Miss Muskrat's Address on the North American Indian

The American Indian 1 (February 1, 1927):2-3, 15.

By Ruth Margaret Muskrat


            "This is first day of the New Year.  And there is no better time for us who are of the Indian race to pause and take stock of ourselves.  There is no better time than this to ask ourselves what we are going to do with the great racial heritage that has been handed down to us by our forefathers.

            I know that you have been told you are the hope of the Indian race so often that you are tired of hearing the phrase.  And the statement that our generation is responsible for the future of the Indian race has been repeated so many times that it has become a truism.

            But these two statements are the very thing I'm going to ask you to consider this morning.  We cannot hear them too often or consider them too seriously.  For they are true.  We are the hope of the Indian race!  And on the shoulders of this generation of Indian youth does rest the responsibility and the glory of our race.  I know of no better way to put it than use just those words that you have heard so often, and come, it seems to me, to think about so little.  The realization of this great responsibility ought to overshadow every action we take with the fire of its challenge.  And yet, I wonder if it does?

            I do not need to recall to you the history of our race.  Every Indian youth knows, or ought

To know the heritage of greatness and nobility that has been handed down to us by our Indian forebears.  You know the story of King Philip, that great warrior with his superb pride and his dauntless courage.  Hemmed in on every side by a people and a civilization he could not understand, betrayed by the friends he loved, forsaken even by the very ones he sought to defend, his home destroyed, his family wiped out, nothing but death facing him, still he fought bravely on to the end without one thought of giving up the fight.  He was not fighting for himself, for what had life left for him now, but he fought for the people who were his own and whom he loved.  What a heritage of devotion there is for us in his life alone!  What a heritage of courage and fearlessness.

            There are hundreds of such examples.  Noble leaders who saw the crises of their time and arose nobly to meet them.  Another kind of hero, but no less a great one, is Sequoyah who dared to accomplish the task he set for himself in spite of the jeers of the very people who should have been the first to encourage him.  Sometimes in these days you and I are afraid to stand out for an issue in which we really believe, down in our secret hearts, because we are not strong enough to face the criticism of our associates.  Listen to this story of Sequoyah.

            He was a comparatively young man when he first conceived his dream of a Cherokee alphabet.  He had been a very skillful warrior and a very popular youth among his tribesmen.  But when he left off these lesser things to follow the path of his great dream he lost his popularity.  Oftentimes that is the price a dreamer has to pay if he would make his dreams come true. 

            Sequoyah's friends jeered at him and called him a fool.  Even his wife declared him to be crazy or possessed by a devil.  Then one day, at the end of those ten years, his wife in a rage of impatience with this husband whom she could not understand, burned all his manuscripts and his records, the fruits of ten hard years of patient labor.  In the face of even this devastating calamity, Sequoyah did not give up.

            He started all over again, and this time with such earnestness that at the end of three years he had his alphabet completed much more perfectly than it had ever been before.  It is said that no alphabet in all the history of mankind is more perfect than this invented by one Indian man, and that any Cherokee who speaks this language may learn to read and write it in four or five hours of hard study. 

            Sequoyah's struggles were not ended with the completion of his alphabet.  The first thing he did was to teach his little daughter to read: and then the whole tribe began to cry out that he had bewitched his own child and that both of them must be burned at the stake.  There was a long trial by the members of the council, and at last it was decided to call in [some] of the younger warriors from a neighboring town to sit in judgment on this man who had just offered such a priceless gift to his people.  "For," said the old chief, "it may be that he is inspired by the Great Spirit and not by the evil ones."

            The young men sat in judgment.  They proposed a test, that Sequoyah should teach his jurors to read and write his alphabet.  He had only a few hours allowed him for this great task but he succeeded, and in this way the Cherokee alphabet was given to the world.  What a heritage of perseverance his life is for all us Indians who belong to this generation!  What a vision for us to follow!  What an example of patience and courage.

            I do not think it was an accident that our past history is so replete with the lives of great men.  Deep within the heart of our race must have been implanted a spiritual vision and a nobility of soul that produced great leaders!  I believe that same nobility of soul, that same spiritual vision still lives in the heart of the Indian race today!  But I am afraid that too often we allow it to lie dormant, buried deep beneath a load of trivial and unimportant things.  You and I have a great heritage.  But even a great heritage can be cast aside and trampled in the dust.

            Ours is the challenge and the responsibility to see that this does not happen to our race.  Ours is the privilege of carrying forward the great past of our forebears.  How are we going to discharge that responsibility?

