‘How were Native Americans less new to America than bloody Columbus?’
In my daily workings as an editor and journalist at Indian Country Today, I receive a fair share of inquiries from people all over the world who are curious, or have insights to share about Indian country. One such inquiry came from a young journalism student in Northern England by the name of Darcy Brown.
She asked—as young student of journalism—if she might be permitted to share her experiences as a student in regards to Native Americans.
I was admittedly curious as to what students from other countries outside of Turtle Island might be taught, so I agreed to her inquiry. I found Miss Brown’s writings to be insightful and thought-provoking and I appreciated the insight she offered. Thanks to her letter, I was able to see a bit of perspective into her world as a young student in the United Kingdom.
Here are her words to Indian country, I hope readers of ICT might also gain some insight to her world.
I’d also like to say thank you to Miss Brown for taking the time to share her respectful and heartfelt words.
Editor / Journalist
Indian Country Today
My name is Darcy Lily Rachel Brown, I’m 17. I’m from South Yorkshire in Northern England, where I study journalism and creative media in the city of Sheffield. In my attempt to learn a bit about Native culture, I’ve even been learning a little bit of the Lakota language.
When I was a little girl, I remember clearly during a daily walk to my primary [elementary] school, my grandmother mentioning to me about the Indigenous peoples in the United States. It was the first time my awareness was brought to the American Indian.
“It wasn’t just the cowboys who lived in the United States,” said my grandmother. “The American Indians were pushed off their lands by the cowboys, the settlers.”
My then eight-year-old mind was rather puzzled. ‘Pretty much every child across the world must know all about the gloriously-fictionalized cowboy,’ I thought. “But why had I not ever heard about these ‘Indians’?”
I now realize I surely heard ‘cowboys and Indians’ at intermittent times, though I simply had no picture in my mind of the latter. I could have inquired about Indians, yes. But for whatever reason, I didn’t ask.
Upon reminiscing about primary school with a close friend, she recalled a time when we had a dress-up day, the theme being cowboys and Indians.
Though I had no memory of this, she said none of the kids in our class came dressed as an ‘Indian.’ Of course, I’m very pleased that was the case, as I have since read many times about Native people angered by people using regalia as a costume inspiration.
I wonder whether as children, we were influenced to respect and revere the cowboys much more than the Indians. Maybe none of us wanted to be seen representing the people who had been portrayed by the media as people to be pitied, in a negative way.
From a kid’s perspective, none of us wanted to be seen representing the ‘weaker’ group portrayed by history.
So by now, I had a very general idea about what an American Indian was and looked like.
I had seen a couple of children’s Western films, such as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which meant I only associated Native Americans with the plains stereotype.
When I’d talk to relatives about the Old West (the only geographical area I associated with American Indians), they pretty much all referred to Natives as ‘Red Indians.’
This made me very confused about why that term was used and as I would later learn, my older relatives were not certain, either. ‘It was simply a generational thing,’ they told me. Everyone their age referred to Natives that way.
Fast forward seven years to the beginning of studies for my end-of-high-school exams. I was quite intrigued that part of one history course was The American West, c.1845-1890.
Delving into the past of my nation’s royal family, as well as daily life for the ‘peasants’ had been fascinating enough. However, it seemed well overdue that we were to study the past of another part of the world.
One topic of study was the ‘Plains Indian way of life,’ which focused largely on the Lakota.
We covered the significance of the conical structure and composition of the tipi according to a nomadic lifestyle, the way in which all parts of the bison were used for survival and how vastly different intertribal warfare was in comparison to the Europeans with all their ‘guns blazing’ – literally.
I was in awe of how the Lakota could make use of every single component of the bison’s anatomy to aid their survival in an area with ‘extreme weather and conditions’, we learned.
When it came to looking at how homesteaders tried to build a life on the plains, I remember finding it quite ironic that white folks would criticise Natives for ‘not living in proper structures’ – when they were forced to build sod houses because there wasn’t really an alternative.
Our teacher certainly made the revision process fun, with a short, snappy quiz at the start of each lesson.
“What was the most significant shape to the Indians?”
“How many buffalo hides were used to construct a tipi?”
