RFK and Tamkaliks

Yesterday, a few lines from Robert F. Kennedy’s March 1968 speech at the University of Kansas were broadcast on NPR. I immediately looked it up and read the entire speech. It’s a campaign speech, laced with some of RFK’s soft humor—”I was sick last year and I received a message from the Senate of the United States which said: ‘We hope you recover,’ and the vote was forty-two to forty.”

But–he then addresses the War in Vietnam and laments the turmoil in the country. By March, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had inflicted heavy casualties on Americans—and Vietnamese. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated and cities burned. And then RFK’s own June assassination in a Los Angeles hotel. I can still see the football player, Rosy Grier, wrestling the gun from Sirhan Sirhan, and then pushing the crowd that wanted to attack the gunman back. He did not want violence to be met with violence, he said.

Just weeks before that, in the middle of a campaign speech, Robert Kennedy said these words.

“Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile…”

I had to look to remember that Whitman was the mass killer who shot students from a tower at the U of Texas, and that Sparks had murdered several Chicago nurses with a knife. How soon we forget, but, other than that, the speech could be delivered today.

Or—I could think about the revival that is going on in American Indian Country. When I think back two weeks ago to Tamkaliks in Wallowa, I think about the beauty of dress and the pride in those wearing it. I think about the smiles, feathers, and beads—the joy—worn and shone by the youngest dancers. I think about the namings and memorials and the “giveaways” offered by parents and loved ones. I remember the spirit that informed the drummers and singers in the longhouse service. I remember the wit of the announcers and the resilience of Indian peoples, the grace with which the Nez Perce people return to this ancient homeland now occupied by others…

Hundreds of non-Natives came to see and to learn, to share a meal of buffalo and salmon—and no one was thinking about the drug problems in our country or the Gross National Product. And for a few days in the small town of Wallowa, Oregon, a few hundred Natives and non-Native Americans were living the dream that Robert Kennedy did not live to see.

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