Growing up in Claremont, what did I know about Indians? The answer is not much. I vaguely knew that New Hampshire had Indians, and the name of the lake where we had a cottage, Sunapee, comes from Algonquin words; and I knew that the word Monadnock comes from an Indian language (Abenaki). I did not know about our country’s broken promises.
Like most kids back in the late ‘40s, I played cowboys and Indians after school, listened to The Lone Ranger on the radio, and paid the Magnet Theatre 12 cents Saturday afternoons to watch him and his sidekick, Tonto. To this day, I can hear the opening cry “Hi-Yo Silver, Away,” and the words “kemo sabe” (faithful friend), which is how Tonto addressed the masked man.
My boyhood introduction to the language of sports also had an Indian connection. In 1948, when my lifelong addiction to baseball (now being tested) began, “my team” was the Boston “Braves.” They lost the World Series to the Cleveland “Indians,” a defeat that still stings.
I never wondered about the connection between the names of professional sports teams and Native Americans. The Washington’s “Redskins” star quarterback was “Slingin’ Sammy” Baugh. Like most Jewish kids, I mistakenly believed that Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman was as good as Baugh.
My first real connection to Indians—three days in South Dakota—came in 2003. As part of a lawyers’ group, I spent an afternoon at the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, which remains unfinished more than seventy years after tribal chiefs invited a Boston sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski to come out there with a hammer and chisel. His widow, Ruth, gave us a guided tour.
The next day we took a long bus ride from Rapid City to the Rosebud Reservation, stopping off on the way at Pine Ridge. Rosebud takes up much of Todd County which, both then and now, is one of the poorest counties in the United States. The Reservation had an unemployment rate of around 75% and was afflicted by practically every social ill you can think of—domestic abuse and alcoholism to name just two. Even so, our hosts (one of whom told me that they don’t call themselves “Native Americans”) gave no indication that they despaired for the future. But they didn’t smile a lot.
When it comes to hospitality, they outdid themselves. A welcoming committee took us around to meet people and visit homes, the school, the tribal court, and Sinte Gleska University. And they treated us to a native lunch. It was not the tastiest meal we had in South Dakota, but it was heartfelt and hearty, and the Lakota songs that followed touched our hearts, even if we didn’t understand the words.
These and other memories of that trip came to mind last month when Indians won two victories, one symbolic and the other substantive.
The symbolic one was sports related: The Washington “Redskins” are no more. Not earth-shattering, perhaps, but despite Shakespeare (“What’s in a name?”), a sensitive decision.
The win of substance came from the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that much of Eastern Oklahoma belongs to the Creek Nation. That was the deal Congress made nearly two hundred years ago when it forced more than 100,000 Indians from their ancestral land in Georgia and Alabama. According to Justice Gorsuch’s majority opinion, “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise.”