It's Hard to See the Future with Tears in Your Eyes


To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the American Indian Studies Programs (AISP) at the University of Arizona staged a speakers series entitled "Poetics and Politics." Launching the series was Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), a nationally renowned Native leader, author, and community development specialist.

The following is a transcript of her talk, which delved into issues of Native leadership, identity and self-sufficiency.

Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "It's Hard to See the Future with Tears in Your Eyes." Red Ink: A Native American Student Publication. Vol. 9, No. 2. American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2001: 132-136. Article.

Implications of the Supreme Court's Embrace of Negative Stereotypes


The issues surrounding Native stereotypes should not be dismissed or diminished as merely "surface" problems. "Indian" stereotypes go to the core of the legal, political and economic struggles that Indigenous peoples confront in their work to preserve and strengthen their respective cultures and identities and create brighter futures for themselves and their children and their children's and so on. 

This talk by renowned Indian law scholar Robert A. Williams Jr. sheds light on just how deeply imbedded these stereotypes truly are in the minds of all of us, focusing specifically on how the United States Supreme Court and its sitting justices' embrace of negative racial stereotypes about Indigenous peoples govern their jurisprudence.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Williams, Jr. Robert A. "Implications of the Supreme Court's Embrace of Negative Stereotypes." Red Ink: A Native American Student Publication. Vol. 9, No. 2. American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2001: 91-99. Article.

LeRoy Staples Fairbanks III and Adam Geisler: What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)

Native Nations Institute

Leroy Staples Fairbanks III and Adam Geisler field questions from the audience about the role of education in nation building. The discussion focuses on the importance of Native people being grounded in their culture and language, and where and how that education can and should take place.

Resource Type

Fairbanks III, LeRoy Staples. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Q&A session.

Geisler, Adam. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office (Q&A)." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 6, 2013. Q&A session.

Renee Goldtooth:

"We have a few minutes for a Q&A. Is there anyone that has a question like just got to be asked? There's one back here and if you can speak loud, there's a microphone over here otherwise if you just say it loud if you can."

Tiffany Sorrell:

"My name's Tiffany Sorrell and I'm a Ph.D. student currently at the U of A [University of Arizona]. A lot of my focus has been on educational psychology and so I thought you touched on a lot of good points here with domestic violence and the drugs and alcohol, and you mentioned a little bit about education, but I just wanted to know more on your thoughts on some challenges that you've been facing with education. I've been focusing a lot in my dissertation on cultural influences and how that impacts learning and how that impacts curriculum and things like that and so I was just wondering also, a second part of the question is what recommendations and tools do you have to address these challenges that you've been facing."

LeRoy Fairbanks:

"I guess my response to that would be that education is a's been a huge barrier of getting our membership to take the step into higher education and I think that Leech Lake actually providing a tribal college in the community was the biggest thing they could have done for our membership or for our citizens to overcome barriers of trying to go off reservation for higher education. There's...the biggest barrier I would say with education is that drugs and alcohol are basically...they're probably the basis of all problems on the reservation and drugs and alcohol keep people from...even if they take the step into going to college, it keeps them from finishing out college. It keeps them from being focused, it keeps them from taking that extra step when things get difficult because they've started families early and it's difficult when you have a family that started early, and I would say that's one of my barriers is I didn't necessarily follow the societal norms that society tells you how you're supposed to live your life. Go to high school, go to college, get a job, find a wife, buy a house, have a kid. I kind of did mine all over the place. But I wouldn't have done it any other way. However my path has been to get to where I'm at today is basically because of my family and I'm...after my time here I'll be going back to get my education, but it's about inspiration and maybe making it cool for kids to go to school. And athletics, I would say at our tribal college is huge because there was a big bump in students who signed up for school this fall semester because of athletics. There just needs to be a motivating factor to keep them going and they have to see that the leadership is in support of doing that. Four year ago or four years prior to me getting in office, our tribal council reduced our direct allocation to our tribal college by 66 percent and that was one of the things that I ran on. I said, "˜If that's not a slap in the face to a priority of education then I don't know what is.' And so I've allocated money to going to build our library and archive center, building actual bricks and mortar foundations to our tribal college, building...just showing in our communities that we stand behind them and we're going to support them in any way, trying to establish new educational programs like critical professions programs, like an actual tribal endowment because we say we lack funding for colleges and so it's just kind of thinking innovatively of how students are getting their college money and they'll go to school for a little bit and they'll drop out. How are we keeping are we going to keep them to finish the semester out because they're going to have a bad report back to the funding agency wherever they got their money from and it's going to affect them and they're going to be put on probation at whatever institution if they try to go back. But I would say that a big thing, it does fall on the shoulders of the leadership to show that there's going to be support there for their band members or their citizens to do what they choose to do in life and they can depend on their tribe."

Adam Geisler:

"Can I just follow up on that real quick? I'm kicking myself because I didn't put a slide up there on education. I actually thought about it after I printed the 60 copies. We started off...when we got in there, we had three kids in our after-school program. I think you hit on like the college component. I'll speak a little bit about the younger kids. We came in, there were three kids in our program. We had been suspended on the Healthy Food Program for...prior to us getting in, so we had some headaches that we had to get through. When we got there, that was the initial challenge because I think the biggest motivator that you have in anything that you're doing can always actually come back to food, especially in Indian Country, because our kids in our community, what we were finding was that was actually the only place they were getting a meal was at our after-school program, which is really heartbreaking. Title 7, we started doing exploration about what the heck is our school district doing with our Title 7 dollars? We use Title 7 dollars. And we started pressing the school board asking them...we'd been open for a year, we had seen the reading proficiencies and we had seen where our kids were struggling. We got tutors involved working with kids from first grade all the way up into high school. With very little money we were able to start addressing this. So after the school board found out that we had a woman that had a master's in education, very, very skillful, they recognized that we were serious about making sure that our kids were going to be receiving services and that they weren't just going to take those dollars and they were using it to supplement other things that weren't addressing our Indian kids specifically. So we got engaged with the district, we got parents to sign consent forms, because unfortunately we have parents that aren't parents in our communities. They may start families young, they may have abandoned their kids, whatever happened happened, but the reality is that still I viewed as something that we were responsible for because they are members of our tribe, we do take care of our own, we always have. So we started getting report cards, we started getting updates from the school district to a point where we actually even started showing up to parent-teacher conferences and relaying that information back. Maybe mom had to work and just can't make it, too. There's a lot of single mothers that are in our community. And so between those components and then the caveat of athletics we were really able to bring more kids into the program "˜cause they were getting food, entice them with sports, and then hold them accountable because finally somebody was actually seeing their progress reports and understanding where their proficiencies were and then providing the tutors to deal with that literally on a daily basis."

LeRoy Fairbanks:

"I'll just add one more thing. He opened the door for like elementary education, and I would say that there has been feedback in the community from like elementary schools that have said that they know which families are going to school, which parents are going to college because they're understanding more of an importance of what it's about and that shows because they're making sure their kids are getting up and going to school in the morning. Something as simple as making sure your kids get up and go to school in the morning is huge because your kids are growing up with a huge...with a greater understanding of what it's about to get your education and taking pride in getting that education. If they aren't hearing those messages at home, it's difficult for them to prioritize that when they feel like they can't get out, if they feel like they're stuck wherever they're at. They need those messages and if they're not hearing them at home, they've got to hear them from somewhere. That's another big thing is down at the elementary and junior high [schools] as far as intervention goes."

Renee Goldtooth:

"Grand Chief, you had a question?"

