PIERRE - I get confused when I hear some people say in South Dakota, "We were here first."
I certainly don't dispute that native people lived throughout this region before European explorers arrived.
I don't know anyone who disputes that.
So what is the point of the "We were here first" comment?
Is it to dismiss me because my personal heritage isn't what our society now categorizes as American Indian?
Is it a way to tell me that I'm second-class?
I don't need to be told that. I already know it. I can't vote in a tribal government election. I can't receive the additional benefits available from the federal government for lands taken.
I do understand the desire of people to speak their native language and dialects. That is how people's brains are wired.
We want to speak our language. We want to talk about our history.
We want to say who we are, in our way.
Declaring "We were here first" can be a way of saying, "Recognize our language. Recognize our history."
Throughout the first century of territorial settlement and statehood, many people in South Dakota spoke their native languages and dialects within their homes and communities.
The challenge, even still today, comes when speakers of different languages come together.
I don't know enough German or Lakota or Spanish or French to flunk a test. I know only American English.
I confess: When a speaker at a meeting chooses to make comments in something other than American English, I'm lost.
Solutions might be trusting translators or personally learning the languages and dialects in which those comments are made.
We do have many people in South Dakota who speak more than one language. I admire them for that ability.
I just don't think, at age 56, I will get there. Too often words I know escape me already.
The closest I came to living with a second language ended when I was a boy and the Catholic Church stopped celebrating Mass in Latin.
So what do we do with these things such as language that would divide us as citizens?
Should our public schools teach Lakota / Dakota as a second language, as we increasingly offer courses in English as a second language?
Our state's native people are hardly alone. This has been a struggle in Ireland too. I'm just as lost with anything spoken or written in Gaelic.
This comes to mind during Memorial Day weekend. It is a national holiday marking the losses of so many soldiers and others in the Civil War.
The war was largely about the federal Fugitive Slave Act and people with black skin who had been mercilessly forced to work in the United States of America.
The war ended in 1865 with the Union winning. This was also the time that U.S. troops pushed west into the Plains and over three decades came bloodshed, forced treaties and reservations.
We have yet to make real peace in urban America or Indian country.
We are here now, each of us, still facing that challenge.