One of the most frustrating aspects in my journalism career is discovering how intensely attached people are to their pet perceptions and delusions. There is this disturbing tendency to not fairly or sensibly temper their conviction, to refuse to incorporate new information or contradicting evidence. When confronted with the bias and error of their assertions, most people just double down and shout louder.
This is especially true about identity, because the dominant culture defines identity for legal and social purposes, and tribal people have long balked at these labels, and justifiably so. But here again, not everything is absolutely this, or absolutely that. Within most conflicts, there is truth on both sides. This is not to argue that all arguments are equal halves of an issue, that would be false equivalency, but many opposing arguments have some of the overall truth in them, truth that even the better argument unfairly dismisses.
Many object to the term Indian, and this is especially true of socially conscious White people. We can argue about why Indians were called Indian, but that horse has been beat to death, and nothing definitive came of it. There came a time when “Indian” was considered incorrect or insensitive to tribal people, so other terms were coined and applied. Native American is a good one: “I’m Native.” Well, congratulations, so is any person born on this continent regardless of where his ancestors came from.
The other is “Indigenous.” That term is truly pigheaded and reality hostile. Tribes have no problem availing themselves enthusiastically of the Whiteman’s technology, his guns, his cars, his cell phones, his internet porn, his alcoholic beverages, but how dare he try to impose his science on us. Except it isn’t his science. It is the same science nonwhite cultures like the Chinese, Asian Indians, Japanese and Koreans embrace and use to split atoms and launch rockets. Science is science, and yes, to some extent orthodoxy always subverts new ideas and discoveries, but when this orthodoxy is overturned, as in the case of dinosaurs being cold blooded reptiles, it is science that overturns it, not science detractors. The science says we are all from Africa, every single ethnic group living on this planet, we were all once Black Africans. Seventy-five thousand years ago we walked out of Africa, our Lakota ancestors never walked up out of Wind Cave.
That doesn’t mean that Wind Cave does not have deep spiritual and cultural significance for all Lakota. It does, and because of that, it is as sacred as if we had walked out of Wind Cave, and we should insist the cave be returned to the Oceti Sakowin as sacred ground the Wasicu have no right to defile.
It is hard to come out with a collective label for a tribal person. I can say I am Oglala, which is one of seven Lakota bands, which are one of seven Oceti Sakowin council fires, which is one of a dozen Siouan speaking tribes. But—how do we collectively identify ourselves with the Cheyenne, an Algonkian tribe, or the Apache, an Athabaskan tribe?
The best collective name for tribal people is First Nation, as it is wholly accurate, logically, historically, traditionally. If I say, “I am First Nation,” any person can see the truth in it, whether a tribal traditional or Wasicu academic. We must grow and change as tribal people. Sensible, accurate, positive terms, especially when it comes to our identity, are a must. We live in an anti-intellectual country, with a moron for our president, and our Oglala president isn’t much better. We should not revel in that ignorance, but even as tribal people, struggling with marginalization and poverty, we can educate ourselves about how the world at large operates. Knowledge is free.
(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at email@example.com)