A friend asked me recently how I remain cheerful. She’s older than my 77 years, and we were both visiting a yet older friend in the hospital. It took me fewer than 30 seconds to almost automatically reply “Indians.”
Indians have put up with every abuse, had their lands taken away from them and their languages, religions, and cultures stripped away. They have been demeaned in every way and described as a “vanishing race,” even by supposed friends.
And they have survived. Some historical periods were harsher than others—think the 1880s with the rise of boarding schools, the General Allotment Act, and the Courts of Indian Offences; think the 1950s and Eisenhower administration efforts to “terminate” all tribes and to “relocate” young Indians to cities for education and work.
Indians have survived with respect for and trust in elders, with ties to lands, diminished lands but tribal lands nonetheless, with adaptation and with humor. They have used traditional lands in traditional ways, and although their fishing and wild rice and root gatherings and buffalo hunting have been mocked and belittled in the past, they now get respect. Indian practices and philosophies are now lauded by white writers, even authorities: maybe fire is a natural part of the biological order; reciprocity demands that we take care of the fish and its habitat and not fish to the last fish. Indians now work to restore beaver, wolf, and lamprey, and many of us, including many non-Indians, do not know now the places they once filled in the natural order of things, but believe that they all have their places and that it is arrogant of humans to take something away without knowing the consequences.
And humor. I tell people who have never spent time with Indians to watch “Smoke Signals,” the bittersweet film written by Sherman Alexie. I don’t, by the way, know or understand what happened between Sherman and some young women writers. Because he is such an observant and fine writer, I wait for him to address it in his own words sometime soon. I also know that Indian men are not immune to practicing the bad behaviors of men everywhere. Nevertheless, the humor with which Sherman has addressed modern Indian living resonates, for me, with the humor I cackle with when I am around Indians. When I tried to explain to my Nez Perce friend Charlie some of the racial treatment that my half India-Indian grandson was getting at school, he said I didn’t have to explain it to him. “I’ve been brown for 80 years,” he explained.
So we find ourselves nationally in a bad situation, with a president who bullies his way around the capital and the world, driven, apparently, by his own narcissistic obsessions. Our corporate leaders build systems to track our private lives for profit and gain riches by helping us degrade each other with tweets and posts. Our government leaders pledge attention to a changing climate, but vote for and with fossil fuel and growth above all.
Indians have had plenty of experiences with bad presidents—start with Jackson?—and dishonest corporations. The railroad empires and their corporate customers that hunted to the last buffalo for hides and bones almost depleted that species forever, and the canneries that scooped fish out of the Columbia kept taking salmon until even the white fishermen made them stop using their giant fish wheels. And the tools and fools of growth and greed as ultimate values in private and public sectors have opposed Indian practices as archaic, unscientific, and uncivilized forever.
But Indians are still here. In these dark times, I suggest you read Indian writers, check out “Smoke Signals,” take in a powwow or a root feast, buy salmon from a tribal fisherman along the Columbia, go to church in a Longhouse.
And, together, thank the creator for getting you this far, and ask the creator to get us all home safely.
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