James Giago Davies: True Indian heroes protect our community

The following opinion by James Giago Davies appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

The entrance to the mass grave burial site at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo by Christina Rose / Native Sun News

True warriors protect villages
They don’t burn them down
By James Giago Davies

My mother was born at Wounded Knee in 1930. My grandfather clerked for the Gildersleeves who owned and operated the trading post there.

The first time I saw Wounded Knee, I was just a boy, and it was before the 1973 American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation, and it was a quiet, peaceful little place, at the bottom of a bowl shaped valley, and I tried to picture the place as it must have been in 1890, all the bodies of Big Foot’s band frozen dead on the bloody snow.

On that summer day, the bodies interned in that mass grave were not silent. My imagination had them all up, strong and healthy, standing under the bright sunshine, surrounded by the buzz of insects, the song of meadowlarks. The image lasted long enough for me to realize the people lost to history were no different than you or me, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times.

My parent’s generation survived the Great Depression and WWII, but my generation has never really known a time that extraordinary; I have no idea what it was like to be surrounded and shot dead by soldiers in blue, no idea what it’s like when the howling wind piles dirt so high cattle can walk over the fence line, no idea what its like to be in a deadly battle like my father was, a Japanese torpedo almost ending his life decades before I was even born.

People cope with the hand they are dealt, but it is how we cope that determines how much of a hero we are. My mother retreated into a shell, and it was all she could do to keep us clothed and fed, she had no energy left for our school activities, and while she insisted we stay in school, she never encouraged us to do anything, to be anything. My father coped by fishing and hunting. He never encouraged us to do or become anything either. Neither of my parents ever told us they loved us, and I suspect, because they had never been told that by their parents.

Growing up in racist Rapid City, it was inevitable we would experience racism, and when we did, my mother dealt with it the same way she had dealt with the racism she had faced as a child, she just accepted it.

I fought back, I would not be a victim, but I fought alone. She would not stand up to the racist school teachers, landlords, policemen, neighbors. She did not know how. When AIM came along, I thought of them as heroes, because they stood up and they fought back, and when they occupied Wounded Knee I did not think of the Gildersleeves, or the community, I saw what I wanted to see, what they wanted me to see.

Years later, I took a friend from Connecticut on a tour of my reservation. He was particularly interested in Wounded Knee, and I had not been back since I was a boy. The grocery store was gone, burned to the ground during the 1973 AIM occupation, but the graves were still there, and there were a dozen Wasicu visitors quietly paying their respects at the mass grave.

Lakota stood all around, most disheveled and desperate looking, trying to sell dream catchers or whatever object they could pass off as something Indian and sacred, and many smelled of alcohol. There was a big, loud, indignant woman pressing in on the visitors, saying—“Don’t stand there! That’s where my ancestors are buried!”

“Oh, I am so sorry!” the Wasicu woman said, hopping in the direction the loud woman gestured. But the visitors hadn’t been standing on any graves. I looked at the big woman and I realized how thin her skin was, how she was looking for a reason to be angry and offended and targeting the very Wasicu people who felt compassion and remorse for what had happened in 1890.

I wondered where her living family was at right now, where her children were, and I strongly suspected they were being neglected severely, while she stood around rudely imposing herself as the offended aboriginal.

Activism is fine, it can produce heroes. I see Charmaine White Face as a hero, for the battle she fought in Rapid City forty years ago, against the racist school system, racism I had suffered from, but she mentioned something in an email to me, she mentioned the other heroes, the Lakota parents who fought that battle with her, and I realized none of my family had bothered to join that fight.

It made me also realize that the true Lakota heroes are the parents of Lakota children, parents who tell their kids they love them, parents that fight for those kids, with simple, honest dignity, and that this is the only power that lasts. AIM can burn down buildings, can be mistaken for the conscience of a people, but they leave behind no legacy of reform or love, because in the final analysis, they represent nothing but self destructive anger and personal aggrandizement.

True warriors protect villages—they don’t burn them down. One woman fighting beside Lakota parents accomplished more tangible benefits in my mongrel breed Lakota schoolboy life than AIM ever did.

My skin is thick, in the sense I accept people as people, I don’t look for reasons to be offended, don’t look for racism or injustice where there isn’t any, and don’t mistreat people who never committed these acts just because they resemble the people who did. And yet I have written dozens of columns about racism, not just as an abstract injustice, but as a grim reality I lived.

Much of my life has been an underachieving waste, but where I succeeded—I have a family, three boys I love, and I tell them I love them every single day, and I show them by always putting their needs first. Had I been there in 1973, and helped destroy my mother’s birthplace, I would have accomplished nothing in their lives, just like those misguided “heroes” accomplished nothing.

(James Giago Davies can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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