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Almost Trayvon

My Dad at 18

This was also published in Indian Country Today as Almost Trayvon: The Fear That Stalks Every IndianReflections on race, racism and racial perceptions that affect Indian people.

When I heard of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, my thoughts went not to my 10-year old son but to my dad when he was 18-years old.  I avoided coverage of the trial because I knew the unrepentant Zimmerman defense would blame his victim Trayvon Martin, for his own death.  I knew that listening to it would mean listening again to the same old ugliness that has plagued this country since Columbus first landed on an island in the New World he named San Salvador, “the savior,” a prophetic name that could also be used to describe Zimmerman’s view of himself and his volunteer work as member of the neighborhood watch.  He said describing the victim,”These guys all get away,” and after he shot the 17-year old, “I feel it was all God’s plan.”  I say, it all sounds too familiar.

And so it was after the verdict, I thought of my dad when he was 18, unarmed and facing down a gun pointed at him by a white man he had known his entire life.  This was during the Jim Crow era in the United States and my dad was not Black, but a mixed-blood Dakota Sioux Indian. 

It’s funny to think that in most South Dakota border towns, even today, Zimmerman--who looks more Indian than white-- would be subject to the exact same scrutiny that he gave Trayvon Martin, that he could even be struck down under very similar circumstances.  The line in the sand of “race” or “caste” is a tricky one as you move around the country; which side you fall on is an educated guess at best, but getting it right can mean the difference between life and death. 

My dad was raised in Lake Andes, a white town located on the Yankton Sioux reservation.  His mixed-blood family occupied a strange nether world, neither white nor Indian.  My dad recounts having the white folks boo him when he dribbled a basketball during a game and then on the other side, the full-bloods would boo him, too.  His dad, whose father and uncle had owned the first car dealership in that part of South Dakota (yes, Indians did things like this), was best friends with the Sheriff and the two of them had even engaged in bootlegging together during Prohibition.  My grandmother, who could pass for white (her Dakota name was “Green Eyes”) regularly had her hair done at the beauty salon on main street.  I did not learn until a few years ago that most Indian people of that time were not allowed to get their hair cut in town or play snooker at the bar with the Sheriff.  

But despite this seeming acceptance by the white community, things began to unravel for our family.  My grandfather died under suspicious circumstances; he was found drowned in the Missouri River.  My mother claimed she heard from her in-laws that he had been beaten to death by white friends for his paycheck.  When I asked my dad he just shook his head, “No,” he said, “It was a work accident, the dam,” but his voice was shaking and he looked like I had never seen him before: raw with grief.  I can still remember as a child asking a dining room full of aunts and uncles and my grandmother, “What about grandfather?  Tell me about my grandfather,” and being greeted by complete silence.  My dad was 15 and identified his father’s body for the authorities which had been so horribly disfigured by a mole on his ankle.  

It was only recently that he told me why he joined the Army and left his home town for good: he had been captain of the Lake Andes High School football team (the first Indian in 25-years) Snowball King and a straight-A student.  Then, suddenly the white men in town, men like the Sheriff who had been good friends with his father, began to act as if they were afraid of him.  It culminated in the Sheriff pulling his gun without cause on my dad while he was walking down the street.  He had been given two choices: leave town immediately or go to jail.  He joined the army and went to college and married my mom and raised his children proud to be Indian far away from Lake Andes. 

Many people look back to that time before the Civil Rights movement as a period of greater law and order in this country.  Even my grandmother once fondly recalled that time as one, “When everyone got along.”  I asked my dad, “Did everyone really get along?” A part of me wanted to believe it preferring it to the constant threat of violence that hung over us in every generation.  “She said that?” he shook his head and said dismissively, “Well, everyone got a long because everyone knew their place!”

In the Jim Crow era, African American families clung to their Green Books which told them where it was safe to stay when traveling and which town to avoid after sundown.  No such book existed for Native Americans in the South.  One of my dad’s summer jobs was as a truck driver and one of his deliveries took him to the Deep South.  At a gas station he was confronted with a choice of restrooms, one for White and one for Colored.  My dad’s hair is black, but due to his mixed-ancestry, his skin is white; baffled, he asked the white owner which he should use.  The old man looked at him impatiently, and waved him off, “White, of course.”  “But, I’m not white,” my dad insisted.  And with that the old man threw up his hands and stormed off.  

