October 2009 Archives

One fall evening when I was around thirteen - fourteen years old, my mother let me use an old single shot .22 rifle (that we somehow came into possession of) to hunt ducks.  We lived in an old log cabin close to a lake in the Crow District on the reservation at the time.  And every fall, the lake would fill up with ducks for a couple of days.  Shells were hard to come by back then, so I remember only taking a couple with me. 


My sibling and our cousins who lived next to us swam in the lake all summer until it became too cold to swim anymore.  Therefore, there was a well-worn path to the lake.  I followed this path as I started toward the lake because the part of the lake we swam in was the only part of the lake that was devoid of vegetation.  This would allow me to get closer to the ducks.  As I approached the lake, I dropped to my stomach and wiggled as close to the shore as I dared to without spooking the ducks.  Fortunately for me, there was a big rock we used to leave our clothes on, and I kept it between the ducks and me.  As a result, I was able to get close enough to the ducks so that even a poor shot like me couldn't miss.


Boy was I proud!  I took off my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and waded out to the duck and picked it up.  When I arrived back home, the look in my mom's eyes told me she hadn't expected me to bring anything home.  However, her faced changed from one of astonishment to one of happiness and pride, and she quickly said, "my son has brought home his first kill."  I will hold a feast. 


Of course she didn't hold a feast.  In those days, we were so poor, we barely had enough food to live from day to day.  But I never forgot her happiness, her pride, and her automatic reaction to me shooting my first duck (first of shooting anything for that matter) as being to hold a feast in my honor.


Years later, when my son told me he shot his first deer,  I immediately thought about my mom's words so many summers ago; and I thought, my mom may not have had the money to put on a feast in honor of my first successful hunt, but I have the money to put one on for my son.  And it did not matter if he used a single shot .22 or a high powered semi-automatic deer rifle, or that he hunted alone or with a group of friends who probably drove the deer right into his gun; I was just as proud and pleased of him as my mother was of me way back when.


I quickly told him I was going to cook a big meal and invite all the relatives in honor of him shooting his first deer.  And like I said earlier, unlike my mom, I had the financial means to put on a very big feast for him.  But he quickly said, "That's okay dad; you don't need to do that."  I could see he was a little embarrassed by the thought of a big meal held in his honor.  After a few more words with him, I bowed to his wishes and did not put on a feast in honor of him shooting his first deer.


Looking back, I wish I had insisted on putting on a dinner to honor my son's killing his first deer.  Us older tribal members are not passing our customs down to our children; as a result, many of them will be lost.  I remember my mother's generation always shook hands with each other when they met.  I remember when visitors were treated respectfully, they were fed and if they were traveling long distances they were given gas money and/or food to take with them.  I remember when first cousins were considered brothers and sisters and my parent's siblings were called aunt and uncle.  I remember when adults ate first, when we always respected the elderly, when we were punished for lying, and you were not afraid to stand up for what you believe in...  There are many beliefs I remember as child that we no longer practice today.


We are making attempts to preserve our language by teaching it in our school.  We have been doing this for the last 10-15 years; yet, these attempts have not produced any fluent young speakers.  A friend of mine, who is fluent in our language, told me we are going about teaching the language wrong.  He said, "They teach them words they will never use.  They should teach the way I was taught, by using words we use all the time.  Words like, 'open the window,' or 'close the door.'  'What is wrong?'  'Do you have to go to the bathroom?'  'Come here.'  That is why our children are not learning the language," he said.


Our reservation was formally known as the Devil's Lake Sioux Indian Reservation.  Sometime ago, we changed the name to Spirit Lake Nation, a move that I thought showed pride in our Dakota heritage (The Dakota word, Mini Wakan, meant Spirit Water, and somehow the Wisicu, the white man, translated it into Devils Lake.).  And recently, The Three Affiliated Tribes changed the name of their reservation from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, another move that showed pride in their heritage.  On the other hand, I understand tribal members down in Standing Rock Indian Reservation voted down a proposal to change their name from Standing Rock Sioux Indian Resevation to the Standing Rock Oyate.


My question is: Have we reached a point that now we are comfortable being totally assimilated into the mainstream culture?  Is it time for us who want to continue to fight against racism, or to stop and accept our situation?  After all, it is better then 40 - 50 years ago when I was a young kid.  What about our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity?  Who teaches these values now?  When and where are these values being taught?  And finally, are we willing to forget about the sacrifices of our ancestors to hold onto a small piece of land that today are called reservation status so we can truly be a part of the "American Dream"?


I will attempt to answer these questions in my next newsletter, which I hope will be out next week.  

A few weeks ago, while commenting back and forth on a blog with a person using a fictitious name, he/she told me something to the effect that because I do not have a Dakota name and I do not attend ceremonies, I am basically a bad Indian.  Although this person used a fictitious name, I could tell he/she was "rez Indian".  Naturally I took offence to that accusation.  After all, I thought, who is he/she to tell another Indian that they are a good or bad Indian.


In my view a "good Indian" is one who practices our Dakota values of Courage, Honesty, Perseverance and Generosity.  This person, by not using their real name, was not practicing these values.  In fact, by using a fictitious name, this person showed cowardice and dishonesty, which are the opposite of courage and honesty (I signed my real name after my comments).


