Native Tongue Tied

I can’t say enough about how much I enjoy a really good documentary, and Ken Burn’s “The West” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I recall watching the debut PBS broadcast back on 1996, clinging to every detail, and pacing eagerly as I’d await the next installment. Having been blow away by the Native American exploration, “500 Nations“, the year before, this effort focused on a broader scope of people during a narrower time frame of the US history. It is so rich with drama, humor, intrigue and tragedy. It’s unbelievable to imagine the things that took place throughout the ‘settling’ of the West. The conditions. The intentions. The politics. The ignorance.

Watching this tonight [part 6], while deep into the history of General Custer, Sitting Bull, Little Big Horn, Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce, Wounded Knee, and the atrocities of the displacement of a nation’s original population, I was reminded of the night I went with friends to see “Dances With Wolves” when it’d first come out. That film was a staggering depiction of a peaceful people being brutally driven out of their homes, and it was hard to walk out of theatre without feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

I often make jokes when I’m uncomfortable, and at the end of the film, as the lights came up and as we silently rose and shuffled our way out of the theatre, there was an unspoken tension in the air. Intending to break the mood, as we entered the lobby, I made an ‘eye rolling’ and clearly insincere statement to my friends, attempting to lighten things a bit before having a serious discussion.

“Hey, I don’t know about you but I’m still proud to be White” I said. Jokingly.

And that’s when ‘Chief’ caught my eye.

I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I’m not. Standing in the lobby, painfully within earshot, only about 3 feet to my left, stood a large, looming figure of a man. A Native American. He was roughly 6 foot 2, broad, stocky, and a ringer for ‘Chief’ from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“. This guy was huge, and there’s absolutely no question that he not only heard my comment, but was not amused in the least. I felt the sharpness of his stare as my eyes caught his, and I realized that what I’d just said as an awkward jest and release of tension was being taken to heart. I was dumbstruck. Literally. I turned my gaze away, shut my mouth, and continued out the door. Just outside of the theater, I glanced back in his direction, and found him facing directly towards me, still looking into my eyes, still looking stunned and disgusted, with distain running a close 3rd.

I wanted to venture back, to approach and apologize for my thoughtless comment, and the obvious misinterpretation of my true feelings of shame and sadness for the suffering of his ancestors and the hands of mine. But I did not. I could not bring myself to do so. Instead, we walked to and stood outside of our cars in the parking lot, talking and reflecting for a few minutes on the movie and the history. And once again, from well across the parking lot, I glanced towards the lobby. He was still there, only now, standing facing me from inside the lobby, behind the glass, and unmistakably staring in my direction. His stance, stare and general body language made it clear that I was still the object of his disgust. And by this point, I’d not felt that there was any option beyond driving away, which I did.

I’ve never forgotten that experience, and it’s haunted me ever since. I’m actually quite sympathetic to and conscious of the historical mistreatments and of the honor and spiritual nature of many tribes. This is a favorite quote from Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe, which is just being referenced in this video as I type this line.

“Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men. They do not protect my father’s grave. They do not pay for all my horses and cattle. Good words cannot give me back my children. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves.

I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and all the broken promises.”

Chief Joseph

Without being preachy, I hope my continued interest in, and my recommendations of these materials, helps other’s learn from the past and have a greater insight into these matters. Not so they might have a bleeding heart or feel responsible in some way, but so, as a people, we’ll avoid making the same mistakes twice.

Including making poorly timed jokes.


Written by gsm

06/07/2007 at 8:08 am

Posted in  Journal 

One Response

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  1. But GM, that’s what we love about you!

    Seriously, I’d bet after Chief left the theatre, he was telling his buddies “hey, let me tell you about this joke I played on this white guy at the theatre”.

    If “Chief” were truly offended, it would be due to his using a stereotype to fill in what he doesn’t know about you. I don’t think your comment was offensive. While art should be a mirror, it should not make one feel guilty about things they did not personally participate in (or try to stop).


    06/08/2007 at 12:18 pm

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