Bringing History Home

Noongar Elder Uncle Angus and Colgate students
Noongar Elder Uncle Angus shared his personal experience as a child of the Stolen Generations with Colgate students at Marribank, formerly Carrolup, in Western Australia. June 2008.

“How can you criticize our history? You did the same thing in America to the Indians.”

I was on the Perth subway with several classmates two days after arriving in Australia. In a casual conversation with the stranger, a classmate had explained that we were spending time with members of the Noongar tribe in Western Australia. “Oh, watch out for those aboriginals. They steal,” he had told us.

This answer had taken us aback. While we knew Aboriginal people in Australia still faced racism in daily life, we didn’t expect to encounter it ourselves in the first days of our trip. Further, we had not anticipated this criticism of our own history when another classmate mentioned that we had been studying Australia’s Stolen Generations. But the man on the subway was right about one thing: both our nations have checkered pasts in terms of the treatment of our native populations. Even our country’s history with Indian Boarding Schools mirrors Australia’s efforts to “smooth the dying pillow” of Aboriginal cultures through harsh, assimilatory educational efforts.

As I read Sherman Alexie’s An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I started to think about this encounter on the subway and I realized we were both wrong. In so intensely focusing on Australian Aboriginal issues, we had forgotten to look at home, while by treating the Stolen Generations as a historical issue, the man on the subway failed to see the continuing issue of racism. Moreover, we were speaking in broad institutional terms, instead of the daily lives of people whom none of us represented.

Based on his own experiences growing up, Alexie’s novel is told through the eyes (and cartoons) of fictional teenager Arnold Spirit, Jr. who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Urged by his high school teacher, Mr. P, Junior leaves the reservation and enrolls at the all-white Reardon High School 20 miles from his home. Throughout the rest of the book, Junior grapples with his outsider status both racially and socio-economically at school and amongst his community on the reservation.

The true highlight of Alexie’s young adult novel is the complex portrayal of a life on and off the Spokane Reservation from the perspective of multiple characters. Many characters like Rowdy, Junior’s best friend, do not support his decision to attend Reardon High School and feel that he is abandoning his community and Indian culture. Yet others such as Junior’s father’s best friend, Eugene, support the teenager and recognize the bravery that it takes to try breaking the cycle of poverty on the reservation by pursuing a better education elsewhere. Ultimately, Alexie’s novel clearly presents the tension between the individual and community, personal and collective experience.

In 1969 a non-profit organization called Indians of All Nations occupied Alcatraz Island. Courtesy of nativelegalupdate.com

This complexity is an important part of American Indian history, which so often focuses on the collective while neglecting the individual perspective. In the late 1960s a Pan-American Indian movement began to develop, influenced by the Civil Rights movement of the previous decade. In 1969 a group of Bay Area Indians occupied Alcatraz Island under the banner of “Indians of All Tribes.” Through the 1970 “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” the group asserted that “we don’t speak for Indians all over the country. The Indians all over the country speak for themselves.” Indians of All Tribes recognized the need for an overarching movement to lobby for the greater American Indian community, while also still representing individual voices and perspectives.

Bringing varied individual perspectives into a community history certainly presents a challenge. For Indians of All Tribes, the similarities of personal experiences across the country became a rallying point for the Pan-American Indian organization, while for Sherman Alexie’s Arnold Spirit, Jr., the varying personal perspectives created a challenging social web for him to navigate as he set out to find personal hope and freedom through an education off of the reservation.

By the end of my study trip to Australia, I found my understanding of the Aboriginal issues had been equally complicated, bringing the historical into present day and the community story to the individual level. Intimate conversations with members of the Stolen Generations in culturally significant spaces only underscored the serious problems that still exist today. The conversation on the subway now stands out as an example of confusing institutional faults with individual perspectives. Change must come from both sources, though at times they may seem diametrically opposed. However, without the Sherman Alexies a la Arnold Spirits of the world in tandem with larger movements like Indians of All Tribes, we have no chance at making even the smallest change.

9 thoughts on “Bringing History Home

  1. Jill,

    I think you are right about the challenge of addressing or acknowledging individual perspectives in a community history. The people on Arnold’s rez felt the deep cultural connection and loyalty through shared historical experience of oppression (and to some extent continued oppression) from outsiders and Arnold’s move outside of that circle was a betrayal, even if it was for a better existence. To some extent as well they allowed the bitterness and trapping of poverty and low self esteem to cloud their judgement. I think the political moves of the Indians of All Tribes was a great step to change their own social situation and even the psyche of Native American Tribes in the Bay Area and all over the country during the 1960s, but I think their methods were questionable. Taking Alcatraz did make a political statement, but they were not able to sustain their position without resources that relied on the mainland. If a movement like taking Alcatraz considered a success or a failure or both?

    Taking an honest look at the history of our country’s treatment of various groups and looking at the social and economic issues caused by racism stemmed from this history from all perspectives with the collective effort to make significant changes that benefit all is a level of social consciousness that we have yet to reach. Political agendas and divergent viewpoint about the best way to achieve social and economic success for various groups are pervasive. Though I do agree that taking a step forward whether as a group like the Indians of All Tribes or as an individual like Arnold Spirit, can create a space for perspective and dialogue in order to move past a place of stagnation and uninformed assumptions.

