Editor’s note: Adrian Jawort helped organize the Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium, a daylong series of panel discussions scheduled for Aug. 22 at the Billings Public Library. A companion piece, with a schedule of events, by co-organizer Russell Rowland, is published below. Click here to see it.
Aurelia Brien Jawort is a bright and reserved Crow and Northern Cheyenne girl (with a quarter of German blood via her grandpa on her father’s side) who just graduated from kindergarten. She has lived back and forth between Billings and the Crow Indian Reservation.
A very beautiful girl—one could say she looks almost doll-like—she shuns attention and bashfully hides behind her daddy when people try to compliment her about how cute she looks. Like her writer parents, she loves books and reading and she is also adept at doing puzzles and drawing and painting. In spite of her introvert characteristics, she has a graceful manner of speaking and an aptitude for vocabulary and elegant word choice that’s beyond her years, at least in the presence of those she chooses to open up to.
When she’s dressed in her traditional Native clothing and powwow regalia, she’s still the same shy girl, but generations of Native blood and tradition become visible. When she dances at a powwow or observes with wide-eyed fascination the colorful, shawl-bearing women fancy dancers whose feet appear to flutter gracefully just above the earth, to the rhythms of drums and singing that mimic the sounds of our ancestors’ souls, one can see a fierce and resilient pride behind those same eyes.
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m Aurelia’s Northern Cheyenne daddy, and in spite of how much my daughter already appreciates the splendor of her unique culture, it pains me to know that someday soon this innocent, soft-spoken girl will come across people who would lump all negative stereotypes about Montana’s first inhabitants onto her and dismiss her thoughts and opinions because of her indigenous heritage.
Even more likely, in this Internet age, she’ll read rude, anonymous comments under articles about Natives, slurs about how all Natives are lazy people who are a drain on white society.
Perhaps the purveyors of those comments will be called out as racists even by other whites, but they’ll respond that they’re “only telling the truth” and are “sick of this politically correct crap!”—as if being a decent human and believing we’re created equal has something to do with politics.
For instance, when a crime is committed by a Native American and reported in local newspapers, you’ll often see a plethora of ignorant online comments like, “Typical Indian. What do you expect?” along with an additional stereotype or two.
Sometimes these people are mere Internet “trolls” who think they’re funny and are just trying to get a rise and should by no means be taken seriously. But more often than not, similar Facebook comments actually get an uncomfortable number of “likes” from people you’d never suspect thought like that. In the town where Not In Our Town was born, it’s hard to imagine Billings people freely saying, “Typical black/Mexican/Jew/etc. What do you expect?” Natives, apparently, are exceptions to an unspoken rule.
If my daughter someday asks me why people don’t like Indians—or even why many of her own tribal people themselves don’t like whites—I could simply say, “Well, Aurelia, that’s just the way it is in Montana. We Natives all have stories about prejudices from whites, and so a lot of us hold grudges against them. It’s a cycle. In fact, one day when your own brother was 5 and in kindergarten, he came home upset and was trying to wash the brown off his skin because another kid laughed at him and called him a ‘dirty Indian who needed to clean the dirt off of his skin.'”
I don’t want to do that.
Her big brother is now 12 and is a happy-go-lucky kid who’s always laughing and joking and loves to be the center of attention. I’m certain that incident is now far back in his mind and he’s probably long forgiven his classmate’s ignorance—likely picked up from his parents. But one day that ugly incident will rise to the forefront of his mind again.
Perhaps it will happen when he reads some Facebook comment on a random article about a fellow Crow tribal member—similar to what other Natives had to put up with when it was recently announced that a Billings school was being named after World War II hero Joe Medicine Crow.
Many people claimed they weren’t against the name but against the way school district authorities ignored public sentiment. This was true. However, underneath the debate—as with nearly any item dealing with Natives in the local news—other petty feelings regarding Natives boiled to the surface.
A middle-aged, self-described “conservative” female commenter wrote illogically (with a couple of dozen “likes,” of course) something along the lines that the lazy Indians already had enough handouts and monthly government checks, so they didn’t need a school named after an Indian—unless it was on the reservation where they live.
It must be noted that my daughter and her big brother come from a Crow family of some of the hardest-working people I know, and Billings is an area where the Crow have lived for centuries. In fact, the great Chief Plenty Coups was born in the Billing area—they called this area The Cliffs With No Name—and he was a staunch advocate for Natives getting their education.
Racism stems from ignorance, and because we fear what we don’t know, many people on both sides of the divide remain at arm’s length, and we all continue to remain suspicious. Whites telling Indians that they need to “get over the past” isn’t going to work either.
At the same time, my daughter or her brother shouldn’t be told—by me or anyone else— “Well, it is what it is,” which would only serve to pass that narrative tradition on indefinitely. To move forward, we must drag out historical facts and even personal experiences about how these attitudes came to be.
We need to air our differences of opinion in an open manner and not be afraid to confront dormant prejudices always waiting like a smoldering ember, ready to reignite hostile feelings at the slightest provocation. That could lead us right back to where we were decades and even centuries ago during the Indian Wars.
And although we by no means will assume to have all the answers at this Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium, I hope just hashing out these issues truthfully and always with an eye on creating solutions will be the beginning of a continuing positive discussion, one I hope our young people will carry on.
So, with a humble heart I invite you to this event, so we can say with sincerity that we at least tried to make it a better future for all the children in our community. Much obliged, and I hope to see you there.
Adrian L. Jawort is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who grew up in Lockwood. A Northern Cheyenne, he’s lived on various Indian reservations and is the founder of Off the Pass Press LLC, which “aims to find true beauty in literature off the beaten path.” He curated “Off the Path Vol. 1,” an anthology featuring Montana American Indian writers.