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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Race, Power, and Unity: Hunter Wrong on Indians

Our man Hunter comments on the two big racial incidents making headlines in Chamberlain and Oelrichs. In last night's Madison Daily Leader editorial, he blames those trouble-making Indians:

We find the term "white pride" offensive, as it implies white people are different than [sic] others and should celebrate their unique heritage.

But if that's true, why does the Chamberlain School District allow T-shirts that say "Native Pride" on them? We believe that statement also implies racial differences and causes unnecessary tension.

...Oelrichs graduates are expected to wear caps and gowns with school colors at the ceremony. If Aloysius Dreaming Bear wins the lawsuit, he will wear clothing that will emphasize a racial difference and clearly stand out from his classmates.

Dreaming Bear says he wants to honor his culture and his people. While those may be his intentions, the reality is that it unnecessarily divides his class into different groups [Jon Hunter, "Two incidents show that 'pride' and 'honor' harm race relations," Madison Daily Leader, 2010.05.04].

If there's anything that motivates publisher and advertiser Hunter, it's avoiding unnecessary tension and division... for the white folks (and advertisers) in charge.

I'll admit I have a harder time arguing against Hunter on the Chamberlain incident. High school students are often obsessed with fairness, and they often perceive fairness as Hunter does, as absolute equality. Had I been a Chamberlain student, I might well have joined the "white pride" shirt wearers as a "fairness" and free-speech provocateur: if one group can publicly declare pride in their identity, why can't every group?

My worldview has grown a bit since high school. I recognize that fairness is not complete equality. I recognize that Native Pride, Black Pride, and White Pride are not equivalent statements. Lakota people declaring Native Pride are making a countercultural statement, an active defense of a minority cultural identity imperiled by the pressure of the majority. People of European ancestry declaring White Pride are defending a dominant culture and powers-that-be that don't need defending. I don't need to shout White Pride to feel secure in my cultural identity when the culture around me screams "White! White! White!" at almost every turn. If Lakota people want to be Lakota, they have to work a little harder to keep a grip on who they are and where they've come from.

I understand that both Native Pride and White Pride may be interpreted as a verbal flipping of the bird at folks of other colors. But Hunter's assimilationism misses a crucial point: in cultural and historical context, Native Pride is more often than not defensive; White Pride is more often than not offensive (both meanings).

The Oelrichs graduation lawsuit is an easier call. Hunter is just wrong. Hunter baselessly rejects the honest intentions of a student as unnecessary division. To suggest that Aloysius Dreaming Bear is dividing his class into two groups is nonsense. The class is already divided into two groups, whites and Indians, by its own superintendent Lawrence Jaske, who clearly views Indian students as a drag on his budget who don't bring tax dollars from Pine Ridge or Red Cloud when they open-enroll. The class is already divided by the dominant culture into kids who will be looked at suspiciously when they walk into the gas station and kids who won't.

Jaske insists kids should have to wear the traditional graduation robes because "We're not a Native American school." Yet this year's graduating class at Oelrichs consists of nine Indian kids and one white kid. If we're really worried about creating unnecessary division, maybe it would be easier to just ask that one white kid to wear an Indian robe.

It's easy for Jaske and Hunter to say everyone should conform to a single standard, regardless of race... when that standard is still defined by the dominant culture of which they (and I) are comfortable members.

I seem to recall Governor Rounds saying something about a "Year of Unity" to take up Governor Mickelson's unfinished work on reconciliation between white and red. I would suggest the incidents at Oelrichs and Chamberlain demonstrate the need to recognize Unity as something more complicated than assimilation.


  1. Funny how times change. In the late 60's early 70's a lot of us dressed kind of the way Indians did (long hair, beads, headbands, leather clothes, moccasins... we even had peace pipes (but didn't smoke kinikinik in them) and ate peyote buttons. And the older timer Indians all wore western shirts, denim pants and cowboy hats. Go figure.

