Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Your Words Indict Thee
“Ten little, nine little, eight little Indians; Seven little, six little, five little Indians; Four little, three little, two little Indians; One little Indian boy.” The lyrics of this children’s folk song were rewritten as a ten-couplet minstrel song by Septimus Winner in 1868, the year of the second Fort Laramie Treaty between the Oceti Sakowin Confederacy and the United States of America.
Winner’s song, titled “Ten Little Injuns,” opens with this couplet: “Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line, One toddled home and then there were nine;” the following nine couplets are increasingly racist, ending with: “One little Injun livin’ all alone, He got married and then there were none.”
This horrific story is a classic example of the many songs and chants and sayings used be even well-meaning persons to stereotype citizens of American Indian nations. Let’s explore this assertion by critically reading the first couplet: “Ten little Injuns standin’ in a line, One toddled home and then there were nine.”
One malignant stereotype of American Indians today is that they are childish, that they are “little” like toddlers and therefore immature in language (“Injun” instead of “Indian”). Their immaturity, according to the stereotype, is also evident in their juvenile behavior (“toddling”) and uneducated thinking.
This stereotype of American Indians being childish is evident when comparing interactions between White authority figures and American Indians with how parents treat their children. For instance, after NDN Collective, an indigenous rights organization in Rapid City, helped organize a peaceful protest during the July 3, 2020, visit of President Trump to Mt. Rushmore that led to the arrest of the organization’s president and 20 others, an upset Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom denounced the organization in a press release: “they have no credibility with our office concerning discussions of any future planned protests.” But a few days later, Sheriff Thom, as parents sometimes do, had rethought his original words. In the July 11, 2020 issue of the Rapid City Journal, he is quoted as saying that he was “willing to rebuild trust” with the protesters.
Parents sometimes use threats to make their children change their behavior. This strategy was evident in South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s reaction to the checkpoints that the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe had established at their reservation boundaries in an effort to protect their residents from COVID-19 infection. According to a May 8, 2020, press release from the South Dakota Governor’s Office, the governor had sent letters that afternoon “demanding that checkpoints be removed from State and US Highways,” and had declared that “if the checkpoints are not removed within the next 48 hours, the State will take necessary legal action.” The tribes refused the demand, and on May 20, 2020, the governor sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him “for immediate federal assistance to bring a prompt end to these unlawful tribal checkpoints/blockades on US/State highways.” As of July 25, 2020, the checkpoints are still in place.
The “Indians are childish” stereotype also is evident when White Americans act unilaterally toward American Indians and Indian tribes. Just as parents have to make many tough decisions for their children, White Americans often feel that they have to make difficult decisions for American Indians. Take for instance the call by Neal Tapio, 2018 Republican candidate for South Dakota’s U.S. House of Representatives, to abolish American Indian reservations. At the time, he was a state senator from Watertown and “had not spoken with tribal representatives about his proposal,” according to a May 31, 2018, Sioux Falls Argus Leader article.
The Bennett County Commissioners also see no need to consult with the Oglala Sioux Tribe or its land-owning citizens regarding the county’s absurd demand for $1 million from the federal government for expenses related to Oglala Sioux lands within the county. The county has no jurisdiction over tribal lands and therefore incurs no expenses pertaining to those lands. In a county where 60% of the residents are American Indians, none of the commissioners are tribal citizens. Yet when asked what they would do with the money if their illogical demand was agreed to, the commissioners said they would lower the property taxes on non-Indian land in the county. So even though all of the money would be derived from tribal land, none of the land owners would be at the table deciding how to spend the money and none of the money would be reinvested in the tribal land, the owners of the land, the citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or the tribe itself.
Acting on their stereotypical and racist assumption that American Indians are immature, the Bennett County Commissioners and Neal Tapio demonstrate that they, as White Americans, are entitled to make decisions regarding Indian lands without consulting with the owners of that land.
This “White privilege” by the Bennett County Commissioners reaches a racist zenith when they and the South Dakota Assistant Attorney General argue that a tribal citizen cannot be objective when deciding an issue regarding tribal land. In an April 12, 2011, letter from South Dakota Assistant Attorney General John Guhin to Bennett County State’s Attorney Gay Tollefson regarding a request by the Oglala Sioux Tribe to the Bureau of Indian Affairs “to take 5 acres of church property into [Indian] trust” status and therefore out of county control, Guhin repeats the county’s racist argument:
“As you recall, we submitted a substantial opposition to a Bennett County land in trust application on January 27, 2010... One of the attacks we made in that opposition was that the Superintendent [of the Bureau of Indian Affairs], being a member of the tribe, could not act on applications from his own tribe.”
What the state of South Dakota and the Bennett County Commissioners are arguing is that American Indians are incapable of unbiased thinking, whereas White Americans, who are more sophisticated and intellectually advanced, alone can objectively and fairly make decisions regarding Indian land.
Their racist words and actions are unconscionable.
So join in Folks, let’s count out systemic racism in South Dakota: Ten racist, nine racist, eight racist cases; Seven racist, six racist, five racist cases; Four racist, three racist, two racist cases; Its time for racism to end!
(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)