‘Why Do You Indians Always Live in the Past?’

by Mike Taylor

So, I recently took down my Facebook page. About a third of my many friends were Indians from various reservations around me; most of these had never gotten past their GED. The rest were white Mormons and white non-Mormons from Utah. This was an educated group and also a rather vocal one, constantly expressing their opinions on my Facebook wall and debating/arguing with other posters like themselves. The Indians, on the other hand, sent me frequent private messages, jokes and invites to join them for various parties, dinners and events on the rez but rarely posted publicly on my wall, although most of them keenly followed what one of them called the “white discussions.”

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One day, one of my Facebook friends ran into me on campus. He asked me, “Why do you always live in the past?” I didn’t pay much attention to his question back then but remembered not arguing with him or his very strong Mormon beliefs about why Indian languages need to die out and the Mormon placement program. The same evening, another friend ran into me when I was riding a horse. She asked me the very same question and she wasn’t Mormon. The same evening, I put up an informal poll on Facebook and, without exception, all whites who responded agreed that I “always lived in the past.” They also seemed rather angry, upset and resentful about it. They said things like, “Get over your past!” I tried to get to the bottom of their resentment by asking questions such as, “But don’t you remember 9/11 every year?” or “Should Jews also forget about their near extermination in concentration camps?”

Their responses, the contradictory feelings they expressed, and the very ambiguity in their responses made me sit up and analyze my posts over the two-year duration of my Facebook. Less than 10 percent of my posts dealt with tribal issues; these were mainly news items neglected by the mainstream media that I didn’t want my Indian friends to miss. Another 5 percent of my posts were announcements of upcoming events like the Circle Dance, a powwow in a town an hour away, an Indian health fair, announcements of language and culture classes, the free medical clinic, personal updates like my adventures in Australia, etc. But the bulk of my posts, over 85%, talked about issues that were of interest to the educated white audience. I talked about game theory, happiness research, genomics, the new MCAT, exchange-traded funds, cancer detection by canines, research by a physicist that showed how racial profiling to limit terror attacks is mathematically flawed, compassion fatigue in physicians, artificial intelligence in medicine, new open courseware by MIT, research on the neurogenics of niceness, and other very contemporary topics. So what really bothered my white friends on Facebook? In my case, in-depth, in-person discussions with my buddies revealed that the 10 percent content that related to news articles from Indian media was what bothered them and led to their distorted perception. Even though over 85 percent of my Facebook content dealt with very contemporary issues, I was perceived as “living in the past.”

Which brings me to the question: Why do we Indians always hear that we live in the past when we don’t? Why are we always told to “get over the past?” The real reason is that Indian discussions serve as an unpleasant reminder to whites that this country is not theirs. Indeed, our very existence serves to reiterate to them that Turtle Island is not their land. Indian news articles from ICTMN and other sources are unpleasant to them because on a subconscious level they realize that they are as much aliens on this land as newly-arrived Arabs or the illegal Mexicans they despise so much. Our stories send home a message to them that their ancestors committed a holocaust against Indians and nearly exterminated us. When we speak about our dying languages, our high rates of diabetes and cancers, alcoholism or the poverty on our reservations, it reiterates to them that this country was built on deceit and lies and their ancestors did something horribly wrong. Our values tell them that their way of life—with the environmental destruction, the divorces, the crime, the wars, deteriorating family values, etc.—is going horribly South. The very fact that you and I are alive and that there are still “full bloods” around undermines the white sense of legitimacy and ownership of America. So my friends, don’t let it bother you when people tell you to “stop living in the past” and to “get over the past.” It is just another of those issues mainstream America needs to get over and resolve in their own minds.

*note: This article originally appeared on the Indian Country Today Media Network, a website dedicated to strengthening media for all Native Americans and indigenous peoples that also published an award-winning weekly national newspaper. The original can be found here.