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'Why Do You Indians Always Live in the Past?'

Mike Taylor
4/23/12

So, I recently took down my Facebook page. About a third of my many friends were Indians from various reservations around me; most of these had never gotten past their GED. The rest were white Mormons and white non-Mormons from Utah. This was an educated group and also a rather vocal one, constantly expressing their opinions on my Facebook wall and debating/arguing with other posters like themselves. The Indians, on the other hand, sent me frequent private messages, jokes and invites to join them for various parties, dinners and events on the rez but rarely posted publicly on my wall, although most of them keenly followed what one of them called the “white discussions.”

One day, one of my Facebook friends ran into me on campus. He asked me, “Why do you always live in the past?” I didn't pay much attention to his question back then but remembered not arguing with him or his very strong Mormon beliefs about why Indian languages need to die out and the Mormon placement program. The same evening, another friend ran into me when I was riding a horse. She asked me the very same question and she wasn't Mormon. The same evening, I put up an informal poll on Facebook and, without exception, all whites who responded agreed that I “always lived in the past.” They also seemed rather angry, upset and resentful about it. They said things like, “Get over your past!” I tried to get to the bottom of their resentment by asking questions such as, “But don't you remember 9/11 every year?” or “Should Jews also forget about their near extermination in concentration camps?”

Their responses, the contradictory feelings they expressed, and the very ambiguity in their responses made me sit up and analyze my posts over the two-year duration of my Facebook. Less than 10 percent of my posts dealt with tribal issues; these were mainly news items neglected by the mainstream media that I didn't want my Indian friends to miss. Another 5 percent of my posts were announcements of upcoming events like the Circle Dance, a powwow in a town an hour away, an Indian health fair, announcements of language and culture classes, the free medical clinic, personal updates like my adventures in Australia, etc. But the bulk of my posts, over 85%, talked about issues that were of interest to the educated white audience. I talked about game theory, happiness research, genomics, the new MCAT, exchange-traded funds, cancer detection by canines, research by a physicist that showed how racial profiling to limit terror attacks is mathematically flawed, compassion fatigue in physicians, artificial intelligence in medicine, new open courseware by MIT, research on the neurogenics of niceness, and other very contemporary topics. So what really bothered my white friends on Facebook? In my case, in-depth, in-person discussions with my buddies revealed that the 10 percent content that related to news articles from Indian media was what bothered them and led to their distorted perception. Even though over 85 percent of my Facebook content dealt with very contemporary issues, I was perceived as “living in the past.”

Which brings me to the question: Why do we Indians always hear that we live in the past when we don't? Why are we always told to “get over the past?” The real reason is that Indian discussions serve as an unpleasant reminder to whites that this country is not theirs. Indeed, our very existence serves to reiterate to them that Turtle Island is not their land. Indian news articles from ICTMN and other sources are unpleasant to them because on a subconscious level they realize that they are as much aliens on this land as newly-arrived Arabs or the illegal Mexicans they despise so much. Our stories send home a message to them that their ancestors committed a holocaust against Indians and nearly exterminated us. When we speak about our dying languages, our high rates of diabetes and cancers, alcoholism or the poverty on our reservations, it reiterates to them that this country was built on deceit and lies and their ancestors did something horribly wrong. Our values tell them that their way of life—with the environmental destruction, the divorces, the crime, the wars, deteriorating family values, etc.—is going horribly South. The very fact that you and I are alive and that there are still “full bloods” around undermines the white sense of legitimacy and ownership of America. So my friends, don't let it bother you when people tell you to “stop living in the past” and to “get over the past.” It is just another of those issues mainstream America needs to get over and resolve in their own minds.

