The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Native Americans, a history of pain — and reasons for hope

Former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), pictured in 1994, writes that he was moved by a newspaper photo of a young Native girl who was abused in foster care. In his book, her sufferings parallel those faced by Native Americans throughout history. (Photo by Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Sitting in his Washington office 30 years ago, Byron Dorgan, then a Democratic congressman from North Dakota, picked up a copy of the Bismarck Tribune and was struck by a front-page photo of a young girl with a tear running down her face.

The story was about the abuse of Native American children in the state’s foster-care system, and the girl in the photo, Tamara, was one of its youngest victims. As a 2-year-old she had been so severely beaten that, three years later, she “was in full emotional retreat.” According to her grandfather, “she spent her time huddling in the shadows, singing television jingles as if they were hymns that might bring her into the light,” Dorgan writes in “The Girl in the Photograph.”

The photo of Tamara haunted Dorgan. He visited the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where she lived and launched inquiries into the system that had allowed such abuse to occur. Tamara’s life, he learned, was already a full timeline of misery and despair. She had been removed from the charge of her alcoholic parents and placed in a foster-care system that would leave her forever scarred.

Dorgan kept track of Tamara for a few years but then lost contact. Many years later she connected with him on Facebook, and he learned that the little girl with the tear on her face had, perhaps predictably, endured many hardships. She struggled in school, ran away from home often, lived on the streets, battled PTSD and faced down demon after demon. Incredibly, she survived all of that and escaped becoming another statistic. With help from others, she no longer lived in fear and despair. She had even found some sense of hope.

But Dorgan’s book is only nominally about Tamara. He tells her story against the backdrop of the epic struggles and historic mistreatment of American Indians. It’s hard not to see a parallel between the sins committed against Tamara over the past three decades and the litany of sins committed against Native Americans — genocide, theft, discrimination, abandonment — that began centuries ago and continues to this day.

Tamara’s homelessness, Dorgan writes, “was a continuation of a centuries-old cycle that began when Native Americans were driven from their ancestral homes. So many promises have been broken along the way. Always, capitalism — if not theft — trumped human rights and morality. We’ve salted their ground instead of seeding it.”

The typical American student learns little about Native American history, particularly the succession of wrongs inflicted on tribes over the years. Dorgan fills in those gaps with brief sections on the Trail of Tears, treaties that were repeatedly established and then broken, the theft of resources from Indian lands, and the horrific efforts of boarding schools that forced Native children to abandon their languages and customs.

He reminds us that the motto of one of those schools, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” At another school, students who were caught speaking their own language faced a painful and humiliating punishment: They were forced to chew lye soap and blow bubbles.

“Intergenerational trauma is always there, a shadow over every other discussion about Indian children,” Dorgan writes. “The bitter experience of life as American Indians in a country where their land was stolen and they were virtually imprisoned, massacred, starved, and tortured for a couple of centuries has left bitter memories that generations of Indians have inherited.”

If the book is a reminder of all our nation’s misdeeds against the country’s original inhabitants, it is also a call to action. In each chapter, Dorgan presents a problem faced by Native Americans that seems intractable and then offers examples of individuals or tribes that have succeeded despite the enormous challenges. The statistics in some cases are daunting.

For instance, Dorgan writes:

●Indian children graduate from high school at a 67 percent rate, compared with 80 percent nationally.

●Funding for the Indian Health Service, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, is enough to serve only about 50 percent of the needs of the Indian population.

●The suicide rate among Native Americans is three times higher than the national average. On some reservations, the figure is 10 times the average.

●American Indian women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other Americans. And nearly one-third of Indian women have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

Those depressing numbers, affecting every aspect of Indian life, can feel overwhelming. Dorgan does his best to alleviate despair by telling readers about the many Indian men, women and children who are working to address them. People such as Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a member of the Wilton Band of Miwok Indians in California, who founded Native Education Raising Dedicated Students, or NERDS, a mentoring program for Native youth to encourage them to help struggling fellow students. And Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of the Ojibwe Indian tribe, who is now Minnesota’s lieutenant governor and a strong advocate for Indian issues.

But Native Americans alone won’t be able to solve the myriad problems they face, Dorgan says. The responsibility for that belongs to all Americans, because it is an unpaid debt. “Like deadbeats dodging bill collectors, as a nation, we keep dodging responsibility for what has transpired, what was perpetrated, and that from which we have benefited,” Dorgan writes. That sentiment sets up the book’s final entry, a listing of organizations working to address the issues he has catalogued. He begins the section with words that leave no American off the hook: “I believe that once you become aware of an injustice, you assume an obligation to try and fix it.”

The Girl in the Photograph

The True Story of a Native American Child, Lost and Found in America

By Byron L. Dorgan

Thomas Dunne. $27.99