There was a time when being a “good Indian” got you cuts in ration lines
ahead of the rank and file who were hanging around the military forts. It
was a badge of dishonor, earned with the blood of relatives and pieces of
Mother Earth, and it came with a salary and benefits.
The “good Indians” were the opposite of the “hostiles.” The “hostiles” were
the ones who conspired to commit treaty rights, religious freedom and human
dignity. They were the ones who gathered together beyond earshot of priests
and conquistadors and miners and matrons to eat traditional foods, to speak
heritage languages and to dance the dances of the ancestors.
The “good Indians” were the snitches who taught the federal agents how to
find the praying Indians, when to attack the Indian camps and where the
Indian bodies were buried. They were indispensable to the hunting and
catching of “hostiles,” and to the acquisition of all things Indian. They
were ready and willing to sell other people’s property and rights and
Even the white men who used the “good Indians” despised them. Gen. Phillip
Sheridan – who unleashed great white hunters on the buffalo and who set
Col. George Armstrong Custer on the “hostiles” – also spawned the infamous
saying: “The only good Indian is a dead one.”
Today’s “good Indians” strive to be the only Indians. Because some societal
values have shifted, however, these byproducts of the
English-only/Christian-only deculturalization program now need a semblance
of Native culture.
So, they take the most superficial layers of traditional language and
culture, don them like Native designs accenting Euro-American clothing and
report for duty as Indians for all seasons’.
These modern “good Indians” can be found in the store fronts, exhibit cases
and mascot outfits of myriad businesses, government agencies and schools.
Most have been Indians for a hot minute, tops – usually a nanosecond before
the Indian job interview. Some aren’t even loophole Indians; rather, they
are non-Indian “good Indians.”
Still others are sure enough Indians, and have been Indians all their
lives. But, they never suffer any sort of discrimination or lay anything on
the line because of it. Markedly, they don’t do anything about slurs or
assaults against others, either because they are afraid or because they
The new “good Indians” owe their positions to the struggles of modern
Indian-rights warriors. As soon as they are on the payroll, they try to
erase the institutional memory of those who got them there, the history of
the journey and the reasons for the struggle in the first place.
The “good Indians” are shameless about palming off the wisdom and
achievements of the new “hostiles” as their own. If non-Indians don’t like
any of the ideas, the “good Indians” immediately condemn them as too
controversial, too political, too radical and too, well, hostile.
More often than not, the “good Indians” fall to their knees and surrender
without anyone even asking, “Give up?”
The “good Indians” rush in where elders fear to tread, eager to please
non-Indians with gifts large and small, from land, taxes, jobs and
jurisdiction to Indian sports symbols, rubber tomahawks and other toys of
In keeping with the times, “good Indians” all over the country have taken a
sharp turn to the right and are characterizing themselves as “conservative
Indians.” What they really mean is: “Please don’t hurt me. I’m a good
In actuality, most Indian-rights issues are conservative in nature,
particularly treaty, property and constitutional rights. One would think
that conservatives would be for fulfillment of treaty promises, protection
of Indian trust resources and disestablishment of federal barriers to
Indian religious freedom. Yes, one would think that.
So, in this frosty climate, what’s a “good Indian” to do? Throw blankets at
non-Indians until they are toasty, of course, and waive a white flag until
someone accepts it.
Don’t talk about treaties or racism or history or any other “controversial,
Don’t talk about pressing Indian health care needs, or violence against
Indian women or anything else that might make any non-Indians
uncomfortable. Assure them that they will continue to get their pretty
Indian trinkets, art by the yard and song-and-dance performances, and
absolutely nothing to tax their minds or conscience.
In order for the “good Indians” to keep on track, here’s a checklist:
Give up tribal sovereignty, jurisdiction, land and water, because you got a
great deal on a casino and even on some of its profits.
Give tribal money to states with governors who call you names and promote
anti-Indian stereotypes, because it’s just your “fair share,” by golly.
Give most tribal casino jobs and profits to non-Indians, so they won’t be
mad at the “good Indians.”
Give more money to high-priced white men to sabotage your neighbor tribal
businesses and to undermine your political enemies at home.
Excommunicate more of your tribal citizens and be sure to hire more fancy
white men to berate your relatives in the press.
Praise federal officials as they turn over Indian sacred places to
developers, because “good Indians” don’t have any use for them anyway.
Applaud the federal and state geniuses who decided that the way to leave no
children behind is to keep history, art and adequate funding out of
Let the federal government keep all the Indian money they lost and wipe out
the court case about it, because it’s just those “hostiles” who insist on
an accounting for the trust funds.
Tell athletic program directors, team owners, their pollsters and reporters
that Indian name-calling and stereotyping in sports doesn’t bother you,
because you’re a “good Indian.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian