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'We Are All Related': White Man in a Red World

John Shaffer
11/16/13

I grew up in the white world. Anyone not white was a minority. In school we learned that Christopher Columbus was a hero who discovered America. Indians fought cowboys in the Old West, and Custer was tragically killed by a huge group of “bad savages."

In my family, my parents encouraged us to like people for who they were and what they said, not because of the color of their skin. I learned about melanin early on, especially as my freckles bloomed all over my body. I asked my dad if I would one day turn black. I thought it would be pretty cool to at least have all of those freckles develop into a permanent tan.

I grew up being the Indian when the neighborhood kids played Cowboys and Indians. Mostly because I couldn’t run as fast as the others—us slow kids were all Indians so the cowboys could catch us faster and kill us sooner. Pretty soon I got tired of getting killed all the time. But as one of my friends pointed out, “Everyone knows the bad guys always get killed.” I was always inquisitive, so I started reading about Indians to better portray them during games, or maybe find a way to live a little longer. It was then that I began to learn that maybe the Indians weren’t bad guys by default. Through middle and high school I read up more on Native American culture, learned about the plains cultures in the mid-to-late 1800s. I learned that there was often more to the story than what we were being taught in school. Columbus? Not such a hero. More of a Hitler. Custer? He wasn’t such a saint, and his ego cost him and his troops dearly. But there was nothing on modern Indian culture, and I never talked to an Indian until my adult life. Then I volunteered with a group out in Pine Ridge.

I met many Lakota. Through the last few years of visits I have become good friends with many, and call one Ciye, my older brother, because we have grown close. Through many conversations with my Ciye, I learned more than I could have ever learned in a book. I have sweat with him and prayed with him. He’s a good man, and I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m a good man, too.

I decided to get more involved with doing what I could to help out my new relatives out on the rez. I have struggled with how best to stand with them in their efforts to make things better out there while trying not to seem like just another wasichu who thinks he knows what’s best for the Indians.

I started reading Indian Country Today to try and keep up with Native current events. See what the issues were and what I could do about it. As I read the stories and followed the comments on Facebook, I began to notice a disturbing trend. There were many comments about white people. How they interfered all of the time. How they were no good. How they were only interested in exploiting Indians. Some openly mocked me for my views when I joined in. Not because of the views, but because I had the audacity to make a comment when I was “just a white guy." At first, it didn’t bother me much. I had seen one or two racist remarks in the Rapid City Journal comment sections disparaging Indians. But the more I read the comments in ICT, the more racist remarks I encountered.

I read hateful words from some Natives against “Christians” or “whites,” as if we are all the same. It’s not the first time I’ve had racism directed toward me because of my skin. In the Marines I went on liberty with a couple of my friends to visit their old neighborhood in L.A. Upon walking in I had to use the bathroom, and they pointed me down the hall, past the living room and next to the kitchen. As I entered the living room, I had guns drawn on me, with several people yelling “whitey!” Fortunately my friends, Chavez and DeLaRosa stepped in quickly and explained that we served together. I was definitely the minority that night, being the only “white guy” in the building. But I made several new friends, and it ended up being a pretty fun night. They came to know me as a person, not as a color.

In the age of the Internet and Facebook, it has become the norm to interject opinions after articles. The problem is that there can be misunderstandings with written words. Inflection and tone, readily identified in a real voice, are completely up to the reader of the comment to determine. Also, as I have been guilty of myself, it is easy to be snarky when you have the safety of the relative anonymity of the computer screen protecting you. It is simple to spew hateful and mean words at people without consequence. To tell someone they are inferior because of the color of their skin, or where they were born. To exclude someone who may have a good heart from standing up for justice with you, because they were not raised Indian. I wonder if some of the people commenting after the ICT stories on Facebook can see that racism is not limited to a certain color. That religious intolerance is not limited to a specific religion.

I am fortunate. I grew up not having to deal with racial slurs or abuse from others in a different culture. When I was a kid that never even hit my radar. Even as a young adult, I understood racism was bad and I called people on it when it happened. I suppose it is a byproduct of how I was raised to stand up now, as a white man in a red world, to point it out and to ask you to think about it before you comment. I cannot fully grasp the historical trauma that still exists for my Lakota friends. It was genocide. But I have come to understand that there are still those in the Dominant culture that are waging that war against Natives. I live in that Dominant culture, and I hear and see very little about Natives at all. I said before that I struggle with what I can do without seeming like a wasichu know it all, or becoming a member of the Wannabe tribe. I think what I am supposed to do is help re-educate the dominant culture about the truth of what really happened in history. Person by person. Group by group. To tell about the truth of what is still happening on many reservations. I understand now how I can stand with my Lakota relatives, and maybe change some attitudes out in the world.

But I don’t understand, will never understand, the hatred that stems from racism. Anyone who will judge a person by the color of their skin is a half-wit. The dominant society in this country has done that for generations. But it seems that it runs in the non-dominant societies as well. So I call out to you, my cousins, to be bigger than that. Be bigger than the racists that you have run into in your lives. Don’t sink to their level and hate us all for the actions of some, or because of stereotypes. Get to know me for who I am and what I believe before you condemn me for the color of my skin. That is all I ask.