When my dad joined the Army he scored very high on an IQ test and was placed in an elite intelligence unit.  Everyone else was older than him and many were Ivy League graduates.  They mentored him and gave him books to read and encouraged him go on to college.  By the time I knew him, the teenager driven out of his hometown by an armed adult had long ago been replaced by a confident adult, a steady and loving father and husband.

As an engineer at a National Laboratory my father held the highest security clearance available to a civilian and this youth who had once been driven out of town by gunpoint was entrusted with our nations’ secrets for his entire adult life.  One day two FBI agents came to question him.  The younger noted, “I see you have an arrest here.  Can you explain it?”

My dad said, “I’m Indian.”

“What do you mean?”  The younger man was confused.

My dad said nothing more but the older man nodded at him and told the younger man, “We’re done here.”  “But what about the arrest?”  “We’re done.”

He knew.  Everyone did; they all knew their place.  

“They arrested me,” he explained to me, “because the town needed young men to clear the roads of snow after a blizzard.  That’s just what they did in small South Dakota towns back then, they arrested all the young Indian men in town and put them to work.”

In the larger world away from the reservation my dad’s ethnicity rarely came up.  When it did, most often, like Zimmerman, people asked if he was Jewish because of his curly hair, Dakota features and his large, round European eyes, which colored black look Middle Eastern.  Ironically, shortly after 9-11 when he and my mother were boarding a plane he was detained.  The TSA agents asked him numerous questions about his racial identity because they thought he was an Arab terrorist.  

When they finally let him go he asked where my mom was and the flight attendant said, “Oh, you mean that Asian woman?”  My mom is full-blooded Navajo.  Once, she had been refused entry into the United States from Canada (she was visiting Niagara Falls) as a college student during the Vietnam War.  They thought she was a Vietnamese spy and they called the Bureau of Indian Affairs to confirm her identity as an American Indian.  Not only do we look like the enemy, but enemy held territory is still called "Indian Country" in military circles.  In the Iraq War, soldiers referred to enemy territory  as “Indian Country." For example, former Marine Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano defense attorney explained his murder of two Iraqi captives: “This is Iraq, Indian Country is where bad guys do things.” 

For a class assignment, my son Googled the Navajo clan name we gave him as his surname and came home laughing telling me, “It said Kinyaani is a Persian name.  All the other kids had Scottish names.  Isn’t that funny?”  I find myself unable to laugh.  It did not help that a Palestinian friend of ours commented on seeing our son, “If you dropped him in Gaza no one would think he was anything but Palestinian.”  As war with Iran looms as a possibility I have a son with a Persian name.  I worried that he might be detained like his grandfather at airports. I considered, for a moment, changing his last name to his white grandfather’s surname, Kelly.  My husband and I had put it aside when he was born in an effort to reclaim our own cultural traditions, but now, the name hung before me like a charm that would protect my son.

The mixed-blood progeny of Zimmermans and Kellys have the option of turning to their white fathers and grandfathers for some protection afforded by their whiteness, the blank slate of being “blanca” upon which no profile is written, a modicum of protection in this world where the boundaries of “Indian Country” are always shifting.  And the Trayvon Martins of the world must rely on the luck of whether the white man holding the gun chooses to shoot or not.  Looking at my father’s life after that incident I have to wonder what would have Trayvon’s life have been like?  Would he have found his way and had a family and been a trusted member of society?  We will never know.  

This ruling is once again telling us to “know our place.”   Now, in the 21st century,   50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” a generation of Black youth are admonished not to frighten decent White folk into killing them.  And the White folk have been re-gifted with the cover the law for murder.  How did we arrive full circle at this point?  What does it mean for my son who has his grandfather’s curly French hair and Dakota features?  Will he inspire fear once he is grown tall and strong like his Dakota and his father’s Mohawk ancestors?  What then?  No Skittles, I guess.  

I’m disappointed in my country, in my generation for not doing better for our children.  We were born after the dream of the Civil Rights Movement was made real and we have done nothing with that great inheritance but to fritter it away tending our parrots and harboring our ignorance of one another as Juror B-37 proudly proclaimed in her interview with Anderson Cooper on Monday.

