The Play

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of seeing Hamilton on Broadway. Much has been written about the show’s brilliance – the music, the story, the visuals. All of these things are true. As a former history major, though, I found the historical aspect of it most interesting.

The play begins in 1776 as America begins its revolution against the British. From there, it tackles the questions of who had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and who exactly “We, the People” was (along with questions about the structure of the federal government). It also looks at Hamilton’s own personal history. He rises as an immigrant “from the bottom.” He becomes Washington’s right hand man. He writes the Federalist Papers and becomes Secretary of the Treasury. And he has a fall from grace as he becomes embroiled in an extramarital affair and his ideas about the federal government become unpopular.

History during My Travels

This close examination of Hamilton and early America made think of something I heard often on my trip: that people, schools, and our country broadly need to reckon with the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of American history. I was honestly surprised to hear people say this. I assumed that most people – especially of an older generation – would want us to emphasize what makes America the “greatest country on earth.” And there was some of that: people mentioned the unique nature of the Constitution, the American melting pot (our ability to integrate immigrants; of course, the melting pot can also have a negative connotation for forced assimilation), and America’s leadership in the world (particularly during World War II).

But many people of all ages and backgrounds said that as important as these accomplishments are, the negative parts of our history are equally important. To understand modern America, and the work that remains to be done, we need to understand slavery and Jim Crow. To truly come to grips with our past, we can’t stop at slavery as our only sin. There’s the fact that we massacred hundred of thousands of indigenous people (and the ones who survived we forced onto limited lands). There’s also our long history of anti-immigrant sentiment that people felt we often didn’t discuss (because we like to think of ourselves as a melting pot of sorts).

The Brilliance of Hamilton

The challenge of looking at history can be that it’s really easy to just tell the good, or really easy to let all of the significant bad delegitimize any of the important good. But what I loved about Hamilton is that it didn’t fall into either of these traps.

Throughout the play, there were several references to the exclusive nature of “we, the people” at our founding. It talked about slavery and its betrayal of the founding American ideals. But it also highlighted – through the role of King George III – that America’s founding ideals did have some significance. It was the first time that an idea of “citizen” became relevant in the world. Before then, all people were subjects to monarchs. At the same time, the play highlighted the anti-immigrant sentiment and class resentment that made Hamilton’s success frustrating for the other founders. America and the men and women who created it weren’t monolithic. Some were good, some were bad. Most were products of their age.

And that’s the aspect of the play that excited me most. It looked at Hamilton as a whole, rounded character. The show treats him as overly ambitious and philandering. It also captures his brilliance and commitment to ideals. He believed an elite-driven democracy, like most people did during that time. But he also believe that government had a duty to all of its people. Hamilton, like all of our founders, wasn’t a perfect hero. He had some good, some bad, and some ugly parts of him, just like America then and now.

As people think about how the past influences the present, it’s worth thinking about the parts of American history we respect most and criticize most. Most people will have different answers. But this framework of “good, bad, and ugly” can be a productive one in conversations that are often uncomfortable.

P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s a “good, bad, ugly” for me of American history:

  1. The good: The defeat of Nazi’s and the Soviet Union (tyrannical countries that killed millions of their own citizens)
  2. The bad: Our treatment of other country’s sovereignties (Vietnam, South Korea, many Latin American countries during the Cold War)
  3. The ugly: Slavery, not just for the obvious moral reasons, but because America continued to practice (and even grow) the use of slaves long after many countries barred the practice (in other words, it’s not just that America was a “product of its time”; it went above and beyond in an already horrible, inhumane practice)
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Dwayne Stenstrom is in charge of recruitment and retention at Sinte Gelska University. As my official host for the two days I was there, I had a chance to speak with him extensively about life on the Rosebud Reservation and at the university. Although I’ll write more about what I took away from my time on the reservation, I do want to say that it’s worth reading this interview in full. I suspect it’ll challenge your assumptions and understanding of the United States’ history and tribal culture. You can find the first two posts from my time in Rosebud here and here. You can also hear Dwayne talk about his experience growing up on NPR.

