Never Forget That You Are a Sacred People

Terese Marie Mailhot

Young Native people, it's unfortunate how much you deal with on a day-to-day basis: navigating the world, developing your own beliefs, having to listen to your parents. It's bad enough you have to go through all that, but you also have to deal with people who tell you to “let go of the past, and get over what happened to your people so long ago.” I'm sorry; there isn't an island big enough to put these people on. Unfortunately, you're experiencing a Native rite of passage: dealing with bigots and ignorant racism.

When you encounter the racist ideology, that what happened happened, and that we can't change the past so move forward, tell them you don't have the time to explain why they're wrong. Moving forward is a great thing. Innovation and development are crucial to our culture and the Indian continuum. But ignoring the past, and the struggles that Native people have endured, is neglecting our triumph. I considered compiling a list of all the current atrocities happening to Native people, but it would have to be an anthology. Let's just focus on a few issues --- to relate to you how current and historical atrocities affect Indians today.

Only recently have there been advances against voter suppression of Natives in South Dakota. There is a well-documented history of willful negligence concerning Federal voting law for the people living on Indian land. They've been denied early voting ballads. This gross negligence of our rights is just the remnants of the historical injustices against us. Lest we forget, South Dakota Natives were unable to vote until the 1970's and couldn't hold county office until the 80's. When someone tells you, “What happened to Indians is in the past,” ask them if their mother ever had a hard time voting in an election. Let them know about voter suppression for Indians in Montana, New Mexico, and Alaska.

If someone tells you to be proud to be American, and that this great land is a joyous melting pot, explain that Natives have a long-standing distrust of that patriotic rhetoric. The justice system isn't known for defending Indian rights, but rather enforcing the legal ways in which we have been discriminated against. You can open your wallet and see how Indian killers are lauded as American heroes.

Your mother is probably older than your voting rights. You are only one generation removed from segregation. Let me add, your generation is only one removed from the legal removal of Indian children who were relocated to boarding schools or non-native houses for “assimilation.” Your existence is a feat, and never forget that we're proud of you.How can any Indian trust a government to defend our rights when a blind Indian elder alleges that he woke up after surgery with “KKK” carved into his body? It's difficult to believe he did this to himself, but the jury ruled against him in court. The hospital that operated on this man was the very same hospital that employed the racist nurse, whose rant against natives was caught on video and shared on Facebook.

There is a long-standing mistrust in the healthcare system from Indians given the grotesque and morbid racism practiced against us. There's a reason our grandmothers don't like going to the doctors. After pressure from Native doctors and leaders, the South Dakota Senator, James Abourezk, conducted an investigation into the sterilization and experimental use of drugs on Indian people in 1975. How can we trust healthcare when they are notorious in Indian Country for trying to kill us off? This leads into the idea that many of our elders put themselves in dire situations, due to fear of being in the hands of doctors and nurses. When people say the past is the past, ask them if they've ever feared having racist insignias carved into their bodies while they were under anesthetic, or if their mothers ever feared being unknowingly sterilized by doctors.

When they couldn't stop Natives from having children, they took them away. The federal government was removing one-quarter of Indian children from their homes as recently as the 1970's. Today, Indian children are being taken into custody at alarming rates by Child Protection Services. This became such an issue that there was a federal lawsuit concerning the rights of Indian parents in South Dakota as recently as 2014.

The current situation with the racist nurse in South Dakota may spark some idiotic comments like, “So what? What she said is bad, but why make a big deal about one person?” It's not just her that strikes fear and disgust into the hearts of Indian people, but the people who are caught audibly laughing in the background. Natives are asked to believe the nurse was fired for being racist, when we all know she was fired for being caught. One can't imagine this was the first time she's been heard being a bigot. There's a saying that only drunks and children tell the truth, and her racist, seemingly drunk ramblings, spoke to the truth that she was responsible for human life, human Indian life she detested. The laughter in the background of her rant is the affirmation that her thoughts aren't uncommon, or shocking.

If someone tells you that you have nothing to complain about, and that the age of racism against your people is long gone, pity their ignorance, or give them endless accounts of injustice. Our story is one of survival, injustice, and triumph. Maybe I don't need to tell you this, when your own peers in Pine Ridge had beer poured over their heads, and were called racial slurs when they were brought to a hockey game for their outstanding academic achievement. You carry our history on your backs, and you carry the very hope we place in you as you move forward in life.

Our grandmothers were lucky to be unsterilized, or unmoved by the federal law that told them they couldn't vote or keep their own children. The remnants of injustice follow us. When you encounter the lowest common denominator of human awareness, we hope you maintain the knowledge that you are sacred people, from strong lineage with the inherent right for freedom, even though you've been denied it at every turn.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and the Fraser River. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work, “Heart Berries,” can be found in Carve magazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review.

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