Like most people of color, Julie Cajune knows the ugly face of racism.
When she was 5 years old, she and her sister were playing at the Ronan home of two non-Indian girls. Their fun was interrupted when the non-Indian mother intervened and told Cajune and her sister to leave and not come back. The girls didn’t understand what had happened, but they later overheard their mother say “those people don’t like Indians.”
“I remember feeling that there must be something wrong, something bad about being Indian,” Cajune told more than 300 participants attending last week’s gathering in Helena, caled the Montana State Conference on Race: Partnering Indians and Non-Indians for Change.
Cajune, Indian education coordinator with the Ronan-Pablo School District, noted that racism is still an insidious force that permeates all levels of society. Its broader form, she says, is rooted in colonialism, a process of domination and exploitation that continues to this day.
To succeed in conquest, she explained, oppressors target four mainstays. They overwhelm the culture of the colonized, they create an “extensive legal bureaucracy” designed to thwart and confound, they build inequality “between who gives and who receives,” and they economically exploit the oppressed wherever possible.
“It’s not something of the past,” she warned. While most participants agreed that racism is here to stay, opinions differed widely on how to combat it. Republican Gov. Marc Racicot told the group he believes most people “don’t make a judgment based on skin color alone,” especially when it comes to Indians.
The main problem, Racicot said, is that the fabric of state, tribal and federal relationships is so tangled that many non-Indians are simply confused and frustrated by a perceived lack of fairness in how they and Indians are treated.
“That may be naive in the minds of some,” Racicot said, adding that he believes most negative feelings about Indian people can be remedied through education and resolution of legal conflicts. He blamed the media for creating the misconception that battles are about race and not about the more complicated—and resolvable—issues of jurisdiction and authority.
“There are questions on both sides [regarding] fairness,” he said, and developing equitable agreements will both promote understanding and further cooperation.
But Massachusetts-based professor and author Peggy McIntosh opined that “white privilege” and its myriad social ramifications are not things that can be unraveled solely by the courts.
“There’s more to it than getting the law straight between us,” she said, adding that she considered the governor’s views to be “surrealistic.” Organizers want to make the conference an annual event.