When I first heard the term, "lateral racism" I was astounded that such a condition had a name and, sadly, that it existed long enough to earn that name. It's still a relatively new concept. When I searched for the term, one hit came up for the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education in an article written by Ron Selden. In the article, Anishinaabe activist and writer, Winona LaDuke said, "We cannot struggle against the oppressor, so we struggle against each other ... "
I heard it in high school, taking a tribal government class from one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Martin. He put it simply, "You see me. I'm brown ... just another 'dirty Indian' to you and you ignore anything I have to say! You look at some of the white teachers around here and you sit up and listen! That, is lateral racism.
While I'd always had a degree of respect for the toiling Mr. Martin, just by virtue of his being a teacher, it increased tenfold after that statement. He hit the issue at the time right on the nose. The other students in the class were freshmen and sophomore mostly who took the class because it was, in their words, "an easy class.
" After all, who knows more about tribal government and, indeed, tribal people than us?
But when that figurative hammer struck my mind, shattering that curiosity of why I didn't respond to Native teachers, I realized that we don't know as much as we think we do.
How many of us have looked at someone on our reservation or colony or housing complex and thought ill of them? Admittedly, when the election season rolled around my brother, who is a former police officer from both Pine Ridge and Rosebud, said to me, "Indian's ain't never going to vote for a Black man! They will look at the Clintons or McCain and think they'll protect them because they're white!"
That simple statement illustrated two main points of lateral racism to me. The first being that my brother, who saw a lot of the bad things both reservations can yield, be it domestic violence, drug abuse or murder, had developed his own prejudice against our people. The second point being that even though the source of that statement is suspect, it holds some water. We've been programmed from the beginnings of our relations with the United States to respond to the authority (backed up with the gun, no doubt) of its white leaders.
On my own reservation, there is an historic case of lateral racism.
In 1881, Chief Spotted Tail was killed by Chief
Crow Crow Dog in a dispute that's still debated by historians today. Whether it was about a wife or over power, the effects of this action gave birth to many rifts and had consequences that resulted in the passing of the Major Crimes Act of 1885. To this day, there are Sicangu who still respect Crow Dog and others who believe otherwise. On the other side are those who believe that Spotted Tail, pejoratively known as a "Paper Chief," appointed by the federal government, had no right to claim the title in the first place.
Over the generations, incidents like these escalate into family grudges and when blood quantum is involved and which family is, "more Indian" or "less Indian," it gets downright cruel. It's gotten to the point that even when I think of any children I might raise in the future, I worry about their blood quantum first and whether they'll have ten fingers and ten toes next. But over my short time in the world, I've realized one thing: the more we fight amongst ourselves, the less hope all our children have for seeing their respective nations continuing to exist.
These days, it's easier for Native youth to hate on each other.
We've been given a popular culture archetype thanks to MTV and MySpace: the hater and the hated. We allow ourselves to mimick big-time male rappers legendary grudges or the catfights between women on reality television. While most tribes enjoy a cordial relationship with the federal government these day, its predecessors in the Congress of the 19th century almost certainly developed the, "divide and conquer" strategy toward our collective people. What's worse is that it continues to work, even after those members of Congress and senators were dead and buried.
This past summer, I addressed a group of Native youth at a Unity conference here in Reno, on behalf of Sen. Barack Obama. In that room, I was able to expound upon the virtues of the candidate as he related to Native people. But the one thing that sticks with me was not the trills, cheers or applause, but it was two words: "Psssh, whatever." I introduced myself in the traditional Lakota greeting, "Cante waste nape ciyuzapi," translated as, "I shake your hand with an open heart." A student sitting up front uttered those two words that brought me back to that classroom at Todd County High School all those years ago.
It proved to me that lateral racism exists in Indian Country and that, more than anything, needs to be seriously addressed. The life of a Native, whether on the reservation or off, is a hard one. We not only carry our own hardships, but because of our tribal culture, we bear the transgressions of past generations, of our parents and grandparents against each other. We are programmed to think it's stoic not to forgive each other and unite to preserve our people. All the while, our elders die around us at an alarming rate, heart-broken that they haven't seen the seventh generation reach its full potential in uniting our people, putting all ill will aside and accepting ourselves and fighting for our rights and our heritage. Native life and Rez life are hard enough; there are those of us who have the lowest life expectantcy in the Western Hemisphere, behind only Haiti.
Whether it's today, tomorrow or next year, we owe it to our ancestors to stop this foolishness of fighting amongst ourselves. We need to stop teaching our children and grandchildren that one family is worse than another; or that respect should not be given to a certain person because of a second-hand story. Respect is an integral virtue built into our people; we have endured long winters and hot summers, the rage of animals three times our size and disease; we have learned that respect for every living being and person is not earned, it is given. We cannot afford, with such little time left, to hate on each other. If we're going to get anywhere in this world, if we're going to start making good on our promise to improve our lives, it must begin here and now; we move together, or not at all.
At the time, I don't think I had the courage to thank Mr. Martin for his clarity and true education, but I'd like to think that so long as another Native student reads this in his senior, junior, sophomore or -- hopefully -- freshman year, his mission at educating us is not in vain.