May 05, 2012

Why do Indians "live in past"?

‘Why Do You Indians Always Live in the Past?’

By Mike TaylorOne day, one of my Facebook friends ran into me on campus. He asked me, “Why do you always live in the past?” I didn’t pay much attention to his question back then but remembered not arguing with him or his very strong Mormon beliefs about why Indian languages need to die out and the Mormon placement program. The same evening, another friend ran into me when I was riding a horse. She asked me the very same question and she wasn’t Mormon. The same evening, I put up an informal poll on Facebook and, without exception, all whites who responded agreed that I “always lived in the past.” They also seemed rather angry, upset and resentful about it. They said things like, “Get over your past!” I tried to get to the bottom of their resentment by asking questions such as, “But don’t you remember 9/11 every year?” or “Should Jews also forget about their near extermination in concentration camps?”

Their responses, the contradictory feelings they expressed, and the very ambiguity in their responses made me sit up and analyze my posts over the two-year duration of my Facebook. Less than 10 percent of my posts dealt with tribal issues; these were mainly news items neglected by the mainstream media that I didn’t want my Indian friends to miss. Another 5 percent of my posts were announcements of upcoming events like the Circle Dance, a powwow in a town an hour away, an Indian health fair, announcements of language and culture classes, the free medical clinic, personal updates like my adventures in Australia, etc. But the bulk of my posts, over 85%, talked about issues that were of interest to the educated white audience. I talked about game theory, happiness research, genomics, the new MCAT, exchange-traded funds, cancer detection by canines, research by a physicist that showed how racial profiling to limit terror attacks is mathematically flawed, compassion fatigue in physicians, artificial intelligence in medicine, new open courseware by MIT, research on the neurogenics of niceness, and other very contemporary topics. So what really bothered my white friends on Facebook? In my case, in-depth, in-person discussions with my buddies revealed that the 10 percent content that related to news articles from Indian media was what bothered them and led to their distorted perception. Even though over 85 percent of my Facebook content dealt with very contemporary issues, I was perceived as “living in the past.”

Which brings me to the question: Why do we Indians always hear that we live in the past when we don’t? Why are we always told to “get over the past?” The real reason is that Indian discussions serve as an unpleasant reminder to whites that this country is not theirs. Indeed, our very existence serves to reiterate to them that Turtle Island is not their land. Indian news articles from ICTMN and other sources are unpleasant to them because on a subconscious level they realize that they are as much aliens on this land as newly-arrived Arabs or the illegal Mexicans they despise so much. Our stories send home a message to them that their ancestors committed a holocaust against Indians and nearly exterminated us. When we speak about our dying languages, our high rates of diabetes and cancers, alcoholism or the poverty on our reservations, it reiterates to them that this country was built on deceit and lies and their ancestors did something horribly wrong. Our values tell them that their way of life—with the environmental destruction, the divorces, the crime, the wars, deteriorating family values, etc.—is going horribly South. The very fact that you and I are alive and that there are still “full bloods” around undermines the white sense of legitimacy and ownership of America. So my friends, don’t let it bother you when people tell you to “stop living in the past” and to “get over the past.” It is just another of those issues mainstream America needs to get over and resolve in their own minds.
Comment:  I rarely get accused of living in the past myself, since I'm not Native. But in my work I see the accusation often.

I think Taylor's analysis hits the nail on the head. For starters, that Indians and supporters like me do it a lot less often than people think. Taylor's 10% figure sounds about right to me.

In fact, most of my postings about the "past" are reactions to others who are talking about the past. Like Scott Brown berating Elizabeth Warren for claiming a Cherokee ancestor. The real question is why this privileged white man is living in the past--bringing up an old issue about ancient history that has no relevance to Warren's qualifications.

Taylor also nails the reasons Americans don't like to hear about the past. Yep, these discussions are "an unpleasant reminder to whites that this country is not theirs." That's why Americans favor their Indian mascots and stereotypes--because it lets them think of Indians as dead and gone. And therefore no longer an issue--a stain on America's honor.

Indeed, that's what all the antipathy toward Indians, blacks, and other minorities is about. Their continued existence reminds whites that their ancestors were moral criminals--killers, slavers, and thieves. Many whites would prefer nonwhites to be gone. Hence the Trail of Tears and the desire to send slaves back to Africa and Latinos back to Mexico.

In reality, all Americans, especially the white majority, live in the past. School lessons, place names, monuments, holidays, coins, parades, TV shows, etc., etc., etc....they're all about glorifying the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and other white icons. There may be an old hermit somewhere who doesn't live in the past, but the rest of us do.

The personality cults of Washington, FDR, or Reagan aren't much different from those of Mao, Stalin, or Castro. But our venerated leaders were white and democratic, so it's okay. We're living in the good past, not the bad past like those Indians and Commies.

For more on the subject, see Colorado Rejects "Genocide" Label and Chomsky on Genocide Denial.

Below:  White people living in the past.


dmarks said...

"The real question is why this privileged white man is living in the past--bringing up an old issue about ancient history that has no relevance to Warren's qualifications."

Why do you choose to side with the wannabe in this case, and not with the wannebe in the case of Ward Churchill?

grand canyon tours said...

I still see the past and the traditions we had.

Rob said...

I trust I've covered the controversy enough to satisfy you, DMarks.

I still don't think this issue has any relevance to Warren's qualifications to be a senator. I'm sure you could find several lies or exaggerations in any public figure's past. For instance:

The controversy over Warren's heritage is akin to the one over Bush's going AWOL from the National Guard. Yes, it's one small example of her character, but it's not a deal-breaker for most people.

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. I'm a mixed American, largely Native & your article helps me to see that I'm not the only one going through this stuff or thinking a certain way. People get angry with me if I mention anything about being Native or Mexican. It's not just whites. I've run into blacks & Latinos who feel the same way. They seem to think that if we forget the past, negate our heritage & use "generic" terms to identify ourselves that the world will be a better place. Not so.I often have to explain myself to others & validate my living in the U.S.