The funny think is, I don’t recall what choice my dad made that day in the Jim Crow South, to be white or to be colored.  And it is a choice I hope no one ever has to make again.

To read another version of this Op/Ed go this link at Native News Network:

My Dad Was Almost Trayvon Martin

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Depp, Paula Deen & the Washington R-word

Over the Fourth of July opening weekend, ‘The Lone Ranger’  was trounced by ‘Despicable Me 2’ at the box office and I find myself at a Subway deli looking at a cut-out of Johnny Depp’s Tonto.  And to be honest, as an Indian myself, it does not offend me as much as the Washington Redskins mascot.  Johnny is a good soul, Dan Snyder, and Washington Redskins fans are not.

I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations.” Depp said in interviews during production, “They're living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘F— that! You're still warriors, man.’”  

Meanwhile, Amanda Blackhorse, a young Navajo woman protesting the Washington Redskins mascot said “They [the fans] yelled at us, 'Get over it.' And, 'Go back to your reservation.' And all the stereotypical things that we are all alcoholics: 'Why don't you go get drunk?' And they shouted so many profanities that I won't repeat.  I got to see firsthand how our culture was being mocked," she says. "So many fans were wearing war paint and feathers and they were whooping and hollering. Some of them got belligerent and angry with us. They threw beer at us. That's not OK. I was afraid for my safety."

And despite Depp’s good intentions, photos released last year of him in character as Tonto with a dead bird on his head were greeted with groans from Native Americans and pretty much every other type of American.  Celebrities are allowed a lot in this world, but pretensions to serious issues and the reinvention of outdated cultural motifs are tricky even for an actor as loved and successful as Johnny Depp.  

Charlie Chaplin tried to do it in his film the Great Dictator when he revamped his Little Tramp persona to ridicule Hitler and failed at the box office.  And Depp’s Tonto recalls Chaplin’s Little Tramp, shuffling along, dwarfed in moccasins next to Armie Hammer’s towering Lone Ranger in high-heeled boots.  The white characters are made into caricatures of evil but unlike Chaplin’s The Gold Rush where the Little Tramp character, starving in a cabin in the frozen reaches of Alaska, trying to make a meal of his boot there are no moments where we see the true humanity of the heroes and see ourselves in them.  The Little Tramp was motivated both by an innate generosity and, yet, was never above giving a kick in the pants to a bully when he could.  

Chaplin the product of a life of poverty on the streets Dickensian London expressed what he learned there, that these were the only forms of justice available to the powerless in this world.  Depp’s Tonto is a disorienting mash up of poignant suffering and incomprehensibly inane behavior that is explained away in the narrative as not “being Indian” but not being entirely sane.

If it seems odd that a Native person such as myself would invoke Chaplin in a critique of Tonto, I am also American and I can wield a Chaplin reference as well as anyone; what I have that Depp does not is that I actually am an Indian (enrolled Navajo and my father is Yankton Dakota Sioux).  And this film, if nothing else, convinces me that being Indian matters when we wish to change the perceptions about Indian people, because it seems most Americans do not know as much about us as I know about Chaplin.

I have also noticed that most people have within them an ‘Indian.’  And yes, I use the term ‘Indian’ here despite the fact I know, like most Americans, it is a misnomer; “Columbus got lost—he thought he had sailed all the way to India” everyone knows that and yet, after all these years and after the growing use of ‘Native American’ and ‘Indigenous’ and—in Canada’—First Nations,’ we still can’t find a word that better describes who we are to other people.  Just like the dead bird on Johnny Depp's head it stays firmly in place and yes, sometimes even we, us Indians, feed it out of necessity.

I have found in my travels that ‘Indian’ is the most universally understood way of describing myself to most of the people of the world.  In Mexico, I couldn’t speak Spanish, all I could attempt to say was, “Indigena de la Estados Unidos” to describe myself but the locals just looked at me blankly so in desperation, I stuck my fingers up behind my head (to pantomime a feather) and said “Indian” and they nodded and smiled and patted me on the back and greeted me like I was a long lost relative. The names ‘Sitting Bull’ and ‘Crazy Horse’ spilled from their lips.  Spanish speakers, yet they knew by name the great leaders of my father’s people, once known as the Great Sioux nation.  Even to them, our relatives to the South, we are known only frozen in time as we were in the last throes of our struggles with the Americans and the relentless, westward march of Manifest Destiny across our lands.  

