Volume VII, No. 1, Fall 1979
Edited by Patsy Watts
An insight into problems Indians have faced in adjusting to white man's society
through the eyes of Alfred Waters, employment specialist, at Southwest Missouri
Indian Center, Springfield, Missouri.
Whatever there is to know about us has already been written--our customs and traditions, everything but our most inner feelings. So those things we put together. There is no way to draw the line and try to tell our story. Some people's opinions differ but I'm glad to get a chance to express my viewpoint and tell our side of the story. I know that there are a lot of people out there who care but have no understanding of our problems--for these people I'm very thankful. So, when I speak of "you" try to remember that I mean society as a unit.
You put us in a world that is alien to us. That is like getting a little mouse from the field and putting him in a concrete box. That mouse, by using its own instincts, has managed to survive and provide for its little ones. And no one can say he hasn't done a good job, but you watch him try to get out, running against the wall. Then you say, "That mouse is crazy. Doesn't it have enough sense not to hit that wall?" But you don't realize that the mouse has never had to face concrete, and his instincts have never told him how to get away--escape to freedom. Basically that's what the Indians have been faced with. We are forced into a lot of "boxes" that we have never had to deal with, therefore, we don't always understand.
Our basic question throughout our history is, "How come?" You remember the story of the first Thanksgiving. That Thanksgiving Indians taught the Pilgrims how to survive, what plants to cultivate, what was good. Indians also knew how to plant corn because they knew what good land was. They just learned it by trial and error. Then after that white people started telling their people to come on over--"All you got to do is farm it and it's yours." History will usually prove that the American Indian did not claim anything in this country. But we did recognize territorial rights.
When some of these pilgrim settlers wanted some land, they would provoke and intimidate the Indians to create an incident. Then they would have a legitimate excuse. This is where the original "how come" was asked. There was an organized attempt to exterminate Indians. When Indians realized what was happening and began to fight back, they were automatically declared savages.
It was not too many years later you had the Revolution. Your people stood up and fought for what they thought was theirs. But did you call yourselves savages? No, you call yourselves patriots. The question we ask is, "How come when we do it, it's wrong, but when you do it, it's all right?" In the Movie Jim Thorpe, Thorpe makes the statement after he's read a book for his class assignment, "Hm, white man whup Indians, great victory. Indian whup white man, great massacre."
We were the last ethnic group to be recognized as citizens and we were here before anyone. During the administration of Andrew Johnson, the Constitution was revised, and in it it states all races and nationalities except the Indian are equal. We were not legally citizens of the United States until after World War I in 1924 when we were given voting rights. Even then states had the option to refuse to recognize our citizenship, when technically we were the first citizens.
When we're asked, "What is your contribution to today's society?" there are lots of things we could say. It's not in the history books, but we've found documents in Washington Archives where every statement that had ever been made by any statesman that had any impact on our society is documented word for word. We found a document in there where George Washington made the statement that if the Indians had fought on the side of the British, there would have been no independence. And when he became President, he asked Congress to find some means of repaying the Tuskarara and Oneida Indians because they were the ones that fed his army at Valley Forge.
TO ME MORAL SUPPORT MEANS JUST AS MUCH AS MATERIAL, IT IS A MORAL BOOST IN KNOWING THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO DO CARE ENOUGH TO FIND OUT ABOUT IT,
Today, we feel that the kids in school, as far as American history goes, are being white washed about the true version of the American Indians. You can go to high schools, even colleges, and ask people, "How many of you have heard of Cahokia, Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Osceola?" Very few hands will go up, but when you say, "How many of you have heard of Sitting Bull or Geronomo?" everyone's hands will go up. Those people are the only group of people left in our history books that represent Indians. Therefore people know very little about us. Do you know that we had a Vice-President that was half Indian? Charles Curtis, Vice-President under Herbert Hoover, was half Indian. We had an Osage Indian that was a four star general in the Air Force in World War II. His name was General Clarence Tinker. A Pulitzer Prize winner in literary field was an Osage Indian. His name was John Joseph Matthews, Some other examples are: Will Rogers, Johnny Bench, Jack Dempsey, Zane Grey, Johnny Cash, Keith Stroup, Jim Thorpe--the greatest athlete that ever lived--and his daughter, head of the Girl Scouts of America. I have a nephew who has a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Minnesota right now. We have a lot of people who have Ph.D's. In every branch of society you look, education, medical, entertainment, literary field, art field, you'll find an Indian up there somewhere.
