Charles Trimble: Recalling the Burro of Indian Affairs
The Heyoka in Lakota culture is a “contrary,” a man who does everything backward, such as walking backward, or saying things that mean the opposite of what he says. He brings humor to the band or tiospaye, which is important, especially in the village during the long months of winter. He is often a holy man as well, and a person who will through humor and ridicule put down a bully, for instance, or someone trying to be bossy.

In a recent column I noted that “an editorial cartoonist must have the mind and soul of a Heyoka, or Iktomi, or coyote, or raven or any of those wonderful critters that Indian cultures have used throughout the centuries to puncture egos and bigotry with humor. And he must have the courage of Crazy Horse to stand up to the bullies he has vanquished with humor and ridicule.”

Recently I drew an editorial cartoon, which was published in the Lakota Country Times, and on It was my first cartoon in more than thirty-five years, but wasn’t too bad, if I must say so myself.

The last one I did was in 1974, when I was Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. At that time we were growing increasingly disgusted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as they dragged out the process of getting back in operation following the American Indian Movement’s occupation of their headquarters for ten days, which left the place “looking like Chernobyl,” as one clever writer put it. By dragging it out, the bureaucrats apparently wanted to make Indian people suffer, then they could blame AIM for the delays in programs and payments. AIM was by no means blameless in this, but the BIA should not have taken it out on the people they are in business to serve.

Pushed by the more conservative tribal leaders in the National Tribal Chairman’s Association, and embarrassed for having to meet AIM’s demands during the occupation, the President fired Commission Louis Bruce (Oglala Lakota/Mohawk) and his top aides. Under Bruce, much positive change was happening when AIM did their mischief in the Trail of Broken Treaties. The so-called “old liners” in the BIA seized control in the vacuum left by the firing of Bruce and his staff, and put a halt to all change.

Finally, an Alaskan Native, Morris Thompson, was appointed Commissioner by the President, and served a very popular term of office for the next two years of Nixon’s shortened tenure. The cartoon (shown below) is the way it looked to me when Thompson was appointed. I hope the picture tells the story, because any cartoon that has to be explained is not a very good one.

I had drawn earlier cartoons featuring the Burro of Indian Affairs, and even considered writing and illustrating a children’s book about it. The book was to be a parable on the federal government and its ways of controlling Indian people. In the tale, the animals on the prairie lived the good life, although they had to be resourceful to stay alive, to find food, and to keep from becoming food. But they understood their ecology, and existed for many centuries. Their ecosystem worked well, and all were happy.

However, along comes a burro, and saddled on each side of his body is a large wicker basket – “paniers” as they are called in Europe. And these baskets were full of goodies. The Burro distributed these goodies to everybody, and all the animals were happy. The Burro was kind to them, and promised to return. He returned again and again, bringing his goodies each time. Feeling that they would no longer had to forage for food, and no longer had to fear becoming food, the animals became fat, sluggish and helpless. Dependency set in.

The Burro told them that he needed pasture land for his family and other burros, and that in gratitude the animals ought to give him some of their land. After all, since he was providing all the food, they really didn’t need all that land. So, thankful for his largesse, they gave him land. But soon, he needed more, because more burros where coming to live with him. And reluctantly, they gave him more.

Pretty soon, the Burro started making the animals do tricks for their goodies. Then he would cause dissention among them by withholding goodies from some and giving extra goodies to others. The animal nation became a zoo of disorganization and chaos. Political parties formed and split the community, and fought relentlessly over goodies, which were now delivered fewer and farther between, sometimes not at all. The animal leaders fought each other for the Burro’s favor, so that their followers would have more food. Finally the animals started dying of poor diets, drinking too much, and killing each other and killing themselves.

That is the parable I wanted to write for Native American children and others who would be virtually enslaved by the government. But my book was never written because the Burro threatened to cut my supply of goodies if I did publish such a book.

Ayyyye, josh!

Actually, I never felt confident to write the story, because children’s books are harder to write than books for grown-ups. Children’s minds are more pure, and an author doesn’t want to chance despoiling such pristine, innocent pastures with such gross reality.

Charles Trimble, Oglala Lakota, was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at or at

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