I say this, because I want you to understand the complexity of being what I am, of being ‘Indian.’  The living descendent of the original people of what is now the United States.  And I want you to know that the complexity does not end there.

On the flip side of the celebrity spectrum to Depp’s earnestness to right past wrongs we find Paula Deen, a celebrity fallen from grace for saying the N-word.    In a tearful interview with Matt Lauer of the Today Show on June 26th she said, "If there's anyone out there that has never said something that they wish they could take back, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me.”  She said this while her food empire crumbled, the Food Network dropped her show, and Walmart, HomeDepot, Sears, JCPenny cut ties with her.  Yet, in another part of the American universe of racial epithets, the Washington Redskins owner, Dan Snyder remained buoyantly defiant as fans rallied around him and 79% of Americans polled agreeing the name should not be changed.  “We'll never change the name. It's that simple. NEVER—you can use caps.”  Snyder said this in the face of potentially losing the copyright to ‘Redskin’ because it is a ‘derogatory slur.’
Believe me, I understand that the N-word trumps the R-word.  When I first heard the epithet “Prairie N-“(meaning Indians) my heart almost stopped.  And no, the R-word does not fill me with that visceral feeling of fear of bodily harm.  I do wonder, why is that?  Why do two words used for centuries to demean and justify lethal violence now generate different levels of outrage?   It is as Public Enemy once said, “It takes a nation of millions to hold us back,” and the power of the words needed to hold them back still contain the immediate threat of violence.  The denigration that these two syllables reveal can be seen in the economic status of black people and the high incarceration rates of black men.   But Indians?  To this same public, our modern day existence is invisible and the R-word’s original meaning has been forgotten and now can be repurposed to “honor” us.

But, here I am writing about being Indian, I am a citizen of the Navajo Nation, which has grown to a population of 300,000 since 1868 when some 6,000 survivors returned to our homeland after being held at a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo by the U.S.  To this day, tribes still control 55 million acres of land in the United States, 4% of U.S. Oil and Gas reserves, 40% of U.S. Uranium deposits, 30% of U.S. Coal reserves, and $2 billion in trust royalty payments, not to mention water rights, which in the West are becoming increasingly valuable.  In June, the Klamath tribe of Oregon called in their water rights, after the state found after 38 years of adjudication the tribe’s rights to have dated “from time immemorial” and by far the most senior.  The tribe’s assertion of these rights has shut off water to ranchers in the area.  No other minority group or “special interest” group can lay claim to such powers. Tribes also exercise limited jurisdiction over their lands.  

Tribes are nations recognized in the U.S. Constitution and are not just “special interest” groups, a fact most Americans do not realize; so our demands for recognition of these rights has created a backlash.  Most Americans assume conquest and ownership over our lands was completed in the 19th century when the fictional Tonto roamed the land with his buddy and fellow outcast, the Lone Ranger.  They find it an annoyance when they discover we are still holding out.

Back to the film: ‘The Lone Ranger’ has gotten reviews for being tasteless (deemed “grotesque” by one reviewer) for featuring Depp in full hammy/slapstick humor mode in the same scene where Comanche warriors are mowed down by U.S. Army Gatling guns.  These dead Comanche are played by actual Native American actors although only one, Sac n Fox/Oto actor Saginaw Grant, has a speaking role.  His character expresses typical Hollywood Indian fatalism “It doesn’t matter; we’re already ghosts.”  There are no options here for the continuation of Indian people in this West.  Just like in ‘Dances with Wolves’ where the white couple adopted by the Lakota ride off before the final slaughter, the Lone Ranger and Tonto escape while all the sane Indian people are left dead and motionless on the ground.  There is no middle ground, even though in real history there must have been.  I’m here, the Comanche are still here—after all, they held an adoption ceremony for Johnny Depp and he rode with the top down in a convertible in their tribal parade in October.  What of the stories of those Comanche?  I mean, they must be just as interesting.  

