Perpetuating Intergenerational Trauma Through Victimhood

A column by Chuck Trimble on the problems that can arise among American Indians who fall prey to victimhood.

In a letter to the editor of the Syracuse (New York) Post-Standard newspaper, attorney Carrie E. Garrow, an adjunct professor in the Syracuse University College of Law and Mohawk from Akwesasne, lamented the recent Supreme Court decision denying further recourse to the Oneida Nation of New York in its land claim. Ms. Garrow is also executive director of the Center for Indigenous Law, Governance and Citizenship at the university.

She made a strong case that the basis for the lower court decision, the “disruptive nature” of Indian land claims, was not on the merits of the claim, but on a largely political consideration of inconveniencing a municipal entity. I fully understand and share her outrage, but one statement she made gives me ongoing concern over the bolstering of a sense of victimhood on the part of Native American students.

In her opening paragraph, Ms. Garrow states: “In the beginning of the fall semester, you can usually spot the first-year law students in the hallway—bright and optimistic, true believers in the U.S. legal system. If you look closely, it is often just as easy to identify the American Indian students. Not by the stereotypical images portrayed by popular culture, but by looking into their eyes. They know the truth about the U.S. legal system—that the doors of justice are closed to Indian nations.” (Emphasis mine.)

It bothers me that even one Indian student would enter any law school with the conviction that the “doors of justice are closed to Indian nations.” It is appropriate then to ask why that student is even entering law school. And if it is the case that he or she really believes it, then who convinced him or her of it?

My brother Sam Deloria has served many years as director, the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico, and has helped an entire generation of Indian students prepare for careers in law. Through my years as director of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1970s, Sam is the person I relied on for help in assessing legal and political problems encountered in Indian Country, and strategizing to address them.

When I read Ms Garrow’s letter in the November 18, 2011 edition of Indianz.com, I called Sam’s attention to the letter and asked for his take on it. Here is what he responded:

“There is no defending the Supreme Court jurisprudence with respect to the Oneida Nation of New York and the damage it has done to the orderly administration of justice. By upholding the law as it has been understood from the founding of the U.S., the Supreme Court could have made it necessary for the parties to resolve disputes by themselves, at the local level. By siding with the majority race and culture, the Court has indeed engendered at least a disappointment with the legal system, if not outright disrespect. Perceptive members of the majority may well wonder how much they can count on the system if they find themselves on the wrong end of the demographics in the future.

“And there is no defending the attitudes of some non-Indians in New York State, from the very beginning down through history, and the devastating impact these attitudes have had on not only the Native people, but all of the people of New York who have missed the opportunity to enjoy a more fulfilling relationship with their neighbors.

“But there is a larger question for those of us with the opportunity to provide intellectual leadership to younger generations. For over 30 years, I was the Director of the American Indian Law Center, Inc., and administered the Pre-Law Summer Institute, which has prepared nearly 1,500 Native students to attend law school in an eight-week program. During that program, students are prepared to become effective advocates. In doing so, we acknowledge the flaws in the American legal system, which are many. But it is no favor to future law students or their future clients to see only the flaws and to assert manifest untruths, such as that “the doors of justice are closed to Indian nations”, or that “justice is never on our side”.

“This reminds one of a teenager, complaining that “you NEVER let me do anything” on the occasion of being denied permission to do something that he or she does regularly. It is neither mature nor helpful.

“It is the job of advocates to filter out the emotion and the self-pity and to enable those involved in disputes—clients, as they are called in the system our young lawyers prepare to enter—to reach a sound understanding of the remedies which might be available to them. Anything less is derelict. The most effective Native leaders throughout history—the diplomats, spokespeople, military leaders—all had to keep a clear head and assess the situation with realism, insight and wisdom. It is no favor to our people or our students to encourage petulance rather than maturity.

“This has been a long struggle, for the survival of Native societies. It will continue far beyond the lifetime of those who are now living. Sometimes we will find justice, sometimes we will not. When we despair of the American system, we need only look at the status of our fellow indigenous peoples throughout the world to realize how relatively lucky we are. I know from my own experience that they look at us in the U.S. and hear our complaints with more than a little bemusement.”

Sam and I have for many years discussed the issue of how to give Native American youth a realistic version of history, and an appreciation of the great struggles of the tribal nations and their leaders to preserve and build on their heritage of homelands, and their unique rights and resources. And this against almost-impossible odds.

But the history must be taught with accuracy and dispassion, as history and not as hyperbolic discourse to give Native youth a sense of resentment or embitterment. Among the purposes of education are for students to learn how to think for themselves so that they will be self-sufficient. The last thing they need is for someone judging their Indianness based on how angry they are, or how depressed.

I had quoted Sam before (to some derision, I might add) as stating “College professors could help if they stopped objectifying Indians and treating them as victims. These kids should not have to succeed and develop healthy attitudes in spite of those who are supposed to be teaching them in college. We sell them short when we treat them as victims.”

Charles “Chuck” Trimble was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1969, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 to 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Nebraska. His website is IktomisWeb.com.