By AUDREY FISCHER
Tribal leader Ron His Horse Is Thunder would prefer that Native American culture be respected, portrayed accurately in the media and studied in schools rather than be commemorated each November.
"The theme for this year's Native American Heritage Month is 'One Person, a Diversity of Culture,'" said the tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In his keynote address for the Library's celebration of Native American Heritage Month, he noted that in the theme the word "culture" is singular, not plural, and he questioned the belief that Americans "are one people" with one culture.
"America is supposed to be a melting pot, but ideas clash," he said. "We are not one people. Native Americans are not part of America's culture. We have a separate culture, as do many Americans."
"Diversity" and "inclusion" are other concepts that the speaker said he finds problematic. "America has taken great pains to promote diversity and has passed many laws of inclusion. But it will take generations to change attitudes before inclusion is to be had," he said.
He cited the civil-rights movement as a case in point. "Things have improved, but racism still exists," he said.
Racism and stereotyping are something he knows a lot about, both as the great-great-great-grandson of Chief Sitting Bull and the son of one of the "Greensboro Four," who, during the 1960s, protested the refusal to serve African-Americans at a Woolworth's lunch counter in North Carolina.
"Native American Heritage Month is supposed to honor us, but it is America's view of who we are and who we were," His Horse is Thunder said.
Citing sports mascots, such as the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins, and an image of a scantily-clad Pocahontas, he said, "The images are distorted and not respectful. They reinforce the idea that we are a second-class people."
To prove his point, he mentioned images used to portray other minorities, such as Aunt Jemima on syrup labels and the Frito Bandito character that was used to sell corn chips. "The image of Aunt Jemima today is a beautiful, black woman. But at one time, the image was of a slave, and that's the image that people over a certain age still recall."
He attributed "the buying power of Hispanic people" to the company's decision to stop using the Frito Bandito image.
"These images will never allow us to become part of the culture of America. These historically inaccurate images limit our self-esteem and have damaging psychological effects," he said, noting a high suicide rate among members of the Sioux nation.
According to His Horse Is Thunder, Native Americans are depicted stereotypically as good fighters, warriors with feathers who live in teepees and hunters who gather food from the land.
"America has this romance with Native American people and the way we were," he said. "They do not let us come forward into contemporary America. They don't tell you about our great contributions in science, math, business, engineering and astronomy. We charted the position of the stars 10,000 years ago. We didn't just pick food, we cultivated the land through science. We developed 500 varieties of potatoes, which are the staple of the world's diet."
His Horse Is Thunder personifies his statement that "contemporary Native Americans hold diverse jobs." He has worked as an attorney, grants evaluator and college president (Sitting Bull College). He has served on the board of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and in 2002 he was appointed by President George W. Bush as chairman of the President's Board of Advisers on Tribal Colleges and Universities.
He recalled learning about African-American history while attending a middle school in Harlem. The faculty and administrators reflected the demography of the student population, which was predominantly African-American.
"The history of many cultures and civilizations—not just European history—should be taught in all classrooms," he said. "At that time maybe we will truly become one culture."