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'We Are All Related': White Man in a Red World

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I grew up in the white world. Anyone not white was a minority. In school we learned that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered America. Indians fought cowboys in the Old West, and Custer was tragically killed by a huge group of “bad savages."

In my family, my parents encouraged us to like people for who they were and what they said, not because of the color of their skin. I learned about melanin early on, especially as my freckles bloomed all over my body. I asked my dad if I would one day turn black. I thought it would be pretty cool to at least have all of those freckles develop into a permanent tan.

I grew up being the Indian when the neighborhood kids played Cowboys and Indians. Mostly because I couldn’t run as fast as the others—us slow kids were all Indians so the cowboys could catch us faster and kill us sooner. Pretty soon I got tired of getting killed all the time. But as one of my friends pointed out, “Everyone knows the bad guys always get killed.” I was always inquisitive, so I started reading about Indians to better portray them during games, or maybe find a way to live a little longer. It was then that I began to learn that maybe the Indians weren’t bad guys by default. Through middle and high school I read up more on Native American culture, learned about the plains cultures in the mid-to-late 1800s. I learned that there was often more to the story than what we were being taught in school. Columbus? Not such a hero. More of a Hitler. Custer? He wasn’t such a saint, and his ego cost him and his troops dearly. But there was nothing on modern Indian culture, and I never talked to an Indian until my adult life. Then I volunteered with a group out in Pine Ridge.

I met many Lakota. Through the last few years of visits I have become good friends with many, and call one Ciye, my older brother, because we have grown close. Through many conversations with my Ciye, I learned more than I could have ever learned in a book. I have sweat with him and prayed with him. He’s a good man, and I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a good man, too.

I decided to get more involved with doing what I could to help out my new relatives out on the rez. I have struggled with how best to stand with them in their efforts to make things better out there while trying not to seem like just another wasichu who thinks he knows what’s best for the Indians.

I started reading Indian Country Today to try and keep up with Native current events. See what the issues were and what I could do about it. As I read the stories and followed the comments on Facebook, I began to notice a disturbing trend. There were many comments about white people. How they interfered all of the time. How they were no good. How they were only interested in exploiting Indians. Some openly mocked me for my views when I joined in. Not because of the views, but because I had the audacity to make a comment when I was “just a white guy." At first, it didn’t bother me much. I had seen one or two racist remarks in the Rapid City Journal comment sections disparaging Indians. But the more I read the comments in ICT, the more racist remarks I encountered.

I read hateful words from some Natives against “Christians” or “whites,” as if we are all the same. It’s not the first time I’ve had racism directed toward me because of my skin. In the Marines I went on liberty with a couple of my friends to visit their old neighborhood in L.A. Upon walking in I had to use the bathroom, and they pointed me down the hall, past the living room and next to the kitchen. As I entered the living room, I had guns drawn on me, with several people yelling “whitey!” Fortunately my friends, Chavez and DeLaRosa stepped in quickly and explained that we served together. I was definitely the minority that night, being the only “white guy” in the building. But I made several new friends, and it ended up being a pretty fun night. They came to know me as a person, not as a color.

In the age of the Internet and Facebook, it has become the norm to interject opinions after articles. The problem is that there can be misunderstandings with written words. Inflection and tone, readily identified in a real voice, are completely up to the reader of the comment to determine. Also, as I have been guilty of myself, it is easy to be snarky when you have the safety of the relative anonymity of the computer screen protecting you. It is simple to spew hateful and mean words at people without consequence. To tell someone they are inferior because of the color of their skin, or where they were born. To exclude someone who may have a good heart from standing up for justice with you, because they were not raised Indian. I wonder if some of the people commenting after the ICT stories on Facebook can see that racism is not limited to a certain color. That religious intolerance is not limited to a specific religion.

I am fortunate. I grew up not having to deal with racial slurs or abuse from others in a different culture. When I was a kid that never even hit my radar. Even as a young adult, I understood racism was bad and I called people on it when it happened. I suppose it is a byproduct of how I was raised to stand up now, as a white man in a red world, to point it out and to ask you to think about it before you comment. I cannot fully grasp the historical trauma that still exists for my Lakota friends. It was genocide. But I have come to understand that there are still those in the Dominant culture that are waging that war against Natives. I live in that Dominant culture, and I hear and see very little about Natives at all. I said before that I struggle with what I can do without seeming like a wasichu know it all, or becoming a member of the Wannabe tribe. I think what I am supposed to do is help re-educate the dominant culture about the truth of what really happened in history. Person by person. Group by group. To tell about the truth of what is still happening on many reservations. I understand now how I can stand with my Lakota relatives, and maybe change some attitudes out in the world.

But I don’t understand, will never understand, the hatred that stems from racism. Anyone who will judge a person by the color of their skin is a half-wit. The dominant society in this country has done that for generations. But it seems that it runs in the non-dominant societies as well. So I call out to you, my cousins, to be bigger than that. Be bigger than the racists that you have run into in your lives. Don’t sink to their level and hate us all for the actions of some, or because of stereotypes. Get to know me for who I am and what I believe before you condemn me for the color of my skin. That is all I ask.

My Ciye taught me the meaning behind the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related. He didn’t have to explain it to me. He showed me through his actions and his treatment of others. Maybe if we can get past hating, we can stand together for what is right.

John Shaffer grew up and was educated in Iowa. He spent 10 years in the Marine Corps, another 10 years as a paramedic and enjoys traveling and learning about people. He is now a full-time artist and resides in Minnesota with his wife and two children.