When I was a kid, I would often hear my mother use the phrase, "Big Indian," when describing someone's behavior and/or appearance that she disapproved of. From what I gather, she was describing a person who exhibited some of the following characteristics; no manners, uncouth appearance, loud and boisterous, dumb, and/or greedy. Mom never did tell me who wasn't a Big Indian and why; however, I would say it would be those Indians who practiced the traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.
Way back then, there were the Indians who "acted white." These were individuals who usually worked for the BIA or held some other permanent job. They possessed all the material items we didn't. They sort of looked down their noses on the rest of us Indians who had to subsist on AFDC (now known to you younger people as TANF). Most of them would not be caught dead speaking the language (many people conversed in Dakota back then) or attending a pow-wow. In the late sixties and early seventies, these individuals became known as "Apples" (red on the outside, white on the inside).
When I was a teenager, our cousins who were born and raised in Oakland, California, came to visit. They had no knowledge of language and culture, yet they were our first cousins, so we knew they were Indian. They soon became "Indian," drinking all night and into the next day, womanizing, fighting, and adopting our sense of humor.
Indians have a good sense of humor. As I grew older, in my late teens and throughout my twenties, I began to spend more and more of my time boozing. I remember during those boozing days how much we teased and played tricks on each other. We exaggerated one another's mistakes to the point of foolishness, and we used humor to deal with everything, from DUIs, to divorce, to losing a game - everything was turned into a joke. In our minds, we were the "real" Indians those dummies who were straight were "trying to make white."
Many years later, after sobering up, I went with a female friend to play pool at a bar where I used to hang out in my boozing days. I had a good time, visiting and joking with old friends. When we left the bar, I noticed my friend was not too happy. "What is wrong?" I asked her. After keeping silent for a while she said something to the effect, "you became a different person when you went into the bar. I do not know the person you became," she said. Recalling my antics in the bar, joking, hollering around, laughing, and teasing, I could tell she did not like that person, so I said to her, "Those are guys I grew up with. When I hang out with them, I'm Hobo Joe (my nickname from infancy). That is the real (Indian) me."
I could tell she did not like my answer. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later she said to me, "you are really two persons; one is who you call Hobo Joe, the other is the educated Indian man I met who is the Academic Dean at the college, the single parent of three boys..."
Thinking carefully, I answered, "you're right. I am two persons. You have to be if you are educated and live on the reservation."
"But you can't be two people in one," she insisted. "You have to be one or another."
Not wanting to concede, but not wanting to continue in the direction the conversation was taking, I compromised. I said, "You are right [again]. Eventually Hobo Joe and the person you know will merge into one."
That was fifteen years ago. Have my two personalities merged into one? Did I even have two personalities back then? Regardless, I still consider myself a real Indian even if some other tribal members do not.
Nowadays, everyone claims to be a "real Indian" and they accuse other Indians of not being Indian. Those few who know the Dakota language often claim they are more Indian then those of us who don't. We respond by saying, "Hey, I was born and raised on Spirit Lake. My father and mother are enrolled members. Just because we don't speak Dakota doesn't mean we are not Indian."
Then there are those tribal members who participate in or conduct ceremonies such as Sweats, Sundances, Name-Giving Ceremonies, and other traditional activities. The majority of these individuals try very hard to live by our traditional values. Are they real Indians?
In spite of their participation in sacred ceremonies, a few traditionalists still fall victim to their own character flaws. They accuse each other of not conducting the ceremonies the right way. Some of them indulge in alcohol and marijuana, a few commit adultery, and others use foul language at athletics events.... Are they real Indians?
Who is a real Indian? Who has an honest claim to perpetrating Dakota culture or other tribal cultures and customs? This is the question I will try to answer in my next blog.