My mother and I were on a bus from Pine Ridge to Rapid City, where we would join two of my older brothers in finding jobs for the summer. We lived in what seemed to be an old converted moving van, windowless and dank, in the Indian ghetto called Coney Island and we needed the money.
My mother wanted us to experience the satisfaction and pride of hard work and self-sufficiency. She was a widow since before I was two years old, and she was doing her best to give us the experience my father would have wanted us to have. I was only perhaps 6 or 7, so I hadn’t planned on finding a job, but would make myself useful otherwise.
As we rode across the treeless, hilly prairie between Pine Ridge and Hot Springs, the bus began to slow down and finally stopped, tilting slightly off the road. We all hoped there was no mechanical problems, for it was scorching hot and, in those days, the buses were not air-conditioned.
I have found that when a person has faced racism and discrimination, he can never forget it, it stays with him always.
The large driver came down the aisle to the rear of the bus where we sat, and growled at my mother that if I stuck my head out the window one more time, he would throw me off the bus. When my mother pointed out that our rear seat window could not be opened and that some other boy in a seat forward of ours must be the guilty one, the driver in a very loud voice told her that if she didn’t quit “smarting off” he would put us both off the bus with our suitcases. My mother said not another word.
Another time we had taken the mail truck from our home in Wanblee to Martin, S.D., where we would then go to Pine Ridge by bus. In Martin, my mother went to a drug store to get some medicine she could only get from a pharmacist.
We stood at the counter with several other people, all whites, and waited to be served. All the others were being waited on, and new people coming into the store were being served immediately. My mother was seemingly being ignored, but stood patiently waiting.
I was very young, perhaps 5 years old, and was getting impatient. “Mama, let’s go,” I said, “they’re not going to wait on you.” She just patted me aside and assured me that she would be waited on in time. Twice more I said, “Mama, let’s go, they are not going to wait on you.” Finally, I began to cry as I grew more frustrated, and I said loudly, “Let’s go, mama, these bastards are not going to wait on you!”
She took me outside and scolded me to never do that again, that I had embarrassed her. Then she went back into the store, and I could see that she was finally being waited on, undoubtedly getting an earful on how she should raise her kids to be more polite.
There are other stories of such racism that we faced, but I tell these for a specific purpose. I have found that when a person has faced racism and discrimination, he can never forget it, it stays with him always. Seeing my mother treated with such disrespect and rudeness, only because of her race, was worse than being discriminated against myself. It burned into my soul, and it will never go away.
When Dr. Louis Henry Gates, distinguished professor at Harvard, who happens to be black, was arrested at his home recently, it turned out that the lady who called 911 and whose call resulted in the controversy made no reference to race. The white arresting officer was actually a virtual poster boy for racial understanding and tolerance. Still, the fact that the professor resisted and charged racism is understandable. No doubt he faced racism throughout his life, both blatant and subtle.
To this day, when I feel slighted in a restaurant by an overworked or preoccupied server, the first thing that often comes to mind is racism; it’s because I am Indian. There were times after making a scene that I later regretted what I must have done to the young waiter or waitress, who in all likelihood meant no disrespect, and didn’t deserve the wrath of my paranoia.
But that paranoia and inner insecurity shows the terrible cost of racism and discrimination, a cost born entirely by those of us who have faced it. It is something I have tried to get over, and as I grow older and more tolerant, I find myself less and less sensitive about imagined slights.
My mother taught her children that whenever we are picked on or discriminated against, we should not let it bother us; just work to be better than them – better educated, smarter, more respected.
But racism persists, and it must not be accepted. We do have recourse, and we should not have to put up with it. And sometimes it is so satisfying to take action.
One of my older sisters, for example, was having her car gassed up in a reservation border town. It was a newer car, not too expensive, but very nice. She had used the restroom, and as she came out, the attendant came in the front door, and not seeing her he laughed about the Indian welfare Cadillac he just gassed up. Hearing this, she went to the owner, who was at the cash register, and told him that she will not give her trade to a racist business, and that he should take his gas out of her car. He apologized on behalf of the attendant, but she would have none of it. Despite his apologies, she kept up her demand that he remove the gasoline. He finally asked if she would be satisfied if he didn’t charge her for the gas, which she finally accepted, assuring him that it was the last he would see of her business and that of anyone from the reservation, if she could help it.
Then there are other times when a situation presents a most rewarding outcome. For example, there is a story that was attributed to the famous black journalist, the late Carl Rowan, who enjoyed wealth and lived in a very rich neighborhood.
One weekend he was working on all fours in the dirt of a flowerbed in his front yard, and wearing his scruffiest work clothes. A large fancy car stopped at the curb and the window rolled down; an elderly white lady called to him: “Boy, come here, I want to talk to you.” He rose and walked slowly to the car, wiping sweat off his forehead as he approached. “What does the lady of the house pay you for your work?” the lady asked. “Well, she doesn’t pay me any money, ma’am, but she feeds me well, and I get to sleep with her.” The window rolled up quickly, and the car sped off.
Sometimes, when I’m working in my yard, sweaty and smelly and ragged, I always hope to hear a female voice from the street, “Boy, come here, I want to talk to you,” so I can use that wonderful line. But it never happens.
Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is iktomisweb.com.