  2. I am struck by the omission of some very important aspects to the Chamberlain incident,by Mr. Hunter in his editorial. The T-shirts had much more than white pride world wide on them, on the back of the shirts was a
    celtic cross which is an ancient symbol that has had its meaning perverted much in the same way as the swastika has been.The celtic cross is a symbol used by many white supremacist groups including the KKK. Clearly these t-shirts went far beyond expressing pride in ones heritage, they were expressing supremacy of ones race.If the school had sent the students home for wearing shirts that said "irish pride" with a picture of a shamrock, then to call them out for hypocrisy would be warranted.
    As to the point of the controversy in Oelrichs it seems to me that if Mr. Hunter wants to be consitant in his argument, he would suggest that there not be any special garb for graduation, since the current cap and gown is the traditional graduation garb of european heritage. I differ as well in his assertion that ignoring our cultural differences is the key to better relations, I am under the opinion that celebrating those difference is the key.

  3. I think some white kids should take up wearing their cultural background's ceremonial clothing.

    Nothing like some lederhosen at a graduation ceremony to spice things up.

    Or maybe some Norwegian bunads to accompany some Norwegian folk dancing at the grad party?

    Jokes aside, Barry beat me to mentioning the traditional graduation cap and gown is as European heritage as it gets.

  4. I will be celebrating my Danish heritage in Viborg on July 16th trough the 18th. It would be nice for Viborg, if everyone would come help celebrate!

  5. Michael Black5/05/2010 10:42 AM

    We've spent time taking pictures of Native American seniors at our photography studio. We also take pictures at the Flandreau Indian School prom each Spring. I have family that are Native American.

    All of us have no clue what it means to be Native American in today's society. We can think we have profound understanding, but we can't possibly grasp the challenges and hardships the Native American people have gone through.

    For hundreds of years, the white man has tried to destroy the culture of Native Americans. Isn't it time that we allow them to honor their heritage.

  6. I reject your position that any accommodations should be made to placate any particular culture, be it Native American, Western European, etc. In fact, I consider it recklessly dangerous.

    We as humans naturally form competitive social groups based on arbitrary lines of distinction. Providing special accommodations to a certain minority group simply reinforces lines of distinction. Doing this at a high school level is particularly dangerous because people are still learning how to socially arrange themselves.

    Treating everyone equally breaks down lines of distinction. The government in all of its incarnations need to be agnostic to individual cultures just as it does religion.

  7. I see no reason for anyone to be more proud of their race than the color of their eyes. If we are ever going to get past racism, we have to quit claiming pride in a genetic differentiation which actually says nothing of any importance except capacity handle time in the sun.

    Racial pride honors nobody but instead denigrates everyone else. Whether a it is a white, Indian, Asian, or black person who wears something like "White or Black Pride," they are only saying they think their genetic differentiation is important and better. By definition, it is racist.

    Native Pride isn't about race so much as it is about culture, no different than the Mexican's in Sioux Falls celebrating Cinco de Mayo, the Irish on St. Patrick's Day, etc. Cultural pride honors our parents and forebears and celebrates what makes diversity interesting.

    This said, graduation is not the place to celebrate what separates the class culturally (Native/ Irish/German, Christian/non-Christian, Republican/Democrat, jock/nerd, skinny/chubby, etc.) but what unites them (graduation and the experience of going to school together).

  8. Mr Amert. Can I assume from your argument that you would be for getting rid of the cap and gown at graduation, because it is an accommodation to Western European culture?

  9. Barry,

    The Cap and Gown goes back to the 12th century and the start of universities, which ultimately led to high schools (an education system that has been adopted throughout the world). The value of the tradition then and today: It is a a statement that one is learned. It is blind to where the graduate came from.

    There is a similar tradition in China traced back to the Tang Dynasty (10th century).

  10. Troy I am sure that a Lakota student would feel that his traditions have similar value.

  11. Barry,

    I think a Lakota student's traditions have value. As South Dakotan, native culture has significantly shaped and influenced me.

    Your inference that opposition to the wearing of Native attire is somehow an effort to denigrate or dismiss Native culture or an exultation of European culture is crap.

    Graduation is a celebration of graduation from an institution which has its roots to the 12 the century University system. The academic attire says one thing:

    One has fulfilled the graduation requirements of the school. At its genesis, it was designed to eliminate all distinctions of whether one came from royalty, the mercantile class, or peasantry.

    If this student wants to say something else in his attire, he is free to say it elsewhere.

  12. Troy . It is not crap to suggest that if we are to accommodate the traditions of one culture, we should accommodate the traditions of all cultures. The traditions of European
    institutions have no more value than the traditions of the Lakota. The cap and gown is a tradition. period.

