We had this saying, when one of the few white kids (or one of the Indian kids that “looked white”) who went to our school was involved: “A fight! A fight! An Indian and a white! If the Indian don’t win, we all jump in!”
I’m sure every racial group has some variation of that saying. For some reason, ignorance is multi-lingual.
Usually we were true to our word: if the Blackfeet kid didn’t somehow prevail in the fight, we were ready to get down James Brown. I suspect that sometimes the white kid would just give up because, heck, getting beating up by one person is better than getting beat up by 15.
I read a story yesterday that made me reconsider this saying. The story is about a custody dispute involving a Native dad and a non-Native couple. From what I read, it seems a perfectly sane, adult Indian dad voluntarily signed away his rights as a parent, with, according to all evidence, no gun to his head, no duress, of his own free will. But then, evidently, the child’s dad got seller’s remorse—and decided that he really didn’t mean to sign all of that required paperwork and give his child up. Even the author of the Indian Child Welfare Act—Senator Abourezk, the man who took the initiative to create proactive legislation to keep Indian families together—said that this case was “something totally different than what we intended at the time…a tragedy.”
It made me reconsider our childhood chant: “A fight! A fight! An Indian and a white! If the Indian don’t win, we all jump in!”
But this time, when I reconsidered, I thought, “What if the Indian was wrong?”
It wasn’t even a consideration when we were kids. Of course the Indian kid was right, and we should all jump in on his behalf if he happened to catch the wrong end of a DDT, Shake Rattle and Roll and/or People’s Elbow. Now…I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure that we should defend Indian people just to defend Indian people and become apologists when Indians are wrong. I understand the tendency, just like those little kids in elementary: we all want the Indian to win.
But what about when the Indian is wrong?
Then I started to think about how many times, in fancy Skin meetings, when Natives make silly/harmful decisions and then defend it under the auspices of “sovereignty.” And we don’t question it publicly, and Indian people look at us shocked if we do question it (just like we never questioned the little Indian kid fighting at my elementary school) simply because it’s an Indian or an Indian Tribe making the decision. That, evidently, is enough to make it “right” in our eyes. Sovereignty trumps all.
Still, sometimes it’s fair to question whether “Respect our sovereignty” is really code for “Don’t question my stupidity and whether “Respect our sovereignty” means “I really don’t have a good explanation for this decision, so simply don’t question me because I’m Indian.”
What if the Indian is wrong?
Personally, I think we owe Indian people more than that; I think Indians should be treated like everybody else—like adults. Why shouldn’t we be held to the same standards as everybody else? I mean, I’ve been around Natives my whole life, and the ones that I’m around don’t need any special treatment—they’re incredibly capable all by themselves. They don’t want special treatment. Likewise, it’s insulting to the dad’s intelligence to say that he was so oblivious that he didn’t understand the consequences of his signing literally dozens of pieces of paper to give his child away. I think we owe it to Indian people to hold us to the same standards as everybody else and say, “Yes, Indian dad, you are just as competent as anyone else in this country and therefore you must live with your decisions. Like a big boy.” I hope there’s more to the story than what I’ve read—I pray that there’s a principled reason to get behind and support the Native dad and say “he was right” in this unfortunate controversy, and not that he’s simply doing this because he can. Sovereignty is good for Indians. ICWA is good for Indians. But sometimes we have to think critically about the consequences of even good things.
But that’s just me. But, I’ve admittedly changed since my elementary school days.
Gyasi Ross comes from the Blackfeet Nation and also the Suquamish Nation. He recently wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways). He also writes for the blog “The Thing About Skins” in Indian Country Today Media Network’s website.