I should also mention that throughout this scene, the bad guys are holding the white female love interest of the Lone Ranger and we are expected to cheer for her to be saved above all else.  Juxtaposed against the slaughter of the Comanche people just outside the window of the train she is in was, once again, grotesque and in poor taste.

So what does it mean that in Hollywood, when real Indians still have no voice and non-Indian actors still put on the face paint and play us?  And in the sports world how much harm do Indian Mascots really do?  I can quote studies that have found that mascots have a measurable negative effect on the self-esteem of Native youth.  Native youth who have the highest rates of suicide of any ethnic group in the country.  The state of Oregon took those studies seriously enough to ban the use of Indian mascots in schools.  Conservative legislators tried to gut the ban but the governor threatened a veto and the bill died.  And yet, I spent the Fourth of July in Wenatchee, Washington with my daughter in a parking lot, astonished, gazing up at the giant roving-eyed and winking Skookum Indian caricature above us.  It had once been perched in the 1930’s on top of the old apple packing plant in town, and had been rediscovered in storage in 2000 and placed on top of an Office Depot.  

“This is what we are up against," I told her, "This," around us the asphalt spread out around us in the Office Depot parking lot.  The eye leered down at us and I wondered at the gap between me and those around me.  How so many could agree this was okay and not feel the way I felt, like I imagine the Lone Ranger’s brother felt as his heart was taken out of his chest and eaten by the overtop bad guy who chews scenery and co-stars’ hearts.

The majority of Americans claim to have never met an Indian in person but they probably have and just did not know they had met an Indian.  Especially since most modern day Indians live in American cities, colleges, office and suburbia and without feathers (even pantomimed ones) are largely unrecognizable as Indians.  I almost never get asked if I am Indian, Hawaiian, yes, Mexican, yes.  Indian pretty much never.  One in a 100 Americans are Indians and the majority live off the reservation.  Yet, the only Indian most Americans still know is the caricature that they see on packages of butter and mascots and on top of Office Depots. 

Then there are the Americans claiming the term Native for themselves as native-born United States citizens.  While it is true native has this meaning as well, this is but a blatant attempt to undercut the primacy of Indian people’s claims to the land.  And it is in pursuit to dilute this claim of primacy that the use of Indian mascots arises.  Everyone knows the story about the Boston Tea Party, colonists who dressed up as Indians while they threw tea into the harbor to protest taxation by the British crown. Americans have used the Indian as a symbol of their own yearnings for freedom for centuries from the oppressive Old World social structures they no longer could accept.  Even after the Revolutionary War, tenants of landowners (who were the only ones who could vote) dressed up as Indians to drive their landlords out of their homes and tar and feather them.  Being Indian gave the landless and powerless colonists the outsider identity (actually like the masked and bird wearing duo) to lay a claim to rights they would not normally have in the old order.

In ‘The Lone Ranger’ there is a vain, golden-haired officer obviously modeled on Colonel George Armstrong Custer, and despite being set in Texas, much of the scenes with soldiers made me think of similar battles and massacres our Lakota and Dakota people faced.  Before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Crow Scouts in Custer’s regiment chose to take off their soldier’s uniforms and don their traditional regalia.  They told Custer that they wanted to die as warriors not soldiers.  The way the scouts chose to die reflected the way in which they would have chosen to live if circumstances had been different.  In this choice I see the story of America, this choice between two worlds, the New World and the Old.  There is in the force of that collision the exchange of ideas about what it means to be human, to be truly alive that still catches the imagination of the entire world.  It is what makes us American and it is both tragic and filled with potential.  This is why the names of our leaders, like Sitting Bull, are still held in esteem and make people know us and have compassion for our Indian people’s continued struggle to survive—and this is why people want to be us.

But really, I have to say Johnny, your desire to help Native Americans would be better expressed by helping us tell our own stories.  And yes, I’m sure there are Little Tramp roles in the films we would write, too.  Some tales and characters are universal and some are particular to a people.  It’s obvious ‘Indian’ people have a unique perspective the world wants to hear and we have more to say than “Kemo sabe.”

Originally published in Indian Country Today

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