Thursday, November 3, 2011

On the Rez

Fact: I’ve known two Indians in my life. Well, a couple more, but not so much as to talk to. Of those, there are only two. The first was my cellmate in Hennepin County jail. He was a nice guy, short, from the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. There was a bunch of Indians in the can; that’s where I first got to know any of them, but, really, only my cell mate to any degree.

Booze. That’s what got him there. For any of them, whatever else the charge was, it was booze. My mate was a serious guy; he knew booze was killing his people. He asked me, in all sincerity, what I thought they could do about it? He mistook me for an apostle or a prophet because I had long hair and wouldn’t eat the jail food. “Easy,” I told him, “take LSD.” I’m pretty sure you can get LSD on the reservation by now, but the reservation is still the reservation. That didn’t work; maybe it was the setting.

The other Indian is Glen Lafontaine, a Métis from Canada (whom the Canadians consider a distinct, indigenous group). Glen was a book scout when I was a dealer. Book scouting attracts a discriminating clientele. More than a book scout, Glen would occasionally turn up with an ice chest full of salmon at a reasonable price, so long as I didn’t tell anyone. Good enough by me.

My only other significant encounter with Native Americans came when I innocently asked the cultural attaché to a local reservation to find someone who could help me understand the history of Indian burial practices. Whew! Did that set off fireworks!

But enough about me. I’ve been thinking more upon what my cellmate asked: is there anything to be done?

No, not really. At least there’s nothing I can do or suggest. I haven’t spent my life in Indian affairs. My voice isn’t even shouting at the wilderness, much less in it. But I’m as free as the next person to give my off-the-top-of-my-head opinion, no? If I had been studying Indian affairs, I’m sure I would come upon these same conclusions; they aren’t original. They’re merely observations.

Let’s start out brutally and observe that, for all intents and purposes, there were no Indian Wars. Maybe a few locals scrapped it up with the Vikings, but…

Let’s observe Squanto, my vote for the greatest American of all time. When Squanto returned home to his farm on Cape Cod for the second time, having been twice enslaved and hauled off to Europe, he found his village deserted and his fields lying fallow. Having been a slave in England on one of those occasions, he had learned English. He was subsequently enslaved in Spain, so he probably knew Spanish, too, but that skill wasn’t important to the American story.

English was, because shortly after returning the second time another group of Englishmen (and women) arrived on his shores; but this time they weren’t slavers. They called themselves “pilgrims” and didn’t know beans about beans. Lo and behold, the English looked around, found the fallow fields and went about trying to plant crops. Lucky for them, Squanto showed up.

It’s important here to understand why the village had been deserted and the fields left untended. It wasn’t because slavers periodically showed up and stole people away—though that might have been reason enough—but because the slavers left disease behind them which killed nearly everyone in the village, including Squanto’s parents. The survivors did move away, and that’s what Squanto came home to. Nothing.

You and I in the same position, I believe, would be very wary of welcoming any English, even if they weren’t slavers. Personally, I’d be more of a mind to kill them than to save them; but Squanto was a better man than I. Much better. I relate this story, not to extol Squanto—though, God knows, he deserves it—but to point out that by the time the Pilgrims arrived, the Indians were, essentially, gone. There were no Indian Wars, unless you count killing women, babies, and a handful of old people. Nonetheless, what happened to the Indians was no worse than what they inflicted upon each other. The worst thing the Europeans did to the Native Americans was bring them disease, and for that they can hardly be blamed. Peoples, whole peoples, have been up and migrating for countless millennia. In their paths other peoples have been overwhelmed and obliterated, absorbed and forgotten. Many a people exist now only in place-names.

But the Indians were caught in a crucial transition in world culture: for the first time, a people, a nation, could suffer collective guilt. For the first time in history there was a voice within the victors calling for preservation of the vanquished. It was the beginning of national conscience. It wasn’t universal and it wasn’t necessarily benevolent, but it meant that, instead of being enslaved by the conquerors, the defeated could be left a remembrance of their selves: they were herded onto reservations.

Admittedly, life on the reservation has not been good. Casinos may have ameliorated conditions somewhat, but life on the rez is still life in prison. Furthermore, the remnants left on the reservations fight an endless battle with the government for rights that, as time goes on, become more and more abstract. There is never freedom for people on the rez.

And I think about why is that so? Why is the Indian experience different from other minorities? How long before we have an Indian President? How long before an Hispanic? Jewish? (Forget about atheist.)

I think reservations have a lot to do with it. We have ghettos and we have Chinatowns, but we don’t legally prescribe them. Only, God bless them, for the Native Americans. Because we created these de facto prisons for them, they are stuck on them. Maybe they can make theme parks out of them. Maybe they can become tourist attractions. Maybe casinos can be their oil well to happiness. Maybe not.

But I can’t stop thinking about the Palestinians. They got herded onto reservations, too. I’m not sure that was a good idea, either. 

Sometimes you win a war; sometimes you lose a war. Win or lose, we are still all one people. We are a species entire. We are many, but we can all breed together. There is no one who is not, in the larger sense, our brother or sister. And I’m not even a New Ager. Nor am I a hipster, bro. I’m just family. Like us all. Reservations were an improvement, but not the answer. The answer is, we’re all in this together.

And I’d like to take you down to the Norse Hall and buy you a beer on that. They don’t take reservations.

No comments:

Post a Comment