Michael Mitchell:

"Thank you. First I'm going to apologize because I tend to speak loud and hard. I don't really need this, but I'm going to comply with the requirements here. We're from Akwesasne, which is a reservation that's half in Canada and half in the United States and it's a Mohawk community. And I've been where you guys are sitting right now and I just like to sit and listen to others that come after and it makes you think. One of the greatest lessons, and I hope that whatever I say to you you take it in a good way "˜cause it's not meant to be criticizing, more perhaps for sharing. The lady had a question on education and you talked about everything but the most essential part of teaching our Indigenous students is their own culture and language, to reinforce that before they leave because when they go to school, they go to high school off the territory, they go to a university, college off the territory and you want them to come home. At the end you want them to come home, you want them to be proud of who they are when they leave. We have to equip them, and so that's the greatest thing that we can give them is that knowledge of knowing who they are. And one of the things that you mentioned a while ago, nation building begins with our children, our families, our community. It begins with yourself of being comfortable of knowing who you are. If you're Mohawk language, Anishinaabe -- however you define yourself and your nation -- as you travel about and get into the education system, you will be challenged many times. Not physically, not even mentally, but generally. So when you get asked a question...a while ago you said the 'Ojibwe Band,' in Canada they go through this...there's national legislation called the Indian Act where they refer legally that we're not to be called 'nations' in Canada. We're not to be called even 'tribes' but 'bands,' and when I became chief one of the things that I worked on...I says, "˜That's a very offensive word because the government subliminal [message] is trying to get us not to recognize our people who we are, who we were and who we are now because of the proud nations that existed back then, it doesn't mean they don't exist now.' So my grandfather always told me to identify myself as a member of the Mohawk Nation, but when I went to school and as I grew up I started hearing other kids refer to themselves as the Mohawk Band of St. Regis Akwesasne. So when I became a chief I changed that name from St. Regis to Akwesasne, our traditional name for our community. We changed a lot of things back to our traditional names and that meant that the community became more aware of themselves individually, family, community, nation. And so as the chief, when we had a council meeting, because of many years of government telling us that we had to refer to ourselves as the 'Band,' all the chiefs...they had a Band administrator, they had Band programs, they had...everything was 'Band.' I put a coffee cup on the council table and I said, "˜The next person that says he's a Band of something, put a quarter in that cup and we'll have coffee for next week.' We had coffee for many months because they couldn't shake that. But after awhile they started seeing that they're not a Band and I would ask them, "˜What are you then?' "˜I'm a nation.' Yes! That spilled over to our staff, the community, everybody got into the game. Pretty soon more awareness. I say that because when I said 'Band' is offensive, the story you told about that little white lady that sat next to you on the plane, when she asked you what you thought of the name 'Washington Redskin,' you should have told her, "˜It's a racially offensive term,' that if it was the 'Washington Niggers' she would have noticed, anybody would have and that is how they equate the difference. No problem as long as they're called 'Redskin' but to all our young people they should know, we should tell them. And being [Mohawk language] and a member of a proud nation and for generations to come we no longer want to be referred to as 'Redskins' and it starts with a pro football team that should be leading this in a good way to say, "˜We are going to change it,' and for all the students going to schools that should be first and foremost that recognition of defining who we are, that it starts with those multi-million dollar sports organizations. So I've been in politics now 28 years and I've got a chance to share a lot of thoughts with a lot of leaders and in this way, in a good way, I want to share that with you, because you're going to be chiefs for a long time yet and you're going to be aware from the smallest population...we've got 18,000 at Akwesasne and 12,000 that we're directly responsible for. That responsibility is no less greater or less than the ones who have 700 in their community because the process of nation building, why we're gathered here, is to recognize ourselves, who we are and to equip our young people and our leaders with the tools necessary and that starts with spiritually, culturally, knowing how we define ourselves and so I thought I'd take a few minutes and share that with you."

Renee Goldtooth:

"Thank you, Grand Chief. I wanted to say that the beauty of a gathering like this is that we always get to learn new things like this from veteran leaders such as the Grand Chief and also the folks that are on the panel. It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes you hear just the right thing that you need to hear to put in your pocket or to carry in your heart or your mind for the next person to maybe ask that really critical question like the Redskins issue so thank you very much, Grand Chief, for those words and then also Tiffany for your question. I there anybody else that had like a question that they just had like a burning...oh, we already have one guy jumping around over here. We'll have this question and I have kind of a wrap up question and then I have a couple of announcements."

Steve Zawoysky:

"I wasn't jumping but I was excited to ask these questions. I really appreciate these talks about education. That's what we do, that's we're here and what the former speakers just said is really key. One of the things we found at our college is through research and through experience for anybody else who teaches at college or any other educational institution, for us to be really successful with our students or for them to be successful and to stay for the entire program, they have to feel like they belong. They have to feel like they have a support system, that they have a family, that they have connections to whether it's faculty members, other students, student organizations, activities. Those are the things that really keep students engaged in there and if we can base it out of a cultural understanding of who they are and they take that along with them, because we're really...for the most part we're teaching them a lot of like content area subjects: accounting, business law -- all these things that you could teach in any sort of environment, but without providing them the basis and context for them to understand where they live, where their families live because a lot of our students come back from being away from Lummi, the reservation where the college is on and they come back and they haven't...they've been raised by an extended family member in Los Angeles for 18 years and now they want to come back and get an education and learn about something that they've never learned about. So I just wanted to really encourage anybody in education to not just focus on the whole factual teaching of "˜We're going to increase your brain power' sort of thing. You really need to get to the cultural thing and you need to get to really provide them with the basis to have an opportunity to create meaning for their own life "˜cause if they can do that and if they have that meaning and they keep that in their mind then they're just going to keep moving on. This is of course all my perspective. So I just wanted to comment from an educational perspective, because this is really what we're trying to do, we're trying to engage students for their life, create lifetime learners, and so that they then can become the role models for their kids. "˜Cause one of the things we deal with, we have so many young parents at our college, which is good and bad but if we can teach these students how to be good role models, students, professionals, community leaders, council members, then their kids are going to pick up on that and we don't need to tell them that anymore because they've had a lifetime of experience of mother, dad doing these things."

Renee Goldtooth:

"Do either of you have a response to either of the last two comments?"

LeRoy Fairbanks:

"I don't really have a response to it all. I would say that I think you're on point as far as a cultural basis or spiritual foundation to every individual and an understanding of who they are, not just historical history but there's also a cultural history to each reservation. And I agree about 'the Band' and sometimes that''re very on point, and I'm really glad that you said that, because terminology is very key in understanding who you really are. I don't even like to say 'Indian' but sometimes back at home if someone's not changing the terminology, no one's going to change that and so I'm glad that I got to hear that today because it kind of motivates me to make more of a push to change things. We Red Lake is a neighboring reservation and they're still Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. We're not Chippewa either and so it's just still some of those terms are still lingering out there though but that's one of the things that I didn't really get to finish with what I was going to say is that...and I'll just touch on it right now is family time that I didn't touch on when I was speaking earlier is that you have to dedicate that time for your family. That's one thing that I think is very important that you can't lose sight of during these years. You want to dedicate yourself while you're in office...if you choose to be in office for a very long time or short time, that you want to do the best job that you can do while you're there, but you can't forget about the family time or the family that supports you in doing the work that you do. My foundation is trying to keep that balance and I have elders in the communities that I look to for that balance to help keep me balanced. I have elders who kind of keep me on the straight and narrow sometimes because sometimes I lose sight of that bigger picture and that bigger picture is that balance of maintaining a healthy balance with your physical health, your mental health, your spiritual health and so I appreciate your words. [Native language]."

Adam Geisler:

"I too appreciate what you had to say. I always...anytime I have an opportunity to learn and listen to others that have been before me and have experienced it...unfortunately I'm going to have a really hard time changing the name of my tribe from the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians and I mean no offense to you by that but the reality is for us to...I think it just goes to show that we all identify ourselves individually by our nations, by our tribes, and how we organize ourselves in that on one side of portion of the country will view things one way and one part of the country will view things another way and that I think is the biggest part to overcome in anything that you're dealing with in Indian Country because I find it in every single program that we ever deal with. They always think that I operate the same way that somebody else operates and I think it's good to acknowledge the fact that we all come together and I think have commonalities with things, but at the same time view ourselves very differently depending on what part of the country you're in because we all have very different histories. I can appreciate what you shared about the language but the reality is I have one person that speaks it on my reservation due to termination and I would love to start a language class up there with that individual and we're trying to do that but the reality is it takes money, time and resources and a motivated individual who's willing to share the knowledge "˜cause I totally agree with that, that occurs in our community sometimes. The people that know, which we have a whole section of them that know because they ran into the mountains, they weren't captured by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and taken off to the boarding schools. They know and then there's others of us that come from families in the community that don't. But I do appreciate what you had to say and from the...people. [Native language]."

Renee Goldtooth:

"Thank you very much. We are coming up to the top of the hour and I wanted to again extend our deepest appreciation for you spending some time with us sharing what you've learned, especially as young men. It feels good to know that there are folks like you who are going to be leading the nations."

Wilma Mankiller: What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective

Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series

Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller discusses the common misperceptions that people have about Indigenous people in the 21st century, and the efforts of Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity, cultures, values, and ways of life.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective." Vine Deloria, Jr. Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 30, 2008. Presentation.

