©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh
See also, Immigrants in the New America
Here is a true story that emphasizes the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism. An English for Speakers of Other Languages tutor for the School District of Philadelphia recently told me about helping a Haitian-American fourth grader write a book report. The student had been asked to report on a book about an American "minority achiever." Our Haitian-American chose a biography of Crazy Horse, the revered Sioux chief.
Remembering it was Crazy Horse who lead the annihilation of Custer's command in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the tutor helped the Haitian-American youngster with amused interest. She doubted that the Custer Massacre was the sort of "minority achievement" the teacher making the assignment had in mind.
The book report format required the student to describe what accomplishments caused her to select her particular "minority achiever." So the tutor asked her charge, "What did Crazy Horse accomplish that you particularly admire?" The young lady explained in labored English that Crazy Horse first distinguished himself in battle against other Indians. Here his bravery had been so reckless that his original name, "His Looking Horse," had been honorifically changed to "Crazy Horse." But what the girl most admired was how Crazy Horse led his people in resisting white encroachment in the mineral-rich Black Hills, a region the Sioux regarded as sacred and which a solemn treaty (1868) promised to them "...for as long as grass should grow and water flow." That promise, the girl pointed out, was made before the discovery of the "...yellow metal that makes the Wasichus [white man] crazy."
The Haitian-American youngster did not assign great importance to the fact that Crazy Horse joined Sitting Bull in annihilating Custer's command (1876). Custer, she seemed to think, simply had it coming. She also did not emphasize how the great Chief was subsequently stabbed to death in an attempt to "escape" from prison. Her interest centered on Crazy Horse's brave but futile struggle to defend his people's way of life.
The book report also required the student to imagine she could set down with the "minority achiever" and ask any question she liked. So the tutor asked the young Haitian-American, "What would you ask Crazy Horse if you could sit with him here today?" The young lady replied that she would like to ask him why, before the arrival of the white man, he had fought and killed other Indians?
Crazy Horse would have had no better answer for that question than Custer. It was the death of other Native-Americans at his hands that secured Crazy Horse's reputation and advancement. And reputation and advancement were also Custer's objectives when he set out to "pacify" the Lakota. Likewise, the Lakota competed with other tribes for buffalo. They coveted and stole their horses and women too. Whites also competed (more successfully) for the buffalo. And, while they may have placed a lower priority than the Lakota on horses and women, coveted and stole Black Hills gold.
Black Elk noted, "Our people knew there was yellow metal in little chunks up there; but did not bother with it, because it was not good for anything." But had native americans thought it was good for something, they would have competed for it just as ruthlessly as European-Americans. In short, there was little qualitative difference between intertribal competition and Native-American/European-American competition.
The peculiar trouble the Lakota's had with whites was the result of a quantitative difference in the competition. Whites were simply many times more ruthlessly efficient than the Lakota's Native-American rivals. That is how we were able to build our nation on their land.
Sadly, we did not even have the decency to grant Native-Americans citizenship until 1926. Moreover, we are neither in the mood nor the position to give back their land. Black Elk observed that "My people's dream died in bloody snow." (He was referring to the U.S. Army's final and particularly repellent massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee.) And no matter how much our schools celebrate the way of life of the noble red man, we are still the ones who killed that dream in order to realize ours. This limit on our multi-culturalism, and it is only one of many such limits, is what our brand new American stumbled across while doing her book report.
Still, the chief advantage of multi-culturalism is that there is so very much we can learn from one another. And despite the fact that our nation killed their dream, Native-Americans have much to teach us. (And much to learn from us too.) For instance, they have always better understood humanity's dependence on the earth. Black Elk asks, "Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things ... their children?" He then observes, "...[the earth] is from whence we came and at whose breast we suck as babies all our lives." This truth may be rooted in a Native-American culture, but every culture must understand it or perish.
Much essentially superficial obeisance is now paid to the need for "multi-culturalism" in the school curriculum. How else, ask the advocates, can educators promote a sense of empowerment and worth in all Americans? How else can they truly engage the many communities they serve? How else can they run schools that are strong and accountable community institutions?
Given a commitment to Constitutional democracy and belief in the inherent worth of the individual, educators do have to struggle to understand, and value the growing heterogeneity of the United States. But this comprehension and valuing cannot change the fact that our very nation is built on purloined land and murdered dreams. Pious slogans, demands for "political correctness," and the mewings of mere opportunists obscure this and similar limits on "multi-culturalism." But the limits still are there, right alongside the possibilities, "...for as long as grass should grow and water flow.".TO TOP