Sixty-five per cent of all the medicine that they use today in the medical field comes from natural sources such as roots and herbs. The American Indian was using them before the coming of the white man. Over sixty per cent of all food that is cultivated throughout the world, Indians were cultivating the same thing here before the white man came. We had rubber balls before you knew of the existence of rubber, indians in Central and South America invented this game of ball and jacks.
Ever since you came to our country, we go by one way, your way. Our way was never any good. History will prove that wherever your race went all over the world, you set the standard of values. You tell what this is worth and what that is worth. Now since you set the values, we didn't have a right to go into court. We had no right to sue, we didn't even have the right to speak up unless we got permission. We usually had to rely on someone who had feelings about us who spoke up for us.
One of our problems with depending on others is that when anyone spoke of us we were all lumped together. Or course, every nationality is stereotyped. The Scotchman is a tightwad; the Jewish person knows how to get money. Irishmen fight at the drop of a hat. Polish have all backbone and no brains. The American Indian is stereotyped as a natural born drunkard. We've had that hammered at us so much for so long, it's gotten to the point where the Indian has a defeatist attitude about that. In other words, if you asked me, "Do you drink?" and I tell you, "No," you wouldn't believe me. You might say you would, but it's got to the point Indians think, "What's the use of telling them we don't drink, they won't believe me." So naturally they say, "Yeah, I drink, so what?" I wouldn't drink if you had not made it.
Another way we have been stereotyped is being introverts or ignorant. For example people talking in a group may see an Indian sitting over in the corner looking out the window, and somebody will say, "What do you say, Chief?" Someone else will say, "Oh, don't ask him. He don't know nothing." And the Indian can be either laughing to himself or thinking, "I'm going to keep quiet and not show my ignorance." And that's a lot more intelligent than some white men.
IT'S GOOD TO KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO LEARN ABOUT US AND GIVE US A CHANCE, PEOPLE DISAGREE WITH ME, BUT I'M HAVING A CHANCE TO EXPRESS MY VIEW,
Society tends to put us in one ethnic category, stereotype us and let us go at that without realizing that there are over 400 different tribes in this country and we have over 250 distinct languages. Every tribe has their own social traditions and customs and their own way of life. When Indians migrate to urban areas there's a combination and a variety of tribes. It's pretty hard in that situation to set up any guidelines, and it's pretty hard to tell people that there is a pattern for Indian problems. They put us together saying, "Indians do it this way, Indians do it that way, the Indian way." In other words, we try to tell people that among our own people we are as foreign to each other as Italians are from Norwegians. And adding to that, Indians are also gravely different than the white race.
As a matter of comparison, some white men have always been materialistic. Indians are still suspicious of them and they have come up with a little quote: "Any time a white man shakes hands with you, smiles or pats you on the back and says something good, that's the time to watch it, 'cause he doesn't do it for nothing." You could understand why the Indian thought that way if you go back into our history.
Even today, it's hard to overcome the fact that the Indian's sense of values are different from yours. For example, one of the biggest things we can hold our heads up about is that Indians are very religious. But we look at things entirely different than you do. We feel we're the most religious group of people in the world, but we didn't have a religion in the sense that we put it as a separate way of life. Today we can't understand that separation between church and state because to us religion is interwoven. We lived it daily.
Our way of life and our religion is all based on nature. We had had to depend on nature; therefore, we learn how to respect nature. The American Indian has always had an understanding of survival of the fittest--the balance of nature. You people call it ecology. We call it Mother Earth. It's a fact. Just like before you were born, when your mother was carrying you, all the things that she was eating were coming out of the ground. You're made from things in the ground. When you're born, you're made up of the same things as the dirt.
After you're dead, it becomes of the atmosphere, when they put you in the ground, you're going to be fertilizer first and then you're going to become part of the earth again. So our people say, "what is there to be afraid of? They can't hurt you any more." That's why years ago, an Indian wasn't afraid to die. Of course, he didn't want to suffer, but he wasn't afraid to face death.
Our outlook is that there is no such a thing as hell. There is no division. We believe in another world after death, but it's all up to the same place. We're not going to be divided at the Judgment Day. It may sound like we're atheists, but we don't put Christianity down. All we're doing is defending our beliefs.
We marvel and stand in awe of the advancement you've made in technology. You got high school kids, if you give them a set of figures that they can't add, they have all kinds of these little calculators, and they punch numbers and the answers come out. They're coming out like robots and computers. And there's this article about a year ago about high school kids getting diplomas and can't even read a TV Guide.