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theartistt's picture
Very well written and spot on.
theartistt
koolkila's picture
Great piece Mr. Taylor!
koolkila
kaiamorrigan's picture
I am white. I also have long & strong ties to Natives, including my time with a Rosebud resident & I don't believe any are "liviing the past" so much as educating not only other Natives but also other coltures as to some truths about American history that havenever been told. I am of Scot-Irish. I am proud of my heritage, was not given the choice of where I was born and, along with my cousins, have been involved in years of family research. You made an excellent point about the groups who remember, document & honor their own oppression & genocide. The Scots & Irish are no different. My ancestors were proud warriors, fought battles which they could not possibly win; they were robbed of their meager food resources to feed a nation already fat with their own stores; property was awarded & taken away at the whim of monarchs & when starvation drove us onto "coffin ships", we were greeted on these shores by being pelted, refused housing & work & were no better than the land wefled. Prior to that, our spiritual practices & our languages were forbidden. We , too, practiced drumming; had symbols, colors & meanings for the directions and honored earth & spirits. All forbidden & all punished by torture & death. Sound familiar? It's not about "getting over it", it;s about exposing truths; the desecration & holocausts of other cultures and learning the lessons. You were no more educated about your culture by the dominant culture's schools than I was about mine..except for slanderous sterotypes. Were we educated about slavery? Hitler? Who wasn't? My ancestral homelands have just reclaimed their native languages& made English second...now it must be taught to the locals, very few of whom know any. I have adopted my own belliefs, identify as Scot-Irish when asked. I cannot change the past but I can tell the truth. Those who ask why not "get over it" don't want to hear the answer because the truthh is ugly & shameful.
kaiamorrigan
kaiamorrigan's picture
I am white. I also have long & strong ties to Natives, including my time with a Rosebud resident & I don't believe any are "living the past" so much as educating not only other Natives but also other cultures as to some truths about American history that have never been told. I am Scot-Irish. I am proud of my heritage, was not given the choice of where I was born and, along with my cousins, have been involved in years of family research. You made an excellent point about the groups who remember, document & honor their own oppression & genocide. The Scots & Irish are no different. My ancestors were proud warriors, fought battles which they could not possibly win; they were robbed of their meager food resources to feed a nation already fat with their own stores; property was awarded & taken away at the whim of monarchs & when starvation drove us onto "coffin ships", we were greeted on these shores by being pelted, refused housing & work & were no better than the land we fled. Prior to that, our spiritual practices & our languages were forbidden. We, too,practiced drumming; had symbols, colors & meanings for the directions and honored earth & spirits. All forbidden & all punished by torture & death. Sound familiar? It's not about "getting over it", it;s about exposing truths; the desecration & holocausts of more than a few cultures and learning the lessons of the many. You were no more educated about your culture by the dominant culture's schools than I was about mine..except for slanderous sterotypes. Were we educated about slavery? Hitler? Who wasn't? My ancestral homelands have just reclaimed their native language & made English second...now it must be taught to the locals, very few of whom know any. I have adopted my own belliefs, identify as Scot-Irish when asked. I cannot change the past but I can tell the truth. Those who ask why not "get over it" don't want to hear the answer because the truthh is ugly & shameful.
kaiamorrigan
unique's picture
It's hard to "get over" a past that is still going on to this day. Every time someone finds a "resource" on Indian land - there's someone trying to take it by threat, force, coercion or theft. Gold, silver, coal, oil,gas, uranium, and water ... to this day! How is that the past? I say - Don't get over it! Keep fighting til you get it back!
unique
notnek's picture
Mike this is the best article ever written about then and now. The raging Fighting Sioux debacle in North Dakota comes to mind. The immigrant right wing are determined with legislative action and very negative words to keep a mascot that is clearly not acceptable any longer. Too bad a N D newspaper wont pick up this story . This should be heard by all those wanting us to forget . Salute Mike
notnek
all1fam's picture
I am Mormon, I am white, and I completely agree with you. If you lived in the past you would not be concerned with issues of today, which you obviously are. Being concerned with the past and remembering the events of the past is what shapes us, what guide us, and what can help us learn and progress and make corrections where needed. And as far as this country is concerned, we must remember and learn about the Native Heritage; in fact, the history of the US is merely a subset of the history of Native America. And as far as Mormons are concerned, if they truly lived their religion, they would love to hear of the past – the sufferings, the injustices, and the triumphs of Native Americans. The Mormon Church Historian in 2010, Marlin Jensen, spoke at a Mormon Pioneer Day celebration and said Mormons need to remember “the rest of the story” (see Church News section of Deseret News, July 24, 2010). In that speech he said we need to remember the Native Americans who were already living in the Utah Great Basin at the time the Mormon pioneers settled there. "It is seldom given adequate prominence” he said. He went on to say, "The Pioneers no more 'discovered' the Great Basin than Columbus 'discovered' America … I think telling the rest of the story requires one to acknowledge that Indians made sincere and often heroic efforts to absorb the tide of Mormon emigrants and to peacefully and even symbiotically co-exist with them.” He then concluded, speaking to Mormons, that ," What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah's Indians. That loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story. We can also work until the rest of the story becomes an integral part of the story; until Wakara, Wanship, Washakie and Black Hawk have their appropriate place in Utah's history books [and] Utah's history includes Indian history.” So please don’t stop trying to help the rest of us learn about your past. Some of us appreciate it. Keep telling the story and maybe more will finally listen.
all1fam
tselimaya84's picture
GREAT ARTICLE! The ending paragraph says it all...
tselimaya84
michaelmack's picture
Well said. I've always believe that such statements reveal just how out of touch with the facts of American history, and/or how much in denial people who say such statements are. With undergraduate and advanced degrees in history, I always wanted to know "why" something is the way it is, but over the years I grew to see just how uncomfortable many/most people get when you start to probe the facts of the past. The first denial response always goes something like "who cares about that old stuff". The sadness I feel for Americans who choose to stay in this denial is that they cut themselves off from learning the lessons from the past, but I've learned to accept the fact that in our materialistic culture, this is the norm. In the timeline of human experience, of nations, the U.S. is a very new country. We've mistaken our material "success" as a pass to not have to look at our mistakes - past and present. But nations are like individuals - they have to accept the responsibility to learn to grow up, and that includes experiences like admitting we were wrong, without blaming, without excuses. At the rate the U.S. is going culturally, economically, it seems like rather than growing in maturity, we are going straight from adolescence into senility. And denial of the past only aids the acceleration of the process. Articles such as this help illuminate this situation, and possibly help individuals rethink their thinking. Last year I inadvertently spent a brief time at a July 4 gathering of senior citizens, and as I listened to a speaker talk about America's "glorious" past, I watched some of the audience faces as they listened intently - nothing new was being said, just a re-hash of all the usual expected stuff, but what caught me was the faces - their rapt attention - something "clicked" in my brain - I realized that their fantasy about America's past - was what gave them a deeper sense of meaning, that individuals need to have. I "got" that it was the romanticized story of America's greatness that made the uncertainties and disappointments of today tolerable. I can't explain why, but the look on these adults faces left me with a certain sadness, a sadness that these myths were all they had.
michaelmack
simonwhiteduck's picture
This was historic, but i believe i live in past ...its hunting, fishing and trapping...with the grandkids.
simonwhiteduck

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