BILLINGS, Mont. – Nona Main, a senior at Montana State University Billings and Gros Ventre from the northern Montana Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said racism toward American Indians is often perceived as imaginary to those who haven’t experienced it first-hand.
“A lot of that goes with the fact that a lot of people think that we have a victim mentality,” Main said. “And they say, ‘Get over it. It happened a long time ago.’ It didn’t happen a long time ago, it’s still happening. I’m not trying to play the victim, I’m trying to educate you about what’s going on in my world so you guys can stop treating people this way. I don‘t treat you that way.”
Main was one of seven panelists who presented “There’s an Elephant in Our Community,” a discussion about American Indian racism in Montana. The event was sponsored by Not In Our Town, an organization against racial discrimination, and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship church at MSU Billings as part of American Indian Heritage Day.
“I tell my students we all misunderstand things,” said MSU Billings Professor Jeff Sanders, who is Jewish. “All of us are human and misunderstand things, but not one of us ‘mis-experiences’ things. If we’ve experienced it, we know it.”
Main recognizes that a lot of street people in urban Billings are Native American, and although she doesn’t judge them, she’s getting her education to defeat those stereotypes.
Instead of encouragement to do better, often American Indian students who try to excel academically off the reservation experience negativity from peers back home. They may get accused of “acting white,” or “too good” for their reservation roots. – Shawn “Silbs” Silbernagle
“We’re just like everyone else, but yet we have our unique culture,” Main said. “But at the same time I don’t like being labeled by the general populace as a ‘drunk Indian,’ because I know that’s a stereotype, and that’s something I’ve dealt with here in Billings.”
Main said comments on the local paper’s Web site are an example of where negative stereotypes of American Indians prevail whenever there is a story about them.
“If you go on there, and you read the things that people say on there, you feel like saying, ‘Why can’t these people come up to me and tell me that to my face rather than hide behind a computer with a name that nobody knows you by? Can you come up to me and tell me that to my face what you think of me? Can you do that?’ And I don’t think any of them can.”
Shawn “Silbs” Silbernagle was asked once by a man from Brooklyn, N.Y., to explain why American Indians in the Montana region didn’t excel as much as they seem to on the East Coast.
He theorized it was merely a few generations ago – whilst East Coast Indians were already graduating from Ivy League schools – that Plains Indians in the west were still fighting the Indian wars. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was 133 years ago.
“In a timeline, 130 years isn’t that long,” Sibernagle said. “And I think that’s why racism is still so rampant in the Dakotas and in Montana.”
While people of European descent have forced American Indians to assimilate, Silbernagle said it’s also created a form of reverse racism among American Indians. His mother endured criticism after she married a white man outside of her Standing Rock Sioux race.
Instead of encouragement to do better, often American Indian students who try to excel academically off the reservation experience negativity from peers back home. They may get accused of “acting white,” or “too good” for their reservation roots. Silbernagle compared the struggle to succeed as a Native from a reservation to a bucket of crabs: When one crab tries to get out of the boiling pot, one of the other crabs tries to bring him back down.
Although criticisms are sometimes said jokingly, “They don’t think about what we go through living in this city coming from the reservation,” Main said about the culture shock she initially experienced. “To look back, there was a lot of jealously back home. But I look at it like, ‘I don’t acknowledge that jealously, and if that’s the way they feel that’s fine, because I’m doing good for myself, and I’m doing what I have to do to give my son a better life and a bigger world to look at.’ That’s why I’m here.”
The panel members unanimously agreed that communication was the best way the community could bridge the dividing gap of racism.
Main recalled that while she interned at a museum, she educated area students about American Indian culture so they wouldn’t be ignorant of it.
“We do need to go out and start educating people more, especially the little ones so they can maybe go home and tell their parents about it. I think it’s all about education and getting the word out on who we are as people.”