Thank you very much Tsianina [Lomawaima] for inviting me and for working on all the details to get me here. And I also want to thank Teresa wherever Teresa is who’s been in charge of taking care of a lot of logistics and has done a great job. And how I came to be here is that I mentioned to Tom [Holm] one time -- we’re both on this commission that he mentioned -- and I mentioned to him how much I love Arizona. And I told him. ‘If I ever had to live any place other than my home and the Cherokee Nation, I’d live in Arizona.’ And he said, ‘Well, we need to get you to Arizona then.’ And so I also wanted to thank Tom for the invitation to come here today and be with all of you. And I want to thank you. I was just mentioning to Tom how honored I am always when I do public speaking that people would leave their home and their family and their other activities and come to spend an evening just so we can have dialogue together and get to know one another, and I really appreciate that very much and want to express that appreciation to you.

For me it’s an incredible honor to offer remarks about what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century as a part of the Vine Deloria series of events that are occurring here on campus. Many of us who had the privilege of knowing Vine are still trying to figure out how to live in a world without his physical presence and I believe that we can best honor him by doing exactly what this university is doing and that’s continuing to challenge the stereotypes and the misperceptions about Native people that still exist in this country. I also think that we can honor him by getting up every morning and making sure that we stand for something larger than ourselves. I think that’s a way of honoring Vine. And I also think that we can honor him by continuing the fight, his fight, our fight for treaty rights and for tribal sovereignty and also continuing the fight for our cultural survival.

So let me begin by saying that I don’t speak for all Indigenous people or even for all Cherokee people. The thoughts that I share with you tonight are derived entirely from my own experience. And most of my remarks tonight will concern Indigenous people of this country, but I have visited Indigenous people in lots of other places including China. There are very distinct ethnic communities in China, in Ecuador, in South Africa, in New Zealand and in Brazil. There are over 300 million Indigenous people in virtually every region of the world including the Sami peoples of Scandinavia, the Maya of Guatemala, numerous tribal groups in the Amazonian rainforest, the Dalits in the mountains of southern India, the San and Qua in southern Africa, aboriginal people in Australia and of course the hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous people in Mexico, Central and South America as well as here in this land that is now called America. There is enormous diversity among communities of Indigenous people, each of which has its own culture, language, history and unique way of life. Indigenous people across the globe share some common values derived from an understanding that their lives are part of and inseparable from the natural world around them.

Onondaga faith keeper Oren Lyons who spoke here recently once said, ‘Our knowledge is profound and comes from living in one place for untold generations. Our knowledge comes from watching the sun rise in the east and set in the west from the same place over great sections of time. We are as familiar with the land, river and great seas that surround us as we are with the faces of our mothers. Indeed we call the earth [Native language], Our Mother, from which all life springs. This deeply felt sense of interdependence with all other living things fuels a duty and a responsibility to conserve and protect the natural world that is a sacred provider of food, of medicine and spiritual sustenance. Hundreds of seasonal ceremonies are regularly conducted by Indigenous people to express thanksgiving for the gifts of nature and to acknowledge the seasonal changes and to remind people of their obligations to each other and to the earth.’

And the stories continue. In many Indigenous communities around the world, traditional stories embody the collective memory of the people. These stories often describe how things were in the distant past, what happened to cause the world to be as it is today and some stories project far into the future. The prophecies of a number of Indigenous groups predict that the world will end when people are no long capable of protecting nature or restoring its balance. Two of the most widely quoted prophecies are those of the Hopi and the Iroquois, both of which have long predicted that the world will end if human beings forget their responsibilities to the natural world. These prophecies seem particularly important in this era of increasing alarm about the catastrophic effects of climate change and questions, even questions about the long-term survival of humankind. Indigenous people are not the only people on earth who understand that they’re interconnected with all living things. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said, ‘At some point during this journey, we lost our feeling of connectedness to the rest of nature. We now dare to wonder, ‘Are we so unique and powerful as to be essentially separate from the earth?’’

There are many thousands of people from different ethnic groups who care deeply about the environment and fight every day to protect the earth. The difference between non-Indigenous environmentalists and Indigenous people who live close to the land is that Indigenous people have the benefit, the unique benefit of having ceremonies that regularly remind them of their responsibilities to each other and their responsibilities to the land. So they remain close to the land not only in the way they live but in their hearts and in the way they view the world.

To me, sometimes when I talk to mainstream environmentalists it’s almost like environmentalism is an intellectual exercise. The difference when you talk to people who, traditional Indigenous people who live close to the land is that they feel that the connection to the land and their responsibility to take care of it is a sacred duty, it’s not an intellectual exercise. When women like Pauline Whitesinger, an elder at Black Mountain or at Big Mountain, and Carrie Dann, a Western Shoshone land rights activist speak of preserving the land for future generations, they’re not talking about just future generations of humans, they are talking literally about future generations of all living things. That’s a profound difference. Pauline and Carrie live with the land and they understand the relative insignificance of human beings in the totality of the universe.

When all human beings, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people lived closer to the land, there was a greater understanding of the interdependence between humans and the land. Author and feminist Gloria Steinem observes that ‘Once, indeed nearly for all the time that human beings have walked this earth, you and I would have been living very differently in small bands, raising our children together as if each child were our own and migrating with the seasons. There were no nations, no lines drawn in the sand. Instead there were migratory paths and watering places with trade and culture blossoming wherever the paths came together in patterns that spread over the continents like lace.’

So what’s happened in the non-Native world is that there’s an absence of the stories and the ceremonies to remind them, and so they have no memory of that time when they lived very close to the land and were responsible for one another and for the land. They’re not only distant from the land and from themselves, they have little understanding of their place in the world.

I remember one time being, I live in a very rural area at the end of a dirt road within the Cherokee Nation and so very conscious of seasonal changes and of things that are going on in the natural world. And I remember once being in New York City at the magical time of dusk and watching the people. Not a single person on a crowded street in New York City looked at or acknowledged the sunset over the Hudson River or even, I imagine, thought about the gift of another day. It made me wonder how many urban dwellers, millions of urban dwellers go about their lives without ever really seeing or thinking about the miracle of the sun rising in the morning and setting again in the evening.

Aside from a different view of their relationship to the natural world, many of the world’s Indigenous people also share a sometimes fragmented but still very present sense of responsibility for one another. Cooperation has always been necessary for the survival of tribal people and even today in the more traditional communities cooperation takes precedence over competition. It’s really quite miraculous that a sense of sharing and reciprocity continues into the 21st century given the staggering amount of adversity Indigenous people have faced. Within many communities at home and I think in tribal communities around the country the greatest respect, the most respected people are not those who have amassed great material wealth or achieved great personal success. The greatest respect is reserved for those people who help other people, people who understand that as Indigenous people we’re born into a community, a specific tribal group and that our entire lives play themselves out within a set of reciprocal relationships. The people that understand that are the most respected people.

There’s evidence of this sense of reciprocity in some Cherokee traditional communities. My husband Charlie Soap leads a widespread self-help movement among the Cherokee in which low-income volunteers work to build walking trails, community centers, sports complexes, water lines and even houses. This self-help movement, in which everybody gets together and helps each other, taps into the traditional value of cooperation for the sake of the common good.

Besides a connection to the land and this sense of reciprocity, the world’s Indigenous people are also bound by the common experience of being ‘discovered’ and subjected to colonial expansion into their territories that led to the loss of an incalculable number of lives and millions and millions of acres of land and resources. The most basic rights of Indigenous people were disregarded and they were subjected to a series of policies that were designed to assimilate them into colonial society and culture. Too often, the policies resulted in poverty, high infant mortality, rampant unemployment, substance abuse and all its attendant problems.

The stories are shockingly similar all over the world. When I first read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which chronicled the systematic destruction of an African tribe’s social, cultural and economic structure, it sounded all too familiar. Take the land, discredit the leaders, ridicule the traditional healers, send the children off to distant boarding schools; very familiar story. And then I read a report called The Stolen Generation about aboriginal children in Australia who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools.

My own father and my Aunt Sally were taken from my grandfather by the U.S. government and placed in a government boarding school when they were very small, very young. So that story is very familiar to Cherokee people and to tribal people all over the world. Indigenous people everywhere on the planet are connected both by our values and by our oppression.

When contemplating the contemporary challenges and problems faced by Indigenous people worldwide, it’s important to remember that the roots of many contemporary social, economic and political problems can be found in colonial policies and those policies continue today across the globe. In the Amazonian rainforest, Indigenous people are continually battling large scale destruction of their traditional homes in the forest by multi-national mining, oil and timber companies. Some small Amazonian Indigenous communities are on the verge of extinction as the result of the murder of their leaders and the forced dispersal of their members. And to make matters worse, some well-meaning environmentalists who should be natural allies focus almost exclusively on the land and appear not to see or hear the people at all.

