top of page

Native America

A long-time friend recently commented after reading our latest newsletter, that I was really doing a lot on reservations these days. She doesn’t know the half of it.

I’ve been working with Native America since my previous life as a documentary producer and script-writer for the National Park Service, Public Television and the tribes themselves.  My ex-husband and business partner is a Cheyenne-River Sioux (Hunkpapa and Miniconjou), but most of our work was on the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation inhabited by the Oglala Lakota band of Sioux – the last proud holdouts in the Indian wars of the late 19th century.

Because of many years of working with several Northern Plains tribes – and learning to maneuver the political minefields inherent in such endeavors – it was natural for me to make comparisons with these more familiar people as we added other Native tribes to our tour experiences. I remain fascinated by these differences, and I’m still adding to my store of knowledge.

The first tribes I studied outside the Northern Plains were the Northwest tribes that Lewis & Clark first met in 1805. But these were not the first whites the tribes had encountered. In fact the Clatsops and Chinooks were skilled traders, and not as gullible as some of the Plains tribes had proved to be earlier on their journey. Lewis’ complaints about their “sharp” bargaining must also be viewed in light of the Corps’ greatly depleted store of trade goods with only half of their journey completed!

Next I learned more about the Pueblo Indians as we developed tours in the Four Corners area. Plains tribes can be either village residents or nomadic, but these peoples of the Southwest were – in many cases – successful farmers tied to a specific location, and in the case of the Navajo, sheep ranchers. This is not to say they didn’t have their trials and tribulations, especially when encountering whites for the first time – but again, they had a much longer history with the whites than did the Northern Plains tribes.

I am still learning about these encounters as I develop El Camino Real from El Paso to Rio Rancho in New Mexico for next spring. (The actual trail started in Mexico City, of course, but in the interest of time and safety we will be starting on this side of the international border). The mix of three cultures in New Mexico has always fascinated me, and I look forward to learning more as I develop this program.

But the biggest eye-opener for me lately has been the Cherokee Nation (Sept. 7-11) which – despite enduring one of the most heinous episodes in American history – the Trail of Tears – is today leap-years ahead of the struggling Sioux on our impoverished South Dakota reservations. They do have the advantage of being located near population centers and their casinos have proved extremely successful, fueling jobs and tourism for the benefit of the tribe. Sad to say, the few tiny casinos on South Dakota reservations are so remotely located that they basically just re-circulate money earned by the few tribal members who have jobs.

Economics aside, I am fascinated by the cultural differences among the Natives I have encountered. The Cherokees use different terminology than I am accustomed to. The tribal leader is the “Principal Chief”, whereas the Sioux counterpart is called the “Tribal Chairman”. I was astounded to learn that the current leader has already served three consecutive two-year terms and when I was there in November, he was expected to win his re-election bid. On Pine Ridge, one tribal chairman has been re-elected since 1934! One! And unfortunately, the turbulence of constantly rotating administrations only exacerbates the 85% unemployment and social problems directly related to poverty in this remote corner of South Dakota.

But I digress.

The Cherokee don’t have reservations per se (though other Oklahoma tribes do), nor do they require a blood quantum for participation in tribal affairs as do most other tribes. Cherokees do not call themselves tribal members, but Cherokee Citizens, a phrase I rather like.

By the way, the infamous Trail of Tears was engineered by President Andrew Jackson. In fact, his order to forcibly evacuate the so-called Five Civilized Tribes from North Carolina to Indian Territory (with a number of detours along the way) was struck down as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Jackson was reputed to have said upon learning of the verdict: “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has rendered his decision; now let him enforce it”. Nearly 4,000 people died on that trail in 1838-39, and there are Native Americans of all nations today who are still so scarred by this cruel episode in their collective history that they refuse to carry twenty dollar bills, featuring the likeness of our seventh president.

One sad conclusion I have made: the United States Government treated all tribes equally unfairly, whether they cooperated, like the Cherokee, or fought to the bitter end, like the Sioux. The journals of Lewis & Clark record the patronizing speeches that Lewis made when encountering the many tribes along the route. In the language of the day he condescendingly called his hosts, “children”, and President Jefferson their new “father”. How much of his meaning actually got through the Corps’ appallingly inadequate translators is questionable, but the Captains usually recorded how well their message had been received.

In actuality, the Natives mostly wanted guns and didn’t much care whether they traded with the British, the Spanish or the new kids on the block (the Americans). And they certainly had no intention of ceasing their constant warfare, which was a treasured way of life. Not until the Euro-Americans disrupted their hunting and raiding lifestyle, did warfare turn particularly nasty.

Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.

bottom of page