A Few Extracts [ page 3 ]

On Language

I think I should talk about words. Your language. It is another thing that bothers me, and I think I should take away the burdens of the things that bother me. That is what I heard from the old ones.

I grew up speaking the language of my people. It wasn’t until school I had to learn English. What was important to Indian people was saying something the best way. In English you had to learn to say things a hundred ways. I still watch white people talk and I’m surprised at all the words. Sometimes they will say the same thing over and over and over in different ways. They are like a hunter who rushes all over the forest trying to bump into something instead of sitting quietly until he can capture it.

I don’t mind this, mostly. But I don’t like it when it is used to hurt us or other people. Now I’m going to tell you some of those things that hurt because of the way people say them.

The first one is about the battles. Whenever the white people won it was a victory. Whenever we won it was a massacre. What was the difference? There were bodies on the ground and children lost their parents, whether the bodies were Indian or white. But the whites used their language to make their killing good and our killing bad. They ‘won’; we ‘massacred’.

I don’t even know what a massacre is, but it sounds like dead women and little babies with their throats cut. If that’s right, it was the white people who massacred more than we did. But I hardly ever heard anyone talk about the white massacres.

Here’s another one: uprising. You use that word to talk about anytime our people couldn’t stand what was happening to them anymore and tried to get our rights. Then you should call your Revolutionary War an uprising. But you don’t. Why not? There was a government taking freedom away from you and you stood up against it. But you called it a revolution, like maybe the earth was turning to something better. When we did it, it was called an uprising, like everything was peaceful and orderly until we ‘rose up’.

What about ‘warpath’? When you came out against us you ‘formed an army’. When we came out to defend our families we ‘went on the warpath’. I won’t even talk about words like ‘bloodthirsty’ and ‘savage’.

My little great grandson came home one day and told me they were studying the frontier in American history. I asked him what it was. He told me it was where civilization stopped. Just look at that! They were teaching him that civilization only existed up to where the white men had reached. Well, we were on the other side of that line. We had governments and laws, too. Our people were better behaved than the people that came into our lands. But here is my little great grandson talking about the frontier and civilization. It was like we didn’t exist.

Every time you talk about the frontier you are telling us that we don’t matter. You teach about the frontier. You talk about the wilderness and how empty the land was, even though to us the land was always full. You talk about civilization like we didn’t have any, just because we didn’t try to haul big chairs and wooden chests across the desert in a cart.

The way you teach it, America started from some ships that came to Massachusetts and Virginia. The people got off and had to push their way through some big empty land that was full of danger. It was like the place was empty and you filled it up, and history is the story of how you filled it up and what happened while you were filling it.

That’s not the way it was to us. For us, this was a big land where people lived everywhere. Then some people came and landed on the shores in the east while others came up from the south. They started pushing us. Then some others came down the rivers from the north. All these people were fighting each other. They all wanted something from us — furs, land, gold. They either took it or made us sell it to them. They all had guns. They all killed us if we didn’t believe that God was some man named Jesus who had lived in a desert across the sea.

Our land was taken from us from every direction. We can look at the same facts as you, and it is something completely different. But you build your history on words like ‘frontier’ and ‘civilization’, and those words are just your ideas put into little shapes that you can use in sentences. The big ideas behind them are weapons that take our past from us.

Without even knowing it, you made us who we are in your minds by the words you used. You are still doing that, and you don’t even know it is happening. I hope you’ll learn to be more careful with your words.

There was an old man who told me when I was a boy that I should look at words like beautiful stones. He said I should lift each one and look at it from all sides before I used it. Then I would respect it. You people have so many words that you don’t respect them the way you should. There is always another one, so you just throw them out there without thinking. Those words are like stones. Even if they are beautiful, if you throw them out without thinking, they can hurt someone.

On Two Types of Indians

For white people there are only two types of Indians: drunken bums and noble Indians. In the old days we used to be savages, but that’s gone. Now it’s drunks and noble Indians. I like the white men better who think we are all drunks. At least they’re looking at us as people. They’re saying what they see, not what they want to see. Then when they meet one of us who’s not a drunk, they have to deal with us.

The ones who see us all as wise men don’t care about Indians at all. They just care about the idea of Indians. It’s just another way of stealing our humanity and making us into a fantasy that fits the needs of white people.

You want to know how to be like Indians? Live close to the earth. Get rid of some of your things. Help each other. Talk to the Creator. Be quiet more. Listen to the earth instead of building things on it all the time.

Don’t blame other people for your troubles, and don’t try to make people into something they are not.

On Leaders and Rulers

Sitting Bull was a leader. He was a real chief. People followed him because he was great. He never won any election or was appointed by any government. That’s not how you get to be a leader. It was an honor you earned.

There are leaders and there are rulers. We Indians are used to leaders. When our leaders don’t lead, we walk away from them. When they lead well, we stay with them.

Your system makes people rulers by law, even if they are not leaders. How can a calendar tell us how long a person is a leader? That’s crazy. A leader is a leader as long as the people believe in him, and as long as he is the best person to lead us. You can only lead as long as the people will follow.

In the past when we needed a warrior we made a warrior our leader. But when the war was over and we needed a healer to lead us, he became our leader. Or maybe we needed a great speaker or a deep thinker.

The warrior knew when his time had passed, and he didn’t pretend to be our leader beyond the time he was needed. He was proud to serve his people, and he knew when it was time to step aside. If he won’t step aside, people will just walk away from him. He cannot make himself a leader except by leading people in the way they want to be lead.

That’s why Sitting Bull was a leader. He was needed by the people and the people followed him. He was brave. He was smart. He knew how to fight when he had to. And he understood what the white man was all about. People saw that he could not be tricked by the white man, so they followed.

That’s why the U.S. government hated him so much. It wasn’t just that he set a trap for Custer. Anyone could have done that. It was because he was a leader and people listened to him, and he wouldn’t listen to the U.S. government. He listened to the needs of his people.

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