Harjo: Cultural heritage and family duty

Sometimes someone pops out something so ignorant about Native peoples that you have to set aside your priorities and say, ''Hey, bozo, cut it out!''

Thomas Sowell provided just such a jolt with his column, ''Cultural Heritages'' [June 26, GOPUSA]. He's an author/economist who became the darling of the wingnuts when they discovered he was both African-American and opposed to affirmative action.

Sowell writes that he was traveling in Navajoland and heard some ''bright and cheerful'' Navajo ''adolescent boys'' who were ''being led on a bicycle tour by a couple of white men, one of whom was apparently their teacher on the reservation.''

Sowell doesn't give the names of the Navajo boys or say anything about them, except this: ''I was surprised when someone asked them in what state Pittsburgh was located and none of them knew. Then they were offered a clue that it was in the same state as Philadelphia but they didn't know where Philadelphia was either.''

Sowell went on to speculate that the boys were ''being taught other things, things considered 'relevant' to their life and culture on the reservation.'' And he was off on a diatribe against ''multiculturalism'' and ''outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to be frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits'' and defined by ''historic grievances.''

Because Sowell's encounter sounded unusual, I took a survey among a dozen friends who often travel all over Navajoland. None ever happened upon this kind of scene.

The scenario of Navajo kids riding bikes with a non-Navajo teacher and another adult is not regular fare on the Navajo Reservation. And ask yourself, how often does Pittsburgh pop up in casual conversation, on or off the beaten bike trail? I'm not saying it didn't happen - I'm just saying.

Navajo is the largest reservation in the United States, bordering four states - Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah - and it's the size of West Virginia. It interests me that Sowell writes of Navajoland and never mentions where he is - not a landmark, monument, town or crossroads - but his vacation is ruined because Navajos don't know where Pittsburgh is.

I knew where Pittsburgh was when I was a pre-teen in the 1950s, because it was the city ''American Bandstand'' went to when it wasn't in Philadelphia. I admired all those white kids and the way they danced and thought Pennsylvania was the coolest places in the world.

Sometimes when I was dancing to the music on ''Bandstand,'' I would wonder if there were any Indian families I could visit in Pennsylvania. I thought there might be Indians there because of the Carlisle Indian School, near Pittsburgh. Maybe there was a chance an Indian girl could dance on ''Bandstand.'' I was a really good dancer, but ''Bandstand'' was really white.

My mother's grandparents were in the first Carlisle classes in the late 1870s and married after they graduated. My mom's grandfather, whose Cheyenne name was Thunderbird, but who was given the agency name of Richard Davis, was taken to Carlisle with his little sister, Elsie.

When I started dreaming of Pennsylvania, mom started telling me the real history of Carlisle and that Richard and Elsie were hostage-students who were taken there to keep their strong family in line at home. They were the youngest children of Chief Bull Bear, who had been a leader of the Dog Men Society. His grandson - the son of his daughter and Roman Nose, a great warrior who was one of many killed at Summit Springs - was also a Carlisle hostage-student, along with the youngest son of Bull Bear and his other wife.

Elsie Davis never made it home. Her body, or at least a tombstone with her name on it, is in the small historical cemetery at Carlisle. I've learned that the Carlisle children's graves were dug up and reburied at least twice. I am trying to find the records about these exhumations and wondering if it had anything to do with the Army's ''Indian Crania Study'' that ultimately deposited 4,500 Indian heads in the Smithsonian Institution, the majority of which remain there today.

By the time I made a family journey to Carlisle, I had long lost interest in dancing in Pennsylvania. I had learned that the British used smallpox-infected blankets against the Indian people at Fort Pitt, which later became Pittsburgh. The British were fighting the French in 1763 and Ottawa Chief Pontiac and his allies sided with the French and surrounded Fort Pitt. British Capt. Simeon Ecuyer sent blankets and handkerchiefs with smallpox to the Indians and started an epidemic.

There are those who claim Ecuyer acted without authority, but there are those pesky letters between his superiors, wherein Col. Henry Bouquet writes to Gen. Jeffery Amherst on July 13, 1763, about blankets to ''inoculate the Indians,'' and Amherst approves that plan on July 16 and says ''to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.'' Amherst wants to use dogs to hunt the Indians, but bemoans the fact that there are not enough dogs. Bouquet writes to Amherst on July 26 that ''all your Directions will be observed.''

When Native Americans review this kind of history, we're not focused on historic grievances. We want to know how and why what happened. We approach it with historic inhibition and look for anything in the modern time that might present a danger to our children. I don't know what the Navajo boys knew about Pittsburgh, but I'm even more curious why they were asked about it.

What Sowell doesn't get is that we don't have cultures that are ''preserved like museum exhibits.'' We have actual relatives who are actually museum exhibits, and we have family obligations to do something about that. So, every so often, we just need to stop what we're doing and say, ''Hey, bozo, cut it out!''

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.