When I was in Brazil, one of the people there was quite humorous and he said, ‘There was a time when a lot of famous musicians, American and English musicians, would wear T-shirts that said 'Save the Rainforest.'‘ And he said, ‘You never once saw a T-shirt that said 'Save the People of the Rainforest.'‘ Though the people of the forest, the people who live in the forest and have lived there for thousands of years possess the best knowledge about how to live with and sustain the forest.

When you think about it, of the fact that folks focus on the land and not the people, it’s not surprising really because Indigenous people are not in the consciousness of many, of the people in the larger society. There’s too little accurate information available about us, available in educational institutions, in literature, in films or in the popular culture. I believe that the battle to protect the human and land rights of Indigenous people is made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that so few people know much about either the history or contemporary lives of our people and without any kind of history or cultural context, it’s almost impossible for outsiders to understand Indigenous issues. And the information that is available is often produced by non-Native people; some of which is enormously helpful. Some of the anthropological work has helped tribes restore, some tribal people restore their languages and that sort of thing. So some of the non-Native literature is enormously helpful, but too much of it is written by people who spend 15 minutes in a tribal community, become an expert, and then go out and write a book or produce a film.

So there’s a lot of inaccurate information out there. And the lack of accurate information creates a void, which is often filled with nonsensical stereotypes, which either vilify Indigenous people as troubled descendants of savage peoples on the one hand or they romanticize them as innocent children of nature, spiritual but incapable of higher thought on the other hand. Whether the stereotype romanticizes or vilifies people, it’s still very harmful I believe.

Then the stereotypes about Indigenous women are particularly appalling. While the role of Indigenous women in the family and the community, now and in the past, differs from community to community, women have always played very significant roles in most tribal societies. Yet in the media and in the larger society the power, the strength, the complexity of Indigenous women is rarely acknowledged or rarely recognized.

I believe that these public perceptions of tribal people will change in the future because Indigenous leaders now understand that there is a direct link between public perception and public policy and they understand that they must frame the issues for themselves. If Indigenous people don’t frame the issues for themselves, their opponents most certainly will. In the future, as more Indigenous people become filmmakers, writers, historians, museum curators and journalists, they’ll be able to use a dazzling array of technological tools to tell their own stories in their own voice in their own way.

Once a journalist asked me whether people in the U.S. had trouble accepting the government of the Cherokee Nation during my tenure as principal chief. I was a little surprised by the question. The government of the Cherokee Nation predated the government of the United States and the Cherokee Nation had treaties with other countries before it executed a treaty with one of the first U.S. colonies. So that question really surprised me.

During the colonial era and before, many tribal leaders sent delegations to meet with the Spanish, with the English and French in an effort to protect their lands and rights. And these tribal leaders, they would travel to foreign lands with a trusted interpreter and they took maps that had been painstakingly drawn by hand to show their lands to other heads of state. They also took along gifts, letters and proclamations. And what’s very painful now is to look back in history and see that though the tribal leaders themselves, when they traveled to these other places, thought they were being dealt with as heads of state and as equals, historical records indicate that they were sometimes viewed as objects of curiosity and sometimes a great deal of disdain though they themselves, the tribal leaders, were very earnest.

The journalist with the question about Cherokee government needn’t apologize for her lack of knowledge about tribal governments in the U.S. Many people in the U.S. know very little about us though they’ve been living in our former towns and villages now for hundreds of years.

Again, it’s impossible to even contemplate the contemporary lives or future of Indigenous people without some basic knowledge of tribal history. [I’m going to skip some of this history because you probably know all of this.] Tribal governments in the U.S. exercise their range of sovereign rights and it’s interesting because one of the most common misperceptions in the larger culture is that all tribal governments are the same or even worse that all Indian people are the same or that we speak some kind of common ‘Indian’ language. And so one of the tasks I think we have is to remind people that each tribal government is unique and that different tribal governments exercise their sovereign rights in different ways. And some tribal governments have gaming facilities, some have a number of cooperative agreements with the state governments, other tribal governments believe that we are giving up sovereignty to execute any kind of government with a statement government so they don’t engage in those governments. And there are some governments like the Onondaga that have, do not do any kind of gaming, don’t believe in gaming, and they don’t receive any kind of federal funding at all, none. And so they, and they have their traditional government that they’ve had since the beginning of time. But by and large there are many tribal governments in this country now that have their own judicial systems -- most do -- operate their own police force, they run their own schools, they administer their own clinics and hospitals and operate a wide range of business enterprises and there are now more than two dozen tribally controlled community colleges. And the interesting thing is that all these advancements that tribes have made benefit everybody in the community not just tribal people. And the history and contemporary lives and future of tribal governments is intertwined with that of their neighbors.

And even within there’s a lot of difference between various tribal groups, each of which is very distinct, has its own culture, language and history but even within tribal groups there’s a great deal of diversity. And in our tribe, members of our tribe, the Cherokee tribe, are very stratified socially, economically and culturally. There are several thousand Cherokee people that continue to speak the Cherokee language and live in Cherokee communities in rural northeastern Oklahoma. On the other end of the spectrum, there are enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation who’ve never even visited the Cherokee Nation and so there’s a great deal of stratification in our tribe and I believe in other tribes as well.

Each Indigenous community is unique just as each community in the larger society is unique. Outside our communities, I think too many people view Indigenous people through a very narrow, one-dimensional lens and really we’re very interesting and very complex and we’re certainly multi-dimensional human beings that rarely do people outside of our communities see us in that way.

So what does the future hold for Indigenous people across the globe and what challenges will they face moving further into the 21st century? I think that to see the future of Indigenous people one needs only to look at the past. If we as a people have been able to survive such a staggering loss of land, of rights, of resources and lives, how can I not be optimistic that we will survive whatever challenges lie ahead in the next 100 or even 500 years and that we can project far into the future and still have viable Indigenous communities. If we’ve survived what we’ve survived so far, I’m confident we can survive whatever lies ahead. Without question, the combined efforts of government and various religious groups to eradicate traditional knowledge system has had a profoundly negative impact on the culture as well as the social and economic systems of Indigenous people. But again, if we’ve been able to hold onto our sense of community, our sense of interdependence, our generosity of spirit, our languages, our culture, our ceremonies, our medicine, despite everything, how can I not be optimistic about the future? And though some of the original languages, ceremonies and medicine has been irretrievably lost, the ceremonial fires of many Indigenous people across the globe have survived all the upheaval. Sometimes Indigenous communities after major upheaval and removal have almost had to reinvent themselves as a people but they’ve never given up their sense of responsibility to one another and to the land. It is this sense of interdependence I believe that has sustained tribal people thus far and I believe it will sustain them well into the future.

The world’s changing, but we can adapt to change. Indigenous people know about change and have proven time and time again they can adapt to change. No matter where Native people go in the world, they take with them a strong sense of values, a strong sense of who they are and so they can fully interact with the larger society and participate in the larger society around them but still have a sense of themselves. If you look at some of the people like Vine Deloria, or [N.] Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize, or the Chickasaw gentleman, who was an astronaut, or the women who, including Maria Tall Chief, who became prima ballerinas, no matter where those people went they took with them a strong sense of who they are.

One of the things that I remember interviewing for my book LaDonna Harris and one of the things that she said strike me. She said, ‘You know, when I was living in Washington as a Senator’s wife, I did the same thing as other Senate wives did.’ But she said -- it didn’t matter who all was talking to her or what situation she was in -- 'I was Comanche and when, whatever was going on around me, I filtered that through my Comanche values and my sense of who I was. I could live in Washington in a similar house as the other Senate wives and do similar things but I never lost my sense of who I was as a Comanche woman.’ She said, ‘I’ve always hated that term that we live in two worlds.’ She said, ‘My world is that I’m a Comanche woman.’ So it was very interesting and I think a lot of people do that. And for the young people here today that are contemplating careers, it doesn’t matter whether you become a physician or a professor or a lawyer or if you live away from your homelands and can’t participate regularly in ceremonies. You can take with you the knowledge and the values wherever you go.

I believe that one of the great challenges for Indigenous people globally and particularly here in the U.S. will be in the future and now will be to develop practical models to capture, maintain and pass on traditional knowledge system to future generations. When we all lived close to one another, it was easy to pass on the knowledge. Many tribal groups even had people who were designated to remember things. It was their job to remember things and pass them on. But since people are very mobile and the world’s changed so much, we have to come up with new models to capture and maintain the knowledge and pass it on to future generations. There’s nothing in the world, nothing that we can learn anywhere that can replace that solid sense of continuity and knowing that a genuine understanding of traditional knowledge brings. We have to preserve that and we have to pass that on to future generations. There are many communities that are working on discreet aspects of culture such as language or medicine, but in my view it’s the entire system of knowledge that needs to be maintained and not just for Indigenous people but for the world at large.

