“No good deed goes unpunished.”
Clare Boothe Luce
I was just a little kid, but I remember when my grandpa wrote a book called “The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It.” I remember looking out the window of our trailer over at my grandpa and grandma’s trailer as my uncle helped him load his and my grandma’s suitcase. I remember my smiling sisters throwing their bags into the trunk of my grandpa’s little Ford Escort—my beautiful little grandma Rose in the passenger seat—and me crying because my playmates/heroes were going to be gone for some time (my grandpa didn’t want to take me because, rumor was, that I was an especially rotten kid).
That book was a big deal, and it seemed like our people were proud of it. It came from the pen/typewriter of a Native man—a Blackfeet man—who wanted to see our stories told forever. The Native man was uneducated. He ran away from boarding school in sixth grade, therefore the grammar was imperfect and sentence structure left much to be desired, admittedly. Still, he was wise in Blackfeet traditional ways and he also understood certain things about human nature. That is, he knew that our Native ways—like all ways—will inevitably change, and that if young Natives are going to acquire the knowledge from our elders, the elders are going to have to employ different means of teaching. In fact, my grandpa wrote that the reason he wrote this book is because:
“All history the Native learns by heart, and must pass it on to the little ones as they grow up…It’s these days that the younger generation of every nationality do not have ears for such things. These young people are just too busy being smarties, radical, militant, with no respect for their elders. They do not want to listen to anyone except themselves…From all of this, our oral prehistory of us Natives is dying away and being forgotten.”
I think that history shows that my grandpa (and many other elders) was right. Now, many tribes preserve their languages by CD-ROMs and DVDs. Native languages are taught on-line. Although he was not a great writer and his plan was not perfect, my grandpa took the initiative to do, in his opinion, the right thing.
And he was punished for it.
Now don’t get me wrong, to this day, thankfully, many people still speak about my grandpa with respect and some even with reverence. But there was a substantial minority of people, a very vocal minority, who made their displeasure known. This vocal minority did not like the fact that my grandpa put our Creation stories and language into print so that all nationalities could see. I remember uncomfortable talks, conversations and whispers that said “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.”
The criticisms hurt my grandpa deeply. He knew that he wasn’t above reproach. Heck, he expected criticism where he didn’t tell the story as well as he could have, or where he used bad grammar. That was fair game. But to question his intent or motivations seemed unfair; after all, he thought that he was doing this for our people. And frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves.
It seemed like he deserved better than that.
Now, I am not a little kid anymore but I see that the same very vocal minority wants to punish every good deed in Indian Country. I paid close attention to the Elouise Cobell litigation and settlement and am amazed at the meanness and anger of the comments directed at her. Like my grandpa, she recognized that there was a need; she recognized that the U.S. took advantage of Natives for a long time and was not making any effort to make things right. Therefore, she proactively took steps to fix that situation—to right wrongs and address problems. Seems like a good thing.
Still, were her efforts perfect?
Not by a long-shot. I’m sure that if one was to ask Ms. Cobell, she would tell you that there were things—legally, administratively, and personally—that she and her team could have done better. She, like my grandpa, is not above reproach, and we should always think critically about our leadership. In fact, I’ll bet that she can probably point to a million mistakes that we’ve missed and don’t see, but she sees because she’s been looking over these documents for many years. My guess is that she’s probably her worst critic about this lawsuit and welcomes legal and administrative criticisms.
Still, it seems somewhat cowardly when people charge Elouise with the same criticisms that my grandpa faced: “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor,” “colluder.” She deserves better than that. For example, suggesting that Miss Cobell colluded with the government is silly and should be insulting to our collective intelligence. In the Cobell litigation, federal officials working on behalf of the government were charged with contempt of court twice for not producing documents that would help paint a clearer picture of the mismanagement. I think—not being an insider on the proceedings myself—that the government utilized every single procedural mechanism not to allow a settlement to happen.
But somehow she was working with the government?
In my estimation, this Native woman is a hero, a warrior. She is a hero because she was willing to do something that nobody else was willing to do—man or woman, Native or non-Native. She was willing to take initiative and take tiny, frustrating steps to actually solve a problem while most of us were just complaining. She is a warrior because she put her words into action, when most of us were content with just words; I mean, really—if she hasn’t brought this lawsuit, would anybody else have? I doubt it.
She’s a warrior.
We need to protect our heroes and encourage our warriors to take bold steps to help our people, like protecting our traditions or bringing lawsuits against the government. And while “protecting our heroes” does not mean that we shouldn’t critique them—they need to be questioned just like anyone else—those criticisms and questions should be “within family”–not in mainstream publications and in front of TV cameras. In short, we must not allow this small and very vocal minority to shoot down our Native warriors publicly. Moreover, while questioning the work and methods of our heroes is fair game, it seems somewhat cowardly to assault our own warriors’ integrity and question their honesty simply because we disagree with their work.
If we do not protect our heroes, at some point the small and very vocal minority is going to create a situation where no Native wants to take initiative to help our people. In that situation, no Native will want to be a warrior because they understand that no good deed goes unpunished and everyone only pays attention to the flaws. Pretty soon, the only do-gooders will be white folks and non-Natives who want to “save” us. At that time, all of Native peoples’ most noble will be in corporations quietly achieving success without the stress and disrespect of constantly pointed fingers. Whether we agree or disagree with our warriors’ battles, in my humble estimation, we need to support our warriors and our heroes, like Elouise Cobell. We need to ensure that that all parties—Natives, non-Natives, and the mainstream media—know that we truly appreciate the efforts of our warriors and, although we might disagree with them, we will not tolerate personal attacks against our warriors.