For the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Bemidji State University, I was given the honor to speak about how MLK has personalized my experience and that of some Indigenous people. I would like to share my talk with you as you also contemplate why we celebrate his leadership and contributions to humanity.

Dr. King, a husband, father, teacher, pastor and civil rights leader received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1968 for his work in racial social justice. He is best known for leading the March on Washington and delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Dr. King lived and died with the belief that freedom and liberation were at the heart of all black and oppressed people.

How does his work impact me today and or some of the lives of Indigenous people? Dr. King’s work and presence meant something different to each of us. It is about perspective. Some of the earliest comments made by Indigenous leaders about Dr. King were those of praise, admiration and respect. Vine Deloria, one of the best known Indigenous historians, theologian, lawyer and activist who wrote the book “Custer Died for your Sins” made a public statement regarding the march and eloquently stated that “the Black people want equal rights to the White people in this country, the native-Indigenous people want their sovereign rights upheld and respected as nations in this country.” Although we have two objectives, they are very similar in that they both result in freedom and liberation. Indigenous and other oppressed people know this work is not finished and that it continues to take on new meaning with every administrative leadership in the U.S. government.

In 1862, the U.S. government led by Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and it became effective in 1863. During that same time, in 1862, Lincoln ordered the largest mass execution in this country in Mankato resulting in the death of 38 Dakota and eventually two more. Originally that order was designated for over 300 Dakota men.

In my opinion, the work of Dr. King and most activists seem to be boxed into social justice efforts when their work encompasses much more than that. For instance, both King and Deloria were spiritual -- one a pastor and the other a theologian. Their spiritual impact has been played down for social activism, politics and other movements. Today we find among international religions, (for example: Hindus, Bahais and Buddhists) that Indigenous people have been identified as the leaders for this age and because of their spirituality and have the cutting edge to a particular type of knowledge only found among other Indigenous peoples globally.

If we look closely to the efforts of Dr. King, we will find his message carried into society and black society in particular through music. In 1970, The Temptations wrote a song titled “The Ball of Confusion,” where they say the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation. In 1971, Marvin Gaye's song “What’s going on?” spoke to the oil in the ocean, mercury in the fish and our overcrowded world. In 1972, the musical group War sang “The World is a Ghetto” speaking to our environments as well as our psychological condition/perspective.

My favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes include:

  • In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

  • Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

  • We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.

  • We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.

  • Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

  • Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.

  • Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

  • In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

  • True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

  • The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

  • We know through painful experience, that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Vivian Delgado is a professor of Native American studies at Bemidji State University.