My Message to Graduates: Be a Victor, Not a Victim

“What is past and cannot be prevented should not be grieved for.”

I read that quote on a beautiful card I bought in the gift shop of the Acoma Pueblo’s fine museum in New Mexico.

I encourage you to heed that advice. There will be some who will tell you otherwise. You will be told—indeed, you may have even been taught in some Indian studies programs, that you are forever a victim. That you must grieve over the great injustices imposed on our people and their tribes by alien forces from across the oceans, including foreign governments, foreign churches under the guise of Christianity, and foreign armies.

Some may insinuate, or may tell you directly, that you are not a real Indian if you are not grieving. If you are not in the depths of victimhood, or if you are not perpetually bitter and resentful over those injustices.

You may be expected to forever be embittered by thoughts of the suffering in the Indian boarding school system that was put into place to “civilize” our forebears by killing the Indian in them. But if great grandpa were here today, he would tell you he had left all that behind him when he got home from Indian boarding school and was purified in the sweat lodge. He would continue to speak his native language and practice his spirituality because that boarding school could not take away what he had been given by the Great Mystery.

Some Indian people, some of your own tribesmen will tell you that you cannot remain Indian if you seek advancement or knowledge that they deem to be foreign, Christian, capitalistic, un-Indian, or “the white man’s way.” When anyone does this to you, ask that person to furnish you with guidelines on what’s acceptable and what is not acceptable for you to remain Indian—all issues, all criteria. If he or she can provide such a list, thank him or her, then crumple it up and burn it. For no one can tell you that you are not an Indian, or not a “real” Indian. That is your birthright, it is in your very soul.

As you enter college, and I hope you all enter some form of post high school learning, go in with the confidence of a warrior, and with a positive attitude. Don’t let anyone drag you into a hole of self-pity and victimhood. Don’t let anyone put you on a guilt trip, especially faculty, that you are being a typical cookie-cutter Indian if you don’t live up to their victimhood expectations.

If you take a course in Indian studies, or if your major is in Indian studies, you will get history courses unlike those that you have seen before, those that gloss over or omit the terrible sacrifices that Indian country has made to the building of this country. But, beware of those history courses and social studies courses that dwell only on the terrible injustices and treatment of Indian people; that ignore the great resilience of our people, and the great achievements of our people. Do not become a prisoner of victimhood; be a victor like the great chiefs and warriors in your tribe and in all tribes.

Read history and learn from history, for it is important to the future. But know that there are many versions of history from different points of view. Let history’s stories be a challenge to you. Just as many of the Jewish people who have read the stories of the Inquisition, the Holocaust and the Diaspora, horrors that make up so much of their history, and have answered, “Never again.” Let that be your answer.

It is said that the victors write the histories; but whereas that may be true, remember that history is not simply written. It is rewritten, many times, and will continue to be rewritten. It is never finished. You may add to it.

One last word. Nearly sixty years ago, well before your parents were born, I graduated from a Catholic Indian boarding school. It was a joyful day, and some of us wept as we shook hands with colleagues and their parents and families in a final farewell gesture after being together for so long, and enduring so much together. They were difficult times, but we endured, and we survived, and we are proud to have done so.

Like your grandparents and great grandparents, I would be heart sick to know that any of our youth, and any of the wonderful students who are the future of our tribes, our nations, were grieving for my generation. It would be devastating to know that any of our youth, our most precious legacy, had taken his or her own life in expiation for the horrors of the suffering he or she is made to believe was ours in the boarding schools. To be sure, some of our generation have suffered indignities and abuse, but even they would not want you to grieve for them.

Be brave, be confident, seek truth, and be happy.

Always listen to grandma and grandpa, and mom and pop. And always, always, heed mom’s advice: “Wear clean underwear in case you’re in a car accident.”

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