Community and Identity Politics in the 1960s and 1970s

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Oral history has always been how stories are passed down in Native American cultures. And it is these stories which taught generation after generation the history, values, and spiritual ways of each tribe. After Columbus came and “discovered” their land, the stories changed. They became laden with death, poverty, and a hatred for the White man who had taken their home and often their lives. The history Native Americans have had with those who govern the land they live on has been fraught with strife and can still be one of distrust and righteous anger. Anthropology and ethnography are the most common methods through which non-Native peoples “know” about Native Americans. These methods are flawed in many ways, but the most important one is that they, by their very nature, rely on a middleman, the ethnographer or anthropologist, in order to transmit information. Often, the voices of Native Americans get drowned out, or worse are simply not there at all. While these fields certainly have their merits in studying cultures, oral history could potentially contribute greatly to human understanding.

This intersectionality was a main component of politics in the 1960s and 1970s, and one of the themes I sought to explore with my brief oral history of Mary Larkin, a Lakota-Sioux-Ukrainian woman currently living in South Dakota, and part-time on the Pine Ridge Reservation near her home. Born in 1947, Mary grew up in Chicago and South Dakota. Her story is one of living within intersectionality, of trying to bridge the gaps between two cultures, between two worlds. There are other axes of discrimination she faces beyond those faced by a woman of color and by a Native woman specifically. As a woman, she has fought against anti-women behavior and values in her communities, and found her varied identities conflicting. It is her fight to integrate all of her identities, to refuse to draw a box around her identity, that made her such an interesting subject for an oral history about living in the 1960s and 1970s. The civil rights movement and feminist movement sought to bring together many different people on the basis of shared oppression, giving the movements a broader voice. At the same time, politics in that era was largely based on issues of identity. The issues of intersectionality, and trying to hold all parts of one’s identity together rather than be broken up into either women or Native American (or Black, or any other component of identity), is a very present force in the lives of all human beings.

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In fighting forces seeking to oppress her, either from within or without her own community, Mary still finds succor in her community, more so because of her history of being separated from her culture until she was older. Finding a wide circle of people who she felt were more like family than the community she grew up in was a turning point in her life. She was adopted by a Dakota spiritual teacher, and has learned much from his wisdom, and is accepted as his daughter. Her politics and her spirituality contributed to feelings of belonging to this community, and thus of belonging more fully to herself. She has also completed her bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, which she puts to use in her community and working with battered women. While Mary participates in what might be considered “traditional” political work through her history working with domestic violence sheltered and coming out of an abusive relationship herself, there are political ideals and work being done in other areas of her life as well. The determination to integrate political work into everyday life is a common theme during the 1960s and 1970s, and one that has influenced Mary throughout her life.

            Mary spoke a lot about the good and bad aspects of community, and about the strength she was able to draw from the Native American community as she grew older and learned more about her heritage, partially as a result of becoming politicized during the late 1960s. One of the reasons she found such power in this community stems from her feelings of being left out of the mainly Anglo community she grew up in, much as many Black women who were “left out” of feminism found strength in Black Nationalist movements and earlier in the civil rights movement. She speaks about growing up in an Anglo-Ukrainian community in Chicago:

I don’t know if you know this or no, but “white” wasn’t what it used to be. I am dark, so they knew I was different, but I went to church with them and they figured I wasn’t dark enough to be dangerous. … Color was not so important as ethnicity in my community. And my ethnicity was different (6).

This brings up the history of whiteness in America. “White” has always been difficult to define, and there is a long history of Irish, Eastern Europeans, and South Americans who “look white” being discriminated against. At the same time, there is a parallel history of “passing” as “white” if one is able to, although that produces its own problems psychologically. In the end, the truth of Mary’s ethnicity didn’t matter, because although she wasn’t “dark enough to be dangerous,” i.e. Black, which apparently would have made her a dangerous person in her “white” community, she was darker than the other White folks, and did not know why. Mary felt out of place in her “home” and when she went to college later on, she sought a new home in the Native community.

There was no pride in Native. There was no movement to take back what the founding fathers stole from us. As far as I knew, growing up in Chicago, there was nobody else like me. Or maybe I was just Mexican, or dark Romanian, I didn’t know. And it wasn’t ‘til I went to college and started meeting other people that they needed to know what I was, needed to place me somewhere. It was “Are you Mexican?” “Are you Spanish?” “Are you Indian?” And I didn’t see where’s it mattered, it didn’t matter to me. I was in the Southwest, so everybody was something (7).

She also spoke about the necessity of separatism at a certain point, and also of the need to go out into the rest of the world outside of your community, to build bridges. Community can serve to prepare you to meet this world head-on, but meet it you must. Mary feels “at home” in her community, but also sees the need to be among people other than her own, and to bring the message of women’s rights and Native American rights to a wider group of people. This echoes the Black Nationalist movement that was a component of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and became its own movement in the form of the Black Panthers in the 1970s. While the movement began in response to the need to create a space for Black people, it became a burden eventually that some members were eager to move beyond. Mary puts this same idea is other words:

I feel like a real person, like I’ve found home now that I am with my people. But I do not align myself solely with them and against everyone else. I cannot do that, as a woman I must put myself everywhere. I need people who do not understand me to understand me. I need them to know I exist, to know I am like them in some ways (20)

This oft-expressed need and desire to move beyond your community, even your adopted one as is the case with Mary, and build community with other tribes or neighborhoods, other states, other countries, and the entire world, is a powerful statement for the necessity of community.

            Themes of community continued throughout Mary’s life story. Mary is balanced on the edge between two worlds – Native and Anglo. While this is difficult for her at times, she is also able to bring fresh ideas to both worlds due to her identification with both. She sees all parts of her identity as making up a whole, rather than one part being eliminated when put in relation to another:

When I think about not doing something, about leaving the reservation, or what if I had not had kids, or stopped doing art, or telling stories, or working with what some say are hopeless cases, I don’t know what I would do. This is all a part of me, I can’t just cut one thing off, it would be like cutting off my hand or my leg. I am all of these things, and while people like to put you in one place – ether you are an academic or an activist, you are a mother or a feminist. I am not one of these things, and I don’t know any woman especially who is (19).

Raising children, fighting for education on the reservation, making art, speaking your story, and starting a domestic violence shelter are all forms of politics. The politics that have informed Mary’s life are rooted in ideals of the 1960’s and 1970’s; equality, freedom from oppression, and the struggle for pride in one’s identity.

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Community and Identity Politics in the 1960s and 1970s. (2016, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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