American Indian Quotations
compiled by Borgna Brunner
Sherman Alexie (1966– )
writer, filmmaker, poet (Spokane and Coeur d'Alene)
interview, READ Magazine, 2003
All I try to do is portray Indians as we are, in creative ways. With imagination and poetry. I think a lot of Native American literature is stuck in one idea: sort of spiritual, environmentalist Indians. And I want to portray everyday lives. I think by doing that, by portraying the ordinary lives of Indians, perhaps people learn something new.
Paula Gunn Allen (1939–2008)
poet, novelist, and critic (Laguna, Sioux, and Lebanese)
from The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986)
Humor is widely used by Indians to deal with life. Indian gatherings are marked by laughter and jokes, many directed at the horrors of history, at the continuing impact of colonization, and at the biting knowledge that living as an exile in one's own land necessitates. . . . Certainly the time frame we presently inhabit has much that is shabby and tricky to offer; and much that needs to be treated with laughter and ironic humor.
Dennis Banks (1937– )
Activist and co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) (Anishinabe)
from "His Aim is True," MetroActive (March 14, 1996)
What we did in the 1960s and early 1970s was raise the consciousness of white America that this government has a responsibility to Indian people. That there are treaties; that textbooks in every school in America have a responsibility to tell the truth. An awareness reached across America that if Native American people had to resort to arms at Wounded Knee, there must really be something wrong. And Americans realized that native people are still here, that they have a moral standing, a legal standing. From that, our own people began to sense the pride.
Black Elk (1863–1950)
religious leader (Oglala Sioux)
from Black Elk Speaks (1961)
Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people flourished.
Black Hawk (1767–1838)
From a speech at his surrender following the Black Hawk War (1832)
[Black Hawk] has fought for his countrymen, the squaws and papooses, against white men, who came year after year, to cheat them and take away their lands. You know the cause of our making war. It is known to all white men. They ought to be ashamed of it.
Gertrude Bonnin [Zitkala-Sa] (1876–1938)
author and activist (Yankton Sioux)
from "Why I am A Pagan," 1902
A "Christianity" pugilist commented upon a recent article of mine, grossly perverting the spirit of my pen. Still I would not forget that the pale-faced missionary and the hoodooed aborigine are both God's creatures, though small indeed their own conceptions of Infinite Love. A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.
Crazy Horse (1840–1877)
chief (Oglala Sioux)
Statement, Sept. 23, 1875
One does not sell the land people walk on.
Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933–2005)
historian and activist (Hunkpapa Lakota)
from the New York Times Magazine, 1979
This country was a lot better off when the Indians were running it.
Michael Dorris (1945–1997)
writer and anthropologist (Modoc)
from an Oct. 25, 1995, interview published in the Artful Dodge, College of Wooster (Ohio)
I certainly don't object to [writers] trying to imagine the lives of other societies, but you have to do it with a certain amount of humility and respect. If it were not for the ethnographic material that had been collected by missionaries and anthropologists and so forth, much of past Native American society would no longer be accessible. What I object to is making kitsch of things that are very serious.
Louise Erdrich (1954– )
from a Jan. 17, 2001, interview, Atlantic Unbound
It's impossible to write about Native life without humor—that's how people maintain sanity.
Chris Eyre (1969– )
filmmaker (Cheyenne and Arapaho)
from "Vision Quest," The Reader, 2002
There aren't a lot of alternative roles for Indian actors. I think we've fallen short of portraying Indians in the media. We don't need to make another Dances With Wolves, because it's not an Indian movie. When Indians portray themselves, then we have a different perspective. I've been asked about making period pieces but I've never read one that wasn't about guilt, and I'm not trying to make a guilt film.
Flying Hawk (1852–1931)
chief (Oglala Sioux)
Indians and animals know better how to live than white man; nobody can be in good health if he does not have all the time fresh air, sunshine, and good water.
to President Grant after surrender (1877)
It is my land, my home, my father's land, to which I now ask to be allowed to return. I want to spend my last days there, and be buried among those mountains. If this could be I might die in peace, feeling that my people, placed in their native homes, would increase in numbers, rather than diminish as at present, and that our name would not become extinct.
Joy Harjo (1951– )
Poet and musician (Muskogee)
from Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, 1993
It's important as a writer to do my art well and do it in a way that is powerful and beautiful and meaningful, so that my work regenerates the people, certainly Indian people, and the earth and the sun. And in that way we all continue forever.
Joseph (c. 1840–1904)
chief (Nez Perce)
statement following surrender at the battle of Bear Paw (1877)
My people, some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I can find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
Russell Means (1939– )
Activist and cofounder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) (Oglala Lakota)
interview, PBS television, Alcatraz Is Not an Island, 2002
Before AIM, Indians were dispirited, defeated, and culturally dissolving. People were ashamed to be Indian. You didn't see the young people wearing braids or chokers or ribbon shirts in those days. Hell, I didn't wear 'em. People didn't Sun Dance, they didn't Sweat, they were losing their languages. Then there was that spark at Alcatraz, and we took off. Man, we took a ride across this country. We put Indians and Indian rights smack dab in the middle of the public consciousness for the first time since the so-called Indian wars.
N. Scott Momaday (1934– )
interview, PBS television, The West, 2002
The turn of the century was the lowest point for the devastation of Indian culture by disease and persecution, and it's a wonder to me that they survived it and have not only maintained their identity, but are actually growing stronger in some ways. The situation is still very bad, especially in certain geographical areas, but there are more Indians going to school, more Indians becoming professional people, more Indians assuming full responsibility in our society. We have a long way to go, but we're making great strides.
Carlos Montezuma (1866?–1923)
Physician and reformer (Yavapai)
quote c. 1916, cited in The Native Americans: An Illustrated History
The Indian Bureau system is wrong. The only way to adjust wrong is to abolish it, and the only reform is to let my people go. After freeing the Indian from the shackles of government supervision, what is the Indian going to do: leave that with the Indian, and it is none of your business.
Mourning Dove (1884?–1936)
novelist and politician (Salish)
from Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography
There are two things I am most grateful for in my life. The first is that I was born a descendant of the genuine Americans, the Indians; the second, that my birth happened in the year 1888. In that year the Indians of my tribe, the Colvile (Swy-ayl-puh), were well into the cycle of history involving their readjustment in living conditions. They were in a pathetic state of turmoil caused by trying to learn how to till the soil for a living, which was being done on a very small and crude scale. It was no easy matter for members of this aboriginal stock, accustomed to making a different livelihood (by the bow and arrow), to handle the plow and sow seed for food. Yet I was born long enough ago to have known people who lived in the ancient way before everything started to change.
chief of the Powhatan
speech, 1609, cited in The Native Americans: An Illustrated History
Do you believe me such a fool as not to prefer eating good meat, sleeping quietly with my wives and children, laughing and making merry with you, having copper and hatchets and anything else—as your friend—to flying from you as your enemy, lying cold in the woods, eating acorns and roots, and being so hunted by you meanwhile, that if but a twig break, my men will cry out, "here comes Captain Smith!" Le us be friend, then. Do not invade us thus with such an armed force. Lay aside these arms.
Red Cloud (1822–1909)
chief (Oglala Sioux)
We were told that they wished merely to pass through our country. . . to seek for gold in the far west . . . Yet before the ashes of the council are cold, the Great Father is building his forts among us. . . . His presence here is . . . an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be allowed for corn?
Sitting Bull (1831?–1890)
Chief (Oglala Sioux)
Statement, year unknown
I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows. We are poor . . . but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die . . . we die defending our rights.
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