Sometimes we journalists take ourselves too seriously. We are widely published and read by many people. We are recognized, sometimes with big awards. We are trained and/or experienced, and we see ourselves as clever with words. Sometimes we see ourselves as wise, even, and above the people, those who read our words.
Recently I wrote a column about the Fighting Sioux mascot controversy that has been raging at the University of North Dakota for much too long. My words were critical, in fact insulting, to some Native people who are offended by the mascot and are demanding the university discontinue its use. I wrote that they are “perpetually-offended purveyors of over-sensitivity and victimhood.”
I did not picture any of them individually as I wrote that description, and later as I described them as a “sulking and sour minority.” I generalized and smeared them all. That kind of smearing is easy when you don’t have to visualize individuals you’re writing about. It’s just “them” or “they.”
My words were critical, in fact insulting, to some Native people who are offended by the UND mascot.
I received a fair amount of e-mail, and some blog comments, most of them agreeing with me. But I received one that hurt. It was not a mean letter, but a powerful one. It was from the daughter of a person I met many years ago in our common fight for Indian rights – a person I had great respect and fondness for. I should have known she’d be at UND in the midst of the fray, because she’s a fighter, a warrior. And if I had pictured her as one I would be describing, it would have been different, or I would have written nothing at all. Indeed, if I had pictured any of them individually I would not have written as I did.
Her name is Waste’Win Young, daughter of my longtime friend Phyllis Young, and she’s a member of the Standing Rock oyate. Like her mother, she’s a fighter for Native peoples, and a tough lady, a real Dakota. With her approval, I am including some of what she wrote. Here’s what she had to say:
“My name is Waste’Win Young. I am a citizen of the Standing Rock Oyate. First and foremost, I am ‘ina’ (mother) to my two sons Zuya and Wakicunze. I am also an alumna of the University of North Dakota class of 2001. As a young woman I grew up reading your columns and always felt quite proud that your words could illuminate a lot of our people’s stories.
“However, today when I read your column, I literally felt sick to my stomach. In my view point, you went from being a champion of our people’s issues into someone who never attended UND, who was easily bought by the neon green of the jerseys and pretty logo.
“I’m so disappointed that I can barely fathom where you got your reasoning and your hurtful words that in no way reflect my journey at UND.
“As a young Lakota/Dakota I attended the University of North Dakota (1997-2001). I graduated after five years with two degrees in English Language/Literature and American Indian Studies. I have worked for the Standing Rock Nation since 2003. I am the tribal historic preservation officer.
‘I have always respected my elders and I respect your view point. But don’t call us names. We have a right to be heard.’
“I have a lot of love for my oyate regardless of politics – and that’s what this nickname issue is – politics. I think it’s extremely unfair and unreasonable for you to make assertions about this issue, especially when you have not attended school there and have not heard Standing Rock’s alumni side.
“I think that after five years of living in Grand Forks that my story, my experience should carry a little weight to it. I was just a young girl attending college, trying to get her degree.
“I’m appalled to see that this issue has succeeded in turning us against each other. It’s not ok for white kids, black kids, Asian kids to act like ‘fighting sioux.’ It’s not ok for them to have parties and dress up as Indians. As educators, it’s certainly not okay to turn the other cheek. I applaud my peers and professors who have persevered through pervasive ignorance, racism year after year. It’s not just good-old-college fun. It’s not Native students being whiny – it’s me as a Native mother telling you to ‘knock that sh-t off and I mean it.’ It’s a really simple notion.
“Once that nickname is retired we will be emancipated. We won’t have that leash around our necks to be the white man’s good Indian. I have always respected my elders and I respect your view point. But don’t call us names. We have a right to be heard. We are the ones who lived it, earned that feather, and came home. Never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their moccasins.
“I will not play into fighting my own people and if that’s what you want to do and be called fighting Sioux – go right ahead. Us kids from Standing Rock worked hard to bring this issue to the forefront and garner the support of eight tribes in North and South Dakota in 1999. Now it is our own people calling names, fighting us.
“As an elderly person whose words reach a lot of people I ask you to remember one of our values – waunsila. I ask you to have that – for all the students at UND who are going through a tough time. So while you tout your age and being an in-your-face Lakota – Bravo! Good for you!
“I know in my heart what I went through while there. I succeeded because of my traditions, values, and my relationship with Tunkasila. I am an example of academic success despite facing an issue that polarizes our communities and pits human beings against each other.
My prayers and best wishes to you in your never ending fight for what you feel in your heart is right.
“I grew up on the reservation. I know what it’s like to hitchhike to school if I missed the bus, to have eight brothers and sisters, to know how to get along and share, basic tenets that we should all live by. In the bigger picture, you, Mr. Trimble, are still my relative.
“But above all, my journey, my experience matters too. And I will tell you one more thing – I am no victim. I am a proud but humble Hunkpapa Lakota/Yanktonai Dakota winyan, great-great granddaughter of Blue Thunder and Rocky Butte.”
To you, Waste’Win, I say “Thank you.” Powerfully said. I hear you. And I extend my sincerest apologies to you and your mother and to all the good people who are fighting by your side. My prayers and best wishes to you in your never ending fight for what you feel in your heart is right for our people and our future generations. Wopila!
Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was a principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970 and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972 – 1978. He is retired and lives in Omaha, Neb. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Web site is iktomisweb.com.