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.
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.
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.