Sen. Ed Butcher, a Republican, is quoted in The Billings Gazette as saying, "They're unwilling or incapable of working like normal outside people do," "The elders or the parents, and I hear this all the time, are encouraging them to move back home."
Montana State Sen. Ed Butcher's statement is worth examining. His aides are all over now telling the story of a fun give-and-take that occasioned the remarks, saying he "didn't mean anything" by them.
Talking about "they" is the first clue. For many politicians, when talking about American Indians, perhaps even more than when referring to African-Americans or Latinos, the terms are immediately "us and them." They, "the other," who in this case are "reservation" Indians, are not only different, but inferior, and must be easily pigeonholed into stereotypical images.
It is those "they," who are "unwilling or incapable" of "working like normal, outside people do."
Unwilling ? perhaps rebelliously, perhaps because they are lazy or don't like us, they are "unwilling" to work, "like normal outside people (us) do."
Or "incapable." Incapable? There used to be a phrase about savages, heathens. It was said that they were, "incapable of civilization." They can not be civilized. Incapable of being normal, like us, the "outside the reservation" people.
Normal, outside people. This is a good one. Butcher is on pretty clear ground on what he means to say in this phrase. Clearly for him the "us and them" is quite delineated. There are two peoples here, two cultures, he says firmly. You might be tempted to wonder why the good senator might be so invested in that idea.
Well, here is a good kicker. Butcher is actually incredulous about this idea: "The elders or the parents, and I hear this all the time, are encouraging them to move back home."
"To move back home."
There is a message in this one about culture, about sense of community and place, about not losing all the contributions of your talented young people to the larger American society. The Indian elders want their young to come home. Imagine that! Butcher seems to be wondering, since "he hears this all the time."
Now, why would the elders say such a thing? Is it that if they keep going back home, these reservations just might last forever, that Indian people might in fact rebuild their the prosperity of their nations on their own lands? Is it that to him being "normal" in America is for one's children to go away to places where nobody knows them, where young children mostly grow up without being near their grandparents? It is true that many families live under those conditions in modern life, yet the impetus to maintain and rebuild community, regardless of how poor or destitute, as long as the land stays in Indian hands, is deep indeed. To understand this reality is one early step necessary for any politician who wants to understand his Indian constituents.
Butcher, who is an adoptive parent to an Indian daughter, is working hard to fend off the remarks. Perhaps, as he claims, they were superficial quotes from a moment of hard joking. Perhaps he even deserves a second chance at getting to know how to converse with actual American Indian peoples, to come to know the values and desires of Indian communities. One thing for certain, it is always amazing how just a few easy words can carry so much meaning and reveal so much about America's often troubled relations with its original peoples.