My Ciye taught me the meaning behind the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related. He didn’t have to explain it to me. He showed me through his actions and his treatment of others. Maybe if we can get past hating, we can stand together for what is right.

John Shaffer grew up and was educated in Iowa. He spent 10 years in the Marine Corps, another 10 years as a paramedic and enjoys traveling and learning about people. He is now a full-time artist and resides in Minnesota with his wife and two children.

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Anonymous's picture
Dear Mr. Shaffer, First let me say, Semper-Fi. Thank you for your service. My husband is also a former Marine, who served in Chu Li Vietnam, 66-67. Now onto the my comment in response to your article. I enjoyed what you had to say. It is well thought out and communicates beautifully a sentiment echoed by many. I am the daughter of a mixed marriage, whose roots have great accomplishments on both sides. My Mom was 1st generation, born in America; my grandfather coming from England age 6. My Dad was an adopted native boy, in Skowehegan Maine, part of the eastern Abenaki tribe. In dealing with prejudice I have learned, to balance a spinning plate on a stick, with my right hand, and juggle tennis balls with my left. I grew up a half breed in a white world. As an adult, I sought out my Native heritage, to be a half breed in a native world. Neither one of those experiences hold very many positive memories. However, I have discovered that hate, controversy, egotism, willingness to dominate over others, and distain for anything not like ourselves, is human nature. If I wasn't disliked for my heritage, I would have been disliked for some other reason. This has been proven to me many times, too numerous to mention. That is the way we humans are, no one is exempt. Your comment about half wits, is proof positive. Although, I whole heartily agree and would stand shoulder to shoulder with you on this, we are no different. Your, Ciye is right. So what is to be done? Although we disagree with what others believe, do we have the right to force what we believe as the right way? No, we do not. We do however, have the right to not allow what others believe, to harm people in any way. Our fight is not with other's and what they believe, it is with ourselves and what we DO about it. There will always be those, who don't like or hate others. Do not degrade someone for what they believe, when it disagrees with what you believe to be right. They are no less than you are. We can however, form a human barrier, to not allow harmful actions to take place. Each of us in our corner of the world, can stop hateful actions from harming others, through our actions. Hopefully soon, hateful/harmful behavior will have no place to reside, or plant itself so it can grow. Thank you, Dee Lagase
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Ha-ho!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you. This is so well said, there is nothing more that can be added. While my skin may be white, I also have Native American blood that I am extremely proud of.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thank you for your candid article, I do believe that Indians are just as racist as whites and blacks ect.... there are those in every race and then there are the most tolerable and knowledgeable that are more apt to understand. However with that being said you should also understand that living and growing up in communities like western Okla or near reservations and Indian territories we live the racism daily throughout out our lives and there are remnants of the unjust things that was said and done personally to each of us, not to mention that a lot of us in this time are more educated and realized the atrocity of school books and systems that only made our people more invisible than we were to begin with. There are good and bad in all colors and we all have to learn that everybody no matter what color or religion or nation has their own story, Respect the person! If the story interests you learn about there nation, but base your anger or that respect on truth, once you get to truth then we can get to respect, and tolerance.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I remember when I made my home with a full-blood and he did not believe me when I said I was part Native, Blackfeet and Cherokee. That is until my cousins visited and asked me if I knew that my grandmother was Cherokee, This truly saddened me because I am Native more in my heart and I have not had the opportunity to know what this means. I continue to ask my Higher Power to guide and show me the path I am to take and he has. There are so many stories that confirm that I am who God decided I should be not what another labels me as and I thank him for the showing me through the media such as this
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Fabulous writing! I cannot stand either, any one of any color using racial slurs or spewing hatred. Do not become that which you fight against! Keep an open mind and heart and let the truth lead the battle and show the way.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Thanks
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
When will people realize we are all the same!!! We all have common ancestors. Great article!!!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I say this is a excellent article and say thank you John for telling the world like it really is!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
While we are all related European expansionism in it's various forms---invasion, expropriation, genocide, removal, slavery, colonialism, settlement---brings race into existence as a global social reality, with the single most important conceptual division being that between "whites" and "nonwhites". Those termed white have generally had a civil, moral juridical standing that has lifted them above other "races". They have been the expropriators, others have been expropriated. They have been the appropriators, authorities, law makers, slave owners; others have been the "Savages", properties and slaves. They have been the colonizer: others have been the colonized. Hence, the construction of formal ontological patterning in the population of the planet, signified by race and white supremacy. one's being and consciousness is shaped through the assigned category of race despite scientific evidence that there are no biologically determined characteristics of race, save phenotype. However, there is a pervasive social construction, a set of positions in a global structure, for which race will be an assigned category that influences the socialization one receives, the life world in which one moves, the experiences one has, and the view one develops. This white racism so structured the world as to have negative ramifications for every sphere of life for natives and all people of color---juridical standing, moral status, personal racial identity, epistemic reliability, existential plight, political inclusion, social metaphysics, sexual relations, aesthetic worth. The dominant moral code within the republic is based on a racialized anthropology, or a Master race ethic. Thus, it becomes an ethical imperative to bring to consciousness the assumptions and mechanisms of this white supremacist ethic, and ultimately to subvert it so that " the white eye can thereby learn to see itself seeing whitely".
Anonymous

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