Perhaps in the future Indigenous people who have an abiding and deeply held belief that all living things are related and interdependent can help policymakers understand how completely irrational it is to destroy the very natural world that sustains all life. Regrettably, in the future the battle for human and land rights will continue but the future does look somewhat better. Last year, after 30 years of advocacy by Indigenous people, the United Nations finally passed a resolution supporting the basic inherent rights of Indigenous people. The resolution by the way was passed over the objections of the United States government. The challenge I think for people working in international work now will be to make sure the provisions of the resolution are honored and the rights of Indigenous people all over the world are indeed protected. And the efforts of tribal governments in this country to take full advantage of the self-governance and self-determination policies of the U.S. government are once again a testament to the fact that Indigenous people simply do better when they have control of their own lives.

In the case of my own people, we’re an example of what happens when you have control and then when you lose control. In the case of the Cherokees, after we were forcibly removed by the United States military from the southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, we picked ourselves up and rebuilt our nations. We started some of the first schools west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian, and built schools for the higher education of women. We printed our own newspapers in Cherokee and English and were at that time more literate than our neighbors in Texas and Arkansas and actually I think we probably still are. Then in the early 20th century, the federal government tried to abolish the Cherokee Nation and within two decades -- when we didn’t have a functioning central tribal government -- we went from being one of the most literate groups of people to having one of the lowest educational attainment levels of any group in eastern Oklahoma. And so that’s a direct testament to what happens when we have control and when we don’t have control.

For the past 35 years, we’ve been in an effort to revitalize the Cherokee Nation and now we once again run our own school and have an extensive array of successful education programs. The youth at our Indian school, the Sequoyah High School, recently won the state, the team, a student won the state trigonometry contest and several are Gates Millennium Scholars. Again, we do better when we have control over our own destiny. And a couple of years ago Harvard University completed over a decade of comprehensive research, which was published in a guardedly hopeful book entitled The State of Native Nations. The research indicates that most of the social and economic indicators are moving in a positive direction. Many tribal governments are strong, educational attainment levels are improving, and there is a cultural renaissance occurring in many tribal communities.

Within some Indigenous communities, there are conversations about what it means to be a traditional Indigenous person now and what it will mean in the future. I am an Indigenous woman of the 21st century, and I’m so glad I was born Cherokee and that my life has indeed played itself out within a set of reciprocal relationships in my family and community.

To me, being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means being part of a group of people with the most valuable and ancient knowledge on the planet, a people who still have a direct relationship with and sense of responsibility to the land and to other people.

To me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means being part of a community that faces a daunting set of challenges and problems and oppression and yet the communities, our communities find so many moments of grace and comfort and joy in traditional stories, in the language and in ceremonies.

I think, to me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century, all these young smart people getting an education here at the University of Arizona, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means trusting our own thinking again and not only articulating our own vision of the future clearly, but having within our communities and our people the skill set and the leadership ability to make those visions a reality.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means -- despite everything -- still being able to dream of a future in which all people will support the human rights and self-determination of Indigenous people. We still have that dream and we still have that hope. Land can be colonized and resources can be colonized but dreams can never be colonized. I always think about the time of my grandfather and the early part of the 20th century, during that bad time when our central government was in disarray, and these people never gave up the dream of having a strong central tribal government and a strong community and they would ride horses to each other’s houses throughout the Cherokee Nation and collect money in a mason jar to send a delegate to Washington to remind the leaders in Washington of their obligation, their treaty obligations to Cherokee people. So our people never gave up their dream and will never give up their dream.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means sharing traditional knowledge and best practices with Indigenous communities all over the world using the iPhone, the Blackberry, MySpace, YouTube and every other technological tool that becomes available to us.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means becoming a physician or a scientist or even an astronaut who will leave her footprints on the moon and then return home to participate in ceremonies her people have had since the beginning of time. That’s what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century.

And finally, to be an Indigenous person of the 21st century means to forego the feeling of going around with anger in our hearts over past injustices and it means not becoming paralyzed by the inaction we see around us or the totality of problems we face in our communities. We can’t be paralyzed by that and we can’t be angry over past injustice. I think it’s important for us to keep our view just as our ancestors did. We’re here because our ancestors thought about us and cared about us and fought for us. So it’s our job now to keep our vision fixed on the future. That’s what we need to do.

I really love my favorite proverb, which I’ll leave you with is a Mohawk proverb and because they teach their young people not to always be angry and focus on injustice or not be paralyzed by what’s going on around them, the problems they now face. So what they tell their young people is that you need to be thinking about the future and ‘it’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ I love that proverb. So I’ll leave you with that proverb, ‘ It’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ And thank you again for being here and open it up for some time for questions and answers. Thank you.


Suzan Shown Harjo: Nobody Gives Us Sovereignty: Busting Stereotypes and Walking the Walk

American Indian Studies Program

The first-ever speaker in the Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) shares her personal perspective on the life and legacy of the late Vine Deloria, Jr., and provides an overview of her work protecting sacred places and fighting racist stereotypes that demean Native Americans. She also calls for all Native Americans to commit in some form or fashion to joining the struggle against enduring colonial forces that seek to destroy tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Harjo, Suzan Shown. "Nobody Gives Us Sovereignty: Busting Stereotypes and Walking the Walk." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series. American Indian Studies, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 9, 2008. Presentation.

“Thank you so much, Tom [Holm] and Tsianina [Lomawaima] and Tarissa [Spoonhunter] for getting me here and arranging things. I met Vine Deloria Jr.; I met Vine Deloria Sr. first in South Dakota and then in New York in the early 60s. I met Vine Jr. in 1965 in this state in Scottsdale where the National Congress of American Indians [NCAI] was having its convention. And I came down to Gila River because I have relatives there on our Cheyenne side, a boarding school alliance between a Cheyenne relative of my mother’s and a Pima woman and he was captured and taken to Gila River after boarding school. So I have a lot of relatives at Gila River who are also Cheyenne. And so I had my first child and took her to Gila River to see some of our relatives there. And while there, saw that NCAI was meeting in Scottsdale so I went over to talk with Vine Deloria since he was the executive director. And I had had a problem with some sacred objects that were in the Museum of the American Indian in New York and I wanted to get them out. So with my baby on my hip I went over and talked to Vine who was our most important Indian on the national scene and I was kind of skeptical about him. I thought, ‘Well, this is another politician and he wouldn’t have gotten in that job if he hadn’t been a politician,’ and I was skeptical of all politicians at that moment. And so he took a moment to talk with me and I asked him about, ‘How do you go about getting a sacred item back from a museum?’ And he said, ‘I really don’t know. I have no idea how to do that.’ He said, ‘But what I’ll do is help you think about it.’ So he had my attention because he said, ‘I don’t know anything about that’ and that he would help me think about it. I thought that was just wonderful and that was the beginning of a very great and long friendship.

We worked together on all sorts of things. I worked with Vine on guerrilla actions that had nothing to do with my background or experience and he did the same and we taught each other a lot. And I think I learned a lot more from him than he did from me but I taught him a few things as well. And when years passed and I wanted to, I’d been asked by Joe De la Cruz who was a friend of ours, very great leader from the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State, if I would be director of the National Congress of American Indians and so I was really inclined to do it for a lot of reasons. The two most important ones were because Joe had asked and because Vine had been director of NCAI. So I talked to Vine about it and asked if I should do it and he said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a terrible job.’ And he said, ‘What happened to me will happen to you. I found myself under my desk crying, just sobbing because I knew there was so much to do for the Indian people and I could do so little about it.’ And I thought that was just an amazing thing to say and said so much about his humanity and I thought about it for awhile and then I called him and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do the job.’ And I was a little concerned about what his reaction might be but instantly he said, ‘Great! Let’s get to work. Now here’s what we need to do.’ And whenever Vine said, ‘Here’s what we need to do’, he meant, ‘Here’s what you have to do.’ But he always meant too that he would help you think about it. He would help you figure it out.

So I did that job and Vine was my closest confidant in that job and he was right about it being a terrible job. So no matter who’s in that position, I never say a bad word about them in public. So if you want me to say anything bad about NCAI director you have to catch me in private in a weak moment. But in public, it is a terrible job and you are aware of so many needs and how little you can do to address anything and everything. But I have to say that on my watch we did a lot of amazing things including getting the National Museum of the American Indian, getting repatriation law, getting gaming law, not small stuff, all of that. So I’m very proud of my tenure there and I have to say that I didn’t spend any time under my desk sobbing. That’s because I couldn’t fit under my desk. But that’s not to say that it was without tears.

