So much has been written about what it is to be a contemporary Native American person. There have been so many perspectives. One hopes that there will be much more written and expressed about it as so much more needs to be said, shown and lived out. I want to use this blog to focus in on the fundamental issues that make up what it means to be an “indigenous” person or a “Native American” or a “First person.” There are so many names that surround us and it can become confusing, especially when Anglo-Americans try to correct us when we are trying to express who we are.
I was born in 1965 in St. Paul, Minnesota to George Donald Fredericks and Phyllis Whipple Fox. While both of them had their own admirable qualities, they met and brought their own problems of identity wrapped in alcoholism to the relationship. My father, George, was born to a poor rural family that allowed him a hard childhood without the gift of education and the hard back-killing work of local farms. He may have made it through the third or fourth grade and knew how to count and had some rudimentary skills of reading, but generally his life would be one caught in the use of his manual strength to survive. My mother, on the other hand, was born to a family of elite status among the Dakota (Sioux) people. Her father, Christian Bennet Whipple, was an educated Episcopal priest and she and her brothers and sisters were brought up playing musical instruments with expectations that all would go on into the world with a complete high school education and ideally with college education, as well.
I think that my father’s life is probably better recognized by many others who know how Anglo individuals survived the Great Depression of the 20th century. However, the story of my mother, her parents and her siblings is much less recognized and even less understood. So, my personal story begins there on a Sioux reservation sometime with my mother’s birth in 1936. Of course, that history is connected to an older 500+ year history of contact between Europeans and Native Americans who claimed their own cultures and connections to the land that they lived upon.
This history is integral to my identity as a Wahpekute Dakota man. While white Americans seem to struggle with their own identity, having ancestors who specifically wanted to lose a national or ethnic identity in order to become part of the great “melting pot” of America, Native people were forced to assimilate to the “new” Euro-American cultures. It’s one of those evils that was well-intentioned. Think about it from an earlier white person’s experience: “Of course, they need to be like us, because we are blessed with prosperity, refined culture, technical skills, and anyone who is in their right mind should want to be like us.” Unfortunately, this would later turn a corner that was unseen and unintended: “They should be like us, whether they want to or not, and since we have the power to make this so, we will.”
There is much written about the assimilation policies enforced by the United States government through its well-intentioned (and often bigoted) representatives and policies. It is often painful for Native people to really think about what was done to them. It is the equivalent of cultural rape. “You will give up your identities as you knew yourselves and become one of us. You are less than us and should be as much like us as you can be. You must give up as much of yourselves and take on new identities that are better, i.e., like us.” I’ll look at some of the formal policies later, but that is generally the gist of assimilation: “be like us…you’ll like it.”
Assimilation was so effective, that our languages have been lost or are often on the verge of becoming extinct. So many heroes are currently involved in trying to make sure that those languages with their distinct and unique concepts survive for future generations. It is a worthy and noble work, indeed because our identities are tied up with our original languages and names. Just look at the terms that I have used so far: indigenous, first person, Native Americans, Sioux, Wahpekute, Dakota. All of these words describe me. In my original language, the word “Dakota” describes a specific relationship held by a specific group of people to one another. We are “allies.” Wahpekute means “shooters (of arrows) in the forests or woods.” That was a specific band or clan of people within that larger Dakota grouping. There are many other labels and names that can be used, but was is important is that I KNOW these meanings. Many of my Dakota brothers and sisters don’t have that luxury anymore: they don’t know what it means. They have lost their distinct identity and while they may know that they are Native American or that they think they might be Sioux, they no longer know the smaller connections. The assimilation policies tried on my ancestors have succeeded because younger generations no longer know their identity. It’s lost, but hopefully can be found again. That’s why I feel that those who continue to teach the Dakota language and culture are so heroically important.