“Between ten and twenty.”
“What was the most prestigious act a warrior could do in battle?”
“Counting coup.” (Counting coup refers to the winning of prestige against an enemy by the Plains Indians of North America.)
Being an animal lover, I admired the Lakota hugely for their symbiotic relationship with the bison.
As our teacher told us: “The bison were revered as a friend, father and a brother. So much that when the animal was hunted to close-extinction, the Lakota struggled immensely to cling to a way of life that revolved around the bison.”
My teacher brought history to life. The classroom was not bland like every single other one in this newly built school. With its wartime propaganda posters, postcards, timelines, maps, you could see something to do with a historical period in each direction.
Quotations from Red Cloud and Chief Seattle, even a huge photo canvas of Chief Sitting Bear, helped us visualise true Native American figures, instead of fictional stereotypes.
As a side note, she also gave her final year students the option to cover their work folders with faux leopard print. I loved that! This was a rare privilege for us, as exercise books were expected to be kept pristine.
I adored my teacher and the subject she instructed in. Not only did she teach the real story, she let us express ourselves, unlike my other instructors. Lessons were always varied. One day, we’d have aching wrists from all the ink flowing from our pens, another, we’d be set free with felt-tip pens to create spider diagrams.
I still have ‘Beryl the buffalo’ — as I named it—a drawing we made, then labelled with what each part was used to make: horns for drinking vessels, tongue for hair-brushes, sinews for thread, to name a few.
The only contradiction to my confidence in trusting what we were taught about Native history was that we were told to annotate a map of the Bering Strait with: “The Indians crossed the land bridge between 1400 and 1500 AD.”
Consequently, I decided to learn some things on my own.
Once I began to research Native history independently, I recalled the above with disbelief. We’d been taught that Native Americans were arriving on Turtle Island around and even after its alleged ‘discovery’ by the man Christopher Columbus?
I thought to myself: ‘How were Native Americans less new to America than bloody Columbus?’
Despite this incredible misinformation, I oftentimes wondered—perhaps correctly—whether myself and fellow students were becoming better informed about some of America’s original inhabitants than kids across the pond.
Our studies included the many groups of encroaching whites during the latter half of the 19th century and ended with the reservation system and the ways in which the culture of the plains people was intentionally destroyed.
I felt very heartbroken that people from my nation had been a large part in this destruction.
Quite haunting words from my teacher were: “Reservation life was very similar to concentration camp life, minus the gas chambers.”
A vast number of Brits don’t believe, I quote: ‘that Native Americans are still a thing.’
In other words, some think that today in North America, there are no longer any Native Americans in existence.
Though I must say, it’s a bloody disgrace that the number of Americans who are plagued with education-induced ignorance seems, from things I’ve read on social media, even higher.
I don’t know this for certain, though to me, it seems apparent that some Americans also do not recognise the resilience of the Native population.
Another issue is there is a lot of appropriation of Native culture here in the UK. Kids’ play tent tipis are not exclusive to stores in the US. People also think it’s acceptable to dress up as an Indian.
I remember on a recent trip to London how uncomfortable I felt upon seeing a woman at a hen [bachelorette] party dressed as a Native Plains woman. I almost pitied her. She had no idea how much she was misrepresenting real Native women.
It was upsetting because people should at least understand that clothes worn by another culture are not intended to be misinterpreted in this way for ‘fun.’
Regarding the average Brit’s knowledge of Native America today, it would be daft (a term we use for ‘silly’) to exclude the fact that overall, the extraordinary, just, rightful DAPL resistance certainly did allow my tiny, rainy land to gain an insight into continued struggles for Native people.
I felt a surge of hope when the BBC and other UK news organizations reported on the events at Standing Rock.
I wanted everyone in the UK to become aware as I had, for there to be progress in understanding that Native Americans are still here and are still the stewards of this planet as they always have been.
Even though some of my fellow students are still perhaps completely unaware of anything happening in Native America since 29th December, 1890 (Wounded Knee was the final event we covered in this study), I feel we were extremely lucky to have this opportunity to learn the truth behind America and its first inhabitants.
I thank you for reading.