I distinctly remember one day a handful of years ago. The museum in town was hosting a multicultural festival, a day where different cultural groups came together, displayed artifacts from their culture, shared their traditional foods and dances, and talked about their roots and languages with the public.
There was an Indian man hosting a table with this wife. He was dressed in a long, multicolored beaded robe and matching yellow feathered headdress, both of which his wife had handmade. Quietly I stood in this crowded room and watched him interact with the public, the visitors to his table. With intelligence and pride he would tell them about traditional foods and games, his particular tribe, and his traditional powwow outfit.
I waited for a low-key moment and approached. We struck up conversation, and soon were talking about everything from politics to his retirement from a large local company to the biggest challenges facing Indian youth today. It was fascinating, what this man had to say. But that’s not the stuff I mostly remember. I mostly remember his story, and what happened after that.
This man was from Alberta, Canada originally. He told me that as a child he was forced to go to a boarding school by the government, where he endured physical abuse by the staff for pretty much anything, even speaking his native language. With tears in his eyes he told me about those days of missing his parents and everything familiar, of being so scared but not having any options. That’s the moment when the headlines became real for me. These weren’t just stories that Indians tell to propagate white guilt, like some people prefer to believe. These things are a real part of history. With discerning eyes I took in this man and measured him, and his pain was real. Even though it was long ago, it was still close to the surface, and he held it.
In the middle of his story something happened that loudly knocked me back to this world. An older gentleman, White, confidently strode up to the Indian man, called him a witch doctor, laughed, and walked away. In an instant I was deflated, taken aback, shocked. I looked to the Indian man for a reaction. With an embarrassed smile he waved it off. “We are used to it,” I clearly remember his saying. He is used to it. Must happen quite a bit.
Shortly after that, after thanking this man for sharing a part of himself with me, I departed to sort out my emotions, the passion in me stronger than ever. I was sad about what this man had experienced at the hands of the boarding school staff. I was even sadder about what he continues to experience as a result of others’ ignorance and insensitivity.
That’s what makes this cause real for me. That’s why it’s important to realize that these attitudes, these stereotypes, this genocide isn’t something that happened a long time ago, and they need to get over it. These things continue today. Maybe in more subtle ways (such as dumping nuclear waste on or near Indian reservations), but they are there. That’s why the Washington Redskins and other teams need to change their names, as one example. We can do something. We can change attitudes. We can dismantle stereotypes. We can see them as real people.