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Sanctimony is not a traditional tribal virtue

Some years back I did a review of Helen Hunt Jackson’s noteworthy 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor. In that book she detailed the mistreatment of tribal nations in grim and disheartening detail. I was falling asleep while reading so I had Charmaine read one page aloud and then I would read another, and in this way we covered about a chapter a night. There came a section addressing the plight of the Northern Cheyenne, before they bolted their reservation in Oklahoma, and the depth of their mistreatment and suffering was such I could not keep reading and broke down in tears.

I knew all the awful truths down through the dark corridors of history, but on that night, reading a detailed account with Charmaine, for some reason the full emotional impact of it hit me with surprising force. I realized that we should never attempt to edit history—for any reason—because this raw truth could only be truly understand by facing it in all of its heart wrenching depth.

All across Indian country, misguided persons, rendered tone deaf by an abiding, hubris-addled perspective, attempt to decide for the rest of us what is proper and what is traditional and what is right and what is wrong. They want to edit and restrict our actions. This turns them into sanctimonious busybodies, always looking for offense, always willing to call out others as offenders, while mistaking their own warts for a beauty mark like the one on Elizabeth Taylor’s cheek.

After reading an article I wrote on the repatriation of Wounded Knee cultural items, I received this letter from the Association on American Indian Affairs, from their communications director, C.C. Hovie:

“I wanted to take a moment to reach out to you about your recent article ‘NAGPRA not followed in repatriation of cultural items’…the photo of the deceased Chief Spotted Elk displayed prominently at the top of the article is highly sensitive. As a Lakota journalist, I am sure you understand how offensive it is to show photos of our deceased Ancestors in such a manner, regardless of how it was previously handled or displayed. The Association highly encourages you to remove the photo.”

I responded with “I am sure you understand how offensive it is for a member of another tribe to lecture me about a member of my own. My story had the blessing of lineal descendant Calvin Spotted Elk. Peddle your sanctimony someplace else.”

But that’s the thing with busybodies, they are busybodies first before they are anything else, and so then came this email from their director, Shannon O’Loughlin:

“We apologize profusely that you have taken offense to our request and in no way are we attempting to lecture you about your own Nation’s protocols.”

Except they were trying to lecture me on that, and an assertion that they weren’t does not magically make it a fact. “…we will alert people that there is sensitive information and a photo of an Ancestor. As you know, there are other Nations who do not want to see images of Ancestors and are deeply offended by images of the deceased.”

My response: “The danger is we strip history of its raw and ugly truth and replace it with a sanitized version that whitewashes the acts of the perpetrators. Trying to control words, thoughts, images, is always a bad idea and runs counter to the social mission of journalism. CC’s email was arrogant, ill-advised and on top of that, he was just plain wrong. He is now in my journalistic crosshairs as a knucklehead…”

O’Loughlin quickly responded: “We do appreciate your opinion. We do not appreciate name calling. As a 100 year old Native non-profit organization, we may not always get everything right, but we have done a hell of a lot of work…

CC is our Communications director and I asked HER to follow up with our concern. So I am the knucklehead or the arrogant person, etc. SHE is very well respected, as are the other female leaders that make up the Association’s executive team.”

Two telltale particulars about O’Loughlin’s response. One, she decides to hide behind the prestige of her organization to cover her own misguided actions. Two, how was I to know C.C, was a woman, or that even Shannon was a woman, given Shannon is a unisex name? Yet she capitalized HER and SHE for emphasis, like I have intentionally insulted their identity in some way, which prompted this response from me:

“…what does any of this have to do with you being women? What are you going to do next, accuse me of misogyny?”

These people contacted me, not the other way round, and they did it three times, trying to defend their misguided emails, and then tried to lay the foundation for an accusation of misogyny.

Every organization develops a hierarchy, and that hierarchy can be readily corrupted to advance agendas that hide behind the principled mission of the organization. Neither Hovie nor O’Loughlin are Lakota. No tribe or organization should lecture other tribes on how to properly respect tradition. You might think the Lakota are members of your generic, indigenous umbrella identity, but we are ourselves, especially when it comes to our repatriation, our ancestors, our issues, and our journalism. Given your poor judgement in sending those emails, you have plenty of problems to work on in your own office, before you point one finger at the rest of Indian Country.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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