I just began reading “Custer Died For Your Sins” by Vine Deloria Jr. today. I can tell that it’s a book I should have read years ago. It was originally published in 1969 and I have been aware of it for many years but have never picked it up. I’m sorry I didn’t. I’ve read several books on Native Americans, both history books and books on contemporary Native issues. One of my favorite authors is Jim Northrup, an Annishinabee from Minnesota who writes books and a column called “Rez Road Follies.” The column deals with his life as a Native American, author, and Viet Nam veteran, and contemporary life on his reservation. After reading various works on Native Americans, do I think I know them? Do I think I know how they feel, what they want? The answer to that question is, no, I do not. Too many whites think they know all about Indians. Know what they need, know how do deal with them. You do not know. Unless you have lived with being a Native person all your life, you do not know. Even if you have known Native people who have been very forthcoming about their lives, you still don’t know. A white person doesn’t know what it’s like to be Black, Indian, Hispanic or anyone other than who they are. Most of us don’t even know ourselves very well, let alone others.
In the first chapter of “Custer,” Deloria states: “During my three years as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians it was a rare day when some white didn’t visit my office and proudly proclaim that he or she was of Indian decent.” He goes on to state a few reasons why this might be. My favorite is this one, “…is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment of the Indians?” Well if that doesn’t sound reasonable I don’t know what does. I have had similar experiences with people claiming Indian heritage. Lots of people I know have said, “I’m part Indian.” One of my cousins tried that one. She does Genealogy and said she uncovered evidence that our family were Mohawk Indians from New York who worked for a family named Armstrong and adopted the name for themselves. While many Native people today have European names, when I asked her to show me the evidence she changed the subject and has never brought it up again. Uh huh, just what I thought.
I follow a few Native American people on Twitter. The issues that they talk about vary from equal rights to sexual abuse to whites not trying to understand them. I said earlier that I don’t know much about Native people. That’s not the point. I try to understand. The trying is what makes the difference. And sometimes they talk about guys who are hunks and what they are going to have for dinner. Oh My God!!!!, they’re acting like humans!!! Could it be??? Is it possible that they’re “gasp” just like everyone else? I hope you noted the sarcasm.
The truth is, the Native Americans were here first. They were here before the Spanish came, before the Vikings, and before poor lost Columbus bumped into an island. Everyone who came, took what they wanted and if the Natives had anything to say about it they were enslaved or killed. They have had to live with that history ever since. Now to my mind, if anyone should be having a hard time living with their history it’s the whites. What? Really, you ask, aren’t you white? Why, yes I am, thank you for noticing the pale skin in my picture. Scottish and Irish mostly, (which accounts for the extreme paleness,) with a few other nationalities thrown in as an afterthought. So why the comment about us having a hard time living with our history? Do you know our history? Do you know the horrible things that whites have done to people of color? Now granted, people of color have done horrible things too, I’ll give you that. It’s happened all over the world. White people mostly are the majority where ever they are and so most of the time they get to make the rules. That’s why the rules favor the whites and always have.
We have “White Privilege” and most whites don’t know what that is. Most whites have NEVER had to be concerned about race. It has never occurred to most of them that their race should be a factor in anything. They are are white, and for most whites there is a huge unspoken, unconscious privilege that goes along with that. They have never been faced with someone telling them, “we don’t serve your kind here.” Most whites would be outraged and screaming RACISM at the top of their lungs if it ever happened.
So, what’s my point? It is this: in reading about Native Americans and issues that they face I have gotten to know myself a little better. It was a surprise. Years ago, when I read “Black Elk Speaks” for the first time I thought I would get to know Native people better. That’s not what happened. I came face to face with the terrible history of Native Americans at the hands of white people. I had to think about how I felt about that. How it affected Indians today. They were not comfortable thoughts. But I thought them anyway. Besides, Custer’s middle name was Armstrong. For all I know he could be a distant relative. Hey, maybe he was part Mohawk Too!