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Lateral Violence Amongst Native People: Elouise Cobell, Billy Frank Jr. and Chase Iron Eyes

It seems like every time a Native person tries to do something remarkable, there’s a very small yet very vocal group of Natives trying to prevent it.
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Quick Story:

I remember one of the first public things that I ever wrote (time flies—that was about a decade and a half ago); I was still in school, a wannabe writer and I was hoping to write something provocative. I remember I wrote something about Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman of NIGA, and I thought it was brilliant! The best thing I ever wrote! Granted, I never met Chairman Stevens at that point but fire was coming out of my keyboard and I had the Chairman on the ropes…

Thing I didn’t know was that Chairman Stevens is a fighter. Like, literally. HA HA…we never came to blows—thank God—Ernie is no punk! But he appropriately and gently reprimanded me and reminded me that “provocative” isn’t always good and that there’re only so many Natives in the world. Maybe we should try supporting each other? Now Ernie represents a whole bunch of Natives and so critiquing him is fair, but perhaps I should try getting his story first. Don’t jump to conclusions, ESPECIALLY when it’s our own people. 

He was right. 100%. I should have done him the courtesy of talking to him first. I’ve since apologized to him several times and he graciously attributed it to my youth. I also want to use this opportunity to apologize publicly again—thank you Chairman Stevens. I appreciate you.

Why am I telling you this?

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like every time a Native person tries to do something remarkable, there’s a very small yet very vocal group of Natives who actively invokes mean-spirited tactics to prevent that remarkable thing. It’s not everyone—it’s not even most. But a few just get nasty and mean-spirited. Now, critiques are important—they strengthen arguments and force people to look at different perspectives. That’s important and we must continue to do that. However, it seems like sometimes we move on to personal attack really quickly which, outside of being irrelevant most of the time, is also just not nice. 

Honestly, it’s white people behavior; an old Indian trick that white people taught us. 

I look at Uncle Billy Frank, for example—unquestionably a legend and a leader in forcing the United States and states to acknowledge Tribes’ treaty right—and somehow he got resistance from many other Natives who felt he was pushing too hard. Even though he literally helped every single Native person on this continent, he experienced resistance and people trying to tear down what he was doing, and attack his character. Now, since he did represent such a large group it’s fair to critique his strategy; but I can’t think of any reason that personal attacks would be a part of that critique. The resistance against Uncle Billy continued until he passed on May 5, 2014—it was only after his passing that he was finally honored properly on his own Nisqually Reservation. Thankfully, the current Nisqually leadership has wisely worked to rectify that and give Uncle Billy the deference and honor he deserves. Fortunately, the naysayers didn’t win and Uncle Billy continued his work and helped all Native people. 

Oh yeah, Uncle Billy wasn’t perfect by the way—by his own admission, alcohol hindered him for many years until he decided to change his path. Fortunately for all Native people, he changed his life and became a powerful force for change to the benefit of Indian Country. 

Blackfeet powerhouse Elouise Cobell also experienced many of those same personal attacks. Just like with Uncle Billy, there was a small and vocal group that attacked her when she took on the federal government and won. Granted, she represented a large class action and so it’s fair to question her strategy and even suggest other courses of action. Cool. Comes with the territory. Yet, folks kinda went for the jugular—with no evidence, people suggested she was operating purely out of self-interest and that she was the beneficiary of improper relationships. No evidence-people simply hurled nasty things against her without getting her side of the story. Fortunately, those ugly accusations didn’t prevent her from helping all Native people. 

Now about this Chase Iron Eyes character.

I don’t know Chase. At all. I do know that he’s no Uncle Billy Frank. He’s no Elouise Cobell. He’s also no Ernie Stevens, Jr. either. I’ve had the privilege to meet all of them, visit with all of them and admire every single one of them. I didn’t know any of them when they were young and I hear that Elouise was always amazing and composed and brilliant. However, I do know that Uncle Billy had some wild moments when he was younger and I also hear that Ernie also had some wild times as well. Yet they both turned into incredible leaders as they matured and gained experience, powerful mentors and role models that make all of Indian Country proud. But before they became amazing leaders, they all made mistakes and maybe, MAYBE those mistakes made them better. Maybe.

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It’s an evolution.

I don’t know if Chase will become an incredible leader. I’m not sure; I do not know him and I cannot predict the future. This isn’t an endorsement but it is an acknowledgement of a big moment for Native people. For those of you who do not know, Chase declared his intention to run for Congress out of North Dakota—that’s historic. However, upon his announcement, a series of stories immediately ran about his distant criminal past and also a peen pic. Fair game in a sensationalist media, I suppose, but I’m not sure those things are the most salient things when a Native announces her/his intention to run for Congress. If this was something that had to do with job qualifications? Absolutely—comes with the territory, Chase. But honestly, this is just tabloid stuff. Plus, it was a few Native people who took the initiative to immediately condemn him without looking for a more complete story. Either way, I know that expecting our leaders to have a completely spotless past is unrealistic and ahistorical. I also know that for Native people to personally attack other Natives who want to do something exceptional is unhealthy and says a lot about our condition.

It’s easy to hurt other Natives when we don’t think much of Native people generally.

Now absolutely, Native communities have always held a place for public correction and even shaming; people within Native communities who understood the context facilitated those conversations. There is a danger, however, when outsiders create those conversations with no accountability and who are simply trying to make sensationalist headlines or social media noise. 

This is much bigger than Chase. Once again, I do not know him and maybe it turns out he’s not a great candidate. I don’t know. But I have seen this pattern over and over, countless times with Native leaders, including when I picked on Ernie Stevens. Learning to love ourselves is also part of an evolution and so this isn’t even intended to come down hard on those who do this for sensationalist headlines. 

That’s also an evolution. 

It simply does not seem to be a good practice for any community to scare off potential leaders because they’re not perfect; that will have the effect of preventing Native youth from ever aspiring for greatness. “Well jeez, I shouldn’t try to be president because my own community will tear me down.” It also doesn’t seem like a good practice to attack other Native people before we even have a conversation with them. We need to love our own better. Plus, we might miss out on “really, really, really good” by insisting upon “perfection.”

(The photo of Chase Iron Eyes is from an article in the BisMarck Tribune - photographer Tom Stromme -

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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