James Giago Davies: Standing up for my mixed Indian heritage

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

Students at the Holy Rosary Mission School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, ca.1930-1940. Photo from Marquette University, Department of Special Collections and University Archives

Constructive criticism far outweighs destructive criticism
Standing up for my Iyeska heritage
By James Giago Davies

There was a time when all Iyeska were half breed Lakota who spoke French. This mattered because intrepid “coureur de bois,” French Canadian woodsmen, were very important to the Lakota as trading partners, so any Lakota capable of communicating with them, and critically influencing them, had great utility.

Unlike other Europeans, the coureur de bois did much more than travel deep into Indian Country with trade goods; many became enamored of the Indian way of life, and fully immersed their identity into it, never returning home to Quebec.

Without a doubt, it was a coureur de bois who first saw the Black Hills, hundreds of years before Jedidiah Smith came here in 1822, but the coureur de bois knew he was just looking at something Indians had first seen thousands of years before. These Frenchman were often wired that way—they saw the Indian as an equal partner in a vast wilderness.

Little history survives of these amazing men, they are perhaps the singularly most neglected and forgotten participants in the history of the New World. Their blood runs deep in almost every tribe from Alaska to New York, but even their Indian descendants don’t recognize or honor that reality, or how much of their free spirited wherewithal still resonates inside the hearts and minds of every breed.

I have heard many Lakota refer to mixed blood Lakota as Iyeska, and they are not talking about interpreter, which was the historic definition of the word. Words change with time, and now the descendants of mixed blood Lakota require a label other than breed, and Iyeska had honor historically, although they are referred to as Iyeska now, with no intent to honor them.

Many Iyeska take Lakota names, so deeply identify with their Indian heritage, they deeply resent people pointing out they are part Wasicu. They don’t respect or acknowledge that part of themselves.

It’s not all their fault. When my mother was young at Holy Rosary Mission near Pine Ridge village, the nun told the class she was half German and half French but since her father was German, she considered herself German. My mother said both her parents were part Hispanic, so she considered herself Spanish.

“You are not Spanish!” the nun scolded her. “You are an Indian! Accept what you are!”

My cousin Patty, researched the Tapio family tree, and uncovered an old photograph from the 1880’s. There is a vaquero, standing beside his horse on the treeless Nebraska panhandle, and he is a fierce, mustachioed Indio from the desert Southwest, Demetrio Tapia (corrupted to Tapio by Oglala tribal enrollment), and all his history, a history that goes hundreds of years to the first Spanish missionaries, has now been submerged and discounted.

Recognizing that a vital and important part of me was not Lakota or Wasicu I started Iyeska Journal to reveal the world of the Iyeska to the uninitiated and the close minded. Sparks often fly, and not being one to take any guff off deluded people, I fire right back—whenever you challenge inbedded assumptions with fresh, reasoned observation, you can’t expect the dysfunctional people actively engaged in the problems you are pointing out to be enthusiastically grateful.

They often just get nasty, but since most can’t write well, or reason past their internalized misperceptions of themselves (translation: can’t see past the end of their nose), their responses unwittingly reveal graphic evidence of the very thing they are objecting to.

Nuanced, intellectually honest scrutiny of their attitude and actual identity are not in their wheelhouse, and dogs will meow and cats will fetch before they are capable of analyzing their breed Lakota reality in good faith. Their usual response is to double down on their heap big chiefhood, because they have internalized the romanticized Wasicu version of what a Lakota is, and reinforce that internalization in echo chambers where reality always exactly reflects what they already believe to be true.

But the reality is there, if you want to see it. Pull out a map, look at the place names, of the towns, the rivers, the mountains. Many are in French. Go to any Lakota reservation and check out tribal surnames, because the French surnames outnumber all other surnames.

Do you really think that genetic and cultural heritage has no influence on the hearts and minds of Iyeska? Each day, many iyeska, speak, and smile, and laugh, and if somehow one of their distant Wasicu ancestors, French, or Spanish, could see their face, see their expression, he would see himself, maybe the best part of himself, and he would feel the love only a parent can feel for his child.

Mitakuye Oyasin, we are all related.

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

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Related Stories:
James Giago Davies: Don't judge anyone's depth of Lakotaness (07/30)
Charles Trimble: Being mixed-race Indian and being proud of it (07/29)
James Giago Davies: Mixed-race Indians shamed over blood (07/24)
James Giago Davies: Sweat brings out a person's true nature (07/17)

Join the Conversation