They say that a warrior is measured by the strength of his enemies. As an Indian, I am proud of the fact that it took the mightiest nation on earth to defeat me. But I don’t feel so proud when I listen to Rachel. It gives me no solace to see the white man self-destruct. If Rachel’s people are “nothing,” what does that say about mine?
By David Yeagley
“Look, Dr, Yeagley, I don’t see anything about my culture to be proud of. It’s all nothing. My race is just nothing.”
The girl was white. She was tall and pretty, with amber hair and brown eyes. For convenience’ sake, let’s call her “Rachel.”
I had been leading a class on social psychology, in which we discussed patriotism – what it means to be a people or a nation. The discussion had been quite lively. But when Rachel spoke, everyone fell silent.
“Look at your culture,” she said to me. “Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that’s really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing.”
“You’re not proud to be American?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m happy to be American, but I’m not proud of how America came about.”
Her choice of words was telling. She was “happy” to be an American. But not “proud” of it.
On one level, I wasn’t surprised. I knew the head of our American History department at Oklahoma State University-OKC, and I recognized his hackneyed liberal jargon in Rachel’s words. She had taken one of his courses, with predictable results.
Yet, I was still stunned. Her words disturbed and offended me in a way that I could not quite enunciate.
I could hardly concentrate the rest of the day. I lay awake that night thinking about what she had said.
On the surface, she was paying me a compliment. She was praising my Indian culture, at the expense of her own. Why, then, did it feel so much like a slap in the face?
As I lay awake that night, I thought of an old story by Kay Boyle, written in 1941, called “Defeat.” It’s about the French women in the German-occupied village of Pontcharra. All the French men were away at war. It was the 14th of July, Bastille Day, when Frenchmen were usually proud to be French. The village women, however, chose that day to give in to the German men.
They did it innocently enough. The women just wanted to wear their fancy holiday dresses. They wanted to drink and dance. And the Germans were the only men around with whom they could do it.
So they gave in.
The Cheyenne people have a saying: A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.
That’s what I thought about as I lay there, with Rachel’s words running over and over in my mind. “My race is just nothing…. ” she had said. “My culture is nothing.”
After class, one older white student, a husband and father, had exchanged glances with me on the way out. He said to me in a low voice, “I don’t want her on my team!”
I understood what he meant. Frankly, I wouldn’t want her on my team either. A woman who won’t be true to her own people certainly won’t be true to someone else’s.
When Rachel denounced her people, she did it with the serene self-confidence of a High Priestess reciting a liturgy. She said it without fear of criticism or censure. And she received none. The other students listened in silence, their eyes moving timidly back and forth between me and Rachel, as if unsure which of us constituted a higher authority.
My goodness, if an Indian woman had said such a thing in front of Indian men, her ears would have burned for a week!