  2. I loved this post and I think you bring up a lot of good points. I was most struck by your first quote, “How can you criticize our history? You did the same thing in America to the Indians.” I want to point out that I hate this kind of reasoning when it comes to issues of human rights. It’s defensive, ill-conceived and designed to prevent any real debate. Pointing out the sins of others in order to minimize your own misdeeds doesn’t erase them or their repercussions. Getting stuck in a pattern of “Your sins are just as bad or worse than mine, so you aren’t allowed to say anything about them,” is cowardly and weak. I know that Americans have used arguments like this in the past (How dare China, Germany or Russia criticize anything that we do on account of their previous human rights violations?), but I hope that this type of reasoning disappears as the United States continues to confront the tough social issues of its past and present.

    1. That was my reaction exactly! Saying things like “you can’t criticize us because you did bad stuff too” does not help dialogue, it shuts conversations down. Rather, I think one could use the observation that both cultures have issues with their treatment of Native peoples as a jumping off point. Both sides have similar but unique histories, and therefore could have a very interesting discussion. However, in order to have a discussion, both sides would need to acknowledge their faults in order to proceed.

  3. I really liked that you were able to use a personal anecdote together with this week’s readings draw out a larger meaning. I can’t help but wonder how far we can get into tackling our tricky past without dialogue among individuals and groups representing different cultures and perspectives. While reading the Alcatraz Grant Proposal, I thought a lot about the idea that they “didn’t want to melt with the melting pot, which was the object of federal relocation programs” (377). I think that there’s a difference between being forcibly “whitewashed” and sharing in a dynamic cultural exchange with other groups and individuals while still preserving an identity. Having an isolated community
    is unrealistic in the United States. Preserving one’s identity is so important, but no culture is immune from sharing traditions and ideas with one another.

    1. This was the same reaction I had to reading the grant proposal as well. It seems as though, at least in this instance, sustainable living could not take place; logistically or culturally. However, due to the past actions of trying to “kill in Indian within” through boarding schools and other assimilation programs, I think it should be expected that these groups would have such backlash and try to regain a sense of power within the United States and their own communities. I found Jill’s juxtaposition of the experiences of the American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals interesting, and I believe that this concept deserves more examination and dialogue by all groups.

      1. There has been lots of scholarly research about boarding schools and assimilation programs on both contents, but I wonder about getting this information out to the people. By not addressing this history we are just continuing to let racial stereotypes exist.

  4. I believe quite strongly in personal advancement so stories like this always get to me. This idea of individual vs. community is a really universal theme in stories dealing with impoverished minority groups. I’ve watched it in movies, read it in books, and seen it in real life. When someone tries to leave or break the cycle of poverty, the backlash comes pouring in. It’s scary; you should be supported for trying to better your life, not torn down by those around you who are too afraid or embarrassed or lazy or drunk to do the same. From my own personal observations, though, it seems like trying to improve the quality of your life is becoming less of a faux pas in poverty-stricken communities. Haters are always gonna hate, but I think people are beginning to understand how important it is to band together as a community to champion, instead of ridicule, the person who is brave enough to attempt to rise above their surroundings. Their desire to seek happiness and success beyond the confines of their community says more about that individual and less about the state of the community, and I think people are starting to realize that.

  5. I think the issue of personal versus collective improvement of life and conditions is an issue that has so many layers. Like Olivia says, many of us have seen people, whether fictional or not, tell stories about breaking out of poverty and making better lives for themselves, but at what personal cost? While these people who “break out” of poverty or their restrictive community, whatever that may be, are lauded by people on the outside, they often have to leave behind a significant part of their personal life in order to get out in the first place. What I wonder about, though, is how communities such as the one depicted in Alexie’s book would function if the majority of its inhabitants decided to follow in Junior’s footsteps, and get out, get educated, while still participating in events and culture on the reservation. It seems like, (and I say this with my only experience being Alexie’s descriptions), people have to make the decision of either staying completely true to their Native culture, or becoming a “traitor” and taking steps to better themselves. This approach is hard for me to understand, and because I have no experience with it, I don’t think that I can judge one way or the other as being better or more progressive. The one thing I can say is that education, whether on or off the reservation, should be of a higher quality than Alexie describes, and I do think that giving kids options, rather than assuming their future roles as impoverished alcoholics, would make a dramatic difference.

  6. It can be difficult to understand how a community cannot support one of their own who is trying to better themselves. However, I feel like there is a certain degree of jealousy, fear, and skepticism involved. For example, from Rowdy’s perspective he does not want his best friend to “become” a white person. People on the reservation, from all walks of life, have good reason to be wary of outside communities. Just think of the reasons their people are on a reservation in the first place. It is truly a shame that Arnold needed to leave the reservation to pursue hope and a better future. Like Liz said, better education should be the first step. The ability for reservations to have the dual option of a successful future and a closeness to the tribe would be a wonderful thing.

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