Like most people an article in the paper or a comment in the editorial section seldom makes a difference in how I see the world or the Bitterroot. However, on occasion, a comment will seize my attention. This attention most often comes to the forefront because of the beauty or sheer stupidity of the ideology exhibited by the article.
Such was Mr. Jan Wisniewski’s statement regarding Indians. Yes, I call myself ‘Indian’ because the term Native American was sanctimoniously given along with terms like ‘people of color’ or other benign racist bigotry. But, Indian, I am. Native American Indian to my bones. I am a member of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma. If there was only one Wisniewski statement made about Native American Indians coming from the community around us, I would brush it off to one man’s bigotry. However, this is not the case. Whereas, 98 percent of the Bitterroot population would find Mr. Wiesniewski’s article offensive, there is a profound 2 percent that insists on a troublesome ideology – for Mr. Wisniewski, ‘troublesome ideology’ could be taken to mean uneducated.
At first, like some, I felt the county commissioners were overreacting to make an official apology to the Salish Kootenai tribe. But with contemplation, I know they were not. They were exactly correct to make the apology.
Why? Because like it or not, there is a collective responsibility for the society in which we live. What is the adage? Something about all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. And I am writing this to applaud our commissioners for comprehending such a basic principle. We are responsible for the society in which we live. Not only are we responsible for what we do, but for what we allow others to do in our good name.
When I was young, there were public behaviors that were encouraged with a smile or discouraged with a soft request to stop whatever was offensive. In the Wisniewski case, not only were the commissioners correct in giving an apology for such appalling behavior, they were compelled by the very decency for which they were elected. That we do not, as a society, have a collective responsibility is nonsense. Such civility is a basic elementary principle of a community.
In my experience, I grew up hearing about my great-grandfather, Peter Williams, chief of the Caddo tribe from the time he was 17 until his death in his 70s. His daughter, Alice, my grandmother was a coloratura soprano who gave up her place in the new music school of Julliard, NYC because she was needed to help with the Caddo/Shawnee children who were dying of chickenpox (no, not smallpox in this instance). It was merely a small disease that was decimating her people. I come from a grandfather, Seminole/Irish who travelled throughout Bolivia, Peru and Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas oil-cating. One of the toughest bravest hail hearty men a person could know.
When we first moved to the Bitterroot, one of my children, then in the seventh grade, said that he was a Caddo Indian. His teacher told him, he was not, because there was no such thing as a Caddo. The problem with that was not that she didn’t personally know of the Caddos, many people have not heard of them. The trouble was that she was so ill informed that she didn’t know that there are hundreds, even thousands of native groups which she has never heard of. Anyone with even the slightest experience or education must be aware of such gaps in their own education. If you said you were a member of the ‘such n such’ tribe, I may not know them, but I would be home to look it up and see who they were. I would not begin the relationship by some bigoted response.
Compare that level of intellect with the scene I am about to describe. In the year 2000, I was in Billings at a civic conference. Being Native I tend to pick out Natives when I see them. In this particular room all attendees were dressed professionally. There was a tremendous debate circling around the room. It was exciting and I was fascinated by the level of conversation. There were people of all educational levels as well as a lot of racial diversity. In one area there were groups of women representing different agencies and organizations, in another area were a number of federal officials and in another area stood a group of well- groomed suited up attorneys. These attorneys stood out because they all sported a particular hairstyle. The fronts and sides of their hair was carefully coifed with a front side part and sideburns of considerate professional appearance. However, when approaching them from the back, one could not help but notice that each of them wore a singular long braid. These men had learned to live their minority culture within the bigger culture. I made it a point to stop and listen to their conversation. They warmly invited my input and we were able to come to a consensus on how to manage our business. I was old enough to be any one of these men’s mother or even grandmother. In my heart, I wish that the likes of Mr. Wiesniewski could step in that place where I stood and see what I have seen.
Mr. Wiesniewski there are drunks everywhere. There are people everywhere who do not elicit confidence. But then, there are also people who enjoy trampling on the dignity and sorrows of others.
My grandparents had nine grandchildren. Eight of these children graduated from different Universities across the U.S. with bachelors, masters and doctorates. A pretty good rate, don’t you think? And oh by the way, not one of them is a drunk.
I hope that you have been able to rethink your feelings. The comment was made in a free society and yours to freely make, the feeling that you expressed, however, manacles the soul.