The popular term, “Wild West,” refers to the western United States in its frontier period when the Europeans were settling in and is characterized by roughness and lawlessness. Modern research acknowledges Arizona, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, and the Dakotas as the “wild west.” This includes Deadwood, located in the He Sapa (Black Hills), heart of the “Great Sioux Reservation.”
Apparently, this large area was populated by non-native cowboys, outlaws, prostitutes, and such. This situation birthed terms like Wild West Show, Wild Bill, wilderness, and wild “Indians.” Such verbiage is found in newspapers, magazines, and other literary works of the early 1800s. Undoubtedly, during the 19th century, this area was lawless and wild disorderly behavior prevailed.
The gold they “discovered” in this large area was an irresistible magnet for the European’s insatiable avarice. They are known to kill their fellow man for it. It is obvious they value this metal over humans. “Six shooters” prevailed as the “law” in the “wild west.” So, how exactly did the term “wild Indian” come into existence? Does it mean natives were integral of the lawlessness?
I don’t think so. Lakota values are way different from the common Euro-American. In other words, gold does not have the same effect it has on the white man. The term actually connotes a dehumanizing significance, that natives were uncivilized and unintelligent. Again, more erasure of native culture. Anyway, this term and its negative connotations are now firmly established in the psyche of the non-native.
Sadly, it also altered the ancient Lakota language, integrity, as well as culture. For example, the prairie turnip is not wild to the Lakota in the adjacent areas of the Black Hills, but we now call it “wild turnip.” Other terms like, “wild berries,” “wild grapes,” and “wild prairie dogs” tell an unusual story of change. It speaks directly of descending from indigenous identity and contentment to poor self-esteem.
Newspapers at that time played a major role in promoting dehumanizing terms like “Injun,” “savage,” and “squaw.” Children’s books are the most notable in perpetuating annihilation of the native. Most of the children’s books written about “Indians” clearly promote a less-than-human imagery, usually as an ugly, slinking, big-nosed, fiercely “war-painted” monster that did nothing but kill God-fearing pioneers.
Generations of non-native children grew up fearing and hating those “Indians” because they didn’t speak English and therefore could not be human. They were portrayed as speaking an artificial English language like “Me big Chief,” or “You no look good” or “Me count many ponies.” There are many indigenous nations on the North American continent and not one of them speak like this.
Each of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of indigenous nations spoke their own beautiful language which are validated by millennia. Henry Sweet (1845-1912), an English linguist, grammarian, and language scholar, wrote: “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences answering to that of ideas and thoughts.”
Modern scholars define language as the principal method of human communication, consisting of words used in a structured and conventional way and conveyed by speech, writing, and gesture. Language functions include communication, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release. These scholarly definitions are not applied exclusively to English or other European languages.
Anyway, as Lakota people, we have a serious task ahead of us and that is to retrieve all that was taken and destroyed without our permission, our history, our language, our family unit and tiospaye, our cultural lifestyle and our integrity. I know many, maybe too many, are no longer able to do this, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to give up and do likewise.
Sometimes, we have to use whatever means to do it. Recently, a non-Lakota person who successfully transmitted Lakota language to our very young here on the Pine Ridge was chastised and cast aside. This is what I mean by retrieving our language, history, and culture by any means possible. This man actually taught a great number of children to speak Lakota and they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives.
Contrary to popular, but erroneous belief, we are not that violent, vicious, immoral “wild Indian” we are thought to be. Despite our troubled history, our cultural teachings say we were always humanists concerned with human welfare, values, and dignity. We descend from human beings. We have history, language, and legally, we have lots of land.
(Ivan F. Star Comes Out, POB 147, Oglala, SD 5776 or at email@example.com)