On the eve of this Thanksgiving holiday, most Americans have heard the heartwarming story of the Native Americans who welcomed the Pilgrims, taught them how to plant crops, and joined them after the harvest in a first Thanksgiving celebration.
But how many Americans understand the story of next four centuries of Native American life in the United States? It is the story of shameful treatment by our government. The Indian Removal Act. The Trail of Tears. Wounded Knee. Gripping, relentless poverty. Trust accounts plundered by the government. And so much more.
“Wasn’t that between your ancestors and my ancestors?”, a member of the audience once asked Joseph Marshall III, a Native American historian, at a Colorado College campus lecture. “Why should I be held responsible for the plight of Native Americans?”
“Because you know the story,” Marshall replied.
It’s a profound concept. When we know the story of injustice, we are obligated to fix it.
I’ve told those stories of injustice in a book that will be released today, titled The Girl in the Photograph. The photograph in question—of an adorable but sad little girl with a tear on her cheek—caught my attention when it originally appeared in the Bismarck Tribune, my state’s flagship newspaper, in 1990 under the headline “Foster Home Children Beaten—And Nobody’s Helping.”
The story is about one young girl on an Indian reservation, but it is about so much more.
Her name is Tamara. And to say that life has been difficult for her it is a bit of an understatement. None of us will really ever know what it was like.
Tamara was born in 1985. As a 2-year-old, this Native American child, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that lives in both North and South Dakota, was severely beaten in a foster care home at what was called a drunken party. Her arm, nose, and leg were broken, and her hair pulled out at the roots. That horrible beating has affected her for the next three decades of her life.
She belonged to a dysfunctional family. She describes being sexually abused by an extended family member and mistreated by alcoholic parents. She ran away from this horror when she could.
Lost and lonely, she suffered in silent pain from the PTSD that affected her every day, wondering why and how it all had happened to her. She joined the nearly invisible homeless population on the streets of Minneapolis, living on one meal a day and sleeping under a bridge or couch surfing when she could.
She had almost no memory of her youth. She felt life was hopeless. She attempted to end her life three times.
Finally, she found help at a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Minneapolis. She ended up spending nearly a year and a half in that shelter. And that experience was the beginning of finding some stability in her life.
In the several years since she left the homeless shelter, Tamara’s life has improved. She now has a place to live, some assistance income, and some prescription medicine for her nightmares and crowd anxiety. She has a boyfriend who treats her with respect.
She is smart and talented. She loves music. She is studying Japanese and found it interesting that she seems to have an easy time learning a foreign language. Yet she’s still affected by health issues that never leave. She yearns to have a respite from the difficult challenges that life has offered. Still, she hesitates to think of a day when she could move beyond the health problems and poverty so persistent in her life and finally begin a future with more opportunity for her.
She doesn’t know what her future holds.
Tamara is 34 years old now. A young woman whose life story contains so much sadness and tragedy. What comes next for Tamara, and also for so many other Native American children who are trapped in circumstances like the ones that Tamara has faced?
The silence that surrounds the plight of Tamara and so many other children living on Indian reservations is deafening. It is, for too many children, a life of gripping poverty and all of the problems that attend that poverty including hunger, violence, homelessness, and much more.
The rampant unemployment, income inequality, racism, and crime have especially victimized women and children. But it also applies to the entire population of those who were here first.
This is not some mysterious disease for which we don’t know the cure. This is a crisis, and it is a disgrace that so many children of the first Americans in our country are living in third world conditions.
This is Tamara’s story. But it could be thousands of other children who desperately need our help.
It has become too easy for non-Native Americans to avoid accountability for what has happened to Native Americans.
It’s time to awaken our country and end the suffering of the children and others whose lives I describe in my book. I hope it will force all of us to understand, if we do our part, together we can turn the cycle of failure into a future of success for the first Americans and their children.
There is no better time to recognize our responsibilities to the first Americans than at Thanksgiving. Why? Because we know the story!
BYRON L. DORGAN served as a congressman and senator for North Dakota for 30 years before retiring in January 2011. Senator Dorgan is the author of the New York Times bestseller Take This Job and Ship It, and The Girl in the Photograph, published on Nov. 25, 2019. When he retired from the U.S. Senate, he created the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) to work on teen suicide prevention, education opportunity and more for children living on Indian reservations.