We all in our traditions have a formality that we need to go through and I have to say before going farther in this public talk how I have to greet you with condolences. The Iroquois have something called The Wiping of the Tears ceremony. All of our peoples have that in our traditions and I’m reminded just by watching television of what happened here not very long ago between one Navajo young woman who is no longer alive and another who has lost control of her life forever. And I see that the one who is living and must be living in a hell of her own devising is on trial right now and so I did ceremony for all of you here who knew them, who know them, who were here at the time or who are feeling the ripples of that emotional onslaught that occurred on this campus. So I offer you my condolences and I hope that you will do what’s proper to do with all broken hearts, that you just surf on the top of negative energy and use it to accomplish something, to dedicate yourself to doing something about anything. No one can do everything about everything. You can do something about something and you just have to make a pledge to yourself to start and to do it in the name of someone or someone’s. And it would be good to dedicate yourself to the memory of people who had so much promise unfulfilled and to do something about the eradication of jealousy and envy, which are probably our two most important substantive enemies in Indian Country. And not just in Indian Country, you see it all around. A rising star shows up on the political scene and is immediately the target of people who are so envious that they are beside themselves and they do lose their mind, these people who have, who are guided by that kind of energy. When Shakespeare had a character say that jealousy was the green-eyed monster of despair that was so apt, it was so important. I have never heard a better description of jealousy. It eats away at you and it does consume you and take over your life.

Tom mentioned Hank Adams, the very great Hank Adams. Vine Deloria once wrote an article about Hank calling him ‘the most important Indian.’ And he was and he continues to be for many of us and for many reasons. Hank Adams is Assiniboine and Sioux and grew up in the Pacific Northwest and he thinks for people. He really is just a thinker. He wrote the '20 Points,' which you see on a lot of websites as an anonymous document or as the AIM [American Indian Movement] manifesto. Well, that was actually written by a person. Nothing ever just falls from the sky full written. That was written by Hank Adams. And one time I asked him, ‘Does it bother you that no one knows that you wrote that?’ And he said, ‘No, not at all.’ He said, ‘And that wasn’t the point was it?’ That’s right. The 20 Points give a good snapshot in time of where we were in the early 1970s, where Indian affairs kind of stood and what in some people’s minds could be done about it at the time. So Hank Adams is a very important person to research and read and if you’re looking at documents that are unattributed from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and into the late ‘70s, you’re likely to find that Hank had a hand in writing those or some sort of, or maybe wrote all of those documents but you find a lot of them along the way. One time I was in a meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians on the Pacific coast by Quinault Nation and it was very late and people were just talking as people do when it gets very late. And one man from the northwest shouted out, as Hank Adams was talking, ‘You have my international reputation.’ And he yelled it and everyone went, ‘What?’ And the man repeated it and said, ‘You, Hank Adams, have my international reputation.’ Well, what an odd thing that, you have to sort of put yourself in the mind of this man who was saying that to Hank Adams. What would make him in a social setting say something that was so bizarre but that to him was not at all bizarre? He had righteous indignation about Hank Adams and then he used the word stole, ‘You stole my international reputation.’ This is really strange. That’s how far jealousy can go. It makes you lose your sense of discernment; it makes you lose your sense of proportion of what’s socially acceptable in polite society.

Here Hank Adams just being kind of quiet, scholarly, intellectual Hank Adams scribing away for everyone and informing movements, writing what became the basis of the legal briefs that results in the Boldt Decision that upheld treaty fishing rights, doing that kind of stuff to benefit a whole lot of people and here someone else thought he had somehow stolen his international reputation. You never know what’s in the mind of a crazy person. Jealousy is craziness, envy is craziness and you never appreciate the limit of that kind of mind and the limitations of that kind of mind and the capabilities of that kind of mind. So be very cautious around crazy people. In our ceremonial ways, we’re always told not to go out in public when you are preparing for ceremony because you’re in a very vulnerable, receptive, weakened state, that you’re making yourself strong to be able to make offerings, to be able to withstand the rigors of whatever kind of ceremony you’re going through but you’re also in a very weakened position because you have no defenses, you’re not expecting any onslaughts, any assaults so you’re not supposed to go out in public, not supposed to go around lots of people, only people you know and trust, very small, doing things in a very private way while you’re in that state of making yourself receptive to visions or messages or just your own meditation [because] you never know when you go out in public where there’s someone lurking who is about to stand up and say, ‘You stole my international reputation.’

When you take on causes, it’s also done with some ceremoniousness and you have to be very careful because it means you are taking on enemies that you never had before and enemies you will never meet, enemies that will try to do things to you from the sidelines, through other people, through your job, through your school, through your nation, through your circle of friends so you have to really prepare yourself and understand how you could be vulnerable and if you are vulnerable to get rid of your vulnerabilities. If you can be taken out by booze, stop drinking. If you can be taken out by women or men or, what are your vulnerabilities, just eliminate the possibility of being used or undermined by people who will see any kind of weakened situation that you’re in. If you think that it doesn’t take courage to stand up to authorities or to something official or to something that’s wrong, then you don’t know what courage is. Vine Deloria was one of the most courageous people I have ever known and why? Because he would stand up and say, ‘This isn’t a good thing to do, let’s just cut it out shall we?’ And he would back it up.

He was the first person I thought of when, and the first person I asked to be a part of a lawsuit that I was contemplating bringing against the Washington football team, [because] I knew that we shared the same thoughts and we had worked on some projects together to get rid of Native references in sports in a variety of areas. In Louisville, Kentucky, for one, got rid of all of the elementary and middle school and high school Native references in their sports world, which took some doing and Vine was a great help with that. And it was done and when it was done, ‘Okay, that’s the end of that.’ Getting it done though we faced a lot of flak, mainly from the alums. And they would yell at us and say, ‘Don’t you have anything more important to do?’ Well, we’d look at each other and say, ‘We’re the ones doing the more important things. We’re the ones getting land back. We’re the ones doing religious freedom. We’re the ones doing these hugely important things -- getting health clinics, getting education programs. We are doing the more important things.’ And no one who has ever used that line, ‘Don’t you have more important things to think about or to do?’ has ever done anything for the Native people. I haven’t heard of anyone and it always makes me laugh whenever I see that.

Vine was the first person I asked to go on that journey of litigation that is now 16 years old. And if this were a child we would be preparing this child for college. Sixteen years. Now why has it lasted that long? Because the other side has employed a really old tactic against us, which is trying to starve us out. They’re trying to make us use whatever money we have by using all the money they have. And it’s not just the Washington football franchise that we’re up against, the National Football League, the NFL, has paid for every penny of litigation on their side, even though they’re not a named plaintiff. We didn’t sue the NFL; we only sued Pro Football, Inc., the owner of the Washington football team. So we have these huge monoliths that we are fighting and I miss Vine at my side on that fight but I can hear everything that he said so well and why he wanted to be involved in that fight was because, he said, ‘We owed it to our grandchildren, that this was a burden that we as the responsible adult population could not pass on to our children and grandchildren.’ So what’s ironic about that is that the courts are now saying that we waited too long. ‘Yes, you were the responsible adult population but you waited too long to file the suit.’ So they’re saying we’re too old in a world where we thought that’s what the elders were supposed to do was step up and lead the way. So now I recruited six young Native people to file our same lawsuit and they have done that. And our lawsuit remains alive, but it could be dismissed through the loophole of latches, passage of time, and it could be that they will never reach the merits of disparagement in our case. In the case of the 18 to 24 year olds, they don’t have a loophole of latches to hide behind and so they have to reach the merits of the case. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they address the merits of the case either in the case that’s captioned with my name or the case that’s captioned with Amanda Blackhorse’s name, Blackhorse et al. versus Pro Football, Inc. So it’s very interesting to have this kind of lawsuit.