But the person's accusations did get me thinking: does having an Indian name, speaking an Indian language, and attending ceremonies prevent an individual from using foul language, from stealing money from the tribe, from committing fraud against the federal government, from hitting their loved ones, etc.?  Does it automatically make that person courageous and honest?


Coincidently, last week I had a discussion with an individual who disagrees with another person (who they admire very much) about a very important issue.  This other person conducts our ceremonies.  I quickly said to that individual: What is happening is that we have individuals who are learning and practicing our ceremonies when they become adult.  However, learning and practicing ceremonies does not mean a person possesses our values of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity.  These values usually have to be taught from infancy, so by the time a person reaches adulthood they follow them...  At this point, the person interrupted me.  I wondered if this individual did not want to listen to me being critical about someone they admired and respected.


So, how does this apply to my conversation with the person on-line?  I am a person who judges character on substance rather than rhetoric.  At a very young age, I realized that going to church every Sunday or listening to a minister was not going to make me a better person.  The only one responsible for my behavior was me.  As a result, I rejected all religion by the time I was in the seventh - eighth grade. 


Another reason for rejecting religion at an early age was I had seen a lot of mean and bad people do mean and bad things all week then go to church on Sunday and act like a saint.  I hated this blatant hypocrisy.  So, I quit going to church. 


It is the same with people who insinuate that by having an Indian name and attending ceremonies that they are better than those who don't.  Having an Indian name and going to ceremonies is one thing; practicing our values of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity is another.  Let me use an analogy: just because a person puts on a doctor coat does not make that person a doctor.  Attending ceremonies and taking an Indian name does not make an Indian better then another Indian.


If you did not learn the Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity as a child and practiced them when you were growing up, then learning the language and going to ceremonies will not make you a better Indian, unless you make a sincere effort to practice our values.  It has been my experience that when an Indian is quick to say they are better then another Indian, they are probably not.

More on this subject in my next newsletter.

I am a vocal opponent of UND's exploitative and negative depiction of the Sioux people by use of its offensive Sioux logo and nickname.  So, it was with great dismay that I viewed the October 1st news conference in which officials discussed the issue of the Sioux logo.

During the event, a statement by Richie Smith, president of the State Board of Higher Education, caught my attention.

A reporter asked Smith this question:

"You talked earlier about the perpetual use of a resolution from Spirit Lake.  It sounded like you guys have decided that that resolution in and of itself is not adequate.  You wanted a more binding agreement?"

Smith answered:

"Right, that's correct.  A resolution, like any resolution from a sovereign nation such as Standing Rock or Spirit Lake, can be changed if the tribal council changes or if they change their mind, and so we could be back here within a year or six months or whatever with the same issue.

"And on the board, we felt we need at least a 30-year binding commitment that probably will include a waiver of sovereign immunity, and federal jurisdiction, and a binding document [so] that ... the university knows that it has the commitment for 30 years."

"We won!" I thought.

There is no way any self-respecting tribal official or tribal member will give up our sovereignty for a college athletic team's nickname.  To American Indians, sovereignty is sacred.

In my view, tribal nations never will give up their sovereignty, even at gunpoint.

Here's one reason why:

Proposals to force tribes into waivers of their sovereign immunity would put Indian tribal governments at risk.  Tribal councils and tribal courts would be subject to immense lawsuits, whether they acted or failed to act.

No government could long operate under such a waiver of sovereign immunity.

By waiving our sovereign immunity for the nickname, all the gains we made in the past 50 years would be in jeopardy.  Our tribal nations, as they are known today, no longer would exist.

We no longer would be free from unwanted influence from state and city governments.  Huge companies could set up businesses on our lands at will.  Unscrupulous outsiders, who are not above paying tribal members to promote their cause, would be able influence our tribal government.

Our agreement to run our casino independent from state influence would be weakened.

The harm that would be done by waiving our sovereign immunity goes on and on.

So, Herald readers would think the logo issue would be dead, right?

But I am forced to reflect upon how easy it was for an outside entity to come in and recruit tribal members to push for a referendum.  I observed how zealously these individuals lobbied in favor of the logo and how successful they were.

Thinking about our tribal council's eagerness to grant perpetual use of the nickname to UND, I began to realize that even our sovereign status is not immune from this nickname madness.

And my elation quickly turned to concern.

The Dakota, Lakota and Nakota tribes, commonly known as the Sioux, once controlled parts of Minnesota, Ohio, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.  But the arrival of the Europeans soon forced the tribes onto small tracts of land called reservations.

There were many settlers who did not want Indians to own any land at all.  If they had had their way, our ancestors would not have been given even reservations to live on.  They would have been forced into assimilation or exterminated.

Fortunately, we had leaders -- Little Crow, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, among others. These leaders and their warriors, who courageously fought and gave their lives, forced the government to set aside reservations and to concede our sovereign status.

The blood of our ancestors paid for the sovereign status we enjoy today.


About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

September 2009 is the previous archive.

November 2009 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.