            I have believed for a long while that the Indian race is now at the greatest crisis in all its history!  I believe we must literally live or die on the merits of the present generation.  [If] we can prove our fitness to live, we shall survive as a race.  If we can not, then we shall be condemned to a slow death and nothing except a tradition of our past shall be left to the world.  You know that the old life has gone.  And you know that already, whether we wish it or not, a new life has come to take its place.  And you and I must either go forward on that new life or we must go backward.  We can not stand still.  We have a greater task ahead of us than any warrior kinsman of ours who ever lived!  Ours is a greater challenge than any war cry ever sounded before in all the history of our race!  For we must lead our people back into their ancient heritage of greatness.  We must blaze new trails for a newer and greater glory.  We must find the way for our race to come back once more into economic independence; back out of the stagnation of idleness and decay into which these centuries of dependence have plunged us.  All of this is before us to do in spite of new and changing conditions.

            It is no easy task!  Compared to this--the ancient warpath was an easy trail to follow!  It is an easy thing, under the impulse of excitement and encouragement of war, to go out and die on the field of battle to save your people by this one act of bravery, compared to the strenuous job of living day after day to the level of the highest that is in you!  And that is the kind of living you and I are called to do.  Because we are a small group in the midst of an alien civilization, the focus of all eyes are centered upon us.  Every success we make, every failure we make, is conspicuous.  Because we are such a small group, no Indian boy or girl has a right to be a failure, for by failing we not only pull ourselves down, but we pull down our whole race.  Everywhere people are looking to us, watching to see how we are discharging these responsibilities of ours.

            As I have traveled over the country, time and time again I have been asked these questions: "Does it pay to educate an Indian?"  "Does the Indian boy or girl take advantage of opportunities offered them?"  "Do the Indian people have any sense of responsibility toward their own race?"  Those are fair questions!  We are still a race of people with a reputation to make.  People have a right to ask those questions of us.  And how they are to be answered depends entirely upon you and me.

            If our task is harder than our forefathers faced, we have also greater advantages for facing it.  Our ancestors had only the traditions of their own tribe to help them look into the future.  You and I not only have the past of the whole Indian race at our command, but we have all the civilizations of the world to teach us.  Greece and Rome, Egypt and ancient Assyria, Babylona and Palestine, all the past experiences of the whole human race is ours to glean wisdom from if we but care to look into it.  We have the golden key to unlock the treasure house of all the world.

            Any Indian boy or girl who wants it bad enough may have all the rich treasures of an education.  Ought not our future history be far greater than any past record of the race?  Would you not much prefer to live in this age and this generation with its rare privileges and its responsibilities?  Your race needs the best that is in you.  And it needs more you more than it has ever needed you in the past or may ever need you again.

            "Who knows but that thou art come into the kingdom for such a time as this?"

            I do not know of any way we can face up to our responsibility as members of the Indian race, except as each individual of us resolves in our hearts to give to the world the highest and the best that we have.  After all, it is an individual matter.  We can not all get together and vote to make the Indian race great and noble by popular vote.  It has to be done by the quiet and earnest living of every individual member of that race.  And I wish that the resolution each and every one of us could make at this New Year would be to let no action of ours dim in any way the bright heritage of our past.  A great race must be made up of great individuals.  And if we would be a great race we must put our minds to the difficult task of living greatly.

            There are many things along this life which I believe we Indians need especially to think about.  One of the things we need most to learn is to put first things first.  Once in the city of Tulsa I passed along a street where some new buildings were being erected.  There among the scaffolding I saw a poor old woman picking up the chips and waste pieces of timber to carry home for her fire.  How often we are like that!  We give good straight fine logs of our life to unimportant things, and leave the chips and the waste pieces to keep the fire of our existence burning!  Our days here at school are crowded full of vital, rich opportunities, and yet how many of us let those opportunities slide by unclaimed and fritter our time away on unimportant things.

            Dean Briggs tells a story of a group of young people whom he saw at Rome.  They were in that great city, faculously rich in its beauty and its historical associations.  There was the Coliseum; the Forum; St. Peter's--so many rare treasures they might have been seeing, and every morning they settled themselves down in the lobby of the hotel for a game of bridge!  "What business had they there in the city of Rome?" cries Dean Briggs.  Indeed, what business had they anywhere?  What business have you and I here at this Indian school when we commit an offense just as great by wasting opportunities that some other boy or girl might make use of if we did not stand in the way?

            Reading bad literature when we might be reading something worth while is one of the commonest ways in which we fail to put first things first.  Reading good literature is like letting a flood of light and beauty covered over with whitewash and dirt and rubbish.  With painstaking care the artist removed all the whitewash and dirt from the picture and thus the famous Bargello portrait of Dante was restored to the world.  Says Mr. Fosdick:  "The Bargello portrait was not destroyed, but somebody cared more for dirt and whitewash than they did for the beauty of the painting."  In our busy life here at Haskell we have time only for a certain number of things.  Something has to be left out, necessitating that somewhere we are going to have to make a choice.  If we expend our energies on an unimportant thing here, a trivial matter there, we are going to find that we shall have, in the end, only a bare and shallow existence, missing completely the richness and the abundance of life that should have been our heritage.

