I often think about how I got involved with my Lakota friends and it brings up so many conflicting thoughts and feelings. Initially, I wanted to help a child in this country who was struggling because of poverty. When I found out that the international agency I first used had children in this country, I decided to work through them. One of the reasons I wanted to sponsor a child in the US is that I think it is a greater sin that children in this country of such plenty suffer a lack of basic needs. You may think that’s rather arrogant and narrow minded, but I don’t. In my view, all children should have their basic needs (food, shelter, education, etc) met without question. But if you look at it, children in a poor nation are not singled out because they are poor. Everyone is poor where they are and they are included, not ostracized. But in the country of such wealth and excess, where the basic needs of most are met, those who have no home, who must ask for hand outs to survive, who never get new clothing or get a balanced meal every day are looked down on. That is a sin. A waste of such potential. A denial of the pursuit of happiness. An affront to American values. Just plain wrong! That was why, in a burst of philosophical and moral indignation, I requested a child from the United States.
When we were given a beautiful young Oglala Lakota girl from the Pine Ridge Reservation, it seemed like fate (I actually don’t believe in coincidence – I believe everything happens for a reason, even if we don’t see it at the time.). We had just made our first visit to South Dakota a few months earlier and had fallen in love with the Black Hills. It seemed to me that God had a plan here somewhere. I still believe that, though I still don’t know what it is specifically, even after a year and a half.
I started to read and to explore the internet in an effort to understand this child’s culture and daily life. I got more questions than answers. I’ll try to jot down a few and see if I can make any more sense of it now than I could when I started.
As I read, I began to realize that my education in my childhood was inaccurate in many ways. I was taught that the Indians were “savages” that had to be subdued by the “civilized” persons. As a child, I learned about the manifest destiny theory. I celebrated the triumphs of brave men and women who pioneered and invented and created to make this country what it has become. Now I learned about the “original owners” of this great land. People who had no concept of owning the land and who shared all they had to be sure that no one was left with nothing. I saw the human flaws in the “pioneers” whose greed led them to lie, cheat and steal to get what they desired. It amazes me that history was written as it was – but it shouldn’t! Stories are always told from the perspective of those writing them and those with greater power are the ones who get their stories told. It’s the same way today.
So, should I still be proud of those who have made this country what it is today? Or should I be embarrassed and apologetic for their ruthlessness and selfishness? After all, I didn’t do those things personally. Should I feel grateful that my families came to this country later, as immigrants to work in the great industrialization period? Should I be grateful that they came after the country had been “subdued?” Should I be grateful that my ancesters had not taken a active part in any Indian wars? I don’t know. My husband’s family came to Massachusetts early on, in the 1600’s. They were pioneers, as we have learned by exploring family history. They were farmers who kept pushing the borders – among the first settlers in many of the towns and villages they lived in. They fought for the independence of this nation and in the many wars that have followed to protect it. They helped settle the west as well. Does this mean they were bad people? Should I now look at them negatively? I don’t. I am as proud of his family as I am of my own. I guess I believe that people have to do the best they can at the time.
It’s interesting to me that my maternal grandfather (a second generation Swede) loved to watch Westerns – TV and movies. He was an Indian sympathizer. He always rooted for the Indians as the Army came in to take their land and move them someplace else (although he knew the outcome). He didn’t think it was fair or right that Indians were treated as they were. “How would we like it if someone came into our house and said, ‘You can’t live here any more.’?” I think he felt like an underdog in his life and could look at things from that perspective. Anyway, it was an important lesson he passed on to me. Always look at things from the other guy’s perspective.
But when I do that, I don’t know how to feel when I’m with Indian friends. I know how they see their history and I know that it’s far different from my perspective. I think the things done to their ancestors were evil. But I didn’t do them and I don’t think I would have done them (though that’s impossible to know unless you’ve got a time machine). But I can’t undo them, either. Should we be blamed for the current circumstances of those “on the rez?” Yes and no, I think – no, because we did not cause them personally; yes, because we are ignorant of them and allow them to continue.
Is it possible for us to make things different? Again – yes and no. Yes: I am doing what I can to supplement the needs of ONE child/family who are now my friends. Not to be a “do gooder” but to share who I truly am as a person. I am also part of a worldwide group that believes that if we add together what each one can give, then we can make a greater impact in meeting the needs of many.
But no for many reasons out of our control. Living on the rez is a little like living with every relative you have under one roof. There may be someone who is supposed to be in charge (tribal government) but there is also chaos, nepotism, and intrigue. There are those who believe so strongly in tribal sovereignty that they wish to be a nation within a nation. Yet there are more Native Americans in the Armed Forces than any other minority by percentage. There are those who wish to hold on to the “old ways” but seem to forget the “old values.” There are those who pick and choose Lakota values as are convenient for them personally. If it is confusing to me, how can it not be confusing to the youth on the rez?
I think it is important to preserve and pass on the Lakota language and culture. I think it is important to preserve and pass on the language and culture of my own ancesters: Polish, French-Canadian, Russian, Austrian, Swedish. In fact, I wish I knew more about my own at times. But I think there is a difference between preserving culture and trying to pass it on intact. Everything evolves and changes. The world would still be different, even if Europe had never ventured past her own shores. Life on the plains would have changed just as surely as the sun rising.
Today the tribe, the oyate, seem to try to push down anyone who attempts to excel or do things differently. No one would ever agree that they do it. But after talking to folks who live on the rez, I think it’s true. The theory goes back to the tradition that no one person is more important or more special than anyone else, it is the people, the oyate that must flourish. But in poverty it has become “You aren’t going to have what I can’t have – you’re no more special or important than me.” That puts the focus on you and me, not the people. That is no longer “traditional.” Those in the history of the Lakota nation who had special abilities or strong leadership qualities were honored for what they could contribute to the nation; they were not gossipped about or given a difficult time because they stood out. And so we find that greed, self-centeredness, selfishness, materialism and all those other flaws we see in the “invaders” are also now also in the “native residents.” Has it been instilled in them or is it a result of the poverty and deprivation? Is it due to the culture being driven out or due to human nature? Will the Lakota be able to preserve what is beautiful and positive and good about their culture?
I don’t know – I told you – more questions than answers.
It’s a really huge, complex “mess” that I’ve decided I don’t have to worry about. Think about, maybe, but not worry about or try to solve. The only thing I have to do, I’ve decided, is be the best person and friend I can be. Because in the end, the only one I’m responsible for is me. I control nothing but myself and my own behavior and thoughts. Think about that.