My 7-year-old daughter Aurelia was recently named a Powwow Princess of her Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy school. A very reserved and introverted girl, she normally shuns attention and still even bashfully hides behind her daddy when people introduce themselves to her or compliment how beautiful she looks.
Freshly crowned and dressed in her traditional Native regalia at the 2016 MSU Billings Powwow, she was still the same shy girl, but generations of Native blood and tradition manifested. As she danced with the other girls and women about, one could see a fierce and resilient pride behind her eyes.
Later while sitting by me in the stands, to notice those same eyes observe with wide-eyed fascination and admiration the colorful, shawl-bearing women fancy dancers—whose feet appeared to flutter gracefully just above the earth to the rhythms of drums and singing echoing the sounds of our ancestors’ souls—was magnificent.
In spite of how much my daughter already appreciates the splendor of her unique culture, it pains me to know that someday soon this innocent, soft-spoken girl will come across people who would lump all negative stereotypes about Natives onto her and dismiss her thoughts and opinions because of her indigenous heritage.
Where I reside in the picturesque state of Montana and in other surrounding northern Great Plains states, Natives are oft the largest visible minority and ergo the biggest target for prejudiced behaviors. People who don’t even think of themselves as racist will brazenly espouse ignorant things against Natives in public and comment sections online you’d never dare hear or see them say if the people were black, Hispanic, Jewish, etc.
If my daughter asks someday why some people in Montana don’t like Indians—or even why many tribal people despise whites—I could say, “Well, Aurelia, that’s just the way it is. We all have stories about prejudices and discrimination faced, and so a lot of us hold grudges against whites. It’s a cycle. In fact, one day when your own brother was five and in kindergarten at a mostly white school, he came home upset and was trying to wash the brown off his skin because another kid laughed at him and said he was a ‘dirty Indian who needed to clean the dirt off of his skin.'”
I do not want to do that.
So when a white writer friend named Russell Rowland asked me last year if I was interested in co-organizing a symposium that would lay bare current tribal and white relations openly, I readily agreed. Rowland had grown up Montana but lived years on the East Coast and San Francisco before coming back home, where he was “…appalled at some of the things I heard coming out of people’s mouths, especially in relationship to the Native Americans in the community .”We both knew although this was a problem that wouldn’t quickly be resolved, it wouldn’t hurt to try and hash out these things in an open non-judgmental forum.
During late August of last year the community of Billings, Montana hosted our first ever Native American Race Relations & Healing Symposium. The all-day event included both Native and white speakers and was considered an emotionally resounding success to the 80 plus people in attendance who wanted positive change. In the morning we had historian-based guest speakers (including myself) that talked about the importance of not whitewashing U.S. history because prejudice stems from ignorance, and education is the first step to combatting it.
That afternoon various speakers ranging from professors, politicians, teachers, to passionate activists with genuine experiences spoke. One Crow women told of how when she grew up outside of Montana as an Airforce ‘brat,’ having her unique Native American heritage had always garnered a mixture of curiosity and respect. When she moved to Montana as a young teen, however, she was surprised to find a note on her locker on her first day of school telling her to “Go back to the rez!” She’d never even lived on an Indian reservation before.
Having only been barely able to touch on a vast array of sensitive subjects, we knew this conversation would have to keep going to carry the constructive momentum felt that day. There were other hard truths and problems among Natives beyond “blaming the white man” that only we ultimately had the tools to fix, and so the symposium became the Native American Healing and Race Relations Association with monthly meetings dealing with singular subjects chosen for in-depth discussion.
In urban Billings, an elephant in the room is homeless Natives plagued by substance abuse problems who roam the downtown streets, thus it was actually the first solo subject we tackled. A Crow addiction counselor, Joel Simpson, who sometimes works alongside the police dealing with Natives who have substance abuse problems, was blunt about the daunting negative numbers and stats. However, he told us a strategy to get homeless Natives with addiction problems into rehab centers voluntarily in lieu of revolving door jail time was slowly but surely starting to pay dividends for the community.
We also had an informative discussion about the history and importance of tribal sovereignty. We acknowledged how corrupt tribal governments in Montana were a prime factor in keeping Natives from becoming truly self-sufficient nations. How they were seemingly more about maintaining the status quo of oft nepotistic power as opposed to implementing genuine progressive steps that would benefit the whole tribe.
Indian education was talked about from a local Native university professor’s perspective which included her ongoing propositions to make Native American languages accredited courses. A Native Australian and dedicated high school teacher named Glenda McCarthy detailed how she and other Native teachers and tutors were working hard to implement Montana’s Indian Education For All act.
I had the pleasure this month of speaking with acclaimed psychologist and American Book Award winning author and poet Shann Ray Ferch. He recently released an award winning fiction novel titled American Copper, a book highlighting among other Montana-based characters a Cheyenne named Black Kettle, grandson of the “Peace Chief” Black Kettle who in real live survived the brutal Sand Creek Massacre before being gunned down at the Custer-oriented Washita River Massacre.
Although he’s white, Ferch has unique insight into Native Americans after having growing up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation most of his childhood where he gained lifelong friendships. Ferch currently teaches at the Doctoral Program in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University where his bio says his “emphasis is on the nature of forgiveness” and other leadership qualities.
“For the dominant white culture in the history of America, we have such colonial amnesia. We need to keep it up in the forefront of our heart and mind if we’re ever going to be able to move the next level of humanness,” Ferch noted. “Then we can figure out how to move into the right place from there.”
For Native Americans, indeed we must never forget our ancestors’ struggles and sacrifices so we could be here today. However, we cannot “get over” past prejudices if they still linger large today. In order to make sense of the today, we must confront yesterday and only then can we justly change the narrative of tomorrow for our children.
Adrian Jawort is a Northern Cheyenne freelance journalist and co-organizer of the Native American Race Relations & Healing Association. He’s also the founder of Off the Pass Press LLC which aims to find “true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” Titles from Off the Pass Press include the fiction anthologies Off the Path Vol. I and Off The Path Vol. 2: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers which includes up and coming writers from North America, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia.