2017-02-15 / Voices of the People

What does ‘civilization’ really mean for Native America?


There are people who think I am the most native person around. Reality is I’m not as native as our ancestors were. In fact, my native ancestry was nearly removed from my consciousness by the Euro-American’s blasphemous need to make me into their image. Christianity and this new government collaborated to “civilize” me and called it “education.”

The sad part about this process is that it was successful. I dropped out of that “education” process after ten years but the damage was done. I went home loving the “Indian fighter, John Wayne and all he represented in western movies. I was completely unaware of my own world view and the kinship system was obliterated. I was a member of a people colonized politically, economically, and consciously.

Although most have gone the way of these white men, some of us chose to hang on to whatever is left. As a result, we moved from being punished for speaking Lakota to actually “teaching” it in the classroom. Although this has not produced language speaking students in 40-years, many consider it progress. For whatever it is worth, I believe it is an act of defiance. We have to examine this situation.

Anyway, we became underground participants in a resistance movement. We continued speaking our ancient language. Although I had to relearn my culture, I am now engaged in transmitting my re-acquired knowledge to the youth in my family. I do it despite the fact that they are often disinterested.

I do it because this Euro-American society is racially bigoted. It has alienated native America, period. Resisting this ongoing enervation and destruction is the most natural act any human would do. All I want simply is to experience freedom and contentment. I want to be happy with who I really am.

My world view involves Inyan (Stone) and Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) and how they created the world as it exists. Lakota language, customs, spirituality, and history all comprise the foundation my ancestors stood on. All of these elements provide dignity, self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect. Mostly, I resist because the Euro-American did his best to destroy me as a human being.

A common right-wing retort is “You’re civilized now, get over it.” Yeah, most people, including natives, believe our ancestors were poor uneducated “savages” that had to be “civilized.” Actually we are still perceived as such today even among our own native populations. We must absolutely “see” that we were systematically colonized, not civilized. To combat the loss, some of us resisted.

In other words, some of us have been steadily freeing ourselves from the shackles of reliance and control created by a long history of destruction of a beautiful way of life. For instance, some natives did come from Asia via the Bering Strait Land Bridge. These natives live in parts of Alaska, along the west coast and into the Southwest. In other words, this theory does not apply to all natives of the continent.

Another reason I do it is because after struggling through their “civilization process,” I realized that natives are not like the white men who came here uninvited, enslaved and murdered our ancestors, and took the land as if they owned it. Unfortunately, upon realizing the truth, I had to stand alone for a long time. The truth and grit provided the incentive to eventually find some breathing room.

Most of us were colonized systematically, and often brutally, with what is now called “Indian education.” This process can be accurately called a systematic absorption into a “better” way of life called “civilization.” This process was carried within a powerful institution called the school.

Prominent white educators promoted “Indians” as genetically incapable of absorbing western academia. Academics are great if one wants to live that unnatural way of life. At best, it has helped one in finding and holding a job but does nothing for cultural identity, a necessity to contentment. Also, in spite of all the effort to teach us western academics, we continue to remain below national standards.

Many say this enervative process began in 1492, and they are right. For us on the Great Plains, our process began on March 3, 1819 with the congressional Civilization Fund Act. The only reason for this law was to make, “provision for the civilization of the Indian tribes adjoining the frontier settlements.” It was signed into law by President James Monroe.

The law encouraged “benevolent societies” to provide for the “education” of natives. Those “benevolent societies” turned out to be Christian churches and the federal government itself. This act led to the formation of the infamous “Indian boarding schools” in the mid-19th century.

The primary goal was to “civilize” the “savages” by destroying their traditions and customs teaching them reading and writing as well as a distorted history. Missionary schools taught Christianity as if the native’s future depended on it. The Oceti Sakowin (Seven Fires) did not have the concept of a “devil” or a “hell” until the missionaries brought it and forced it upon them.

This systematic process also created an enervating caste system within the “Indian” community. Although many opposed the schools, “progressives” were receptive to it. Their schooling and command of the English language propelled them to leadership positions within the tribes and ultimately led to policy shifts and treaties that ceded more and more land to the United States government.

An ulterior goal of this congressional act and many others was the ultimate extinction of the “Indian.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was created on March 11, 1824 by Secretary of War, John Calhoun without congressional approval. The BIA was transferred to the Department of Interior in 1849. Its most controversial policy was the decision to “civilize Indians” via boarding schools.

Article VII of the Fort Laramie Peace Treaty of 1868 promotes this “civilization” process by establishing as “an English education.” In other words, the government used their education system, which is designed to enlighten and uplift one society via academics and technology, to reduce and obliterate another.

Native people were systematically maneuvered to where they subconsciously perceive their ancestors as less “civilized” than the settlers. Our ancestors became primitives simply due to the fact that they did not speak English or any other European-based language or that they did things according to their own world view as opposed to the Christian worldview.

Contemporary native educators are now the crux of this centuries old process. They can either, and simply, continue the weakening process or they can take the risky business of resisting status quo. This is a necessity that is required to bring about freedom for the consciously confined native people of this socalled “great” country.

(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 57764; 605-867-2448; mato_

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