What it takes to be a good citizen:

I think one word that would sum it up is: be productive. Be a productive member of the environment you’re apart of. Do all that you can do to better the people around you.

Why he doesn’t vote in United States elections:

I guess in my world, I understand the concept of sovereignty and the makings of treaties. One of the things that I find is that if historically, if someone voted in a state or national election, it led to a conflict for the individual and the community. A treaty means two sovereign entities make a deal. So, I have my allegiance to my tribe first.

I’ve always felt that I had to be one or the other, either a tribal member or the citizen of the state. I always had to choose. I’m always going to be a tribal member. I dabble in the other world because I haven’t had a choice. Because of the experiences I’ve had over the years, I much prefer being a tribal member.

The American government wronged him and his family:

When I was eight years old, I was taken from my mother. And I was placed in a non-Indian home. At the time, I thought I would only be there for a few months. That few months transformed into twelve years.

I think about why all of that came to be. I don’t have any justification as to why they did that. It didn’t make sense to me back then, and it definitely doesn’t make sense to me today. One question I asked the government is whether there had been an adult male at home with me whether I would’ve been able to stay. The response I got was, “Yea, probably”. Ironically, I had two brothers who were serving in Vietnam. They would have qualified as adult males. But they weren’t in proximity because they were fighting for the country.

I did have an opportunity to reconnect with my mom ten years after I left her. We did have a little conversation about what went wrong. But I only got to know her for five months before she passed away. In a speech I gave in class, I talked about the little van that dropped me off. I kept waiting for it to come back. It never did.

Which is especially a problem, given the importance of family in tribal life:

I think what’s different between Native American culture and predominant American culture is the way people go about getting the basic things we all need. When I was in the home I was placed into when I was eight, I remember we went hunting one time and shot three dear. We had it processed at a meat locker. Their son came over later that week, and he was having a hard time and needed some help and some food. The dad basically said, “Get out there and make a living.”  And I was thinking, where I came from, it would’ve been different. We would’ve helped family and given food.

For example, one time, when I was still with my mom, I thought we were going to go somewhere on a trip. But then I saw my mom cooking, and was worried we weren’t going to get to go. But she told me she was cooking so that if someone stopped by, we could feed them. I still think about that till this day. Today, I lock my doors. When I was growing up we didn’t have to. My mom was going to leave food in our open house for anyone who needed it!

The things Americans need to know about tribal history:

One of the topics that is being talked about today is the Doctrine of Discovery (which allowed Christian conquerors to take all lands from non-Christians). When I started researching what that meant, I realized it did have a huge impact on the native community, and that it continues to today (the Vatican still has not rescinded the Doctrine).

Another part of history that has impacted me personally is the Indian Child Welfare Act (which was supposed to guarantee children would stay with their families). It’s still on the books, but it’s not used in a way that helps the community.

In 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed. States look at the act as superseding the Indian Child Welfare Act, even though it’s not supposed to. Kids are being taken off the reservations and adopted out into other communities. People now ignore the Indian Child Welfare Act.

My wife and I signed up to be foster parents ten years ago. We had to take a training course. About the fifth week, I became offended – why was a non-Indian person treating me how to be a parent to an Indian child? Never once during the training was the Indian Child Welfare Act brought up, except for when I brought it up. When my wife and I became foster parents, we got only one call, then never heard from them again. Meanwhile, they’re saying they need more Indian foster parents! To me it’s ridiculous what’s going on there.

How he’d like non-indigenous Americans to interact with tribes and reservations:

I’d want predominant Americans to engage with the tribal community with a willingness to understand. We don’t need anyone coming over here to fix us or save us. We need them to want to understand. We have a language and a way of life that has sustained us forever. We don’t need people coming over here telling us how it can be improved. Respect our culture for what it is.

What he wants for people on reservations:

I guess awareness. People need to understand our true history. It’s not really talked about here. I teach general psychology, and I try to incorporate a lot of Native American thought into my classes. What I’m finding is that a lot of people are unaware of a lot ideas and teachings that should have been passed down generationally. But because the education system doesn’t talk about tribal history (since schools are run by the South Dakota government), our own people doesn’t see it as a priority.