  13. Barry,

    I am not saying European traditions over Native traditions. Your inference is moronic.

    Let me speak very slowly for you.

    High Schols are an outgrowth of Universities. Universities initiated the concept of formal education with requirements for the receipt of a degree.

    The graduation ceremony is a traditional recognition by the INSTITUTION that the graduates have met the the requirements for the degree. The cap and gown is a part of the ceremony to show all have earned their degree whether they come from royalty, nobility, wealth or poverty and without regard to their own individual culture.

    If the student does not want to participate in this ceremony and tradition, he is free to abstain. That is how you show mutual respect to all.

  14. Good comments all around. Troy, I will grant that there is a reasonable argument that a graduation ceremony may not be the best place for expressions of individual identity. (Hmm... maybe that's why I don't like graduations.)

    I don't want to distract from this interesting discussion of the cultural tradition embodied in Western graduation ceremonies. But I do want to insert an observation that Hunter's point seems much broader: he appears to declare any expression of difference in race, culture, or heritage to be bad for society. If we ignore differences, we generally don't remain "agnostic", as Tony would ask of government; we generally default to the dominant culture. And that's... uncomfortable if you're not a card-carrying member of that dominant culture.

  15. Talk about moronic Troy. The only inference I have made is that you seem to believe that it is perfectly acceptable to accommodate one cultures traditions by virtue of they have some profound meaning,over another cultures traditions. Maybe instead of insults and double posting you could make a rational argument as to why the profound meaning of the cap and gown deserves such consideration that it trumps the traditions of the Lakota student.

  16. Cory,

    I think we sometimes get so hung up on the deep history we forget the immediate history.

    The institutionalization of formal education is one of the most significant developments in human history. It preceded democracy and allows the principal of equality for all to exist.

    Formal education is not a threat to Native culture or the tribes wouldn't be so dedicated to Native colleges nor would they have cap and gown graduation ceremonies.

    This entire discussion is a distraction from the real discussion to which you allude.

    There an inherent tension between the dominant culture and the minority culture which requires effort on both sides. But the efforts have to be properly focused on real issues and real tension.

    Since today is Cinco de Mayo let's talk about that. It was originally a "tradition" to celebrate a Mexican victory over the French 150 years ago. It is a minor celebration in Mexico at best.

    However, here it has been "adopted" as a celebration of the Mexican culture and heritage. The "adoption" of St. Patrick's Day is similar.

    Should a person in the US of French-descent be offended by the celebration of Cinco de Mayo because it has roots in the defeat of the French? Or should they participate in it because they have friends and neighbors of Mexican heritage?

    Similarly, should a Native student be so threatened by a graduation ceremony because it has roots to Europe? Or should they see it for what it is now: A ceremony honoring them for meeting the requirements for a degree from an institution they attended for years and gave significant effort.

    Cinco de Mayo is not a put-down of the French. A graduation ceremony is not a put down of the Native culture. Both are celebrations.

    If I don't want to go downtown and celebrate with my neighbors with Mexican heritage, that is my choice. If the Native student doesn't want to celebrate his graduation with his fellow students that is his choice.

    But for me to go downtown tonight and somehow assert something unrelated transcends the very purpose of the celebration is .... well let's say not right.

    With regard to Hunter, whether it be a poor choice of words or ill-will, I just want say I think expression of difference in culture and heritage is overall healthy and good for society. But, every forum is not a proper forum for such difference, especially one that is specifically designed for unity.

  17. CAH-

    The dominant culture of the US is not backed by any single group. Yes, there are many American traditions similar to western Europeans, but that is simply because a large majority came from western Europe. However, consider modern music. Would we consider any of it traditional European music? Absolutely not.

    Now, I can understand how a member of a minority culture could feel uncomfortable. But let me be clear: It's human nature to ostracize anyone that is not a member of the group. It's how our brains function and is instinctual.

    Now, the interesting part is how "the group" is defined. It's not based on stringent physical characteristics or anything simple (like racists believe). It's arbitrary defined and changes over time very rapidly.

    "The group" is why I believe it's bad to single out any sub group for any reason. It creates arbitrary lines that our simple minds love to define "the group" along.


    For better or worse the majority culture in the US uses caps/gown. This is not homage to western Europeans, this is just the way we have done things here.

    However, if we accommodate a smaller culture they will continue to be thought of as a different "group".

