Making Things Better by Working Together

The average American has never had a fair chance to know who Native American people are, or what we are like. Non-Indians have been exposed to a tremendous amount of stereotypes of Indian people that made them think poorly of Native American men, women and children, without ever even meeting us.

Here is a popular postcard in 1907. Under the picture are the words

Touch-i-goo - Indian Squaw.

You should know that to call a woman a “squaw” is a very insulting thing to do, but most Americans don’t know that. “Touch-i-goo” is a made up name that doesn’t mean anything; but probably anybody who saw this card would learn two incorrect things about Native American people and language. That’s one way that pieces of stereotype information can spread ignorance and bad feelings.

The person, who sent the card from Syracuse, NY in 1907, wrote this message on the front.

Popular postcard.
“I am sending you on to-day’s train an Indian Baby in a papoose carrier. It is “good” and will not keep you awake nights anytime it does not behave stick pins in it and it will be quiet.

Watch and wait for it!”

Perhaps the writer of that message is “just kidding”. But it is a fact that Indian children were treated very badly by other Americans; and that many Americans believed that it was perfectly okay to mistreat Indian children, because they were Indian.

Now it is not only illegal to mistreat someone because of his or her race, but it is also illegal to mistreat any child.

Things have changed for the better because many, many people of all different races realized that both racism and child abuse are always wrong.

Boarding School Blues

One of the saddest chapters in the history of social interaction between Indians and non-Indians has to do with school.

Native American children were very highly skilled at surviving in the areas where they lived. Their families and relatives loved the natural world and their homelands.

However, when railroad developers, energy companies, and other wealthy powerful people also wanted the land, they got the help of the churches, the newspapers, the politicians running for office, and even the army to move the Indians off of the land, saying that it was “for their own good”. But it wasn’t.

Some “educators” had gotten most of their training in the army. They believed that they should “take the ‘Indian’ out of the child” for his own good. All over the United States, Native American children were kidnapped and otherwise forcibly removed from their parents, sometimes at gunpoint.

Tipi along river.
The poor kids were sent hundreds of miles from their homes to residential boarding schools, and some of them never saw their families again. Their clothes were thrown away, their hair was cut off, their languages were forbidden, and they were not allowed to pray in their Indian ways. They wore uniforms, and were supposed to learn trades that would enable them to work at low level jobs in the non-Indian world.
Children in boarding school.
Many, many of these children died at the schools. Others came back to their families years later, but hardly knew anybody any more, had forgotten their language, and no longer had any survival skills like hunting, fishing, tanning hides, making shelters, or putting up foods for the harsh winter. Many grew up to be sad adults trying hopelessly to raise their own children. Because they had never known any parents, they didn’t know how to “parent” their own children, who in turn did not have parenting experience. Many people feel that in breaking the connection between the generations, the era of the boarding schools did more harm than good to Native American people - some of whom are only now beginning to recover stability.
Indian training school.

In Canada, the last of the boarding schools was closed in the 1980s. The reason they were closed was because for many years, Indian people worked with non-Indian people to raise public awareness of how terrible the schools were for children, and how they did no good for anyone at all except the people who got paid by the governments for working there.

There are still some boarding schools in the United States. They have improved greatly. Today, Native American people continue to work to improve them even more.

“Where the Spirit Lives” is a good video about the boarding schools.

Floyd Westernan

Here are the words to a song written by Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Floyd was in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. He played the part of Chief Ten Bears, the elderly diplomat chief who was always listening to everyone’s opinion, to be sure that everyone in the tipi had a chance to express an opinion as they tried to make decisions together in council.

Boarding School Blues1.

Words and Music by Floyd Red Crow Westerman

You put me in your boarding school
filled me with your White man’s rules
Be a fool
ay hey hey hey heya

You put me in Chicago one
cold and windy day
ay hey hey hey heya

You took me from my home, my friend
Think I’ll go back there again
Wounded Knee
Want to be free
ay hey hey hey heya2.

What emotions do you find in the words to the song? Anger? Dispair? Hope? Determination?

Besides being a movie star, Floyd Red Crow Westerman is also a father and grandfather, and a dedicated activist who speaks out on behalf of children, the Earth, and the survival of indigenous cultures. Floyd is a Dakota (Sioux) from Sisseton, South Dakota.

1. “Boarding School Blues” copyright Floyd Westerman. Used by permission.

2. By the way, the part that goes “ay hey hey hey heya” is not really words. When you hear Native American singers sing sounds like that, it’s more like “telepathy”. There is a very strong emotion that the singers are holding together in their hearts and minds, that has to do with the feeling that goes with the song. When you spend a lot of time with Indian people, you will become more experienced with the ways of that community and the songs that are born there. Then you will understand the power of the drum, and the songs that it carries that inspire us to share those sounds, “ay hey hey hey heya”.

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