Montana Senator Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, Crow, asked the group of people attending the Not In Our Town’s “Summit On Hate: Being Native In Billings” program aimed at refuting negative stereotypes surrounding local American Indians to say a prayer with her on November 17. “I repent of all those things that I have harbored in our heart towards Native Americans, other people of color, and even my neighbors and I release it now and let go. And I ask that a right spirit, understanding, and compassion come in,” they all said.
Peregoy then explained the urban area of Billings, Montana – the state’s largest city – sits upon what was traditionally prime Crow land. The “Last Great Chief” of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coup (1848-1932), Plenty Coup was born in the area and said, “With education you are the white man’s equal, without education you are his victim and so shall remain all of your lives.”
However, Crow Not In Our Town board member Crystal Rondeaux says Montana’s most visible minority – American Indians – have often been limited to having to defend themselves against ignorance instead of sharing their education and culture.
Local middle school Principal Sharon Teitema, recalled her experiences as a white teen who attended the Crow Reservation’s Plenty Coup High School. When they went to play a game 40 miles away in Billings, “They surrounded the bus, did ‘war whoops,’ and called us all kinds of racist names. I was shocked that people from my culture could do such a thing. But for my teammates that was a usual experience. I can’t imagine living that.”
Luella Brien, also a Crow tribal member and college English instructor, gave the keynote speech in regards to combating misconceptions surrounding Natives. “Indians get free money from the government. Woo hoo!” she animatedly exclaimed about one of the most common stereotypes regarding Natives. “I’ve been waiting for my ‘free Indian money’ my whole life, it doesn’t happen. We don’t get free money from the federal government. Now some tribes do get checks, but there are reasons for this.”
As a Crow she explained she gets dividend checks three times a year from her tribe’s coal revenue, other tribes don’t get any dividend money, while other tribes in the area have recently been getting mismanagement settlement monies from the government. “So when people say, ‘Indians don’t need to work because they’re just waiting for their check!’ You’re new perspective is to, ‘No, they don’t.’”
Natives have statistically high rate of dropouts in Montana schools, but Brien noted, “We also have a lot of undiagnosed learning disabilities.” As a parent of twin 9-year-olds boys – one has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome while the other has ADHD – Brien knows firsthand the difficulties one needs to go through on the reservation to get a proper learning disability diagnosis from filing extensive paperwork to having to repeatedly drive hours away to qualified behavioral clinics in the city.
“Other people aren’t going to do that,” Brien said. As a teacher, she’s seen students with dyslexia and didn’t even know it. They were bright, but always felt they weren’t. “So we have a huge plague of undiagnosed learning disabilities, and so they’ll drop out.”
Regarding the “Indians are all drunks” stereotype, Brien says since Natives are a collectivist society, people with addiction problems will leave reservations to deal with their addiction away from their families. Those are often the Natives city people come across, and thus they base their illusions of the entire group on them. Even if one did want help with their addiction, Brien says they’d have to wait up to two months before being evaluated at a local Indian Health Service clinic. “A person with an addiction problem that wants help can’t often wait that long.”
Familial patterns of addiction combined with historical trauma, poverty, and undiagnosed learning disabilities make for a harsh cycle that’s hard to break out of.“These stereotypes are so interconnected that you can’t solve one without dealing with the other,” Brien said.
A former newspaper reporter for The Billings Gazette, Brien related an anecdote of how she was assigned to write a story about miniature horses. She called the interviewee using a “reporter voice,” and they enthusiastically agreed to the interview. When she showed up and knocked on the door, there was no answer. After going to the door a second time after calling to verify it was the correct house, she saw the curtains rustling from inside the house, but they still wouldn’t answer. Brien said, “They heard my voice, but they saw my face, and they didn’t make the connection because I have the ability to use a professional voice.”
Although she can joke about it now and says maybe the woman thought “that Indian woman was going to steal her tiny ponies,” she said, “People just make assumptions about us. There may be some truth to these stereotypes, but it’s snowballed into something much bigger, into a belief that’s so negative that they don’t even realize they’re assuming something because they think its fact.”