            Another thing we as Indians, and indeed as members of the human race, need to learn is to face the truth about ourselves, and to face it unflinchingly.  I noticed so often on the part of my students and others I have come in contact with, tendency to rationalize, to make excuses, not only to other people but even to themselves, instead of standing up and squarely facing the truth.  I wonder how many of you here, when you have been reprimanded by your matron or your teacher or someone else in authority, have said, "She is showing partiality.  She is picking on me.  I am no worst than the rest of the girls."  It does not matter in the least whether you are no worse that the rest of the school.  Indeed, your job ought to be to live above the average, to be just a little better than the rest of mankind.  What does matter tremendously is whether you have the moral courage to face the consequences of your own actions without trying to slide out from under, and place the responsibility on someone beside yourself, where it rightly belongs.

            As a race, we think too much about the past, and we dwell too long on what someone has done to us.  We do not think enough about what we are doing for ourselves and [to] ourselves.  Here at school you say, "My teacher does not make me hand in my assignments, and so I don't do my school work."  You think you are "getting by."  And some of us think it is a smart and clever thing to do.  Are we going to have a prop to lean on forever?  We have been bolstered up too much already!  It is time now that we begin to stand on our own feet.  It is said that Chief Logan, at one time, in giving council to a young warrior, said:  "My Son, do not fear the face of any living man." 

            Such was the spirit of our fathers!  But if we are to preserve that noble heritage of bravery we cannot afford to be moral cowards.  We must face the truth about ourselves.  To keep for the world the nobility or character that rightly belongs to the Indian race, you and I must nobly.

We must daily cry:

   "Build the more stately mansions, Oh my soul.

   As the swift seasons roll

   Leave they low vaulted past!

   Let each new temple, nobler than the last.

   Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast.

   Till at length thou art free.

   Leave thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea."


            There is one thing more that we need to think about in building up a great deal for our race.  One of the gravest faults of us Indians and this generation is that we do not have the power to stay by our task until it is finished.  We begin to build, but we cannot hold out until the job is completed.  It is an easy thing to make a good beginning at any task, but to bring that task to a great conclusion requires rare patience.  If you do not believe we give up when the way becomes a little hard, look at your own school here.  Look at the size of the freshman class with its great numbers, and compare it with the senior class!  How many have dropped out because the work became too difficult?  It took too much effort to finish what had been begun.  In my own junior class almost an average of one boy a month has dropped out--gone A. W. O. L.--just because he hadn't the power to see the work through.  They couldn't stick, quitters!

            I know an Indian man who started to build a great life for himself.  He went through high school with honors, and then he graduated from college.  He distinguished himself.  And newspapers all over the United States printed stories about him and published his picture.  Thousands of people knew of him and rejoiced in his success.  He was pointed to as perhaps the coming great leader of his people.  Then by one swift action of his he failed.  He tore down all those years of labor he had built.  In one swift ruin, he crushed the hopes of hundreds and thousands of people.  By this act he destroyed the faith of thousands people in his own race.  He is the kind of man Jesus was talking of in His parable when He said, "He began to build, but he did not know how to finish." 

            What do you think would have happened to the world if Jesus had given up his fight in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Surely no man had a more bitter struggle!  Yet the whole teachings of all his life culminated in the Cross.  It was the glory of his finished task that made him the Savior of the world.  Without that triumphant end, all His acts of mercy, all His words of healing, would have been as nothing.

            Map out your course and follow it unswervingly.  Finish the work you set out to do!  We are too easily discouraged.  We want to expend our energies in too many little streams, trying first one thing, then another thing, and so accomplish nothing.  Let us look deep into the life of Sequoyah, and of King Phillip, and of other great leaders of ours and find there the everlasting examples of the patience and courage that is necessary to give us the power to see a thing through.

            We of this generation of Indians who have been given a freedom, a responsibility and a power greater than any other race has ever known.  What are we going to do with this freedom?  How are we going to discharge this responsibility?  Shall we prove ourselves worthy of such a privilege.  We must determine what the future of our race is going to be.  You and I must decide right now, today, whether we want it to live on, worthy of the great traditions of the past.  Or whether we are willing to see it fall deeper and deeper into decay.  By the lives we each determine to live, and by our power to make such a determination into reality, we can show our choice.  There is no other convincing answer.

            There have been times in the past history of our race when crises had to be met.  Our forefathers, perhaps, were not able to see so clearly when the moment of choice arrived.  The hour struck and they did not know.  They had to meet the issues blindly, as they arose, for they had no way of understanding what the future might bring.

            Today you and I have no such excuse.  Today we can look into the future and see what we do.  Because we have the knowledge of all the right and wrong choices of the past--because we have at our command the past experiences of all the people of history, we stand at a point where we can look forward and backward and know what is good.  Your choice must be of your own making, and it is a deliberate choice.  There is no better time for it than the first day of the new year with its opportunities for a new beginning and a new life.

            "See--I have set before thee this day life and good, death and evil: therefore choose life that thou mayest live--thou and thy seed."--The Indian Leader.