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Native Americans – Life As Usual In The Occupied Territories

When I was growing up in Ireland and it came to playing that age old game of “Cowboys and Indians” it was always noticeable to me that no one wanted to play a cowboy. All of us, instinctively as it must have then been, wanted to be Indians. Why is that? Were we the exception? Do kids in Ireland still feel like that?

Actually, does anyone play Cowboys and Indians anymore? Probably not, unless one counts Red Dead Redemption.

However, I have always had an abiding interest in Native Americans affairs, as regular readers of An Sionnach Fionn will have realised. From one native to another, as it were. It is something that I find that most Celtic Nationalists share. Perhaps suitably then the story below came to my attention because of the efforts of long-time Scottish language activist and teacher Finlay MacLeoid to publicise it.

Lise Balk King, Native American journalist, writes in the Indian Country Today on a story that has galvanised indigenous opinion in the United States:

“In western South Dakota, it’s all about perception. If you are Indian, or appear to be Indian, you are routinely judged by the colour of your skin regarding the content of your character. If you are white, there is also a set of assumptions made by those standing on the other side. Not everyone sits firmly on one side or the other, but that doesn’t always matter much, because there is a clear line drawn between the Us and the Them.

The rub comes from the fact that which side of the line you stand on determines much about how you live and how you are treated—at the bank, grocery store, post office, your child’s school, civic institutions, and yes, even the hospital. There are exceptions, but overwhelmingly it is the non-Indians who hold the power, and not everyone plays nice.

For those who live on the other side of the colour line, every day can bring small indignities, strained interactions or frustrating stonewalls to disrupt the normal life flow from wake-up to sundown. It is an accepted but loathed part of living in the areas off of the Indian reservations in western South Dakota. But no place is this tension more keenly felt than in Rapid City.

In 1999, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a hearing in Rapid City after “a series of high-profile cases involving the unsolved deaths of several American Indians… brought tensions to the surface.” I was one of the many people who felt relief that someone was listening and assumed help would come as a result. Many of us waited for hours to testify. It was the elders in the room who reminded everyone that the Commission had been there 20 years earlier, and not much had changed. Now we fast-forward to 2012 — 13 years hence — and despite our hopes in 1999, it seems we have made little progress.

Enter Vern Traversie. He is a blind and physically disabled 69-year old elder from the Cheyenne River reservation who claims to be the victim of a hate crime. Scars on his abdomen, a result of heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital in September, 2011, appear to depict the letters KKK, referring to the Klu Klux Klan. That is, according to his supporters, a few hundred of which marched in protest in Rapid City on Monday.

Not everyone agrees. A Sioux Falls-based reporter for the Associated Press likened the purported KKK markings to “spotting the Madonna in a water stain.” This story has been featured in a number of national news outlets, including The Washington Post, and has set the tone for the media coverage, furthering the sense of frustration felt by some. Oglala Lakota Cheryl Cedar Face lamented, “The way the media covers Native issues makes it all seem like a big joke. Very rarely do I read something that conveys why people are upset or acknowledges that racism does exist.”

What the media and other outsiders may not see is that Traversie’s cry for help and pitiful condition wasn’t itself the cause, it was the catalyst. His plight embodied the day-to-day strain of facing racism and the reaction of doubt that is so readily cast on “Indians complaining again.” On Traversie’s YouTube video, which has gone viral in Native circles, Cedar Face said, “I don’t usually pass these things around, but it was the honest anguish… it made me cry. This was truly the last straw for me.”

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has documented testimony of many alleged victims of injustice and racism in South Dakota over the years, and they have published reports that provide statistical analysis of measurable data, such as the unrelenting disparate sentencing in the criminal justice system.

The statistics they extrapolate are an important piece of the story, but are like mineral crystals on the banks of South Dakota’s White River—they are evidence of a persistent flow that is much bigger and harder to contain in a simplified government report.

