Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 27, 2001 - Issue 28



King's Dream Touched Many on Reservations


by Dorreen Yellowbird Grand Forks Herald

I don't remember when I first heard Dr. Martin Luther's King Jr.'s preacher-like voice. I don't remember when I first saw him, with his raised fist, before the television camera. I do remember watching him march arm-in-arm with other civil rights activists. I do remember that he showed up as often in the media as did Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.

What was not evident then is how much he influenced my life and that of Native people. King knocked on our doors, but at the time we didn't know if he was the wolf or the kind farmer.

His world seemed so far away from the reservation.

In many ways, it was our status as landlords that kept us out of the fray. We were shielded by the reservation boundaries. We were shielded by the sometimes 40-below-zero temperatures and blizzards.

We were like a family of eagles in a nest protected in some hidden rocky crag. But these eagles had televisions and newspapers, so we heard his words. It was a matter of relating what was happening with civil rights for black people to what was happening on reservations. We would find it was the same issues with just a different voice and different style.

We saw the war in the big cities. One of the snapshots in my memory is the dark outlines of men and women running in terror against a brightly burning building. The riots and burning buildings were commonplace in the media, too. Most of us on reservations stood back and watched with wonder.

It all seemed like another country from our North Dakota view.

Things began to change in that outside world as King took his civil rights to the kitchen tables around the nation. We took our issues to the kitchen tables in our HUD houses and log cabins. The issues stayed there. Many elders who were still stinging from the rope around their necks that dragged them from their homes into schools to try to change them into white men, wanted their children to have peace. After all, we still had our own land and our ways.

But we were beginning to lose the battle. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies sent us to Dallas, Cleveland, Oakland, Los Angeles and Chicago on "relocation programs." These "relocation programs" were another of those centuries-old policies that set out to assimilate Native people into the white culture. It was, however, those programs that exposed many Native people to King and the civil rights movement.

We began to relate to King's words. Huddled around the kitchen table, Uncle would tell us about his experience in town. His stories usually weren't angry. Maybe there was too much resignation and acceptance, and he took the edge off his anecdote by sanding it with humor. The store detective following him around while he shopped might have just "liked" him, he would say. When he was the last one in the cafe to get waited on, that was "an exercise in patience."

Many people began to understand the game and tried to change with the rules. The more white, the better the treatment, they thought. Many left the reservation and never returned. During those days, some people wouldn't admit they were from the reservation or were Native.

There was a trend to change our names, too. If we had a name that sounded less "Indian," it would be easier to cash a check or even get a loan.

We all stood around one day with my aunt, mother and the teen-agers of the family. My father was at the table finishing his breakfast. We were excited at the prospect of having a new name. Yellow Bird -- hmm, what could we call ourselves? Some of the family liked just dropping the Yellow and using Bird. Others wanted fancier names like Walker or Brown. We were really excited and all prepared to go forward in the community, to be more accepted -- we thought.

My father finished his breakfast and stood up. "My name is Yellow Bird. We are not changing it," he said, as he walked out of the room. We knew from the finality of his voice that that was the end of that discussion.

Years later, I would see his point. I would understand the strength in the our name. I would understand the power of the Grandfathers and Grandmothers. I would feel the support of my relatives who walked on. I would know that he was right.

For his surly stands on cultural issues, he is my hero. For their support, love and understanding, my grandmother, aunts and mothers are my heroes. For knocking on our door and standing tall, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is my hero, too.

Yellow Bird's e-mail ad dress is or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228. She writes columns on Tuesday and Saturday.



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