WE DIDN'T HAVE A RIGHT TO GO INTO COURT, WE HAD NO RIGHT TO SUE, WE DIDN'T EVEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK UP UNLESS WE GOT PERMISSION.
We sit back and say, "Sure, we marvel at all these advances. But still we look at it and say, "Even though you're advanced that far and have all that technology, look behind you. Where have you left your moral codes?" While I was in Chicago, nine out of every ten theaters were X-rated movies. You can't walk four or five blocks and you've got an adult book store. How many days go by where you can pick up a newspaper and not find some public official in some scandal or corruptions? We see all of that and we can't understand it, because putting it simply, ten years ago if they would have shown a PG-rated movie, they would have closed that theater up. But because of that almighty dollar, it goes to court, and it's not obscenity anymore--it's declared art.
We see all this happening. A lot of times we look at today's society and the modern Indian says, "There is no such thing as sensitivity. There is no compassion in today's society." This again goes back to Chicago or any big city. Suppose you're talking about police brutality in certain sections of town. "Ah, that's their problem." Nobody cares. But if it happened to your Daddy or your brother, you'd be up screaming your head off about why society tolerates it. Why don't they do something about it? When it's on your foot, then it hurts. That could also be used by my making it refer to our problems we are facing.
Remember this is your society we've been forced to accept. We don't like it, but you can't be a sheep in a wolf's society and expect to survive.
Society has expected too much of us in such a short time. It's not too surprising then that we've had our troubles adjusting to your values and your society. Sometimes we haven't done well at all. And yet it wasn't entirely the Indians' fault.
For example, one time the Osage Nation was known as one of the wealthiest groups of people in the world because of the oil discovered on their land. It's kind of a tragic story about them for the fact that some of them are now on welfare because they never realized that the oil wells would finally give out. It all started when all that money came into being. At that time it was hard to overcome the fact that the Indian's sense of values are different from yours.
The Indians individually didn't own a foot of land, but at the peak of their income, some were getting as much as $200,000 every three months--they were that well off. Instead of having allotments of land, everyone got certificates or headrights. When they first got all that money they registered every man, woman and child. Their checks fluctuated because the price of oil went up, and maybe some months their headrights would be worth $20,000.
They had so much money they didn't understand the value of it, and that's when they were exploited. They had what they called a white man's price and an Indian price in most places. They thought that since the Indian didn't know what he was paying, naturally he should pay more.
To give an example, a salesman would drive up, "Hey, Chief, you want to buy a bathtub? .... Yeah, how much? .... $400." The Indian didn't care. He'd reach his hand out and say, "Take what you need." They could have taken $20,000, he wouldn't have known the difference. And then he'd stick it back in his pocket. "where you want me to unload it?" "Take it back to the back yard and unload it." When this guy'd drive around back there, there'd be thirty or forty bathtubs lying around there.
And it was no joke when they'd get a dollar cigar and get a hundred dollar bill and light it with it, take a couple of puffs and then throw it away.
WE'VE GONE THROUGH PHYSICAL GENOCIDE, WE'VE GONE THROUGH ECONOMIC GENOCIDE, NOW WE'RE GOING THROUGH SOCIAL AND MORAL GENOCIDE.
Some of them had so much that if they bought a brand new Cadillac, when it ran out of gas, instead of calling and getting gas to be sent out there, they'd call the car dealer and say, "Send out a Cadillac with a tank full of gas!" People took advantage of them. It sounds ridiculous, but it happened that way. The Indians were forced into a world not their own, and they just were not able to understand a lot of the white man's ways.
Because of this people snicker at us for being dumb. Nobody wants to give us credit for being able to do our own thinking or our own reasoning. But the Indian has a knack for observation and deduction. Any time you get an old Indian to sit around and talk, you'd be surprised what kind of answers you'd come up with. There's so much that we don't understand about you, but there are a lot of things you don't understand either.
It is easy for us to say, "Hey, look how far we've come in such a short time," and say it in a bitter Gone. We could say, "And no thanks to you." It's not the idea of going out and telling our story to get you to pity us. But we do want you to understand what our basic problems are. We have so much to tell, but we have so few people to go out and talk for us. When an Indian does reach up and try to make it, sometimes he can't quite make it. When he slides back a little, he's automatically declared a failure. There's no one to say, "Come on, Chief, let's give it another try." He has to build up his own courage, his own gumption to try again. Also, when he speaks out, he is a militant trouble maker. We've had so much done for us, so much done to us, but there's nothing being done with us. We tell our own people, "Don't get in front of me, I may not want to follow, or don't get behind me, I may not want to lead. Why don't you just come up here and walk with me together?" Now our younger generation elaborates on that. They say, "Either lead or follow or get to hell out of the way 'cause I'm coming."
