A Muslim Among Native Americans *
by M.I. Rajabally
As I boarded the tiny six-passenger plane out of St. Paul en route to Pierre, capital of South Dakota, I knew I was in for some adventure at the Sioux Indian Reservation. My curiosity grew as I talked to fellow passengers and the crew. Everyone was shocked to hear of my venturing into the reservation.
They warned me to be cautious because I was going to a “dangerous place with strange people.” The plane bounced up and down and I started feeling sick - not from the plane –but the negative preconceived attitude I was hearing from everyone. What they were telling me was quite the opposite of what I had heard from my brother who is not only a fervent sympathizer of the tribe, but also the expert on Native American culture, arts and crafts. It was my brother who arranged for my visit to the reservation.
The natural beauty of the place took my breath away. It was the best therapy for my high-strung “city” nerves. The air was pure and fresh. As I drove down the gravel road, the horizon unfolded in front of me. I drove for miles without seeing a car or a person. The land seemed so virgin that many times when I got out of the car, I thought I was the first person walking on these plains. But I reminded myself that this was not true.
By the time I arrived, the sun was already setting. The thought that I could be the first person to give Adhan here overwhelmed me. In spite of my terrible voice, I gave the call to prayer and said my salaat in the open wilderness. I had been cautioned to watch for deadly rattlesnakes while going into sujud, but I was at such peace with myself that I was not intimidated by the possible presence of snakes. There were hawks wheeling across the sky, nature itself celebrating the praise of Al-Mighty God!
It the natural beauty of the reservation moved me, its physical condition was an astonishing blow. I could not believe that I was in the United States, the land of the plenty. While the government was proclaiming its leadership role in the “new world order,” it sure forgot to clean its own backyard. I could not believe I was only miles from Rapid City and yet where I was, there was no sewage, and no running water yet (pipes were being installed). Surprisingly, there was electricity, which allows every house to accommodate television – to poison the mind with shallow distorted values. There was no infrastructure, only some gravel roads, few gas stations., rudimentary health care facilities. I could not imagine American without a shopping mall, grocery store or a restaurant.
As I talked to the people, I began to develop a strong respect and admiration for a people that refused to be subjugated. In my mind, I started drawing parallels between the Muslim community and the Native American community. It did not take me long to figure out that we have a lot in common. First, we both face the tidal wave of prejudice based on ignorance and hearsay. People in general do not understand the Native Americans any more than they know or understand Islam and Muslims. The media represents both groups in a stereotyped and biased manner.
Talking to some Sioux children, I kept thinking of Muslim children. Both Sioux and Muslim children have to learn distorted historical facts about their ancestors in their social studies classes. Both groups of children are incorrectly taught how barbaric their ancestors were, ruthless people who killed people indiscriminately. History has been rewritten to force innocent minds to give up their ancestral pride and values. I could not help but think about the constant struggle we Muslims face to keep our Islamic values alive in our children against such onslaughts. Like Muslim parents, Sioux parents worry continuously.
I was deeply impressed with their concept of One True High God or Spirit. There were no idols or intermediaries. Their concept of deity matches the core of Islam. I kept thinking of the Qura’nic verse, “To every nation, a prophet was sent.”
The status of mankind as the khalifah of Allah on earth is a fundamental aspect of Sioux belief. They believe that man is responsible for managing the earth’s resources in a way that preserves the harmony of God’s Creation to be used for the good of all. What a striking similarity to Islam!
I visited Bear Butte, a sacred place for the tribe. Not long ago, caravans from various reservations converged on Bear Butte for a pilgrimage. They were forced to stop the practice because it was interfering with tourism, which is what the sacred place had been reduced to. We Muslims should know the feeling remembering when Prophet Muhammad and his followers were barred from performing the lesser pilgrimage to makkah. As we speak against injustice against Kashmiris and Palestinians, we also need to let the Sioux people know that Islam dictates that we will support them. Communication channels should be opened on an official, organizational level. We should look into the possibility of asking to set up a Sioux-Muslim camp in the summer to allow each group to learn about the other and to erase false perceptions.
I propose that concerned and interested Muslims consider establishing an official relationship with the tribal council. As American Muslims, we have a responsibility to expose injustice wherever we find it. Only a few know what injustices have been and are being done to Native Americans.
* Originally published in the print edition of The American Muslim in a special Native American edition, December 1993