In the meantime, we’ve been changing and getting changed these Native references with regularity since the '60s. The very first one was the University of Oklahoma and that fell by the wayside in 1970. That was the very first Native reference in American sports to be eliminated, was Little Red. Now why was Little Red, Little Red? Because in the beginning all of the schools didn’t have mascots, they only had colors. And Oklahoma was red so Big Red. It went from Red to Big Red and then Big Red had to have a Little Red. And once they had a Little Red it became a diminutive Indian, sort of Indian, mascot who used to dance around. And the Indian kids in Oklahoma like me would call Little Red the dancing idiot and Little Red was always a white guy in some sort of Indian outfit or supposed Indian outfit that became more and more authentic over time but the White guys could never dance. They still didn’t know how to dance like Indians. So then they had an Indian guy, their concession to all the clamber to get rid of Little Red was to make Little Red an Indian guy. And he was someone from my hometown who didn’t know how to dance either. And he, my cousin had a crush on him when we were little kids and he spat on her because he didn’t like Indian girls. And so of course we did not hold him in high regard in our town and he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapahoe and we didn’t have a whole lot of tolerance for people who weren’t one of those two, in El Reno, Oklahoma. And when he became the University of Oklahoma’s Little Red, he went to my cousin, who was the brother of the girl who had had the crush on him and he knew Little Red, asked my cousin who was Junior Powwow champion, Junior Fancy Dance champion, which means something in Oklahoma and he asked him, ‘Would you sell me your outfit and would you teach me how to dance?’ So my cousin without saying a word took everything, his outfit onto the front lawn and set it on fire. Now that’s a Cheyenne response. That’s why we don’t have too much. It’s why we don’t have any museums and we had to build a national one. It was a heck of a thing to do and something that I’ll always be proud of my cousin for having done. The guy didn’t understand what that gesture meant. He knew it meant no. But he didn’t understand it and there was nothing he could do about it.

So he was Little Red and there was another Little Red and then there was a third Little Red who was also a Native person who was Navajo at the University of Oklahoma. And he accepted the job as Little Red but he really liked Indians. He liked the Indians in the Indian club and he wanted to understand what all this was about. This was his first year at OU and all of a sudden he’s the target of everyone. So what his friends told him, his Native friends was this, ‘Sit in the stands, just don’t go out for the big game.’ This was the homecoming game. ‘Don’t go out, just sit in the stands and see what happens when you don’t go down to dance.’ And so he did that and what he heard was, ‘where’s Little Red? We want Little Red,’ and everyone cheering and saying, ‘Yay, Little Red.’ And then the crowd turning and saying, ‘Eh, the Little Red, that dirty, ’ Calling him names and being angry with him because he wasn’t out there entertaining them. So then he really got it and he turned in his Little Red credentials or whatever you do and that started the University of Oklahoma in the direction of getting rid of the tradition of Little Red altogether because he had the courage to say, ‘Okay, let me try it. I’ll sit in the stands, I’ll sit this out, I want to hear what’s really being said.’ And so he got to understand what it was to be objectified and what it was to be the target of negative stereotyping. He had thought it was fine because it was a good stereotype but he came to understand that there’s no such thing as a good stereotype. There’s no such thing as a good stereotype. So even if people are saying, ‘Oh, we really like what you’re doing, we really like what you’re saying, you’re a good Indian,’ be very careful if someone’s calling you a 'good Indian' [because] where that comes from is from someone who chased our Cheyenne people all around the Plains after he had burned the south, Philip Sheridan. And what he would say is, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ And he’s the one who sent Custer out to kill the Cheyennes on the Washita. And then Sheridan and Custer at the Washita were the reason that the Cheyennes went to Little Big Horn, where they did not lose.

I am enormously proud of my Cheyenne ancestors who were at Little Big Horn. I’m enormously proud of our Cheyenne people who resisted in whatever way they could resist the onslaught of 'civilization,' the efforts to change them into people they weren’t, their efforts to make treaties to provide for me. I’m here because someone could not kill Bull Bear. Chief Bull Bear was my great-great grandfather and he was the head of the Dog-Man Society at a time when the Dogmen Society families comprised more than half of the Cheyenne Nation. And the Cheyenne Nation at that time included, the Dogmen Society camps included Lakotas, included Kiowas, included Arapahoes, included some Comanches. It was a real United Nations. And the people were tri-lingual, quadra-lingual and they were called 'uncivilized' and 'savage.' And when they talked about the 'bad Indians' or the 'hostile Indians' or the 'fomenters of dissent,' that’s my family. I’m so happy for that. They created the civilization regulations that were in place, that were tools of religious oppression, cultural oppression, family breakup for over 50 years from the mid-1880s to the mid-1930s outlawing the Sun Dance and all other so-called ceremonies, outlawing the pagan and heathen activities of a so-called medicine man, prohibiting Indian parents from interfering with the education of their children. That meant as their youngest children were being taken away to boarding schools they couldn’t stop it. Outlawed dancing, outlawed roaming off the reservation with no apparent point in view, outlawed ponies [because] that was a mechanism for roaming off the reservation and stopped Native people from going to sacred places and then confiscated the places for the public domain. And that’s what you have a lot of court cases about today is those places that were taken in the name of 'civilization' that were stolen from the Native people where the Native people were prohibited from going to pray, to have ceremonies, to celebrate passages in people’s lives. Some of those places are now on federal lands and only the Native people can’t go there, only the Native people can’t control those places.

One of those places is Mount Graham and this university teamed up with the Vatican and with other entities, educational and religious, to desecrate it with the huge telescope project that exists now at the top of Mount Graham. And the people, the Apache people who opposed it and said, ‘That’s a holy place, that’s where we go for vision questing, that’s where the Gaan dancers live.’ They would say, ‘Oh, you mean the devil dancers?’ Now any place, any time you see a map or hear about a place that sounds sort of negative biblically, you know that that’s a place that was sacred or is sacred to Native people. Anything that the white people came into and called the devil-- a devil dancer, Devil’s Tower, Hell’s Canyon -- any of these places that have that kind of name -- Squaw Peak -- any place that was given a pejorative or a devilish kind of name, you know it’s a sacred place for Native people. So here at Mount Graham where the Gaan dancers live, where there are burials, where there are living objects of religious importance, where people have to go for emergence, not just one time in their life but many times in their life through any sort of passage, this university, the Forest Service, the Vatican all teamed up against the Apaches and called the religious practitioners crazy. I was in the chief of staff, in the [President Bill] Clinton Administration, I was visiting Leon Panetta who was chief of staff when one of the lobbyists for this coalition for the telescopes, which they originally called the Columbus Telescope -- which I thought was really rubbing it in -- they came, the lobbyist came in and said in front of me that ‘the Apache people were nuts, were crazy, were demented.’ And it reminded me so much of the way our Cheyenne people had been treated. And then on my father’s side how our people had been treated by the non-Indian people and by the good Christian people who moved everyone out of their homes in the Southeast and into Indian territory without asking permission and doing so against law, against any sort of morality.

These are huge things that are being done to Native people and they’re the same things that have been done to us throughout history. No other people have had their religions outlawed, no other people have had a final solution against them as we have had the Civilization Regulations, no other people have had these things done to us in the name of law and justice. And now when Native people are trying to do something about it and trying to get back into court, into legal processes to regain some of this territory, especially our sacred places, we’re being tossed out of court with regularity. A recent court decision was rendered against Navajos and Hopis and Apaches and Pueblos and Havasupais and Hualapais in the San Francisco Peaks case. The Ninth Circuit, after having decided on the side of the Indians in the San Francisco Peaks case, then were requested for an en banc decision for all of the Ninth Circuit judges, not just the three, to look at the case. And of course the minute that the Ninth Circuit accepted the petition for en banc consideration everyone knew that was the ballgame, that they would not have accepted had they not been about to overturn the three-judge unanimous decision. So in the en banc decision what are they saying about San Francisco Peaks? Well, they said it’s okay to use wastewater for snow, they didn’t permit the question about health, ‘Would you permit a baby to eat snow that has just this little one to 10 percent of sewage in it?’ They didn’t permit that. They permitted the religious testimony but not anew, they only permitted an argument and they decided that what they were dealing with was damaged, spiritual feelings. Now that’s sort of like saying, ‘You Indians are whiners, you just have hurt feelings and you’re trying to get us to stop using sewage water for snow at the top of your holy mountains.’

This is something that I encountered with the Forest Service in 1978 right after we had gotten the American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed and I went into the [President Jimmy] Carter administration and was made the person in charge of implementing the Religious Freedom Act and working with all the 50 agencies in the first year’s implementation and reporting to Congress. So the Hopi elders asked me to convene a meeting with the Forest Service and I did and they talked about San Francisco Peaks and how this recreation was causing turmoil in very important places in the peaks. And the Forest Service people just wanted to know, ‘What are we talking about, how much territory, how much land do you need?’ And the Hopis were saying, ‘It’s not like that. All of the San Francisco Peaks are sacred. It’s a landscape, a sacred landscape. It’s not to have skiing over here, religion over here. It’s not like that. You can’t pollute one area and expect the rest to remain unpolluted.’ So the Forest Service people were trying everything they could to get the Hopis to answer these quantification kinds of questions and in exasperation at one point a Forest Service man said, ‘Okay, you say your gods walk around the San Francisco Peaks. How big are their feet?’ And even for the Hopi elders who were speaking English, they knew they were talking a different language. How big are their feet? That was, there was no more meeting after that. That was the equivalent of my cousin having taken his outfit to the front lawn and set it on fire just because he couldn’t bear contemplating the request. The Forest Service people did not understand why that ended the meeting. They just didn’t get it. The Hopi elders felt that there was nothing more to discuss and that they had made their point and that they certainly weren’t in a position to say how big their god’s feet were or even if they had feet. It was just another way of looking at the world.

