“When I started telling people in Amherst that I was Native American, their most common response was ‘Wow, that’s really cool!’”
This was one of the more striking statements made by Caleb Williams, who was the speaker at the most recent Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series. And the striking thing about it was the expression on his face when he said it. It was clearly not the reaction he is accustomed to getting when he talks about his heritage.
Caleb was the valedictorian at Billings West High School this year, and he has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to Amherst College, where he plans to study pre-med. His accomplishments would be impressive for any young man of his age, but what makes his story unique were the obstacles he had to overcome to get to this point. Unlike some Native Americans, or teenagers from any race who grew up in difficult circumstances, the obstacles in Caleb’s life were often subtle, more persistent than dramatic.
When he was in fourth grade, his teacher suggested one day that all the kids make the “Indian noise,” where they repeated “woo-woo” over and over while slapping their palms against their lips. Caleb remembers being very confused about this suggestion.
“We’d never done that in my house, so I wasn’t sure why he called it the Indian noise,” he says.
Law enforcement on the rez
The next installment of the Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series will start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 14, in the Royal Johnson Community Room of the Billings Public Library. Carolyn Pease-Lopez and John Robinson will talk about law enforcement on indian reservations.
Later that year, the same teacher would inform the class that there was nobody left who spoke the languages of any of the Native American tribes. Caleb raised his hand and protested this claim, but the teacher would not budge.
Caleb was mostly raised by his grandmother, a proud, accomplished woman who now works in the admissions department for City College at MSU Billings. When he told her what the teacher had said, she was prepared to confront him and give him a piece of her mind. Instead, Caleb made arrangements, without her knowledge, to bring his grandfather to class. His grandfather stood in front of the class and spoke his native language.
Caleb’s father was out of his life early on, and his mother was a substance abuser, so he was often left to deal with these kinds of encounters without counsel, which is the most heartbreaking part of his story.
Although it’s clear that his grandmother provided the kind of steady presence and support that a kid needs, Caleb talks openly about the constant reminders that he was never going to be fully accepted among the white crowd. And because he did well in school, he was also never quite accepted among most of his fellow natives, either. He heard the usual accusations of thinking he was too good for them, that he was an apple—red on the outside, white on the inside.
This is what is most important to me about Caleb’s introduction to his future home in Amherst. It’s hard to imagine that he has ever had a single encounter with anyone here in his home state where someone expressed such admiration for the fact that he’s Native American.
It reminds me of a story my friend Adrian Jawort tells about being in Rome and having a bartender try to speak Spanish to him.
“My friend told him I wasn’t Spanish, that I was Native American,” Adrian says. “So this guy looks at me and says, ‘Really? What tribe?’ So I told him Cheyenne, and he really surprised me then. He asked, ‘Northern or Southern Cheyenne?’ That guy cleared off the whole table and said ‘Drinks are on the house tonight.’ He knew more about Native American culture than most of the people I’ve met in Montana.”
I was recently watching a documentary about the Civil War, and one of the talking heads was explaining how it was possible for those revered Founding Fathers to have such a blind spot about slavery during the writing of our nation’s Constitution. The fact that they were able to write so eloquently about all men being equal in the Declaration of Independence, while at the same time making it clear that these conditions were never going to apply to slaves, was possible because the people of that time honestly believed that African Americans were inferior.
They were basically in the same category as any other commodity, like farm animals. So there was no hypocrisy in their minds, although many of them clearly felt differently deep down.
To me, this is one of the most obvious oversights in our view of the Native American population. Patricia Limerick, in her book “The Legacy of Conquest,” points out that because the North won the war, America was forced to face the truth about slavery, and simultaneously, about African Americans.
So there has been a forward motion in the narrative for black Americans. We can argue for hours about the level of progress in that arena, but one only has to look at the White House to see that progress has been made. The idea of an African American in that office would have been inconceivable to the Founding Fathers.
Today, the idea of a Native American in that office is still inconceivable, and according to Limerick, part of the reason for this is that the narrative about Native Americans ended with the Indian Removal Act. The intent of that piece of legislation was to rid our country of these people. And we almost accomplished that. I would argue that the intent is still there, because we have never been forced in the same way we were with black Americans to acknowledge that Native Americans matter, that they deserve to be treated as equals.
In this month when we celebrate our national independence, it might be worth considering that there are still people among us who aren’t enjoying that same luxury.
For a year now, Adrian Jawort and I have been hosting a monthly lecture series to try to bring this issue and others surrounding the Native American population to the attention of the community. We have been fortunate to have hosted some wonderful speakers, the most recent of whom was Caleb Williams.
Our intention for this series, which we have called The Native American Race Relations and Healing Lecture Series, is not only to focus on the things that are wrong, but to encourage people to help us come up with solutions. Native Americans who look at the plight of their people honestly will admit that things are bad, and that many of the problems have become self-perpetuating.
The constant presence of drugs and alcohol abuse, crime and child abuse have created an atmosphere of self-destructiveness that is hard to overcome. But a large segment of this population is working very hard to change not only the culture, but the perceptions.
And they need our help. That’s why it’s been such an absolute pleasure to work with them. Because they have suffered long enough.