Posted by on Feb 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

Am I the Last of my Generation?

By Dr. Erich Longie

I was born and raised on the Spirit Lake Nation by a parent who did not learn to speak English until she was nine years old.  Therefore, I always figured I am just as much of an Indian as anyone; so you can imagine how I feel whenever someone accuses me of not being “real Indian.”

This happened during an online conversation in the comment section of the Grand Forks Herald:  one commenter claimed that because I do not have a Dakota name, nor do I attend ceremonies on a regular basis, I am not a “real” Indian.  Naturally, I took offense to that accusation.  “After all,” I thought, “Who is this person to determine whether another Indian is a “real Indian?”

Still, the person’s accusations got me thinking.  Why would someone accuse me, of all people, of not being a real Indian?  Most of my acquaintances say just the opposite.  They call me “Indian” to the core.  Pondering this question led me to examine who I am.  To begin, I started with memories of my childhood.

Many of my values were instilled in me during the 1950s and 1960s while I was growing up.  Here is an excerpt from my one of my blogs:

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 when you were not afraid to stand up for what you believe in…  There are many beliefs I remember as a child that we no longer practice today.
As a child, I remember listening to my mother and other adults conversing in the Dakota language and wondering why they didn’t teach me.  Regardless, I loved listening to them speak in their native tongue, and I would try to interpret what they were saying.

I remember attending the Fourth of July and Labor Day Powwows and how much I enjoyed watching the dancing.  I remember my Auntie Alvina Alberts telling me stories about how life was when she was a child.  I remember other adults talking about their childhood, and how fascinated I was listening to those stories.

My fascination with these stories led me to read many books about Indians (or Native Americans or American Indians as we are now known) as a teenager.  Each book had a similar ending; it ended in disaster for us Indians.  It didn’t matter if the story was about the Huron, the Apache, the Comanche, or Sioux; we always lost in the end.  We were defeated in battle by a superior number of soldiers.  Our land was stolen usually through outright theft or through legal theft.  We were cheated time and time again over what little the government agreed to pay us in return for our land.  The books also described our ancestors’ character traits (courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity).  Tales of how these traits were exhibited filled my heart with pride.

Due to the extensive reading I did in my youth, I developed an extreme sense of tribalism.  This knowledge, along with my childhood experiences growing up on the reservation, made me proud of myself as an Indian person and proud of Indians in general.

There was also the reality of growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, a time when racism was rampant and Indians were often considered second-class citizens.  As a child, I often observed how horribly my mom was treated when we were off the reservation.  As a result of experiencing such treatment, I made a vow:  I would never let any white person treat me like that when I grew older.  It is a vow I have kept to this day.  As I grew older, when it came to racist behavior, I learned to give as good as I got — and I was proud of it.

Then I quit drinking, went to college, earned a couple of degrees and became involved in Indian Education.  Like most Indian students at UND, I enrolled in some Indian Studies courses.  It was in these courses that I learned yet another version of our history — one that was different from the history I learned from grade and high school history books and the movies of the day.

When I went on to graduate school, through research I discovered how specific government actions were actually a cover for cheating and defrauding us (Indians) out of our land and whatever else we were owed.  Learning this history of deceit and deception, hardship and toil, made me proud of our ancestors and how they persevered.  Empowered by their struggles, I knew I would never give into racism.

So how does this apply to my conversation with the person online?  These reflections made me realize that, yes, I may not attend ceremonies as often as other Indians and I am not fluent in the Dakota language, but that does not make me a bad Indian.  I am very proud of who I am – a Dakota man.  Just like going to church on Sunday does not necessarily make one a true Christian, simply attending – or not attending – ceremonies does not define one as Indian.

What I did learn from my mother and other adults of her generation is a “good Indian” is one who practices our Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.  Take “honesty” for example.  The person who accused me of being a no good Indian did it online using a fictitious name.  Not using a real name showed cowardice and dishonesty, which are the opposite of courage and honesty (I signed my real name after my comments).  He or she was brave behind his or her fictitious name.

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

It is the same thing with people who insinuate that by having an Indian name and attending ceremonies that they are better Indians 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.  Attending ceremonies and taking an Indian name does not make any one Indian better than another Indian.

In addition to customs and rituals, we need to practice and preach the Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.  These values should be taught beginning in childhood so a person could practice them while growing up.  However, if you did not learn these values as a child, it is not too late.  You can still learn them.  In my opinion, practicing these values, along with learning the language and going to ceremonies will make you a better (Indian) person.