So that’s the kind of thing that’s going on right now. At Bear Butte, a holy mountain to the Cheyenne people, there are all sorts of things that are happening there that are disturbing the people’s vision questing, disturbing the people’s meditation, their prayer, everything that’s done there by all the 60-plus nations who go there, whose traditional people go there, has to be done in quiet. There’s nothing that can be done with loudness. It’s just right next door where the town of Sturgis has the motorcycle roundup and where the people, at one point we almost had to make a treaty with them [because] they were driving up Bear Butte and throwing bottles -- beer bottles, pop bottles -- and hitting our people who were in meditation, who were in prayer, who weren’t allowed to do anything or even move from dawn ‘til dusk. And they made a game of trying to disturb them and then made a game of them just being targets. So we finally stopped that sort of thing but the roundup has gotten louder and louder and louder and now they have lots of music events. One of the candidates for president, John McCain -- who knows better -- went to Sturgis for this year’s roundup and said, '250,000 motorcycles, that’s the sound of freedom.’ And then he said, ‘Drill here, right here, drill here.’ Here is Bear Butte, this holy mountain to so many Native people. It’s acknowledged as a holy mountain by the federal government, by the state government of South Dakota, some of our people own part of Bear Butte. We’ve been trying to buy it back when it’s been under threat of development. Our Cheyenne/Arapahoe people, our nations own 120 acres. Lower Brule Tribe owns about that and others are contemplating buying up some of the buffer zone. And it was shocking to see a sitting senator go to the base of our holy mountain that is so huge in our history and to talk about, to encourage this roar of 'freedom' and to invite people to drill; ‘drill here, drill here.’ And he wasn’t pointing to any other place. He wasn’t saying generally or offshore, he was saying, ‘Here, here.’

In the southeast, because so many of our peoples have been removed from our sacred places, they are being plowed under, dug up -- burial grounds, worship areas, mounds, all sorts of places that you would think people would have respect for, just a little respect -- and those are being destroyed by the thousands each year, by the thousands. So this is something that is a crisis in Indian Country and it should be a crisis for America and is not yet. I think it’s because not enough people understand what happened and that there are too many people who understand but simply don’t care and who are fine with it, who are fine with it and would like to see an end to the Indians forever. Something we faced before and something we faced in the Civilization Regulation period, but now I think a lot of politicians rightly perceive that once we lose our language, once we lose our culture, once we lose our religion, if those things are no longer in existence then we are no longer Native people. Then who are we? And we will cease to exist. So I think that we are in for it, I think we’re in for it and that that’s the era we’re in right now.

One of the things that Vine did that was so very important was to work his heart out for sacred places protections. And he went to a lot of these places I’ve been talking about and really helped us out, tried to do what he said he would do when I met him in 1965 to think about it, to think how we could do it. Well, we thought a lot of, we figured a lot of stuff out. We figured out the repatriation laws, we figured out the whole line of cultural property rights laws and I’m very happy with what we have done. The only thing that we were not able to achieve was full legal protections for sacred places so we’ve had to cobble together protections made of other laws, cobble together protections made of people in corporate America and people in government at all levels who have a conscience and who have just done things irrespective of laws that say you can or cannot do this certain thing. Because in the end everything comes down to people -- it comes down to you and you and you and me -- to get something done. And here’s the good news about it, it doesn’t take many people to get something done. It doesn’t take many people at all. Any time we have a campaign on an important Indian law and we have five Native people on Capitol Hill, you’ll hear from all over Capitol Hill, ‘Indians are everywhere in town.’ So it doesn’t take long, it doesn’t take many people, but it just takes committed people and people who look around and say, ‘I can do something over here. I can help out over here. People need a helping hand here. People need my thinking about this. I need to be a part of the conversation.’ Maybe you don’t have 10 years of your life but maybe you have 10 minutes or you have 10 months. Any kind of time you can give to the Indian public service, is all to the good. Whether you’re Native, whether you’re not Native, but especially if you’re a Native person, you should pony up and say, ‘This is what I have to do to serve Native America.’

I want to open this up for questions but I also want to read a poem that I wrote for Vine Deloria’s celebration of life. And it was right after, it was a public event. I’d been asked to speak at it and I knew we were going to say our final farewells to him in a small setting and then go into this larger setting. So I was trying to figure out what I should say and I was at my computer typing in the morning and nothing was coming out right. And then I could hear Vine’s voice in my head saying, ‘Just write a poem for Christ’s sake.’ So I did and this was the easiest poem I ever wrote and the hardest one I ever read.

This is called 'Sing Your Song for Vine':

Vine was our sacred mountain and raging river and gentle rain. Healing sage after Sun Dance sacrifice. Cool, calm waters after a hard day’s work. He was that wicked funny thought at the least appropriate time, whip smart and coyote clever tossing banana peels beneath the feet of the pompous. He was our Atticus Finch who defended us to the death. He was our teasing cousin who never let us get away with pretention, our kind grandpa who wanted us to love each other, our warrior leader who lifted us up for counting coup, our stern teacher who made us sit up straight, our good-time uncle who took us to old timey movies, our kid brother who always wanted to play another game. He filled our horizons and now we see him as a mirage, but sing your song for Vine and call him to your side, a Yanktonai song for the longest journey, an honor song of praise and thanksgiving, a traveling son by the Sons of the Pioneers. Then he will be there as a shadow of an eagle overhead as the glint of silver medicine flying from the corner of your eye, as a distant sound that commands your attention, as a sudden realization you might think of as an original thought, as the turning aspen leaves in the peace and glory of the dying moment, as a gentle voice telling you things will be better when you know they never will be, as maybe just a sigh, ah, hello my dear friend, I have a song for you.

Ralph Lauren's Racist Ads


So Ralph Lauren, the serial cultural appropriator of all things Native American, is in trouble once again. Lauren has given offense to Native Americans before with his inappropriate uses of war bonnets and eagle feathers. There was also that time he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, showing off his absurdly fetishized and culturally mangled collection of “Navajo stuff” in the five “hand painted” teepees he maintains as extravagantly outfitted guest quarters on his Colorado ranch...

Resource Type

Williams, Jr., Robert A. "Ralph Lauren’s 'Racist Ads.'” Moyers & Company. December 29, 2014. Opinion. (, accessed January 7, 2014)

5 More Native American Visionaries in Washington State


As the holidays kick in and people start looking ahead to the coming year, it is only fitting to acknowledge the leaders who will take Indian country into the future. Last month we brought you five Native leaders who are protecting rights, exercising sovereignty, building intercultural bridges and meeting future energy needs, among other accomplishments.

Now we bring five more who are rocking the world with their forward-thinking, innovation and their sense of social justice. With 29 of the 566 federally recognized indigenous nations located in what is now Washington State, the Evergreen State is a hotbed of visionary ideas...

Resource Type

Walker, Richard. "5 More Native American Visionaries in Washington State." Indian Country Today Media Network. Article. (, accessed February 22, 2023)

Web Extra: American Indians Confront 'Savage Anxieties'

Public Affairs Television, Inc.

This week Bill speaks with legal expert Robert A. Williams Jr. about how stereotypes of American Indians have been codified into laws and government policies, with devastating consequences.

In this web extra, Bill speaks with Williams about why none of the Supreme Court justices “wants Indian cases,” Hollywood’s use of “savage” imagery, the Redskins controversy and much more. Williams also talks to Bill about the difference between racist attitudes toward African-Americans and American Indians historically...


Public Affairs Television, Inc. "Web Extra: American Indians Confront 'Savage Anxieties.'” Moyers & Company. New York, New York. Decemeber 26, 2014. Interview. (, accessed January 7, 2015)

Native Organizations: Working Together for Our Common Benefit


On November 14, 2010, 45 people gathered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the NCAI's Annual Convention to participate in the pre-session: "Native Organizations; Working Together for Our Common Benefit." This twelve-page report outlines the key findings from this meeting - highlighting communications messaging best practices and strategies...

Resource Type

National Congress of American Indians. "Native Organizations: Working Together for Our Common Benefit." National Congress of American Indians partnered with Pyramid Communications. Washington, D.C. 2010. Paper. (, accessed January 13, 2014)