    Also, you seems to be saying that the majority culture in America is simply following European culture. Do you truly believe this is the case?

    We may have adopted some of their traditions centuries ago, but we have certainly made them our own now.

  18. Troy I don't think that the student has an issue with the graduation ceremony per se, or the institutions of learning, but rather with the fact that he is not being permitted to express his traditions, and is being faced with "if you want to participate you need to assimilate" at any rate it will be interesting to see how the court thinks . The hearing is on May 13.

  19. Tony I dont know were in my argument I inferred that that the majority culture in America is simply following European culture, But if I did I didn't mean to as I don't believe that. my argument was limited to the tradition of the cap and gown.

  20. Barry: "Troy I don't think that the student has an issue with the graduation ceremony per se. . ."

    The graduation ceremony is the public acknowledgement of a degree and it includes all people wearing caps and gowns only distinguished by the degree (i.e. in a college, undergraduate's cap is different from one with a graduate degree). Since ALL are getting the same degree, the only differenciation might be for the Magna cum laude graduate.

    Barry: He has a problem "rather with the fact that he is not being permitted to express his traditions."

    Barry, the very idea of the cap and gown is to present all equally without regard to their background. No special robe for rich or poor, Christian or non-Christian, native or caucasian.

    This student wants to express himself OVER all others. Using your logic, rich kids should be able to wear clothing that befits their wealth, kids who don't look good in blue should be able to wear red.

    This kid needs to learn to accept acknowledgement for accomplishment is not a "subjugation" of his tradition or himself.

    Barry: He is being told "if you want to participate you need to assimilate."

    He is being told that he is invited to a ceremony which requires all students to be uniform. If he can't do that, he can stay home.

  21. Well, maybe, Troy. But considering that all of the kids in the class are Native, save one, how about they invite the one non-native kid to dress like them? Could be cool. A real reconciliation gesture. If I were a white kid so invited, I would feel honored and would do it in a heartbeat. Just a thought.

  22. Troy : Wearing a cap and gown is nothing more and nothing less than a tradition with profound meaning.

    Troy: Expressing oneself and expressing ones traditions are two different things. There are many military traditions, when a soldier expresses them he not expressing himself, he is expressing a tradition.

    Troy: At least we can agree on one point the Lakota student is being asked to assimilate if he wants to participate.

  23. Bill,

    Regarding a class picture in Native attire or other event, I too would be honored to be an Indian for a day just as all the wannabees are Irish on St. Patrick's Day. I played on a college intermural basketball team where our team was called "nine Jews and a gentile."

    But this is not about a clash of cultures and we hurt ourselves by making it such.

    Regarding the matter at hand, I suppose the school board could choose to abandon the cap and gown.

    From my perspective, I think education is so important and community acknowledgement and appreciation goes beyond any borders and any one culture. This month we are celebrating millions of kids all in cap and gown, including my daughter Sydney where my wife and I will accept it on her behalf (and not wearing a cap and gown as we didn't earn it, she did).

    In a day when we are so polarized, let's all come together and clap for these kid dressed uniformly in their school colors.

  24. Amen to that, Troy. Good point. God Bless.

    (...okay so how about feathers instead of tassels... sorry, can't help myself.)

  25. A little further reading:

  26. Bill they are going to be able to wear the feathers but I dont know if it will be in place of the tassel. I am very interested to see the outcome. I always try to argue against assimilation because it has been such a factor in the tragic history for the natives, but Troy does make good points on unity of the class.

  27. Barry,

    I too have a bias to act in concert with our Native neighbors. I grew up near the reservation and have a personal affinity for there challenges and culture/heritage.

    Let's find a real issue of something that intends to denigrate the Native culture and stand together.

  28. Troy I really never meant to infer that the cap and gown tradition denigrated the students culture. I was arguing that he had a right to express his tradition at his graduation. I concede that the display of unity at graduation may be more important.
    As you say I am sure that you and I would stand together on an issue of real denigration.

  29. Well, I'm way late to this and I doubt this comment will be read, but I wanted to explicitly add that the "White Pride Worldwide" and celtic cross symbol are the slogan and symbol of the white supremecist group "Stormfront" as a quick google search will show you. Anyone wearing those shirts is not asking for mere equality, assuming they have a clue what the shirt they are wearing means.

    Brett Hoffman


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