Thursday, March 22, 2012

Being Native American in the 20th Century

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In: A History of Fullerton.

Lee Coppick was an English teacher at Fullerton Union High School in the 1960s and 1970s. Before that, he was a professional broadway actor. Before that, he did graduate work at Yale and Northwestern. Before that, he lived on an Indian reservation in Texas. He was a Cherokee Indian.

In an interview for the "Indian Urbanization" program of the Duke Oral History Program in 1971, Coppick described being a Native American in the late 20th century.

As a young man, he attended the Haskell Institute, an "Indian school" operated by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). He did not fit in. "It [the school] was too much for the type of individual that would be going into labor," he said, "I find this is what the BIA does as far as Indian schools are concerned. They try to teach you technical skills and that sort of thing. I was not a technician. Unfortunately, I could think."

Coppick left the Indian school to attend a public high school in Oklahoma City because he felt "they were not attempting to give someone like myself the kind of education they needed. They wanted to keep individuals in one little frame. And I refused to stay in their little frame or their little niche."

At the public high school, Coppick was able to follow his dream of studying theater and literature. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma, and several graduate degrees in theater, history, and English.

After working as an actor and set designer on Broadway, Coppick went into teaching. One of his emphases, as a teacher, was to make students aware of Native Amerian issues, which he had first hand knowledge of. "When I am lecturing about the removal of the Indians from the southeast, I'm only teaching from the standpoint of my tribe, because this I know best. Sure I can give you generalizations about a lot of them, but I get down to a few specifics as far as my tribe is concerned…and the fallacies of the history books."

In the interview, Coppick goes into great detail about why his tribe was removed from the fertile southeastern section of the United States to the dry panhandle of Oklahoma and Texas. "We only killed what we needed, as far as hunting animals was concerned," he said, "It wasn't a business. And that's what the government was wanting. They were wanting to make it a business." Basically, his tribe was removed from the land they had occupied for centuries because they were living sustainably, and not exploiting the land for maximum profit.

Coppick remembers how members of his tribe, including his father, received payment from the government many years later, by way of apology for taking their land. "My father's share was something like $14," he said.

He describes how bureaucrats from the Bureau of Indian Affairs defrauded many of his people out of money that was rightfully theirs: "The government set up individuals who would be overseers to these monies that they received, not only from private industry, but also from the government itself. And many white people became very wealthy that way."

Coppick acknowledged small steps forward that had been made for his people, but was still skeptical given the United States government's record: "Do you remember when President Nixon gave the Taos the land in New Mexico because of religious right?…And it's the first time in the history of the United States that congress has passed a law that would give land to its rightful owner. Now how many hundreds of years has it been? I mean, how many years does it take?" Coppick believed that this bill was the result of intense lobbying by Oklahoma senator Fred Harris, whose wife was a full-blooded Comanche.

When asked if he has hope for the future, Coppick replied, "They've been hoping so long. And nothing has been accomplished. And you can't say because one item came about, the attitude is going to change…Changes need to come about. Not only for myself, but for other people, too."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for some more background on a great man, Mr. Lee Coppick.

    I was a student of his at Sunny Hills High and I learned a great deal about Mr. Coppick from student teachers he had mentored when I was in the teacher credential program at CSUF. I also found out Mr. Coppick had quietly helped several students and their families financially during hard times and helped graduate students with research of Southern American writers.

    As students high school English students, we all grew to love and respect Mr. Coppick. Years later I was devistated to learn of his early death shortly after retirement. I had no idea what an incredible background this great man had until after his passing. I am so thankful for knowing Mr. Coppick but I feel so sad about how little I knew of the great man while he was still here. I had no idea. It makes me feel foolish and cheated at the same time. Every little bit I learn now of Mr. Coppick is very precious to me so I thank you very much, Mr. La Tour, for sharing more about this man, this humble giant and "Dear Heart" Mr. Lee Coppick.