The Weight of Being Native American

ByLawrence Sampson

“Indians! There are no more Indians. I am the last one!” This quote is attributed to Sitting Bull when late in his life, chiefs were asked to gather in Washington D.C. to discuss surrendering even more of their people’s landholdings. It has always been in the forefront of my conscience, and I have always used it as my own personal filter. What does it mean to be Indian today?

I am a product of the late 20th century. This was a tumultuous time for Indian people, a time where we saw more changes in our societies than at any time since the late 1800s. A time when many of us grew up with constant whispers telling us to be ashamed of who we were. Our parents and grandparents had all been sent to boarding schools and had tradition, not to mention pride, beaten out of them. As a child, I was told not to tell anyone I was Indian. My dark features were an embarrassment to the very Caucasian family which had adopted me. As a people, we were still enduring the fallout of government policies of relocation and termination. We continued to suffer from the economic devastation of staggering poverty, poor health care, and substandard education. The social deconstruction of boarding schools had only recently ended while Indian children continued to be stolen and “adopted out.” The governmental and social demonization of our way of life was causing our traditions and languages to die off at alarming rates.

It is within this backdrop of misery that a sense of urgency would develop among younger generation of Native people. A growing consciousness was growing that if something wasn’t done, we would be wiped from the pages of history forever. For the first time Indians, particularly those in large cities, were obtaining advanced educations. Many Indian men were returning from Vietnam wiser to the ways of the modern world. With academic and real world education came awareness, and with this awareness came frustration. A powder keg of Indian frustration was about to explode, and Vine Deloria, jr. lit the fuse.

With the publishing of Custer Died for Your Sins, and fresh on the heels of the African American civil rights struggle, urban Indians across the country began to organize and demand changes in their condition. The Red Power Movement was born, and organizations like United American Indians and the more famous American Indian Movement took center stage with confrontational acts to force positive change for our people. Wounded Knee II and the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington D.C. shined the media spotlight on Indian issues. Urban Indians agitated for change while a new and bloody war was being waged on Indian reservations as a last stand was made treaty rights and our very survival. The confrontational politics brought about a litany of political change. The decade of the seventies saw a hundred and twenty pieces of Indian legislation introduced with approximately a hundred of those passing. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) ended the stealing and illegal adoptions of Indian children. The sterilization of Indian women, a practice on reservations since the administration of John F. Kennedy, stopped. For the first time ever, treaty rights were being upheld in courts. The political tide had been turned and the stage was set for significant social change.

Well into the eighties, Indian legislation and tribal lawsuits continued to strengthen and reaffirm Indian sovereignty. With this, social settings also became less tenuous. As a teenager, I became conscious that being Indian had gone from being shameful to acceptable but couldn’t imagine that it would soon enter the realm of being cool. Non-Indians began to identify with Native people and acknowledge or even claim non-existent Indian lineage. All of this would eventually culminate in the release of Kevin Costner’s seminal Dances with Wolves. A positive illustration of Indian life on the plains, it would fuel an explosion of Indian identification among both Indians and non-Indians, with both good and not so good repercussions. It is virtually impossible to overstate the affect this film has had on modern Indian people and society. Awareness, pride, knowledge of our issues, all of it, can be examined in a truly pre and post 'Dances' lexicon. Indian actors were actually used to portray Indian people in a positive light-long a rarity in Hollywood. What education, agitation, and lawsuits had done within Indian society, the release of a single film would do outside of our communities. In America and elsewhere American Indians were finally the thing to be.  

A greater awareness of Indian people and Indian traditions brought the snake oil sales men and women who saw social change as financial opportunity. The exploitation and selling of Indian traditions or what were falsely called Indian traditions exploded in the aftermath of Dances. If you had the means you could and can still buy an Indian name or even participate in “real” Indian ceremonies. The leaders of these affairs may not be Indian, but they were after all “taught by an Indian” or through some nebulous means, got in touch with some claimed Indian ancestors. After having land and resources stolen for centuries, it seems the last vestige of our survival, our spirituality, would even be stolen. That legitimate Indian ceremonial leaders do not sell ceremony comes as a shock to many. While travelling abroad I have been approached countless times and asked to do everything from giving the venerable “Indian name,” to impregnate women with an Indian baby, to conduct traditional Indian marriage ceremonies. Being accepted into society comes with a price, it seems. Sometimes I wonder if it was better to be unknown and despised.

As I enter middle age, I look back on what has been gained lost in my lifetime. I remember the dark days of repression and anger and shame. I’ve witnessed a lot of lives destroyed or ended altogether. I recall the pride of my son when I entered his kindergarten class to speak about Indian people and heard him tell a friend “I told you my dad was an Indian.” I go to Indian social gatherings, once rare but some now huge affairs and marvel at the pride in Indian tradition among our children. I think of Anna Mae Aquash and Leonard Peltier and all the other victims of the bloody campaigns waged in my lifetime to defend Indian rights. I am amazed and proud of our progress, while knowing we still face many challenges both political and social. I think about our traditional admonitions to make decisions for the next seven generations. Sometimes the total sum of changes we have made during my short life span are staggering to consider. I take solace in the fact that we have accomplished so much and taken our rightful place in a long and proud history of what is America’s original people.