When I was 3, my father, mother, and I moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Sisseton, South Dakota. My dad, a dentist, had gotten a job with the Public Health Service on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. Our belongings went by truck and we traveled by train.
I was too young to remember anything about moving, except for one thing: terror. The iron grates on the floors in the passageways between the train cars rattled terribly and scared me enough to, as Mom tells it, crawl up her leg like a wild animal. Although I don’t remember doing that or the sound of the metal rattling, I can see the ground rushing beneath the grates in a silent frame of visceral memory.
Then there was joy. I remember Girl Scout treks in Sica Hollow, a drum circle in my elementary classroom, and swimming at Roy Lake, where the bait store was stocked with ice cream treats and candy. We built the biggest snow forts ever seen, we stopped at the Dairy Freeze across from the track after practice, and we stole lawn ornaments from all over town and put them in our English teacher’s front yard.
Sisseton consists of a near 50/50 split of whites and American Indians―two majorities, it would seem. But inequalities exacted over centuries take time to balance out. When I was a little kid, I wasn’t aware of the history between the two races and that there could be tension between them based on old and new wounds of racism. Terror and joy coexist, it seems, in fly-over country.
As a little kid, I don’t remember thinking about whether or not other kids were different from me based on the fact that they might be of Native American descent. When you’re young, you assume that the whole world is the same as your block, your school, your town. I do remember that the real issue as a kid regarding differences had to do with being out of the norm―too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall. I also remember that one of the sharpest barbs was related to pant-length; if they were too short, you were sure to hear about it all day long in the form of the classic inquiry, “Where’s the flood?”
In elementary school, two older native girls befriended me and I was thrilled that older girls―who are gods to younger girls―had deemed me worthy of their time. I enjoyed inviting them over to ride bikes, listen to records, play dress-up with my mom’s old clothes. A few weeks after being friends, they came up to me as I was walking home from school with my friend and offered to “protect” me from someone who wanted to beat me up. Before I had time to consent to their offer, they started walking on either side of me and suddenly my buddy was running away. I don't blame her―when it comes to escaping childhood terror, it's every kid for herself. I was soon on the frozen ground, and if one of the girls hadn’t punched my stomach, I would’ve thought I had slipped―it happened that fast. I remember their faces, scrunched up in anger, as they delivered their blows. By that time, I was crying and screaming and flipping around like a fish. I ran the rest of the way home and when I got inside, I locked the door, then cried in Mom’s arms. I didn’t understand why they had turned on me. It was a difficult thing for me to understand; why had they wanted to be friends in the first place if they didn’t like me?
As I got older and learned more about the history between whites and Native Americans, I interpreted what the girls did to me as a way for them to exact revenge. I’m not sure if that’s how it was intended, but I’ve read the history about what was done to Indian tribes all across this country―it's called genocide. I thought about how I would feel if my ancestors had been treated with such contempt and cruelty, century after century. If I were a member of a group targeted for genocide, I’d want to exact revenge on someone, and who better than someone who looks the same as the people who wronged your people? We’re talking about psychology here, and there are no simple answers; emotions run deep, and are labyrinthine compared to terror and joy.
One of the aspects of the psychology of race relations has to do with respect for other cultures. But the motto of the late 1800s was “kill the Indian, save the man.” There is absolutely no respect there at all. Starting around this time, boarding schools and orphanages were instructed by the government to “de-Indianize” native children who were sent there and assimilate them into white society. Native children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools or orphanages, often for no stated reason; other times, poverty forced families to send their children away.
There was an orphanage for native children in Sisseton named Tekakwitha, after the Native American, Kateri Tekakwitha. Whatever connection there may have been, it was in name only; nothing about a native cultural spirit went beyond it. I recently read about the alleged horrors that went on at the Tekakwitha orphanage from the '40s through the '70s. A lawsuit brought forth by more than 20 victims details how Father John Pohlen and the nuns there sexually and physically abused them and the other children. The abuses are sickening, but one punishment was especially insidious: if the children were caught using their native language, they would be whipped with a leather strap until they bled. In prohibiting the children’s native language, they not only intended to destroy their culture, but they also attempted to silence their very voices. In 2010, the Tekakwitha orphanage was demolished as victims looked on. The building may be gone, but its shadow has been cast.
Despite the efforts of those in power to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant culture, the Dakotah culture and language survived. In the '70s, I grew up hearing the Dakotah language from my Native American classmates. There was "wasicu," Dakotah for “non-Indian.” I was told it was a derogatory phrase for white people. I looked up this word recently and found that it used to be considered positive, and means “someone with special powers.” I also found that the negative meaning, besides developing as a result of the treatment of natives by whites, also comes from a play on words because wasin icu means “steals the fat”―a readymade pun as a perfect description for greedy white men.
In my experience, the line between races is somewhat blurred in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota, where there are blond, blue-eyed Native Americans with pale skin. Do people forget that people of different races marry each other and have children? And what does this focus on skin color mean, exactly? It's as if the colors we've designated for different races just create more boxes to put people in. I've come across some derogatory names on the Internet, names that races use against each other. An "apple" is a Native American who acts or thinks like a white person; he's red on the outside, but white on the inside. Then there's "oreo"―black on the outside, white on the inside; "Twinkie" or "banana"―yellow on the outside, white on the inside; "coconut"―brown on the outside, white on the inside. I couldn't find many names that described the opposite: white on the outside, red on the inside, etc. The only such name I found was "egg"―white on the outside, yellow on the inside.
What do these terms point to? I think, again, it's about oppressed cultures taking back their identities. In that process, the need to disparage whiteness is understandable, given the history of Manifest Destiny, but if we're going to move beyond these metaphors, we have to start with what it means to be human. We are not just "red," "white," "black," "yellow," or "brown." We are all just made of terrified, joyous flesh.