Native Americans and the struggle for ethnic pride

Chapter 10




It wasn't long till I had so many death threats against me as a result of my photography, which by the way I had tried to conceal, that I decided to move out to the Indians on the outskirts of town, where I stayed with this young Seminole woman.



I felt it was very romantic to live in such palm-leaf huts, but the romance was not destined to last for long.



After just a couple of days, those in town found out where I was and one night someone shouted to me ordering me out of the hut.



I had no choice and stepped right out into the headlights from a pickup truck, from which some men with guns shouted to me in Mexican accents: "You be out of town before sunrise. If not, you will never see another sunrise!"



Then I knew they were deadly serious and the woman did not dare to have me living there any longer, so I slipped out of town like a shadow.



If you're completely alone in the world, you easily fall in love with people who give you warmth and affection.
But just as my infatuations were a product of the violence and strangeness around me, it often seemed as if the act of falling in love itself gave rise to violence.



It seems like you can't find deep human relationships without becoming either victim or executioner.
Mostly I was a victim as I always let myself fall into the arms of people who had a need for me, but since I always tried to go the whole hog, I occasionally crossed the invisible line separating victim from executioner.



The same goes for my privilege as a white: when I stayed with native Americans I could feel so devastated by guilt among these - our pariahs - that it seemed evidence of an imagined executioner role I had to take responsibility for. Such racist guilt prevents many whites from meaningful relationships with the oppressed.



One of the few times I shed my role as vagabond in order to take destiny into my own hands was when I decided to fight together with the Indians at Wounded Knee. (See following story)



What I had already seen of the Indians' conditions had made me disillusioned and depressed. The heavy shadow of tragedy which pervades the Indians was so overwhelming to me that even when we got drunk together the sense of utter hopelessness remained.



Therefore I was disappointed that at the first chance in this century to help Indians fight for their rights, when I had expected to see a mass movement of white youth going to Wounded Knee, it turned out that all their sympathy amounted to nothing more than the empty words of their government's many broken treaties with the Indians.



Later, whenever I lived with Indians, I realized that Wounded Knee had become a symbol of pride for the Indians. It was the start of a strong nationalism for this oppressed minority just as the armed revolt of the blacks in the ghettos had led them into a nationalist movement with black power and black beauty as symbols of pride.



I learned that such a nationalist period, in which all the values of the oppressor culture are rejected, is necessary and inevitable for all who attempt to free themselves from the self-contempt and self-destruction induced by centuries of oppression.



But I also learned that this demonstrative phase is the easiest and that the struggle which comes afterwards is far longer and more difficult - the struggle to create equality in the minds and the hearts of whites as well as of the colored minorities.


Cesar Chavez


I remember how shocked we were in Europe seeing in the news the many attempts to crush Cesar Chavez' efforts to organize the Farm workers Union, and I therefore tried to work with the farm workers wherever I could.



It was in such demonstrations for human rights that young Americans taught me to see the intimate connection between the oppression of American minorities and the oppression of other Third World people.



In our groping efforts to understand the government's ongoing brutality against the poor in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the concept of "the system" began to explain the origin of the suffering we are inflicting. And so the death of 3 million Vietnamese also was that which made me set myself outside the system and begin questioning it.


 Click here to continue this photo essay
here to go to the story about Wounded Knee in my original book