One of the big questions we ask society is, "Are you aware of what's happening to us, or is it that you don't care?" And generally the answer is, "We know nothing about you." So that is one of the things that we go out and talk to people about. We say, "We recognize no one as an authority, especially the Indian, that can go out and pick any tribe and be able to speak about them. So we have to speak in generalities when we speak on Indian culture. What we're trying to do first is try to understand ourselves before we can go out and try to explain our problems.
One of the first things that you will find in any part of the country is that whenever we talk about our problems to people, it always has a tendency to end out in a tone of hostility, which we don't want. I have gone to various professors, anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and have given them an idea of what I want to say. Then I ask them, "Show me an approach in telling my story where it won't end out in a tone of bitterness." The only answer that I could get out of them was, "No way, not if people want to hear it like it is." They tell me that ninety-five per cent of the non-Indians who have even the smallest understanding of history will agree that the American Indian has every right to be bitter.
But we're not using that as a crutch. I look at it as if I'm having a family problem. Instead of doing something about it, I just crawl into a corner and cry about it. That doesn't help a bit. The only thing that helps is talking it out and trying to help ourselves.
In trying to help like this sometimes we get frustrated. A lot of times we are answered with, "I can't help them materially. I can't give them any money. I can't help them do this or that." But maybe in the long run, just by word-of-mouth, somebody discusses Indians and they can say that they heard it from the Indians' side of the story.
AFTER THEY HEAR SOME OF OUR PEOPLE TALK THEY TELL US THAT SOMEDAY MAYBE ONE OF US WILL BE IN A POSITION TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT,
We've got a unique position. We're the only race and only ethnic group in this country that's got a special branch of the government assigned to take care of us. And yet the funding of the agency has to filter down through bureaucrats and the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs are not always the best. When you take into consideration there are approximately 200,000 employees in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and there are only less than a million Indians in the country, that means there are three government officials to administer to every ten Indians. That's ridiculous. And we had no say in it.
The policies of the Bureau are one of the reasons why there's a little friction going on between urban Indians and reservation Indians. The government tells us that we should learn how to blend into society. They bring us to urban areas, concrete worlds, then they dump us. Once we leave the reservation, we're on our own. We're just like the mouse in the box--we have to fend for ourselves.
The Bureau ought to be the ones to say, "All right, we'll help you get started. We'll see that you get jobs and training so you can get a good job, and then you're on your own. That's what these Indian Centers are trying to do--help urban Indians. We are not connected with the Bureau of Indian Affairs--we are part of the CETA program.
In general, we try to get together, get people that come from various areas. They come together in urban areas under different economic and social environments. We get an Indian that comes from Washington or Oregon, one from North Carolina or New Mexico or Arizona and sit down and start talking. "How do they treat you out there? What's their attitude toward Indians?" They don't force prejudices or discrimination. But some have a chip on their shoulder. They want a job, are willing to work and they need to work, but they're afraid to ask for it because they have the feeling they have two strikes against them already. People don't know what the Indians' problems are. A lot of our people say, "What is a virtue in our way of life is a fault in today's society."
Through our program here we are going to try to get enough funds to teach and train some of our younger people to go out and give lectures to different organizations--train one that specializes in young people, one who is well versed in religion, some that have some experience in politics. And we're trying to get enough federal funding from the education department to try to have an educational resource center. When a migrant Indian comes in here to try to help, we have a program with vo-tech and colleges here. We try to get them to see the program, pay for their tuition. They have on-the-job training. Some of these people are all paid by the CETA program. We are trying to help ourselves so we can get the help to the ones that need it.
Those of us who have experience in the urban life understand a lot of it. Hopefully we can band together to try to help the Indians in their transition between reservation and urban life. If one of our people falls down, hopefully there will be one of our people to pick him up along the way.
We have learned a lot. We are still field mice, but we have learned that it hurts to run against the wall--especially since the concrete we have faced doesn't give any. We are learning to sit back and look for other ways out. So we've come a long way. We're pretty proud to say we're America's first citizens.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
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