Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

Dakota Values: Perseverance / Fortitude

By: Dr. Erich Longie

Our ancestors were the ultimate survivors. In spite of a war of annihilation by the Europeans, they survived. In spite of being put on reservations and living in poverty, they survived. In spite of the numerous social ills that plagues reservations, they survived. Now in the twenty first century, Native Americans are one of the fastest growing populations in the country. How did our ancestors managed to survive in spite of tremendous odds? Simple- it was in their character to persevere. They were taught this virtue from childhood.

In his book, Dakota Life in the upper Midwest, Samuel Pond writes this about the Dakota before the coming of the Whiteman:

”…if they would have accompanied them through one year, in 1834 they would have learned that they did not contrive to live without hard labor, also that they did not shrink from hard work, but acted like men who were determined to take care of themselves and their families. If they had been as indolent and inefficient as many think they were, we should have never heard of them, for they would have perished long ago. (p. 23 1986)”

Years later, (1900) John Fire Lame Deer, who was born in a twelve-by-twelve foot cabin, gives an account his life on a South Dakota reservation. Here is the first paragraph of his story Hard Times In Sioux Country:

“There were twelve of us, but they are all dead now, except one sister. Most of them didn’t even grow up. My big brother Tom, and his wife were killed by the flu in 1917. I lost my own little boy thirty-five years ago. I was a hundred miles away, caught in a blizzard. A doctor couldn’t be found for him soon enough. I was told it was the measles. Last year I lost another baby boy, a foster child. This time they told me it was due to some intestinal trouble. So in a lifetime we haven’t made much progress. We medicine men try to doctor our sick but we suffer from many new white man’s diseases, which comes from the white man’s food and white man’s living, and we have no herbs for that (p. 311, 1999).”

In spite of his extremely difficult life, John Fire Lame Deer persevered and went on to become a noted medicine man.

I remember as a child in the 50’s and 60’s everyone was quite poor. For whatever reason there were huge families back then. There were ten of us children in my family. Many families lived in a one or two-room log cabins with no running water or electricity. On the first of the month the AFDC checks would come and everyone would eat well for a couple of weeks. Then the money would run out and we would all have to live on commodities or whatever our parents would scrounge up. The winters were especially hard. Many people hauled their water from wells which became frozen and had to be chopped open, and a bucket with a rope on the handle was lowered into the well in an attempt to bring up the water. Wood had to be hauled home and chopped or sawed. These chores had to be done regardless of the weather and no one had the proper winter clothes to keep warm. Yet, we survived. Many of us grew up to become productive members of the reservations.

Today reservations are a much better place to live than they were 150 years ago, 100 years and even 40 years ago when I was a teenager. We have better schools, there are jobs, and hardly anyone suffers from malnourishment. So why do our schools have a huge dropout rate? With the unemployment running around 50% why, aren’t all of the jobs at the casino, schools, industries, and tribe filled with Indian men and women? The answer is simple; we no longer practice our traditional value of perseverance. When the job becomes difficult we quit or simply do not attempt to look for work because of the strain it would put on our lives. Because we no longer practice perseverance, we do not pass this virtue down to our children. As a result, when attending school becomes difficult, they simply drop out of school and do nothing.

Now people could point out many valid reasons for why some children can’t finish school and why some individuals can’t hold a job. I agree there are some individual cases where circumstances would make it impossible for a child to remain in school and an individual to hold down a job but they are the exception, not the rule. If you do not believe me, take a look around at those tribal members who worked all their lives. Many of them faced enormous difficulties in their lives yet they persevered.