A Matter of Perspective – The Overton Window, Reservation Life and a Chain of Sorrow

( – promoted by navajo)

I’m not a Native American. I did not grow up on a Reservation. For the longest time, I had only been dimly aware of the extent and level to which Native Americans have been exploited, abused, repressed & discriminated against.

Even now, my awareness likely only begins to scratch the surface, and yet what I’ve learned over the past few years has brought anger, grief & frustration as my awareness of both past and present bureaucratic b.s. and institutionalized standards of cultural genocide has grown.

Recently, NPR put out a 3 part series called Native Survivors of Foster Care Return Home. (You can watch all three which are linked in the title.) Not too long ago, Metro Times posted a story called Chain of Sorrow that also speaks of the impact and legacy of Indian Boarding Schools.It’s a legacy of pain and sorrow that our nation should be ashamed of.

While reading the latter piece, a paragraph jumped out at me which can be read more than one way. The first way it occurred to me is likely due to my less-informed perspective – but, because of that, it may also be a reflection of a more wide-spread misunderstanding.

Here’s the paragraph, with the emphasis on the phrase that stuck out for me:

“It wasn’t just the boarding schools that brought this about. From the time Columbus landed in the New World, the assault on Indians, their culture and their religious ways has been relentless. Their sacred lands taken, the people murdered, the women raped and, at times, subjected to forced sterilizations, the deprivation of reservation life, the scourge of alcohol – all these had combined to cause his people to lose so much.”

[More below]

When I first read the paragraph, it didn’t sit right – I couldn’t understand what was meant by “the deprivation of reservation life” – it first processed in my mind as “children removed from the rez would be deprived of the quality of life on the rez”…which, in the article, was cited as being the reason ~why~ some parents let their children be taken in first place. So, my initial reaction/interpretation was – I hope – incorrect. It wasn’t that a child was being deprived of life among their people on the reservation – it was the fact that conditions on the reservation itself were usually harsh and oppressive, becoming yet another aspect of the type of harm done to Native Americans as part of an ongoing (if not always externally recognized) way to continue the same cultural genocide that had begun so many years before.

In either interpretation, however, the paragraph itself was both damning and dismal.

What dismayed me and prompted me to write this article was the thought that immediately followed: what if my first reading of the phrase was the intended interpretation?

That would be pretty sad – for it would present an unchallenged view of the reservation as false equivalent of a way to preserve cultures and traditions.

Sure, there is some of that in reservation life – but, for peoples who were forcibly relocated to unwanted expanses of real estate and who previously harbored little concept of “personal property” the way the settlers conceived of it – how much of their cultural heritage was already compromised? And how much was destroyed in the process of “re-settling” them, or in the subsequent efforts to get them to conform & integrate?

It may be the only current place where the traditions are able to be upheld, but if the belief that it’s “good” (versus a way to avoid total cultural extinction) is prevalent, then efforts to improve any relations or conditions are doomed…if not to failure, then to any sort of substantial reform without an awful lot of effort.

Efforts to undo (and prevent further) the whitewashing of our national history with regard to the treatment of Native Americans already have a tough row to hoe. If perspectives – and the associated Overton Window that helps frame them – are still predominantly akin to what my first reading of that paragraph came away with, then there’s a very long way to go before beneficial change (for Native Americans, in their perspective) can occur.

A parting thought, also from the Metro Times piece:

“The realization of just how much was stolen from these people begins to set in. It wasn’t just their land, or even their way of life. What was taken was their sense of self, leaving them spiritually wounded.

And it was done, in no small part, by taking their children.”

Help spread the word & increase awareness: share the links to the Metro Times & NPR pieces. And share a link to Native American Netroots, too: there, people can find a great deal of information – both historical and current – about cultures, customs and ongoing issues.

Thank you.

How did you interpret that line in the selected paragraph?

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Growing Up Indian


photo credit: Aaron Huey

The Argus Leader has an important and informative series on what it’s like to grow up Indian in South Dakota, on or off the reservations. The decades of multi-generational trauma and resulting pervasive poverty have taken their toll on our tribes whether they are fighting to maintain their traditional cultures or if they are trying to survive being assimilated into white man’s society.

ACTION: You can help by reading and using the multi-media parts of the series to understand a little of what it’s like to be young and trying to survive against all odds. Your knowledge can help us because we need your influence with policy makers and other leaders/organizers in your state.  

Excerpts and all linkage below:


The inception of the series started in 2008 when reporter Steve Young [Huron Nation] was working on stories about suicide on South Dakota’s Indian Reservations. It was pointed out to him that most white Americans don’t know about the difficult life on our reservations. This series introduces you to several young individuals and their stories.

The youth interviews are often painful to watch but there are also glimmers of hope, hope that maybe something fortunate will happen in these young lives that will help them survive to find a good life and grow old with dignity.

Start here for an overview of the articles with links to video and photographs.

Below are excerpts from the currently published stories:

Little Neleigh

Neleigh Driving Hawk is 3 years old and full of the innocence and beauty of childhood. She likes to ride her tiny bicycle on the ragged streets of the Lower Brule Reservation. But all around her are examples of what her life may one day be.


Surviving birth

In many ways, Neleigh is lucky. She’s lived three years in a world where children die in birth or in the first few weeks of life at rates well beyond the rest of South Dakota. More…

The early years

The long-term effects of women drinking and taking drugs while pregnant evident across Indian Country, in the faces and the scars of small children starting life with damaged brains and bodies.


Pre-teen guidance

Children in the critical pre-teen stage begin to look around them and understand their world. For Indian children that may be a life void of adults who can show them the right way to live.


The thoughts of suicide

Physical maturity brings a new reality for Indian children in South Dakota. It too often is a period confronting sexual assault, gangs and violence that contribute to the near epidemic rates of suicide.


Teens and violence

The gang culture – initiation, manipulation, drugs, assault and even murder – finds fertile grounds in a place where the family structure is ripped apart and hopelessness reigns. And it’s become a way of life in many parts of Indian Country.


The fleeting promise of education

Only about one in four Indian students graduate high school in South Dakota. But it’s that possibility of graduation and what may possibly lie ahead that drives the ambitious young people on the reservations.


Autumn and the precious few

For all the despair and impossible odds, there is hope. There are successes. Autumn White Eyes graduated from high school and drove away from the Pine Ridge Reservation this fall headed for a future that seems almost unimaginable given what she’s experienced growing up.


Photographer: Devin Wagner

The series runs a few more days so check the Argus for more.

Please share this series with your friends and family.



My past related diaries:

Pine Ridge: American Prisoner of War Camp #334

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing re: Youth Suicide

Hope and Opportunity on Pine Ridge Rez

Revealing Pine Ridge Rez Demographic Information

Please Continue Your Support of South Dakota Reservations