Why is all this talk about Dakota values and customs important?  It is because we are at a point where we, as a people, appear to be splitting in two separate directions.  Often, I feel that I am going in one direction and many of my tribal members are going in the opposite direction.

In the chart below I have listed the directions I am talking about:

1.         Attitudes Regarding Acceptance of Past Wrongs

    • Other  ndns- We are now assimilated into the mainstream.  It is time to forget about the past and the wrongs that have been committed against our ancestors.

 

    • Me- Absolutely not!  Not when those wrongs are still being committed against us today.  Only when everyone treats Indian people equally across the state of North Dakota, and only when all acts of racism against Indians stop, will I consider forgetting about past and present wrongs.

2.      Attitudes Regarding The Status Quo     

    • Other ndns- It is better than it was 40-50 years ago.  We need to be happy with what we have.

 

    • Me – Be happy with 50% unemployment, a critical housing shortage, and with a standard of living far below the national average?  No way!

3.      Attitudes Regarding Racism        

    • Other ndns- When I encounter racism, I simply smile and walk away.  We teach our children to do the same.

 

    • Me- When I encounter racism, I do not smile and walk away.  I confront it!  I passed this trait down to my children.  After all, I am a proud Dakota who will not let anyone from any race treat my family disrespectfully.

4.      Attitudes Regarding Tribal Sovereignty           

    • Other ndns- Our tribe’s survival is dependent on others.  We will be forgotten and suffer if we don’t accept outside help, even if it is under their conditions.

 

    • Me- We are part of the Great Sioux Nation.  There have been thousands of books written about us.  There have been hundreds of movies made about us.  Other tribes copy us.  We are dependent on no one.

5.      Attitudes Regarding Traditional Values           

    • Other ndns- It is okay to win at all costs.  It is okay to let some outsider come on the reservations and pit us against each other.  It is acceptable to lie, cheat and steal to achieve the “American Dream.”

 

    • Me- Now more than ever, we need to return to our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.  We should never forget the sacrifices our ancestors made to hold onto a small piece of land that today are called reservations.

Those people say it is time to let go of the past and move on.  I agree– to an extent.  Many years ago, I attended a meeting in Bismarck.  At lunch, I stood behind a non-Indian woman who turned around and talked to me.  Her dislike/hatred for me was easily discernable, although she did her best to hide it.  As I stood there talking to her, it struck me how unhappy she was.  The more I studied her, the more I realized her unhappiness came from her dislike of me.  At that moment, I had an epiphany.  I realized racism does nothing more than make a person extremely unhappy.  “Wow!  Is this how I appear to the non-Indian when my racism gets the better of me?”  I thought as I was standing there listening to the woman.  I did not like my answer.  I vowed, on the spot, to change.

Realistically, I knew I could not overcome my racism immediately.  Instead, I vowed not pass my racism down to my children.  After all, I reasoned, if I love my children why would I teach them to be unhappy?

Since that conversation, I have made a concerted effort to unlearn the racism that I was so proud of for many years.  I have many friends who are non-Indian.  One is a guy in a wheelchair who I have been shooting pool with for the past 25 years.  Around the same time I met this friend, I started hanging around with a couple of non-Indian pool players from Devil’s Lake.  I was invited to their homes.  I joined their pool team and even joined the Eagles, something unheard of in those times.  As an educator, I have worked with and become friends with many non-Indians over the years.  Does this mean I have overcome my racism?  Not completely, but I work very hard to not let it interfere with my interactions with people.

Neither does it lessen my pride in who I am.  You can still hear me ranting and raving when I perceive that an injustice has been committed against us Indians.  When that happens, I am often accused of being racist, but my response is different than it was years ago.  Instead of saying, “You’re god-da%n right, I’m racist!  What’re you going to do about it?”  Now I say, “I’m not racist!  I’m just strongly pro-Indian rights.”

I have learned to be successful in the white man’s world.  I promote his education and follow many of his ways, and I have many non-Indian friends, but I have not forgotten who I am or where I came from.  I am a Dakota man who was raised by an intelligent proud Dakota mother who taught me the Dakota values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.  Regardless of where my life path takes me, my first loyalty will always be for my family, my relatives, and to the Spirit Lake Oyate.