By Susan Hanson
“Hey, Chief! Do your war dance!”
My ten-year-old self started hopping around the schoolyard, chanting as I tapped my hand against my mouth. “Ah-woo-woo-woo, ah-woo-woo-woo ….”
I attended elementary school in Maplewood, Minnesota, a then-sleepy suburb outside St. Paul. The state is home to the Anishinaabe (Chippewa/Ojibwe) and Dakota (Sioux) people, as well as several other Indigenous American tribes. It also was the birthplace of the American Indian Movement (AIM), an activist group that had made worldwide headlines with its takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C.
Let me simply say that AIM was not looked upon fondly by most of the white population at the time, including my own family, and I grew up surrounded by the typical prejudices. So I didn’t think twice about taunting the sole Native boy in our school with a chant and a tomahawk chop while our classmates encircled us, egging me on. His feelings—his humanness—weren’t even a consideration.
Honestly, I don’t know why I decided to torment him that day. I had never bullied anyone before, and certainly not since. It was the first time I remember being the center of attention at school, and the reinforcement I got from our fellow students made me feel powerful.
At some point I stopped my act, a smug grin on my face. The boy had just stood still through it all, his dark eyes staring at—nay, through—me the entire time. Finally, he spoke.
“I pity you.”
Three little words—yet they pierced my heart as if he’d shot me with an arrow. Time stood still. I couldn’t even move as the small boy turned and stoically walked away from the group. The rest of my classmates scattered, leaving me alone in my frozen daze.
What did he mean by “I pity you”? Why did his words affect me so? After all, I had just been mimicking the language and behavior that I’d witnessed my entire young life. I didn’t know what I had done wrong – but in that moment, I realized there was something profoundly askew in my household’s attitude toward Native Americans.
That childhood incident sparked a life-long fascination with and appreciation for Indigenous cultures throughout North America and the world. They have filled my imagination, and my home with wonderful art pieces that I collected during my travels to Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Ecuador. I have been blessed to join an Andean shaman for a sunrise ceremony atop Machu Picchu, and trek through the Panamanian jungle with an Embera medicine man, who pointed out each plant and its medicinal use: “In Nature, there is a reason and purpose for everything.”
Such life-changing experiences—and the Coin Trick podcast itself—would never have been feasible if I had not changed my beliefs about and attitude toward Native American people. And that seismic shift was made possible by one brave Native boy who stood up to a schoolyard bully so many years ago.