On long winter nights beside the Knife and Little Big Horn rivers, tribal elders still sit around fires and tell their grandchildren stories to help them make sense of the world. It’s a custom as old as silence.
Here’s a story: A black man, a white man and an Indian arrive at the Pearly Gates, and after welcoming them to heaven, St. Peter invites each man to pick the afterlife of his dreams. The black man asks for great music and lots of friends. St. Peter grants his wish and sends him on his way.
Up steps the Indian, who asks for beautiful mountain streams, deep forests and plenty of food to eat. "Say no more, chief" says St. Peter, and sends him off. Lastly, he turns to the white man and asks: "What do you want heaven to look like?" And the white man says, "Where did that Indian go?"
Ever since Columbus waded ashore, say the elders beside the Knife and the Little Big Horn, white men have been asking, "Where’d that Indian go?" In this context, there’s the recent scandal involving Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, lobbyists who fleeced six casino tribes out of some $80 million by promising them, well, a little slice of welcoming heaven in Washington, D.C.
Scanlon and Abramoff stand accused of mocking tribal leaders as "morons" and "monkeys" at the same time they were stealing tribes blind. Each man pocketed about $10 million for his services, then distributed the rest to Republican Party coffers. During a preliminary hearing before the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee last fall, Arizona Sen. John McCain said this was the most "sordid affair" he had encountered in his political career.
But in Indian-dominated towns like Shiprock and Lame Deer, the Scanlon-Abramoff scandal didn’t rate enough reaction to bump the girls’ basketball team off page one.
Why? Because out here in the Big Empty, where tribes have grown accustomed to this sort of treatment from politicians, the Republican Party’s quiet in the face of mounting outrage is as clear an indictment as any angry editorial in a newspaper. When tribal leaders shrug, it is their way of asking: Where was your outrage when Mike Whalen, the assistant attorney general for the state of South Dakota and a protégé of imprisoned Gov. William Janklow, recently declared: "The Native American culture is a culture of hopelessness, Godlessness, joblessness, and lawlessness, a mongrelized people living on the outskirts of western civilization?"
Where, they ask, was your outrage in August 2000, when delegates to the Republican Party convention in Washington state asked the federal government to expel native people from their homelands and declare all Indian treaties null and void?
Eighty million dollars? What about the billions of dollars in mineral royalties owed to native people that went missing over the past century? That’s the long-running Elouise Cobell case against Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the one where federal Judge Royce Lamberth called the agency "a blight on the government of the United States."
Naturally, after the crime is exposed and mug shots have run in newspapers, we white folks fall back on the hope that our outrage over these abuses will miraculously sanitize our history with native people of this land. But with folks like Scanlon and Abramoff representing our values, redeeming our conscience from the pawnshop of history is a vain hope. Because somewhere along the way, observed the great political theorist Michel Foucault, our leaders invented a "language of madness" in order to explain away the government's conscious refusal to enforce the egalitarian, democratic and secular values it claimed as its birthright.
Native leaders have understood this paradox for a long time. A century ago, Chief Plenty-Coups of the Crow told General William Harney: "We saw that the white man did not take his religion any more seriously than he did his laws, that he keeps both of them just behind him, like helpers, to use when they might do him good. These are not our ways. We keep the laws we make, and we live our religion. We have never understood the white man, who fools no one but himself."
Around winter fires on the Powder and Little Big Horn, the story-tellers know that Scanlon and Abramoff are only guilty of imitating their masters. Their masters are the Great White Fathers in a distant city who for centuries have yammered a kind of mad language that asks, from one generation to the next, "Where did that Indian go?"
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and his latest book is Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial that Forged a Nation.
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