My Turn: Native Americans among us

  • Daniel Brown

Published: 3/11/2019 8:49:17 AM

The recent controversy over the blackface antics of Virginia politicians plus the response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential announcement has brought to the fore the ugly issue of racist stereotypes. Never one to miss an abysmal opportunity, Donald Trump — who exhibits behavior that would be banned in kindergarten — sank into his bigoted nature by continuing to refer to the Massachusetts senator as “Pocahontas,” a slur that charms his reactionary base, but offends any American with a shred of decency. It is a small step to connect the ignominy of blackface with the defaming of Native Americans by way of the “Tomahawk Chop” and sports logos that refuse to recognize them as actual human beings.

Native Americans are not an abstraction in my current home of northern New Mexico. We have real Indians here, full-bloods and half-bloods who have not only lived on the same land for nearly a thousand years but who have also maintained their religious traditions for centuries. True, most of them drive SUVs, watch television, post on Facebook and hang onto their Smartphones as much as their Anglo and Hispanic neighbors, but at certain times of the year, they shed the trappings of the modern era to reconnect with their ancient rituals. How they do so is nobody’s business but their own. Those who consciously live in Taos County have taken the time to navigate their interactions with the Indians (which is how they refer to themselves) of Taos Pueblo with respect and understanding that they were here first and have dedicated their lives to the caretaking of our special land.

They also have suffered for their identity. Their subjugation to first the Spanish conquistadors and then the Americans is well known. The Taos Pueblo population suffers from all the trials and tribulations shared by Native peoples in North America; drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, poor health, domestic violence, poverty and, most importantly, the loss of their young people who flee their homes for a supposed better life elsewhere. Today, over 70 percent of American Indians live in urban areas.

Last year, I was fortunate to be able to work with Native American teenagers from the various nations that exist in New Mexico. These were mostly Navajo and Apache young people, one in 50 of whom came from anything resembling a normal home life. They were spending several months at a residential treatment center to push the reset button on their lives. I volunteered to teach a weekly creative writing class and came to deeply appreciate the strength, courage and resiliency of these young folks. My writing workshop became a vehicle for them to express themselves, to get a handle on their past and hopefully, chart a positive future. Along the way, they destroyed my own remaining stereotypes about Indians. They were into such diverse interests as Hip-hop, Buddhism and poetry, voiced the wish to travel abroad and soundly (and repeatedly) beat me in the word game, “Apples to Apples.” Some had experienced lives Charles Dickens could have written about. All projected a better life for themselves. Their traumatic pasts often echoed in how they handled the present. One girl, who knew nothing about my personal life, lectured me on the need to always be nice to my wife. “Buy her flowers before you go home,” she admonished. “Do it today!” I did.

Their passion in the face of adversity should be remembered. Being a Native person is more than just the results of a DNA test, having some minor blood percentage or strutting about with a phony “Indian”-sounding name.

Since the First Nations of Franklin County were exterminated or assimilated out of existence centuries ago, it might be hard for some local residents to realize that Native Americans are actual people. They have names, interests, individualities and all the positive and negative human foibles as the rest of us. They are not the yelping, scalping savages of 1950s television westerns. Nor are they the stoic, environmental pacifists that New Age white people erroneously view them as. They are not symbols, logos or exotics. They have learned, at great expense, to shrewdly navigate the mainstream world forced upon them. Native Americans are now filmmakers like Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals,”) authors such as Tommy Orange (There, There,) social justice activists who at Standing Rock are defying the pipeline constructed across their land and finally, through the election of Deb Haaland of New Mexico and ShariceDavids of Kansas, the first Native American members of Congress. Hopefully the world view of these two women, one that is not based on predatory greed, will permeate our politics and set us back on a path that is beneficial to the American community, the natural beauty of our country and our planetary home.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for forty-four years and was a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He currently lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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