August 21, 2020
Journal of American Indian Higher Education
Volume 32, No. 1 - Fall 2020
Greetings! In 2020, we have much to be thankful for. However, we can never lose sight of the struggles that continue to be our priority. We need to remember our history and engrave it in the minds of our young people, not only to honor and respect our ancestors who fought for our survival but to ensure history is not repeated.
I became an activist early in my life. In 1958, I sat with my father and grandfather in meetings where they discussed stopping the Termination Act. If you remember, the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin was first to be terminated. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota were to be second, with the Klamath of Oregon being third. We were able to stop termination of Turtle Mountain, but unfortunately the Klamath were not as lucky. The Menominee Nation, which was one of the richest counties in the State of Wisconsin, became one of the poorest until they succeeded in their battle to overturn their termination. They are known throughout the United States for having one of the best managed forestry industries with their sustainable practices.
Knowing what happened to the Menominee Nation, and with the threat of other tribes being terminated, Native people were motivated to unite in the urban areas. One example is the Day Break Star Park, the result of the Fort Lawton takeover which I was involved in. It eventually became a culture center under the leadership of my friend and brother, Bernie White Bear. Native people relocated to the cities by the government were coming together with the cold realization of what was in store for us if we didn’t wake up and protect the coming generations.
At the age of six, I was one of more than 60,000 kids being forced into boarding schools by the government. We were stripped of not only our culture and way of life, but of loving parents and grandparents who were replaced with cold, heartless matrons, nuns, and priests. Most children were kept at the boarding schools for several years without going home. It took a presidential order to allow parents to have their children for the summer months, but few could afford the cost of transportation. When my mother heard of the order, she came as quickly as possible to take me, my sister, and our little cousin home with her.
Being around my grandparents, I remember hearing them talk of needing a special pass from the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent to leave the reservation to visit the nearest town for groceries or to look for work in other areas. At an early age, I also remember hearing about the hanging of the “38 plus 2” of our people at Mankoto, Minnesota, which included one of my uncles. Historians document December 1862 as the largest mass hanging in the united States. Of the 303 men to be hanged, President Lincoln pardoned all but the 38. Two had escaped into Canada, were brought back, and hanged—thus the “38 plus 2.” The remaining 263 were put into concentration camps to be tortured and beaten.
Out of sadness and frustration came a vision for change. A change that would put a spotlight on the many injustices my people have endured. We had to overcome many obstacles on our journey to where we are now. Education was a big one. The government, which controlled our destiny at this point, had made the decision that our people should be relocated from our homelands to the big cities and given training in jobs that were soon to be obsolete. College was a dream we did not think was attainable. From the time we were able to do manual labor, we were working with our parents during harvest time to feed our families and for basic survival.
Today, we are proud of the high numbers of college graduates, supported by our Native nations. We are proud to have tribal members educated in the fields of medicine, science, law, and business. We have tribal members who are educators, mentoring and guiding our young people with the latest technology. We are nations with successful business owners and professionals. In my family, I am proud to have an aunt who worked as a school administrator in California, with her daughter becoming a scientist for NASA. My grandfather on my Ojibwe side was a mapmaker all through Alaska. Some of our families were able to adapt, but as you can imagine, the change didn’t happen overnight and wasn’t easy.
We must recognize the members of our communities who knew we had to overcome the paternalistic system of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and who made a stand, with our elders and treaties leading the way. They encouraged the young people to have the strength and courage to change the direction of our future and to have confidence in the leaders who were blazing a new trail. Thus, the birth of the American Indian Movement.
We were called misfits, thugs, and troublemakers who were hated because of the color of our skin and, yes, because we had the audacity to say we were no longer willing to be on our knees. We exposed some of the horrific history that the government would rather have kept buried. For example, very few people know that through the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, over 60,000 Native men and women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent. The devastation to the individuals was unrepairable. When confronted with the facts, some of the victims committed suicide, others masked their pain with alcohol and drugs.
We have a big uphill fight and it still isn’t won. The effects of boarding schools, knowledge of forced sterilization, lack of education and job opportunities, and spiritual poverty are all barriers we face. We may have been standing in our graves, but we were willing to challenge the giant standing in the way of progress. We put our lives on the line for our people to have a better way of life.
We have a responsibility to document and share this history. We are on a journey where many of our people lost their freedom and some paid with their lives. I personally have spent the past 44 years in prison. I was arrested and sentenced to a double life sentence in prison by an all-white jury after being presented with false evidence. Through documents now available through the Freedom of Information Act, prosecutors stated they would “put the full weight of the American government on Leonard Peltier, as this is our last chance to get a conviction.”
I remain an activist out of necessity. Brown people throughout the world suffer from lack of equality and justice. We need to stand in support of each other. Our way of life is forever a threat to those who don’t understand. I stand with those who are willing to give their lives to protect the environment, of which we are all a part. Without clean water and clean air, we cannot live. Without our way of life, we fail to exist.
Let us look beyond the color of our skin, the way we choose to worship, and the idea that some of us have more worth than others. We are all related, the two legged, the four legged, those that fly, and all life-giving plants and animals. let us strive for tolerance and respect. let us move forward with a positive mind while bringing our history with us. Our promise to our ancestors is that we will NEVER forget!
I am Tatewikuwa, Wind that Chases the Sun, proud of the Miniconjou Lakota-Ojibwe blood that runs through my veins, also known as Leonard Peltier.
Leonard Peltier (Lakota/Ojibwe) is an activist currently imprisoned at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida.