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'I Learned Very Quickly That It's Not Nice To Be an Indian'

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For Albert White Hat, the 1960's were a time of spiritual rebirth, an era when the combined impact of the civil-rights movement and a growing national acceptance of diversity made it, for the first time, all right to be himself.

Much of his life until then, the South Dakota college professor says, had been spent in an education system intent on changing him.

In the 1960's, after a series of odd jobs, a divorce, and a six-month drinking spree, he began to seek out his roots. He re-established contact with some of the storytellers he remembered from firelit nights in his childhood. And he talked with tribal elders about the traditions that bound him to previous generations.

"As I learned more of the history and culture," he says, "I began to feel good about myself. As I re-learned my language, I began to understand English better. As I went to Indian ceremonies and began to understand Indian spirituality, the Christian religion became clearer. I could understand those things in my own thought patterns."

In the 1940's and 50's, when Mr. White Hat was growing up on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation, few schools would acknowledge--let alone validate--their students' Indian heritage.

His Sioux family spoke the Lakota language and lived in a tent, traveling from place to place throughout much of the year for farm work, but settling in for the winter next to a school operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Mr. White Hat says he remembers little he learned at that school, except that "our first teacher was quite a piano player, so we sang a lot."

But the teacher did not speak his language. "Most of us had no idea what she was saying or even what we were singing," he recalls. "I think they were patriotic songs."

At 16, he was placed in a Jesuit boarding school, where the teachers actively discouraged the use of Lakota, and his Indian peers more proficient in English laughed at him for the way he spoke and his "Indian-ness."

"I learned very quickly that it's not nice to be an Indian," he says, "so I shut up and observed. I don't know how, but I graduated at 20. I think they just conditioned me to respond."

At the time of his graduation, the federal government was still pursuing an Indian policy known as "termination," which sought to end or curtail much of the federal responsibility for overseeing tribal areas, and to relocate those living on reservations to urban areas. As part of this program, Mr. White Hat moved to Dallas to study to be an X-ray technician. The episode, he says, was "a terrifying experience."

"I wanted to be alone. I hated my existence. If I could have erased the color of my skin, I would have."

After two months, he left the vocational school to take what menial work he could find. Eventually, he made it back to the reservation--and to a spiral of despair. "I was really lost," he says simply. "I was looking for some spirituality."

After he had uncovered that spirituality in the lost heritage of his youth, he went back to school, taking courses at the newly opened Sinte Gleska College, a tribally run institution on the reservation, where he is now a faculty member.

And he became a quiet activist, involving himself in local politics and particularly in efforts to convince school officials that what happened to him should not happen to other Indian students.

"Our people could have mastered education a long time ago," he maintains, "if they'd been allowed to be themselves."

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