Southern Cheyenne Chief Laird (Whistling Eagle) Cometsevah
“The Other Side of Racism and Hate”
Donald L. Vasicek
So, there was this hot, windy day in Oklahoma City, May 25, 2017, which was the beginning of learning a lesson about racism and hate that parallels that of the hate groups in America today. I should’ve known better before I accepted an invitation to come here to speak at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Veterans Memorial Day Service and to screen my award-winning documentary film, “The Sand Creek Massacre”. I should have known better because since I wrote, directed and produced the film, I have looked intothe eyes of racism and hate over and over and over during screenings and appearances in every major city in the U. S. It is a most chilling experience.
The Director of Cheyenne and Arapaho Veteran Services, a personable Cheyenne man with coal black, wavy hair, and smooth light brown skin with a dynamic personality, kindly drove me to each location where I was to be. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Complex in El Reno, Oklahoma was our first stop. When we walked into this massive-sized hall, he left me to myself to attend to his job responsibilities. As I scanned the huge room, I saw numerous Cheyenne and Arapaho people milling around. I did not see 1 white person. It gave me a feeling of fear.
Suddenly, several Cheyenne and Arapaho people swarmed me. They introduced themselves, said they were excited to meet me. They had made up flyers and posted them all over Oklahoma City, El Reno and Concho, Oklahoma, in anticipation of my appearance. Each person wanted something different from me. One man asked me to sign 7 different posters of me with my photo and Sand Creek Massacre film poster along with my bio on the posters. Another, Larry, a Cheyenne man wearing a fedora, sunglasses and a white patch of hair at the crease in his chin, wanted to talk with me about the Sand Creek Massacre and his ancestors who were there, and survived. A Cheyenne woman print journalist asked to interview me after I gave my speech. 3 other Cheyenne woman asked me for copies of the film. A trim and handsome Cheyenne man who is a re-known forensic face expert, introduced himself to me. He creates “faces” from dead bodies so that it helps law enforcement identify dead bodies. Meeting him was exciting because I read true crime books and watch true crime t.v. shows. He has been mentioned in some of the books and shows.
After several men and kids sitting in a circle around drums played and sang 3 songs in Cheyenne, a Cheyenne and Arapaho color guard presented its colors. There were 3 Cheyenne and Arapaho speakers, 1 of whom was the Lt. Governor of Oklahoma and a USMC member. When I spoke I commended the 6 Cheyenne and Arapaho men who told their story in “The Sand Creek Massacre” film, particularly those who served America in the military service. In an attempt to establish some common ground with the audience, possibly 1 to 200, all of whom were Cheyenne and Arapaho with the exception of a white camera person taping the service, I mentioned Trump by saying that there was a racist and bigot who lived in the White House.
When my speech was over, there were echoes of applause. I write, echoes, because they were few who applauded me. But those who did, their applause bounced off the walls of the massive-sized room. My film was turned on for everyone to watch (there were about 200 people there). While the film was playing, sitting alone, I started eating my box lunch, while a Cheyenne print journalist interviewed me for her newspaper. Then, 6 Cheyenne men came up to me. They pulled out chairs. The sat down and circled all the way around me. I ended up sitting in the middle of them, you know, like I was being attacked like Indian’s attacked whites encroaching on their lands during the 18th & 19th centuries, who circled their wagon trains to protect themselves from the attacks.
The spokesman a burly, intimidating man with an angry look on his face, whom I’ll call Mr. X, told me with no blinking of eyes that I was exploiting their people by having made this film and distributing it. He asked me who gave me permission to make the film. I told him I traveled to Clinton, Oklahoma, Lame Deer, Montana and Wind River, Wyoming Cheyenne and Arapaho reservations and appeared before Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal councils to get permission to make the film. They approved it. The angry man told me that a PBS t.v. station came down to Oklahoma to shoot footage for a Sand Creek Massacre story. He said they promised his people and him that they would pay them, which they never did.
As I looked around the circle, and met each man head on in their eyes, and stone-cold faces, I saw that their pupils were black. Like the eyes of a snake, motionless, angry, maybe fearful, they stared right through me like laser beams burning holes in my very being. Fear drove me to attack.
I told them they were insulting my integrity and professionalism. I told them that I made the film to provide a voice for their people. I said there was never any intention to make any money off of the film or to acquire fame because of it, something Cheyenne and Arapaho people on other reservations had confronted me with before. I went on to say I hadn’t made any money from sales of the film, that I was still paying for its production out of my own pocket, and that I would never make any money on the film.
We proceeded to have a stare down. I wasn’t going to blink or move. I thought, “fuck them”. They owe me an apology. Finally, Mr. X stood up. The other 5 men stood up. He offered his hand to me, as well as each of the other men. We shook hands. Each of the other men shook my hand. They smiled. They showed me respect. Mr. X thanked me and said that they no longer had a problem with me making the film. The forensic face man asked me where he could get a copy of my film so that he could show it in classrooms for appearances he makes in schools.
That evening I screened the film at the Concho, Oklahoma Community Center. There were 50 chairs, all of which were filled, with Cheyenne and Arapaho people. I was the only white person there. After my speech and the screening, 2 different people attacked me for making the film. A Cheyenne woman. An Arapaho man.
The Cheyenne woman was right in front of me, feet away. I have never, ever, faced anyone with such a hating look that she gave me. It was chilling. I really believed that she wanted to take me out. She ranted about how white people treat the Jews by building monuments for them, giving them money, helping them out with training and jobs, but they do nothing for the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. She asked me, “Why is that? Why are whites helping the Jews, but not us” as though it was my fault.
I told her that I made this film as a voice for her people. I told her that other white people have helped create organizations in colleges and universities for America’s indigenous people to further their education. I told that there are companies and corporations who have and are creating jobs for America’s indigenous people. I told her that there are many groups of white people who stand up for America’s indigenous people. I told her there are television and radio programs that have their doors open to America’s indigenous people. I said that there are a multitude of white people who donate money and time to help America’s indigenous people get places to live, food to eat and transportation.
She said, “That isn’t enough.”
I was unable to take my eyes off of her eyes. Her pupils were small and black, shaped like inverted almonds. The hate that emanated from her eyes terrified me. I was stunned by it. I was thinking that she was going to pull out a knife and stab me. She showed so much hate towards me. I was about to step back from her when I was suddenly able to look through the hate in her eyes. On the other side of the hate, I saw the look of betrayal, of sadness, of a loving woman who was devastated by the trust by her ancestors that was broken by white people many years ago and continues to exist today, even to the point of genocide. It was at that point that I saw her vulnerability.
I asked her, “What is enough?” She blinked her eyes then. Tears filled them. Mine were on the brink of tears. She smiled. She reached out her hand to me. She thanked me for making the film. I wanted to open my arms up to her, to hug her, but the fear was still there even though, for the first time in my long odyssey with “The Sand Creek Massacre” film, which has taken me to nearly every state in the country for screenings, speaking appearances, questions and answer sessions on radio and television, traveling to schools, colleges, universities, organizations, corporations, film festivals, etc., I felt as though I had finally found some common ground with racism and hate.
I will always remember the little 4th grade girl who watched the film with 73 parents, faculty and students at Walnut Hills Elementary School in Centennial, Colorado. She asked me, “Why do people hate Indians?” I was speechless. Now, I could answer her question better than I did then. And what do any of us have, if we do not have love in our hearts for human beings?