It can be dangerous to make assumptions. That’s what a certain New York Times reporter found out when he tried interviewing several members of the Lakota Sioux at the 1935 Brussels International Exposition.
The Exposition was held with the involvement of 25 different countries. Its theme was colonization, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Congo Free State (perhaps not the wisest choice given Belgium’s history of colonization in the Congo), but nevertheless it attracted some 20 million visitors. The United States was not one of the countries officially involved in the expo, but Belgium wanted a village of Native Americans to be present at their celebration. They contacted the US embassy and somehow managed to get a group together, represented by several Native American tribes, the primary ones being the Lakota Sioux. Many of the Sioux who were involved were people who had traveled to Europe before, as entertainers and performers in a myriad number of Wild West shows, the most famous being Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.
One of the members of the group was a Lakota by the name of Sam Lone Bear. Lone Bear had joined Buffalo Bill’s show in 1894 at the age of sixteen. He was educated, and spoke at least three languages (English, French and German), and had continued to travel even after the dissolution of the Cody show in 1913. This trip to the Expo in Belgium was his eighth visit to Europe.
In his book Lakota Performers in Europe, historian Steve Friesen records an encounter between an unnamed New York Times reporter and Samuel Lone Bear:
“A New York Times Reporter, also present at the Lakotas’ arrival in Paris, described the event somewhat flippantly: “They are en route to the Brussels exposition where they will set up a typical Sioux village to show the world how the Red Man solves the high cost of living.”
According to the New York Times reporter, he drew upon his own “Indian vocabulary” and asked, “Heap-big Injun likum Paris?” This stereotype-laden query was met with a reply from Chief Black Horn: “I think it might facilitate matters for you if I refer you to our interpreter, Sam Lone Bear.” At that point the reporter asked Lone Bear in English if he spoke French. “Oh yes, and I also speak German,” he replied.”
The reporter learned a powerful lesson that day, about prejudice, about preconceived notions, and about making assumptions without all the facts at hand. His assumption that the Lakota could only communicate in an infantile stereotyped dialect was based on his complete lack of knowledge regarding the Sioux and how well traveled they had been over the first half of the twentieth century. Not only could the Sioux speak English as well as the reporter, but Lone Bear himself could speak several other languages besides.
We all tend to make judgments at times about people and about situations, based on less than all the evidence. We make a hasty evaluation, and many times it is later proven to be false because people are often more complex and far deeper than our first impressions would indicate. We measure based on a minute amount of information, never understanding that each individual and situation is unique, and there is always more that meets the eye.
The challenge today is to look past that first impression. Find someone that you perhaps have evaluated poorly, and dig a little deeper. See if you can find something about them that might surprise you, and in the end, you may not only learn something about them, but also come to understand something about yourself.