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Home --> Politics --> Immigration --> Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience

Legend:   Native American warns U.S. vice-president about American immigration policy.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2006]

Food for Thought ...

Recently someone was browsing through the 40th Anniversary Issue of Reader's Digest (dated Feb. 1962) and came across this reprint from the Washington News. And found it quite interesting considering our current debates!

The Quote:

"Vice President Lyndon Johnson received the following message from an Indian (Native American) on a reservation: 'Be careful with your immigration laws. We were careless with ours.'"

Origins:   Whenever the debate about U.S. immigration policy flares anew, many debaters quickly rush into one of two camps: those who believe that a flood of illegal immigrants is undermining the
American economy and culture, and those who assert that America's foundations were built upon the bedrock of immigration, and that all U.S. residents other than Native Americans are themselves immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. That last point is common fodder for humor, with many jokes playing on the notion of "Indians" sagely and sardonically cautioning "white men" (or others) to avoid the same dangers they themselves faced from the European settlers who colonized the North American continent. (A familiar anecdote about a subversive greeting provided to NASA officials by a Navajo is a sample of this form.)

The example reproduced above was mined from the same vein, a joke that enjoyed brief currency in the American press during the early summer of 1961, primarily through its retelling by Representative E.Y. Berry of South Dakota. In true urban legend fashion, even though the tale was spread by a single source, in just a few weeks' time it was reproduced in multiple versions with differing details. For example, on 2 July 1961, the Washington Post ran it this way:
As Rep. E. Y. Berry tells it, Chief Ben Wildhorse, a South Dakota Sioux, came to Washington and was given an audience by the Vice President.

The Chief's advice to the Vice President: "Young man, be careful with your immigration laws. We were careless with ours."
In this instance the Native American is identified by name and tribe, but the vice-president is referenced only by position. (Most people, as in the Reader's Digest example quoted above, simply filled in the name of the then-current vice-president, Lyndon Johnson.)

Three weeks later, the Chicago Daily Tribune printed the same item, only in a slightly more elaborate version that didn't name the Indian chief and had the Sioux offering his advice to Lyndon Johnson's predecessor in the vice-presidency, Richard Nixon:
Rep. E .Y. Berry recalls the time a Sioux Indian chief from South Dakota called on former Vice President Nixon to discuss tribal land matters. As he was leaving the Vice President's office, the chief said he had some advice to impart.

"Be careful with your immigration laws," the Indian said, "unfortunately, we were careless with ours."
The same story had appeared a month earlier in the Chicago Defender, in yet another version that again identified the Sioux chieftain (but gave him a different name); had him imparting his wisdom to Nixon's predecessor, the late Alben Barkley; and classified the tale as "an old Indian proverb":
Rep. E .Y. Berry Monday repeated an old Indian proverb for the edification of Congressmen studying immigration problems.

Sioux chieftain Ben American Horse, Berry said, once advised the late Vice President Alben W. Barkley to "be careful with your immigration laws. We were careless with ours."
Finally, a 1965 version combined elements of both this anecdote and the NASA/Navajo joke referenced earlier in this article:
Many people no doubt remember the aging Sioux Indian Chief Ben American Horse's well-known remark to the late Alben Barkley, Harry Truman's vice president.

"Young man, let me give you a little advice," said the chief. "Be careful with your immigration laws. We were careless with ours."

A sequel to this, which might have been prompted by the Gemini flights, is now suggested by [South Dakota] Sen. Karl Mundt.

A Sioux Indian from South Dakota wrote Mundt wanting to know "why you white people want to go to the moon. There is no Indian land to take away up there!"
For what it's worth, Ben American Horse was a real Sioux chieftain, and he did visit Washington in 1955, when Alben Barkley was a U.S. senator and Richard Nixon was vice-president. However, we couldn't find any contemporaneous news accounts that reported his making (to either man) the "immigration" remark attributed to him — all such accounts we turned up dated from 1961 or later, after Barkley was dead and Nixon was out of office.

Last updated:   11 August 2006

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  Sources Sources:
    Albright, Robert C.   "Lone Sunbeam Pierces Pall of Off-Year Loss."
    The Washington Post.   2 July 1961   (p. E1).

    Gabbett, Harry.   "Visiting Sioux Chief Pays His Disrespects to Things."
    The Washington Post.   8 March 1955   (p. 27).

    Trohan, Walter.   "Washington Scrapbook."
    Chicago Daily Tribune.   23 July 1961   (p. 22).

    Indiana Evening Gazette.   "Litterbug in Trouble with Him."
    11 September 1965   (p. 8).

    United Press International.   "Chuckles in the News."
    Chicago Daily Defender.   28 June 1961   (p. 19).