Also, we need to have more self-responsibility. People here have to let themselves know that it’s okay to be who they are. We don’t have a lot of choices today on this reservation. This reservation has something like 85% of unemployment. A lot of people feel like there’s not really stuff for them to do. When I go out and cut wood, I cut wood for a lot of different people. If people knew that doing that chore would have value to a lot of other people, it would make workers feel better about themselves. A lot of people have the mentality of, “Why bother?” That mentality isn’t just around here. It seems like a lot of people have just given up.

It’s important for us to believe. We’re going to have our trials and tribulations. But it’s how we respond. At one point in my life, I gave up. I remembered something my grandfather told me: “Never blame anyone for the circumstance you find yourself in. Take responsibility for all that you do because once you start blaming, people have power over you.” I didn’t see myself as spiritual back then. When he was able to remind me of where I came from, I was able to see how the experiences I had made me the person I am today.

A story on the power of optimism:

I try to put it into a positive perspective, because the negative side of me is too negative. One of my favorite stories is about two boys. There’s a boy who’s pessimistic, thinks life will be terrible. They put him on a chair in the middle of a bunch of toys. They told him he could have whatever he wanted and then left for an hour. When they came back, he hadn’t moved. They asked him, “Why didn’t you play with anything?” He said, “I’m afraid I was going to break something.”

The next boy is an optimist. They take him to a room and put him in a chair, too. But surrounding him is manure. They tell him to have all the fun he wants and leave for an hour. When they get back, the boy is sitting in the corner and throwing the manure up in the air. They ask, “What are you doing?!” He said, “With all of this stuff in here, there’s bound to be a pony somewhere.”

The four values he lives by:

My grandfather had four values: Spiritual, Social, Political, Economic. He said always look at them in that order. I’m always grateful I have another day. I don’t have any guarantees that tomorrow will come. So I try to make my day as positive as I can. I also have a resource where I can go to and talk about the problems in my life. All of those things are a part of spirituality. By remembering everything you’ve been through, that’s what can keep you going.

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Last Monday and Tuesday, I had the chance to spend time at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation (where the Lakota live). Of all the experiences I’ve had so far, it was the most eye-opening. This post series will consist of four posts: a conversation with a group of students, two individual interviews, and my reflection.

This first post is a conversation I had with four students at the university in a class on government. They all asked to remain anonymous, so they are just listed as Students 1 to 4. The conversation touched on people’s need to understand tribal history and the U.S. government’s shortcomings.

Whether they’re good citizens:

Student 1: I am because I’ve never been arrested.

Student 2: Yea, I think given all the negativity we live with, if we stay positive and obey the laws, that makes us good citizens.

Why voting is important:

Student 3: I think it’s important because every vote for counts. I vote for every U.S. election.

Student 2: Voting is important, whether it’s tribal or U.S. government, because it’s going to affect future generations. I wish kids from 18-35 would vote. It’s scary because a lot of this (politics) is based on the future, and young people don’t vote. For example, education cuts really hurt the reservation, and the only way to prevent them is to vote.

Student 4: People have to come together to help each other. We have to help each other survive. The political lifestyle isn’t for me. But I still vote because it’s important to guarantee people get what they need.

On whether they feel more “American” or “Lakota”:

Student 2: I don’t know how to answer it. I like being a Lakota, but when we don’t follow rules, I look to the U.S. for help.

Student 4: I don’t look at the identities as divided. We are all a part of the United States.

Student 3: I never saw them as different things; they’re both important to me.

They’re concerned about whether tribal history will endure:

Student 4: I had Lakota Culture this morning, and the professor has been with the university forever. He now has cancer. Him, and the other Lakota historian on campus, are both sick, and the tribe will lose a lot. They speak seven languages and know almost all of the cultures. Next fall, they’re going to get rid of Lakota history as a class, and it won’t be here for any of the younger generation. It’s kind of scary.

Student 2: But that’s where we come in. I grew up traditionally, speaking the language at home. We need to keep that history alive.

