A Few Extracts [ page 4 ]
A person wasn’t a teacher because they had been elected or got a certificate. They were a teacher because they knew something and were respected. If they didn’t know enough, they weren’t teachers. Or if we didn’t need to know what they knew, we didn’t go to them.
Now you send us teachers and you tell us to send our children, when we aren’t even sure what the teachers know. We don’t even know if they are good people who will build up the hearts of our children. All we know is that they are teachers because someone gave them a piece of paper saying they had taken courses about teaching.
What we want to know is what kind of person they are and what they have in their hearts to share. Telling us they have a paper that lets them teach is like putting a fancy wrapping on a box. We want to know what’s in that box. An empty box with a fancy wrapper is still an empty box.
White people are afraid of everyone who isn’t white. Look at how you define black people. If a person had one black ancestor back somewhere, and you can see it, you tell them they are black. You don’t do that with Italians or Irish. But one black grandma? Bingo, you’re black.
But the thing is, you’re not really saying they are black. You’re saying they’re not white.
But at least with blacks you let them alone once you decided they weren’t white. You just threw them in a barrel — black, brown, tan, whatever - and called them black. But us Indians, you couldn’t even leave us alone to be Indians once you decided we weren’t white. You start dividing us up, calling us half-breeds, full bloods. Try calling a black person with some white blood a half-breed. See how that goes over.
You’ve got all sorts of rules that you don’t even know. Like, it’s okay for white people to adopt Chinese kids, but it’s not okay for Chinese people to adopt white kids. If a white man is with a black woman, then he’s liberal. But if a black man is with a white woman, he must be a pimp. It’s the same with Indians. If a white man is with an Indian woman, it might be okay. That’s the way they like to do it in the movies. But if an Indian man is with a white woman, there’s something wrong with her that she would choose to be with one of ‘those people’.
I think it has to do with conquering. The white man has to be in control.
On Written History
We always had history like white people history. You just wouldn’t believe us. We had our stories and our pictures. We had our ways of doing things that were passed down to us from our elders. That was just like white people history. It had facts, too. But they weren’t good enough for you.
If I show you how my grandfather made something, you didn’t trust me. But if some white person who didn’t even know what he was seeing wrote it down, then that was good enough to be history.
There is too much to know everything. We Indians just tried to know the important things, so we could live better and understand. We had people who could tell us about the old days and why they were important to us. We made our children learn the stories so they could repeat them just as they were told. Our history was alive. But your history was dead, even though it was written down in words.
If you hear a song, is it real? Or is it only real once somebody writes it down? Well, for us, the story of our people was like a song. As long as somebody could still sing it, it was real. It never mattered if someone wrote it down. When you came you said that our song wasn’t real because it wasn’t written down. Then you wrote it down the way you wanted it.
You are still writing down our story, using your words, and you are still getting it wrong. Your words are all full of sharp edges that cut us. But we have been bleeding so long we don’t even feel it anymore.
It doesn’t hurt me. I am old. I knew the old language and so did my friends. We still speak it. It is still the song in our heart. It is the young people who must learn to sing the song again.
It is why you wasichu are in trouble. For you nothing is wakan. You have taken the power out of the earth and the sky and the things that live there. Everything is a fact. You will drown under your facts.
On The Anger
There is no Indian alive who dares to think too much on the past. If we looked too long at the past we would be too angry to live. You try to make it up to us by making us into heroes and wise people in all your movies and books. That’s fine for you. But I can still go to a museum and see my grandmother’s skull in a case and hear someone talk about it as an artifact.
And sometimes I think about all the wars between my people and your people. Those white men that fought us were men without families, lots of them. They weren’t your best people. Many of them were brutal and stupid. They did terrible things because it was fun.
My people never had a chance. We were families. We were in our homes, with our old people and our babies. And the soldiers attacked us. They attacked our homes and killed our elders and our children. Then your people have the nerve to talk about massacres by the Indians.
We did kill innocent people. I know that. It happened when our young men got angry at what was happening to the old people and the children, when they were starving or being killed. The young men would get so angry they wouldn’t listen to the old men. The old men knew we couldn’t win and that more white people would come and there would just be more killing. But the young men were so angry that they attacked anyone.
If you saw your father lying on his bed too weak to stand up because he was starving, or you saw your baby crying all the time because she was hungry, and you knew it was because someone took their food away from them, wouldn’t you be angry?
What if some men came through and killed your grandmother and didn’t have a reason? They just did it, then they laughed and rode away. And you stood there and looked at her cut up or shot. Can you tell me you wouldn’t be angry?
I don’t blame my people who ambushed the white soldiers or even raided the homes of the settlers. I don’t say it was right. I just say I understand. We lost everything. Your government sent heartless, greedy men to keep us under control, and they lied and raped and stole from us, and they could kill us for any reason and it was okay. What if someone raped your little sister? That happened all the time. What if someone took your wife and slit open her belly and pulled out your unborn child, then laid it on the ground like a trophy, still attached to her dead mother? That happened, too.
See, we weren’t even people. Did you know that? The Catholic church even held a conference to determine if we were people or not. In their great wise religion they thought they should decide if we were people or animals. That’s the way we were thought of and treated. It was okay to do anything to us.
We were taught that the old people and the babies were the closest to God, and it was for them that we lived. And your people came in and killed them. We had to do what we could to protect our old people and our families, and we couldn’t because your soldiers broke into our houses and killed them when they couldn’t get away.
It wasn’t the same when we fought the other tribes. They respected the old people and the children, too. When we fought each other there were some things more important than the fight. The greatest act of bravery was to touch your enemy — to ‘count coup’ upon him not to kill him. But not for your soldiers. They just wanted to kill us.
Now there are skulls of my grandparents in museums, and sacred blankets and drums on walls of museums for rich people to look at. You go there and talk about how sacred it is. You call it sacred because you don’t have anything of your own that’s sacred. But it’s not sacred, because you took the sacred out of it, just like you take the sacred out of everything, and now we can hardly feel it ourselves anymore. You killed our people and you took what was sacred to us, and then you told us that’s what proved you were better than we were.
There is no more time for fighting. Our anger must be buried. If I cannot bury mine, it will be for my children to bury theirs. And if they cannot bury theirs, it will be for their children, or their children’s children. We are prisoners of our hearts, and only time will free us.
Your people must learn to give up their arrogance. They are not the only ones placed on this earth. Theirs is not the only way. People have worshipped the Creator and loved their families in many ways in all places. Your people must learn to honor this.
It is your gift to have material power. You have much strength not given to other people. Can you share it, or can you use it only to get more? That is your challenge — to find the way to share your gift, because it is a strong and dangerous one.
It is my people who must stand as the shadow that reminds you of your failures. It is our memory that must keep you on the good road. It does you no good to pretend that we did not exist, and that you did not destroy us. This was our land. We will always be here. You can no more remove our memory than you can hide the sun by putting your hand over your eyes.
© Copyright 1994 Kent Nerburn