games for more than 40 years. Can't the average American understand that it is not an honor to have our culture stolen, mimicked and insulted by fanatical football and baseball fans? Bellecourt and Haney are dead now and Suzanne, Char and I are tired, really tired of fighting racism under the guise of ignorance. We are not, and have never been "Redskins." Find yourself an Indian and walk up to him or her and say, "Hey, Redskin" and see how honored they are. And then stand back before you get punched.
Last week someone in Sioux Falls, South Dakota decided to enumerate all of the different languages spoken in that city. Low and behold when all of the more than 100 languages were itemized, the people for whom the state was named, the Dakota, and their cousins the Lakota and Nakota, were not included for having a different language. We are not out of sight, just out of mind.
It doesn't end there. A headline in the Rapid City Journal reads; Leadership South Dakota prepares next wave. The lead sentence goes, "For South Dakota to thrive, its leaders need to understand what makes South Dakota unique."
Forty one South Dakotans were selected for the South Dakota Leadership Program and of the 41, guess how many were Indians? If South Dakota is looking to thrive it should learn that a part of the uniqueness it hopes to retain, a big part as a matter of fact, are the American Indians that make up 15 percent of its population. I find this particularly galling because the average South Dakotan knows less about its largest minority than do the people of Germany.
Let me point out a few simple facts. All Indians are not rolling in money from gambling casinos. The poorest counties in America are still on the Indian reservations. No, we do not get monthly checks from the government and free college educations. What we do get free is the poorest health care of any American citizen and the worst educational system in America with the highest high school dropout rate of any race of people. As a race we have the highest rate of diabetes and the highest rate of alcoholism and drug addiction. While America is busy sending millions to fight diseases in Africa, Indians here in America are dying. Is that fair?
No, we do not still live in teepees, but teepees would probably be welcome to the thousands of homeless Indians.
The American Indian has never asked for a handout. All they have ever asked for is that America honor the treaties their ancestors signed in full faith. Perhaps those treaties were forged as a stop-gap for Manifest Destiny, but they are still sacred documents to the many Indian nations that signed them. If the United States would honor the treaties to the letter of the law, there would be no poverty in Indian country.
We are not feathered warriors racing across your movie screens nor are we mascots for your fun and games; we are human beings and all we ask is that you honor our treaties and give us back our human dignity.
Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He has been a newspaper publisher, journalist and columnist for more than 35 years. He was awarded the distinguished Nieman Fellowship to Harvard in 1990 and can be reached at email@example.com