When I first arrived in South Dakota in June of 1990, I was a bright-eyed young outsider. I found my adventure and a host of new friends, but I also unexpectedly found much tension and distrust. My first week there, we went from the rez to a truck stop up on I-90 to pick up drinks and snacks. The girls cued me in to a white lady who had started to follow us around.

I hadn’t noticed, but became aware of eyes on us as we moved. One of the girls answered my questioning look, explaining, “She thinks we’re going to rip-off… steal something.” I was taken by surprise. The girls laughed, and said, “Welcome to South Dakota.” After moving to Winner in 1992, and then living in Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Rapid City, I have many such stories to tell, recounting incidences large and small. And so does everyone else I know.

After years of experiencing racism, the details almost don’t matter anymore. What does matter is the precarious state of race relations in Western South Dakota, and the danger of dismissing the countless collective memories stacked like tinder, because as the Vern Traversie protest showed, for some they need only a spark.”

No matter how much the peoples of the Native American nations seem to progress there is only so far they can go before hitting the brick wall of prejudice. Prejudice from those who stole and occupied their lands. In Ireland we know what happens when this becomes the state of affairs. We fought a Revolution to free the greater part of ourselves and our nation from such tyranny.

In our own lifetimes we witnessed the continued oppression of our fellow Irish citizens who remained under British rule and misrule in the North of Ireland and the eventual, inevitable, indeed necessary reaction to that.

How far do European Americans need to go before they realise that those they oppress within their own borders will have no choice but to take the only option that has been left open to them?

The Vern Traversie Facebook Support Page.

The Vern Traversie YouTube Channel.

10 comments on “Native Americans – Life As Usual In The Occupied Territories

  1. James Todd

    I’m trying to figure out how several people being skeptical of this guy’s hard to believe claim constitutes institutional oppression. If Traversie’s story is true, this is nothing short of an outrage. But it constitutes the racist barbarism of one or a couple of individual men – who I guarantee you will be prosecuted and convicted if caught – not the United States as a whole.

    I can’t speak for South Dakota, only Florida and Washington. That is, the Seminoles and the Tulalip. But I can say definitively that the people of both of those tribes did better financially in most cases than the non-Indians outside the reservation. Indians are some of the only people that are legally permitted to operate casinos, and they make a killing off of it. They don’t pay taxes either. I used to work at a Wal-Mart within the Tulalip reservation. While other people would be scrounging by on Ramen noodles and milk, you’d regularly see Tulalip tribesmen walk up, flash their tribal ID to get their no-tax deal, and roll on out of the building with a flat screen TV in their cart.

    When people talk about the modern day oppression of the Indian tribes, I tend to raise an eyebrow. It’s certainly not impossible, the Indians have suffered unambiguous oppression at the hands of the U.S. in the past. But as someone who’s lived in this country my entire life, I’ve never seen any evidence of it. They just have so many privileges not extended to other Americans.

    I don’t have any problem with that. These lands were stolen from the Indians, and their people were slaughtered, robbed, humiliated and subjugated in the process. I don’t personally think that the United States can ever fully make amends. Reparations are in order, and the extra privileges accorded to the tribes reflect that. But it does make claims from Indians about oppression look ridiculous.


    • I’m afraid you don’t know much about what most native tribes still face. The casino “per-capita” tribes are far outnumbered by the tribes with crushing poverty. I have met no native people that had more privileges than I have had, and in fact I was shocked at the number of people I met with absolutely no prospects. For example, a friend of mine qualified for one of America’s top scholarships and received the second highest score in the country for that year. Two years later, she was the victim of a crime that Native women are 4 times more likely to experience (and 95% of which is committed by white men against them). The hurdles she has had to struggle to overcome are shocking, ranging from educating herself in an awful school system to coping with the emotional fallout of the fact that most of her childhood friends have been killed or worse. She has had nothing handed to her, and basically every conceivable handicap, and she still pulls straight As in school despite the horrors and severity of her childhood and adolescence.

