Civilized Is a Four-Letter Word

by Mitakuye Oyasin

My ancestors were uncivilized. At least that's what the European invaders called them. (When you are about to steal something from someone, it digests better if you can explain to yourself why they didn't deserve it anyway.)

One of the measuring sticks the Europeans used to measure the "advancement" of a race was their artistic development, and since Natives did not have art galleries or opera houses, they were, of course, uncivilized.

No wonder, then, that when Ohiresa, a/k/a Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman, lived in white society, he developed what he thought was an appreciation of the arts. He writes, "I once showed a party of Sioux chiefs the sights of Washington, and endeavored to impress them with the wonderful achievements of civilization. After visiting the Capitol and other famous buildings, we passed through the Corcoran Art Gallery, where I tried to explain how the white man valued this or that painting as a work of genius and a masterpiece of art.

"'Ah!' exclaimed an old man, 'such is the strange philosophy of the white man! He hews down the forest that has stood for centuries in its pride and grandeur, tears up the bosom of Mother Earth, and causes the silvery watercourses to waste and vanish away. He ruthlessly disfigures God's own pictures and monuments, and then daubs a flat surface with many colors, and praises his work as a masterpiece! '"

Ohiyesa continues: "Here we have the root of the failure of the Indian to approach the 'artistic' standard of the civilized world. It lies not in our lack of creative imagination ­­ for in this quality we are born artists ­­ it lies rather in our point of view. Beauty, in our eyes, is always fresh and living, even as God, the Great Mystery, dresses the world anew at each season of the year."

In other words, you can't outpaint the Great Spirit, and dabbing some paint on a canvas has nothing to do with being civilized.

In fact, sitting back and looking at America today, I find myself wondering just what civilization is supposed to be. Progress is always mentioned in the context of discussing civilization, as is cultural development. And we mustn't overlook technological achievement.

But let's get out the report card and see just how advanced civilization, progress and technology have made America today. And let's begin with the miraculous medical achievements that someone is sure to mention. No one can argue with the achievements of medicine today. People can be kept alive that would have died only a few short years ago.

On the other hand, civilized America reserves these benefits for those who can afford them, leaving forty million to fend for themselves.

Food can be produced in amounts that would send every human being to bed with a full stomach, but millions of people are starving to death, and in civilized America, many children and adults are still going to bed hungry. In the uncivilized society of my ancestors, when food was scarce, the children were fed first.

Progress? In civilized America, the family is an endangered species and child abuse is rampant. My uncivilized ancestors centered everything on the family, and child abuse did not exist.

Progress? We don't have to go back to my ancestors for some comparisons. It is now normal to read about teens and pre-teens being arrested at school for everything from truancy to drugs and assault. It has only been 40 years since I graduated from college, and in all the schools I attended, from Carolina and Virginia to California and Texas, and then to Missouri and Illinois, this never happened. Not once. The abnormal has become normal.

Okay. Tell me about computers, better automobiles, faster planes, and space flights. But the fact remains, if American society is being observed by ET's from Out There, they have to conclude Western civilization is regressive. For all of the achievements you can point to, the overriding sign of regression in America is an infantile obsession with peeking at (and showing) body parts.

How else could a sleaze bar think about opening up in Galesburg so that some females can display their silicone-filled mammary glands to drooling patrons? Apparently they don't get enough titillation (excuse the pun) from the pornography at the gas stations, grocery stores, and the Internet. Even the newspapers have joined the chorus of pornography in describing the sordid Illusions of a horny intern at the White House.

There is something to be said for my ancestors, uncivilized as they were. They occupied themselves with living.

This article posted to Zephyr online February 5, 1998.