In the 1920s and 1930s, members of the Native American intellectual community would often use the term “Lo” to describe what would today be called the grass roots Indian. These well-known early spokesmen included the likes of Dr. Charles Eastman of Santee Sioux, Dr. Carlos Montezuma of the Yavapai Apache, Henry Roe Cloud of the Winnebago, Henry Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota, and later D’Arcy McNickle of the Flatheads. The term Lo was taken from the cliché of the time among eastern liberals, “Lo, the poor Indian.” These scholars were obviously making fun of the liberal establishment.
But it seems we work to keep the image of the poor Indian. Whether we toil in modern surroundings, live in luxury, or teach in ivied academia, we treasure the thought of “grassroots” people back home – the real Indians. And some adopt the trappings of what they perceive as grassroots – in clothing, behavior and speech, even though they might have a PhD and spend their evening hours in luxurious digs with all the modern conveniences.
I recall back in the 1960s when the Office of Economic Opportunity and other War on Poverty programs came on the scene with federal grants in amounts undreamed of by Indians in the past. In the urban areas Indian community projects had to compete with the rest of the racial minorities in the poverty sectors for those funds, and this meant trying to outdo the others in grass-rootsiness. So we soon learned to make our proposals appear that they were put together by lamplight in the Indian ghetto – misspelling words, using broken English, typing in typos, and printing the proposals with mimeograph on pulpy paper. This made the proposal as thick as any federal budget, and we had to submit six copies or more to the funding agency. But the bureaucrats in Washington evaluated the proposals and determined their worthiness by what appeared to be grass roots needs, local solutions, and sincerity.
It was pure irony that everybody was telling Indians to get educated and our problems would be solved. And our parents and grandparents were proud when any of us got a college degree. But then when we used our education in service to our people, the bureaucrats would want us to dumb down in order to prove that we were real Indians. Our writing was too good to be “Indian,” so we had to make it sound to them bad enough and pitiably enough to be Indian.
But we often put the same pressures on our own people. How often is it said that someone could not be a real Indian because he dressed too well, or his English was too good, or he was too polished in his manners?
One evening in Washington, DC, Leo Vocu, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, sat with a few of us at a table in a local bar. Some around the table were from tribes and had come to Washington to testify in a Congressional hearing or for some other tribal business. As we visited, a certain well-known Indian militant leader, whose name I won’t mention here, came over to the table.
That was back in the late 1960s, and if militant Indians didn’t think an Indian man was appropriately dressed he was considered a sell-out – an apple; this was regardless of blood quantum, traditional adherence, or personal history of defending Indian rights.
Leo was of the old school, and always wore coat and tie to work at the NCAI office. It wasn’t long before the militant leader was ragging him about his appearance. “You dress like a white man,” he said, “are you ashamed of being Indian?” Leo explained that he always wore suit and tie when he testified before Congress or had meetings with government officials. “I want to show them respect, and make them more comfortable with our position for the Tribes.” He continued, “I also have great respect for these tribal leaders, so why shouldn’t I dress the same to meet with them?”
His antagonist grumbled some epithets and left the group, back to his very pale, Caucasian girlfriend at another table.
Another time, more recently, I was in a meeting on a college campus talking about raising funds for Indian studies and student programs there. We discussed one Indian casino that had a very generous foundation, which had funded several college programs in the upper Midwest. One of the meeting participants was a Native American professor and academic leader. He was very smart and personable, but his clothes reflected apparently what he perceived a Native American should look like, which consisted of Levi’s, loose tee shirt and sandals. Perhaps this was to make the students more comfortable around him; and if that is the case it was fine with me. However, he made a point in the meeting to suggest that my dress was too “establishment” to represent their Indian studies program before that Indian casino Foundation. He suggested that they would be more amenable to fund someone who appeared more “Indian,” with the appropriately grass roots attire. I wasn’t offended because I didn’t expect to represent them before any Foundation; but I was offended that anyone would have such low standards for our Indian people.
To me, “dressing down” is as bad as dumbing down, trying to be what some people might consider more Indian. Our chiefs of old who went in to Washington were no slobs when it came to their appearance. They were the essence of nobility. Most of our tribal political leaders of the past were always as well dressed in their own fashion as any member of a Congressional committee they testified before or any bureaucrat they met.
I wrote in an earlier column, “We must reject the notion that poverty…is inevitable for our people and our children – or that it is part of being a real Indian. There are some that say that an Indian person who makes a decent salary and enjoys material goods is not a real Indian; that the only real Indians live in poverty on the reservations. And some say that being poor is the price of being real Indian. But the notion that it is somehow noble to forgo financial security, material goods, and self-care for the sake of some strange fantasy of Indianness is folly. From the beginning, our tribes were formed as survival units to deal with want and suffering, not to perpetuate it.”
We must admit that many of our people are forced to live in poverty, and we find it unacceptable. We are committed to doing something about it. We do not deny our people in need, they are equal to all of the rest of our people, and we are dedicated to making life better for them. But we must not see that as their permanent state.
“Lo the poor Indian” should be a thing of the past, or we should work toward the goal of putting him there.
Charles “Chuck” Trimble, Oglala Lakota, 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
firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is iktomisweb.com.
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