"Talking Back" appreciates earlier Indian voices


For Native opinion leaders, communicators and activists who must constantly confront aggression against American Indian ideals of nationhood and inherent sovereign rights, the words of elders and activist ancestors are always a source of inspiration. It is amazingly refreshing to review the thinking and argumentation by some in that long line of Indian activism, once again to realize the deep and unrelenting continuity of protest and of strategic adaptation that preceded our present generation. Indeed, it is the continuity of leadership over the centuries that make our own efforts possible.

A small gem of a book published last year by St. Martin's Press, "Talking Back to Civilization: Indian Voices from the Progressive Era," edited by Frederick E. Hoxie, gives life to that continuity, presenting a fascinating pick of Indian oratory and writing from the beginning of the 20th Century to the mid-1930s. This is great material, and we commend scholar Hoxie for his choices and editorial comments. The selections reveal penetrating Indian intellects of the first period of slow recovery, as they tried to present and defend a more in-depth understanding of Native people and cultures

Consider Simon Pokagon's recriminations when invited to the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893. This Potawatomi leader's message to the world on behalf of American Indians is a diamond of truth, even if bitter and understandably pessimistic. Pokagon felt that for him to celebrate the trappings of "progress," at the World Fair and for American Indians to be asked to celebrate the "discovery of America" was akin to agreeing to "celebrate our own funeral." What he called "the cyclone of civilization," he said, "rolled westward; the forests of untold centuries were swept away; streams dried up ... all [that] our fathers once loved to gaze upon was destroyed, defaced, or marred, except the sun, moon and the starry skies above, which the Great Spirit in his wisdom hung beyond their reach."

When the Indian complains, Pokagon said, "we are told the triumphal march of the Eastern race westward is by the unalterable decree of nature, termed by them 'the survival of the fittest.'" Something was missing in this approach, Pokagon warned. "The greed for gold" should not be the only "balance-wheel."

A sequence of other voices follows the somber tone of Pokagon. Francis La Flesche (Omaha) in 1900 writes a book that intimately describes his boarding school experience, even with humor, but with the intent of dispelling the "serious prejudices White people harbored against Indians."

Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Oneida) in 1913 was already writing in defense of indigenous traditional knowledge and directly criticizing the government's system of education for Indians. "There are old Indians who have never seen the inside of a classroom whom I consider far more educated than the young Indian with his knowledge of Latin and Algebra ..." The author and activist from the early 20th century asks her people to "cease to be dependent on [another 's] estimates of our position ..." She warned that "where wealth is the ruling power and intellectual achievement secondary, we must watch out as a people that we do not act altogether upon the dictates of a people who have not given sufficient time and thought to our own peculiar problems."

Then there is Henry Roe Cloud (Winnebago), a Christian devotee who in 1914 would critique the "big national problem of race prejudice" while calling for a college education for Indian students in the same proportion as the white population.

In the struggle for a proper education, perhaps none expressed it better than Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), writing in 1913: "Scores of Indian high school graduates should enter universities and match brains with the best intellects in the country. Indians should be the peer of the most enlightened." He added: "The Indian has great things to give the world, but he can never give these things to the world as long as he stays where he is. He must step upward where he can be seen and he must speak where he can be heard. He must use language, and a logic that appeals above the tumult and wins attention."

Parker calls for an Indian university in 1913. This would be an "ideal university," which would have "no prescribed course." It would be a place of higher learning where students would develop the "mind along the line best fitted by nature. It would mean a real unfolding of self and native genius."

There are many others: Francis LaFlesch and Fred Lookout (Osage) defending the sacramental use of peyote; Parker arguing for Indian tribal standing in court cases of land and other claims; The Society of American Indians, an early advocate (1913), strongly supporting tribal claims.

Then there is the early criticism of racist depictions of Indians as savages, in the Wild West Shows, by Chauncey Yellow Robe, a grandnephew of Sitting Bull. Writes Yellow Robe: "There is a school of race philosophy that propagates the idea that the blonde Aryan or white man is the destined ruler and civilizer of the World. A close analysis would show that the theorists of this school are as a rule, self-admiring egotists, whose emotional nature is, to say the least, erratic."

The early 20th century was a confusing period of painful, slow recovery for American Indians. Yet here we have several selections on World War I and on the Paris peace conference (1919) ? early references to Indian sacrifice in war to press for inherent Indian rights, and, refreshingly, calls for self-determination, for release from petty obligations to the federal bureaucracy, and for the granting of avenues that seemed to empower their own people.

"Mr. Chairman, I hold that the Crow Indian Reservation is a separate, semi-sovereign nation in itself, not belonging to any State, nor confined within the boundary lines of any State of the Union," Robert Yellowtail tells the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 1919. While Yellowtail and others, significantly Charles Eastman (Dakota) the most noted of the writers, called for full U.S. citizenship, they pointed to the need for Indians to gain independent standing in federal courts. Most fascinating is how the book shows a consistently growing pattern of Indian intellectual challenge from a re-strengthening independent point of view of their changing world.