I watched a film on PBS last night, “The Thick Dark Fog.” It is the story of a Lakota man named Walter Littlemoon and his struggle to reclaim his humanity, stolen from him at a boarding school as a five year old on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The man’s a poet—a simple and eloquent speaker, and I will now order his book, They Called Me Uncivilized.
And while I wait for the book, I will puzzle over two things. First, as we recovered from the horror of the Holocaust in Europe and watched another again with a sideways glance at Cambodia, cultural genocide was going on under our noses in our own country. Oh, by the mid-sixties, as I came of age, we were probably no longer kidnapping Indian children, cutting their hair, and beating the Indian out of them so that we could make them men and women, but the products of our years of doing so were serving in Vietnam and stumbling around Los Angeles and Portland and other American cities after Eisenhower era “termination” policy do-gooders had put them on Greyhound buses and dropped them off with a few bucks and a charge to join the mainstream.
Why didn’t we—good white college students at state universities and the best private colleges, Civil Rights workers risking harm registering black voters, Peace Corps Volunteers standing up for and with poor people in over 100 other countries—know what was really going on in our own? Some few of us did, I guess, but mostly we were only half-educated, knew that Indians were mistreated but wanted them to get what black people were getting, their civil rights. Not many of us were talking about getting Indians the rights to lands and resources stolen from them and the rights treaties had supposedly granted them as Indians, as pre-white inhabitants of the country.
Now I live next to a couple of reservations in the traditional homeland of Nez Perce people, and I am learning—slowly—their stories and the stories of Indian peoples across the continents, the New World. “Thick Dark Fog” is not the first documentary on Indians I have watched. I’ve seen “Smokin’ Fish,” a Tlingit story, and know Sandra Osawa and her films, “Pepper’s Powwow,” about the great Indian jazz musician, Jim Pepper, and “Maria Tallchief,” the story of the Osage prima ballerina that Sandy did with help from Maria’s daughter, the poet Elise Paschen. And of course I have seen “Smoke Signals” more than once.
After watching the film tonight, I went to nativetelecom.org and found logs of radio and TV broadcasts, notice of Native radio stations, filmmakers, producers, etc. And it occurred to me that we still live in two parallel worlds. That yes, Indian stories creep across the lines, and some of us go to powwows and tribal and national museums and read books by Sherman Alexie and James Welch, Scott Momaday and Debra Earling, but that for the most part our schools still omit Indians and their 500 year history of dealing with the “nation of immigrants” that have and continue to descend on the Americas.
That’s the other puzzle. Custer and the Big Horn are, as the late novelist James Welch claimed, subjects of more books and movies than just about anything in American history. There are statues of the “Red Napoleon,” Chief Young Joseph, across the land. But the real stories of Crazy Horse and Joseph are still locked away from the mainstream of American history and affairs. And the Sierra Club doesn’t much ask Indians how they were able to live in this land for 20,000 or 30,000 or more years before Europeans arrived.
There are breeches, tears in the wall and points of connection between the Nation of Immigrants story and the Indian story, and I guess it is our job at the Josephy Library to keep finding them.
Which gets me back to Thanksgiving. How many of us were taught how or even puzzled over how the Indians got the corn and squash and beans that they supposedly fed the Pilgrims in the cold northeast all the way from their origins in warm Mesoamerica? One world to another?
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