American Indians face continuing racism from the outside, but “lateral” racism from within is just as debilitating, participants at a tribal education conference were told last week.
“We cannot struggle against the oppressor, so we struggle against each other,” two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke told high school students attending Career Institute 2002 events in Billings. “We’ve got to question why we’ve got to fight among ourselves.”
Extreme poverty, cultural isolation, and generations of being put down by the dominant culture can cause frustration to stream out against relatives, friends and other community members, LaDuke and other speakers said. The lateral venting often results in back-stabbing, gossip, and a general undermining of each other, particularly those who strive to get ahead.
John Potter, an Ojibwa Indian artist and columnist, said he considers racism to be a disease. No one is immune, he noted, but prejudice is something that must be learned.
While he was growing up, Potter said it was common to hear that other Indians were from the “wrong” clan, family or tribe. Conventional wisdom perpetuates the myth that many tribes don’t like each other, he said, and that Indians with mixed blood are not as worthy as those with full-blooded heritage.
“This is the beauty of us,” LaDuke added. “We are not all the same. Diversity is what ecologically sustains life. That’s what sustains our communities. People died for the right not to be called a nigger. Our ancestors died for these rights.”
LaDuke, a resident of Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, said her goal is to attack the root causes of racism. Most Native Americans have inadequate housing, not enough jobs, not enough services for youth and substandard health care. These and other factors combine to fuel negativity, which in turn poisons advancement.
“That’s all we have in our communities—the crumbs,” she said. “The challenge is to not pound each other over the crumbs.”
“Oppressed people, we like to do ourselves in,” said Clayton Small, a New Mexico-based educator and consultant who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Racism, he explained, is really much like wearing glasses. Everyone has their own viewpoints colored by their personal experiences, and “no one has the same lens.”
Combating internal and external racism takes a blend of self-understanding, a sense of history, and a strong belief in the teachings of traditional culture, Small said. It also means that minority members must continue to push into leadership positions so they can enact change.