 The conversations about the Las Vegas were hard for them:

Student 2: I’ve seen on the news about Las Vegas. Nobody cared when our tribe was massacred. Nobody talked or talks about it. The younger Lakota talk about that shooting. But they should be going back to our own history and talking about what’s happened.

Teacher: When they said it was the biggest mass shooting on the news, I was like, “No it wasn’t.”

Student 2: That’s what I said! It kind of grew anger inside me.

Student 4: I think if they rephrased the way they talk about it, it wouldn’t be a problem. We’ve shown hatred toward people when we don’t pray for them; we know what happened at Wounded Knee. But we still need to show compassion for other people. We can’t show hatred just because they’ve worded things wrong.

The biggest challenges facing the Lakota Community:

Student 3: Alcohol, drug, abuse, domestic violence.

Student 2: Poverty.

Teacher: They all go together. But how do you pick one?

Student 2: The whole umbrella.

Their feelings towards the U.S. Government:

Student 3: I don’t like the government at all. I think not all of them are open-minded.

Teacher: I think it’s hard to feel represented in South Dakota. There are only 3 reps in Washington, and they don’t represent the whole state. They’re all very conservative; it’s hard to see how they help people who aren’t ranchers. People run cattle here, but it’s not ranching.

Student 4: Representatives skip over the reservations and parts of the state.

Student 2: The government could do more. If they want our voters, they should actually help. They should come to the reservation. I have friends from off the reservation who are afraid to come here. We have police and laws here! It just shows that people don’t care.

How they’d like the government and non-indigenous people to interact with the Lakota:

Student 3: People need to stop being racist towards us.

Student 4: Individual people should stop the labeling. What both people and the government could do is help with funding for homes, and treatment centers. Finding homes for our homeless.

What it means to be an American:

Student 1: Boundaries. The reservation has boundaries between what’s America and what’s the reservation. That’s what I’ve grown up and come to understand.

Student 4: To me, it’s about family. It’s about knowing the culture and history. It’s about having that growing up as kids, bonding with your family. Bring those together as who we are, whether we’re Native America or any other culture.

Student 3: I think America has a lot of diversity. We, as Americans, all live here together.

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Taj is a Sudanese refugee, now living in Dubuque, Iowa. He became a citizen ten years ago, and he works for the Dubuque city government. Our interview covered topics ranging from the immigration system to what he sees as the core American values.

On his experience as a refugee:

I am a former refugee. I came in May, 2000. I came from Lebanon, and I am originally from Sudan. I arrived in Salt Lake City, and it was a culture shock.

I think that I learned what it means to be an American from the people in Salt Lake. Yes, I was on government programs. But what made a difference was the community. The people who helped with my language and taught me to navigate the system were amazing. There was a sense of belonging because of the people around me. It was tough – in six months, I had to speak English and find a job in six months to meet the government’s expectations. Some of my friends struggled to do that. The people who excelled were connected to the community, not just the government. Continue reading Coming to America

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I was born in 1936. I was only six years old when World War II broke out. I think that war affected me all my life, as far as the rationing, the black outs at night. We used to gather milkweed pods and take those to school in bags, and those were used in life vests for the army. I think that period of time showed me what we have in the United States, in terms of security. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we got in the world. 

Rex, Retired Tool Designer, Northern Indiana

This is the fourth and final interview from my time in Mishawaka, Indiana. I am not revealing anything about these interviewees in order to highlight the fact that people’s answers often align and don’t depend on party line. This interview focused largely on the importance of people being moderates and compromising.

Her vision of citizenship:

I look at citizenship on a local level, not a national level. So, my keys to being a good citizen are community engagement and involvement. I know that’s a little shortsighted, but that’s just my bent.

The needed ingredient for good national citizenship:

But to be a good citizen on the global level, you need to have some tolerance. I think you need to be willing to be moderate. You can’t have an alt-left or an alt-right and get anything done. You have to listen to the other point view, and think about what’s good for the country, not necessarily what’s good for you. Continue reading Mishawaka Interview 4: The Need for Moderates

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