“Oppressed people, we like to do ourselves in,” said Clayton Small, a New Mexico-based educator and consultant, to about 600 high school students attending a recent tribal education conference in Montana. The School to Work Career Institute 2002 conference in Billings was co-sponsored by the Crow Tribe’s Little Big Horn College and the Northern Cheyenne’s Chief Dull Knife College. Prejudice from non-Indians is painful, but racism from within the American Indian community is just as damaging, they were told.
“We cannot struggle against the oppressor, so we struggle against each other,” added two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwa from the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. “We have to question why we’ve got to fight among ourselves.” “Lateral” racism, exacerbated by poverty, cultural isolation, and a perceived lack of power against the dominant culture, displays itself through emotional undermining of fellow tribal members, LaDuke and Small explained. Unfortunately, it is often directed at friends and relatives who try to get ahead.
“Getting at racism isn’t fun,” said Northern Cheyenne educator Dr. Frank Rowland. “It’s a hard task. You have to get at people’s minds.”
Racism is actually a disease, much like alcoholism or diabetes, said John Potter, a Utah-based Indian artist and newspaper columnist. But no one is born a racist, he said. Whether it’s internal or external, racism must be learned. Potter grew up hearing that some Indians were from the “wrong” clan, family, or tribe. Even today Indians pass myths down to new generations, teaching that many tribes hate each other and that full-blood Indians are superior to mixed-bloods. “The white man is not your enemy,” Potter said. “Ignorance is the enemy. How can we expect the white man to appreciate diversity when we don’t?”
“This is the beauty of us,” LaDuke told the group. “We are not all the same. Diversity is what ecologically sustains life. That’s what sustains our communities. We are human beings and have the right to be respected. Do not let anyone put a bad thought on you.”
LaDuke said high unemployment, inadequate housing, substandard health care, and a lack of services for youths combine to fuel negativity in Native American communities, which in turn poisons advancement. “That’s all we have in our communities — the crumbs,” she said. “The challenge is to not pound each other over the crumbs.”
Ron Selden is a freelance writer and photographer based in Helena, MT.