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Activism for James Magaska Swan goes back to his high school days

By       Message Samuel Vargo       (Page 1 of 7 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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A while back, Publisher Rob Kall invited writers to this online magazine to write stories about people and groups who are working for positive changes in their communities. In a world filled with dark, existential news, people would like to read about those who are working diligently to change things. Not only would such stories be refreshing and well received by writers and our readers, but such articles could act as catalysts for others to take charge in seeking the betterment of their own communities, Kall posited.

Today I offer you a story on one of the world's leading American Indian activists, James Magaska Swan, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. His story is an interesting one indeed, and his insight is synonymous really, with the word "incite" because he is a true activist of the first order. Mr. Swan's personal experiences and biographical sketch may encourage others to work on solving problems in their communities.


For Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member and activist James Magaska Swan, activism started for him when he was just a kid at Indian Heritage High School, a charter school for American Indian youth in Seattle, Wash.

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"Activism works if you can get people to stand up together," Swan told me in a telephone interview on Sunday, April 24. "People togetherness is important. If I lived in a town with a very bad mayor, if I could get half of the people in that town to force the mayor out of office, that's a lot of power.

"That's how we activate. As an activist, you build a fire under the people to get them moving. You get these people together to fight things they don't like," Swan told me.

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"I went to a high school in Seattle Wash. where you had to be a Native American to go to that school. It was a charter school exclusively for urban Indians.

"So in at that school, our history was Native History. That's what we studied. It was very different than other schools. We learned about our culture, traditions and quite a bit about our spirituality there, too.

"Some buddies of mine from the Blackfeet Tribe in Browning, Mont. - not the Blackfoot Tribe but the Blackfeet Tribe - who were also enrolled at Indian Heritage High School, and I hung around together back then. We ran across this Leonard Peltier Defense Committee group and we thought it was cool ...Oh, this goes back to around 1976-77....So we started hanging around with older AIM (American Indian Movement) guys, and I introduced my buddies to a Native American musical group called XIT, which is pronounced "Exit". XIT was sort of a pop group, but they were a bit militant and sang songs about Native issues and concerns. And they recorded some tunes about our culture, spirituality and traditions," Swan told this writer.

"We got involved with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee and we got about 2,000 signatures on a petition to free Leonard Peltier back in the mid-70's. That was my first experience in any type of activism. Even today, I'm very proud of this feat," Swan told me.

"After high school, I went into the Navy and when I got out of the military, well, that takes me to the late 1980's, and really, back to being a civilian activist. After my Navy years, I became involved with Native tribes in Washington state to help the Macaw Tribe win whaling rights to hunt whales -- it's part of their tradition.

"It went well, we won. We were also involved with other tribes' fishing rights for fishing in the rivers in Washington state -- such as The Snoqualmie Tribal People and the and Puyallup Tribe of Indians. They have casinos in Washington state. These tribes live on salmon just like my tribe lives on buffalo," Swan said.

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"It was exciting, I liked it, I was intrigued by it," Swan said of his early days of being a "warrior for the people".

James Magaska Swan isn't a fluff and feathers sort of Indian, and although he's a powow fancy dancer, he's also a militant activist.
James Magaska Swan isn't a fluff and feathers sort of Indian, and although he's a powow fancy dancer, he's also a militant activist.
(Image by James Magaska Swan / UWWS)
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Swan was in the Navy for three years, donning his sailor's uniform right after high school, at age 17.

"I got out of the military in 1981. I was in Iran when they took over the American embassy in 1979," he said.

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Samuel Vargo worked as a full-time reporter and editor for more than 20 years at a number of daily newspapers and business journals. He was also an adjunct English professor at colleges and universities in Ohio, West Virginia, Mississippi (more...)

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