August 24, 2008

Trimble on victimhood

PRAIRIE VOICES:  Official says Indians should stop pushing guiltA good example is Tim Giago, columnist and former owner of the Lakota Times, whom I’ve known since childhood. After awhile, this kind of talk gets to be a litany or mantra, so whites expect it when we speak. They say, “Tell us about those awful days in boarding school; tell us how they beat you up.”

So, we’re feeding people what they want to hear or what we think they want to hear in order for us to get our way: to elicit pity or push guilt.

That’s what I found myself doing when I testified on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians before Congress. I knew the litany by heart: highest infant mortality rate, lowest life expectancy, highest unemployment, lowest per capita income and on and on.

At first, I thought it was pretty effective. Then, I got to thinking, “What are we asking these legislators to do in those hearings?” We constantly live with it, and after awhile, it wears on us and ultimately it wears on our children.

Over the past five years, I worked at the University of South Dakota on and off as interim director of the Institute of American Indian Studies. I noticed that in college, too, they were doing the same thing: “You kids have to understand what we’ve been through and the horrible things that happened to us.”

If it’s history, it really needs to be taught. But we ourselves shouldn’t necessarily buy into it.
And:Q. When I read your column, I wondered, “Has he lived on a reservation, and does he fully understand what he’s talking about?”

Most Indian people live with what they were born with, and we carry that historic baggage, so to speak. And we do drag it out when we need to. So when does remembering the past become victimhood?

A. We shouldn’t think of our history as “baggage.” We should think of it as “experience.” I think it is very important to keep it because we have to understand our history; but we should treat it as history, not a political tool.

It’s life experience if you’ve faced discrimination on the reservation or certainly in the border towns around the reservations.

I have. I can pass as a Mexican, Italian or a white person, but the sad thing is I watched my mother, who is very Indian, take some really rude stuff. When I was little, that really hurt. That was worse than getting it myself. Those are things you remember.

I guess I should say we can’t let the world forget it (our history), but we also can’t let it be baggage to us—to weigh us down and give us sense of victimhood.
Comment:  On the one hand, I agree that a litany of woes designed to make people feel bad may not be the best approach. That's one reason I generally advocate fictional movies, TV shows, novels, and comic books over documentaries. Most people relate only to other people, not to dry facts and figures.

On the other hand, I think Trimble's distinction is arbitrary and unknowable. What's the difference between experiencing and understanding one's history and carrying it as "baggage"? How does Trimble know that particular Indians think of themselves as vicitms? If Indians or Jews say "Never again," are they playing the victim card or being forceful advocates for change?

For more on the subject, see Trimble to Indians:  Get Over It and Blaming the Victim.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
writerfella agrees COMPLETELY with Rob for a change. The 'litany' is one that reduces people to numbers, percentages, data, and statistics. The loss of two world continents does not fall within the 'litany.' The deaths of over 100 millions of Natives does not fall within the 'litany.' Reagan's disembowelment of the American Indian Trust and its forced repayment at $.01 on the dollar does not fall within the 'litany.' It simply is a matter that Natives ontinually have been victimized by EuroMen rather than just being the victim...
All Best
Russ Bates