      I lived on Pine Ridge for a season in 2009. It was astounding. The life expectancy is in the 40s, on par with Haiti and Afghanistan. Infant mortality is also on par with the least-advantaged African nations. It is the 1st or 2nd poorest place in America, depending on which year’s statistics you use. If you believe the people there to be privileged, I invite you to live there. You will never say such a stupendously silly thing again. It’s hell on earth.


    • shayanmirza

      These trends, events, and crimes are well-documented and discussed in a number of places. Here are a few for you to start:

      This is about Canada, but the U.S. had similar policies with similar results:

      and a book I highly recommend:

      Stannard, D. E. (1993). American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Reprint.). Oxford University Press, USA.

      If you’d like more, let me know. I can assure you that overwhelmingly, Native peoples in the U.S. are not merely angry over the list of past wrongs, but currently are forced to cope with severe and horrific wrongs as well.


      • Thanks for all the Comments and the links too. Much appreciated. They echo much of my own knowledge of the situation for Native Americans in the US and Canada, albeit second-hand through journalism, books, documentaries and talking to Native Americans in online fora, etc.


        • shayanmirza

          My apologies for the multiple comments. The first one didn’t show up on my computer for some reason, so I wrote another, then added the one with links. I didn’t mean to smother your comments section!

          Thank you for your informative website. I enjoy reading your perspective on things. I spent a semester abroad in Ireland and have longed to go back since, as does anyone who has ever visited.


    • Some interesting points, James, but I believe the story is more symptomatic of the parlous mental and psychological state of the indigenous peoples of North America. There is a great “psychic wound” there that is simply growing worse with every passing decade.

      As for their physical and financial well-being, every study over the last fifty years has shown that Native Americans are at the bottom of all quantifiable league tables in the United States (education, health, employment, etc.).

      Yes, there is corruption, and an older self-serving and privileged “elite” in some tribes (as someone described it to me, the greediest dogs at the top of the dunghill) but there is no evidence of affluence within the general population. Indeed, casinos and the like simply contribute to that desperate and unhealthy situation within Native American societies and politics.

      I should also point out out that casinos and gambling are one of the few “resources” that Native American possess. Even if that resource is slowly destroying many tribes from the inside-out


  2. shayanmirza

    Mr Todd, to be frank, South Dakota has no resemblance to the Tualip or Seminole. South Dakota has the second highest number of hate crimes in America, some of the poorest counties in America, reservations with life expectancies in the low 40s (on par with Afghanistan) and some of the worst places to live in the nation. Infant mortality, white-on-Native rape, utter lack of jobs, poverty, awful health care, etc.

    I encourage you to do more research before criticizing the very real assertions of racism that have emerged in the Traversie case. It would not be the first time so-called “health professionals” abused minorities–forced sterilizations of healthy, sane Native women occurred well into the 1970s. IHS abuses and mistakes are endemic.

    My friends there experienced things that professional counselors I have spoken to said were worse than the experiences of the Central American wartime refugees they counseled. I encourage you to look up the bare minimum statistics on reservations in South Dakota, and until then, please do not operate under the assumption that the Seminole–who are probably the most wealthy tribe in America–are representative of the poorest places in the U.S., including South Dakota’s abhorrent reservations.


  3. Sharon Douglas

    “How far do European Americans need to go before they realise that those they oppress within their own borders will have no choice but to take the only option that has been left open to them?”

    Push a people long enough, mariginalise them long enough, and eventually they will turn and bite you in the arse.


  4. James Todd

    As I said, I only have firsthand knowledge of the Tulalip and the Seminole tribes. In both cases, I saw no evidence of oppression, which Séamas described as a nationwide issue in his article. If the issue is a regional one, then it should be described as such.

    However, you are correct that I should have researched the South Dakota tribes before making any comment on the issue. I will read into them more. I can tell you this. Before your reply, I had never heard of the abject poverty in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Simply reading the reservation’s Wikipedia article tells me that that signifies an outrageous level of ignorance on my part. I can honestly say that I was not aware, and did not suspect, that there was any place in the United States that was that horrifyingly poor. I promise you that I will do more research into the American Indian reservations, and especially those within South Dakota.


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