Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist who happens to be an African American. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. I am sure that he is an expert at the things he normally writes about, but he is an abject failure when it comes to writing about Native Americans.
I am often taken aback at writers who take on the challenge of writing about something they know little or nothing about. What happens in most cases is that the writer not only makes a fool of himself, but he also imparts information that is false, ineffectual and worse yet, damaging to the people he is writing about. This is what happened when Mr. Sowell decided to write about the Navajo people.
Mr. Sowell and his wife were on vacation and happened upon some Navajo boys on what he determined was “a Navajo reservation.” Perhaps his column would have taken a different slant if he had referred to the homeland of the boys correctly as “the Navajo Nation.”
He surmised that the boys were “bright and cheerful lads” but when asked in what state Pittsburgh was located “none of them knew.” Mr. Sowell explained away this phenomenon by writing, “The most likely explanation was that they were being taught other things, things considered ‘relevant’ to their life and culture on the reservation.”
Mr. Sowell surmised that any culture, whether in or out of the mainstream, is not just a badge of identity or a museum piece to be admired by others. “A culture is a tool for serving the many practical purposes of life, from making a living or to curing diseases. As a tool it has to change with the ever changing tasks that confront every culture as time goes on,” he wrote.
Say what? For the information of Mr. Sowell and his readers, there is probably no ethnic minority that has been forced to go through such dramatic changes in the past 100 years as Native Americans. Not only have they managed to survive with a foot in two distinctly different worlds, but they have managed to maintain their traditions, culture, language and spirituality also.
If Mr. Sowell had taken more than just a passing interest in the land he passed through, perhaps he would have discovered that the Navajo Nation has its own law enforcement, judiciary, government, elementary and high schools, and a wonderful college system all functioning with a high degree of intelligence, diligence and with a success that is the envy of many in Indian country.
Oprah Winfrey made the same lame observations as Mr. Sowell when she visited the Navajo Nation several months ago. She asked tribal members to stage a pow wow for her entertainment and her cameras even though pow wows are not the traditional fare of the Navajo people. Since no pow wow was forthcoming, she created one with old films for her television show not knowing that the attire worn by the dancers was that of the Indians of the Northern Plains and not the Navajo.
If Mr. Sowell had visited Denmark and ran across some Danish boys who did not know what state Pittsburgh was located, would he have admonished them for not getting outside of their culture?
Mr. Sowell writes, “Unfortunately, in this age of multiculturalism, there are too many outsiders who want all sorts of cultures to remain frozen where they are, preserved like museum exhibits.”
Oh, if that were only so, Mr. Sowell. An attempt was made by the “outsiders” to strip the American Indian of everything that set him apart as a unique race. Schools were established to strip him of his language. Food was distributed that would create a generation of diabetics. Outsiders converged on the Indian nations to forbid and then strip the Indian of his religious beliefs. The Indian was forced to adapt to the religion of a foreign culture, a foreign language, foreign customs, foreign housing and even foreign medicine.
No the Native American did not remain “frozen where they are,” but instead adapted, absorbed, took the good from the new culture, abandoned the bad, and then got on with a way of life that was adjustable to both cultures.
They did not “nurse historic grievances” as Mr. Sowell implies, but fought for their rights as sovereign nations. In order to protect and save what was already theirs, they had to take on the government and the corporations of America. They won historic battles for their water rights, land rights and human rights. They fought for the return of their traditional religions and language and to them; this was not stepping back in time, but bringing time back into balance for their people.
Please understand Mr. Sowell, that the Navajo boys you saw on their bicycle tour were citizens of the Navajo Nation as well as citizens of the United States and like many Native Americans, oftentimes their loyalty begins with their own Indian nation and like the Navajo Code Talkers you praise, their lives oftentimes end in defense of not only the Navajo Nation, but also for the United States of America.
Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Sowell, to be a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, because my research tells me that there has never been a tribally enrolled American Indian accepted in that prestigious institute. Oversight? One wonders.
I hope that in the future you take the time to learn about a people before you write condescendingly and disparagingly about them. And please accept this as constructive criticism.
Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. His latest book “Children Left Behind, the Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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