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

Mike Taylor

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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laura's picture
Their past is our present. People can be very ethnocentric when it comes to Indian matters. They just don't get it that our culture is very real & alive to us when all they know about it is textbook and peripheral knowledge.
curtj's picture
Don't Live In The Past.I am afraid too many of our leaders don't bother to educate themselves about the definition of colonialism. The illegal European immigrants invaded and began stealing the resources and lands. The Indigenous were enslaved, murdered and genocide committed on them in order to accomplish that and the few survivors were enslaved to concentration camps called reservations on lands the whites deemed worthless. Look around the world at the 130 countries the 900 American bases are, manned by military intelligence, the CIA, and hired mercenaries, busy destabilizing countries to set up coups of legitimate governments to set up and prop up despot puppet regimes, bribed to subjugate their people to allow foreign conglomerates to steal their resources. Terror, intimidation, kidnappings, rape and murder is used. As descendants of the illegal immigrants who stole the resources and continues to do so, and murdered my people to do it, most white America refuse to acknowledge and admit that colonialism is nothing but theft and murder and results in terrorism. I am afraid too many of our leaders say Don't look back, Only look forward. When they refuse to educate themselves on what transpired in America since 1492 when we began to lose all, they set us up for defeat time after time. They force us to start out trusting the descendants of the illegal European immigrants and to start the process of losing more resources and lands by Don't look back. And we allow them. They refuse to address our grievances to the Indigenous Peoples Forum of the United Nations. Some I think are bribed to allow the theft to continue
marilynberryhillbrownell's picture
This is the best article I believe I've ever read, you said it in totality. I've never seen it said better. Thank you.
tmsyr11's picture
The questions that DO come up are questions of NOT UNDERSTANDING the past of Indians, i.e. why do you live in the past? Unless it were a White Guy with another book about Indians, i.e. Tony Hillerman, then white people just assume not even listen or pay attention. So the question remains, why can Indians offer to even get an audience of white people to listen in? Certainly selling indian beliefs, values, cultural practices has been done BUT again white people/industry take what is 'given' and put their SPIN to indian customs and traditions and selling it! National Geographic "Navajo Cops". It certainly doesn't help Indian people and trying to establish themselves, if 'progressive' contemporary Indian people throw their support behind 'indigenous people' and their migration through Mexico, i.e. Illegal Immigration. It only muddles those legitiate indian people living here in the United States and trying to inform white people of who the Indian today is? Therefore, the only thing we have to offer, than Casino dollars, is our 'past', and really nothing more unless again, it were coming from a Ivy-league college educated white lawyer or white progressive.
angryduck's picture
When BIA no longer exists, then "We" will get over it. There is no Bureau of White Affairs, Bureau of Mexican Affairs, Bureau of Asian Affairs or Bureau of African American Affairs. When the federal government stops dictating to Native Americans on how to live their lives, then "We" will get over it. When the federal, state and county governments stop the ongoing land grabs, then "We" will get over it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
junie's picture
Hi Mike. I subscribe to Hancock News, which covers a lot of info about scientific finds. This is how I found your post. I was surprised at what I read. I live in Ohio, and there is no one I know who shares the belief that the Native American's need to get over their past. I am white and so are the other people. The Native Americans had a rich past, until it was taken from them. And, I'm sure, they are trying to regain a lot of that past, along with keeping their languages alive. Nothing wrong with that. They have that right, and until every other ethnic group in the world decides to forego their past, why should the Native Americans? This mindset doesn't even make sense. I don't know what the problem is. Guilt? Could be. Anger? Anger over what? Those people need to focus on this issue to figure out why they feel the way they do. You should put your Facebook page back up.
tmliston's picture
Mike: I'm a 72 year-old Anglo, and I couldn't agree with you more. As I near the end of my life – having paid my taxes for 60 years, fought for this country in Vietnam, involved myself in social justice issues, and generally advocated for the "others" in our society – I think your comments are right on point. I grew up believing all the patriotic hype that we (Anglo) Americans are so fond of. I learned about our great heroes, from the Revolutionary War to our 'noble' defense of democracy in southeast Asia. But it was that episode that opened my eyes and forced me to really examine who we were as a people and a nation. We call ourselves the greatest nation on earth, but we are an arrogant, selfish, and insensitive people. We ignore the fact that what we now enjoy was purchased with the lives of countless Native Americans, over a million African slaves, and the sovereignty of many nations that got in the way of our Manifest Destiny. It's a legacy of shame. I'm sure you've heard your share of "white romanticizing" about indigenous Americans; I don't wish to be included in that milieu. There is nothing romantic about a a history in which an entire people were robbed of their lands, murdered for their 'recalcitrance,' and worst of all stripped of their dignity. This is one European American who finds that history exceedingly sad. And exceedingly shameful. tml
David W Gillie's picture
"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" Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2012/04/23/why-do-you-indians-always-live-past You lost me at this. So sad. There was a country building, unprecedented in the history of the world. To take a premise first by city-states in Greece and Jews in the Holy Land, all individuals have value despite their belief, and no people should be exterminated. So, you hold the past, in ways you don't comprehend. You must like, "The Gladiator" where the Republic would be restored, but history tells us it was not, it became corrupted into Emperors who overstayed their usefulness. The past you imagine, did not exist. The future you envision, will be your failing.
David W Gillie
donrockero's picture
Excellent Article!. .. and to the mormon that commented, the issues from the past are still the issues from the present. You might not see it because the media is controlled by what they want you to know, this is why we continue with the past and our past is still our present!
grouchy's picture
Essentially the problem here is that the Whites simply CAN'T live in their past (for very sound reasons). Maybe just a wee bit of guilt behind this?