Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ancestry And The American Dream

I just got off the phone with a young man from one of the small North Dakota Reservations. The People are out of wood for wood-stoves, utilities cut off for non- payment. It’s a long hard winter and the People are freezing. The People are a tribe of Sioux and they are living the life of people in every part of the world where the local government views a tribe or class of human beings as unwanted, disposable, and so they are rounded up and put in concentration camps. This is happening in Africa, it’s happening in the Middle East, it’s happening here, in the United States of America, only here the camps are called “Reservations,” and we have turned our backs on all such people everywhere because it shames us to know, and so we do nothing.

My mother’s family is descended from the Choctaw who lived in Mississippi, prior to their forced march to Oklahoma where they were given a small parcel of uninhabitable land. Oklahoma territory was nothing like Mississippi with it’s rich delta, green and lush with plentiful game and soil that anything would grow in. No, Oklahoma is dust. The Oklahoma concentration camp was…… I can think of no other word than inhospitable. We were a proud nation, part of the Muskogean linguistic group, called the Five Civilized Tribes. A people with a rich language and culture, a people who were cooperative and generous toward the new immigrants who came to our lands. And we were nearly slaughtered into extinction. Under Andrew Jackson’s administration we were made a model of his “Indian removal plan.” We were the first tribe to be marched to Oklahoma. This mass forced march is know as The Trail of Tears. Do you remember this from your history books?

In the beginning it was call the Office of Indian Affairs and was formed in 1824, created by the Second Continental Congress . The esteemed Ben Franklin and Patrick Henry were early commissioners of the OIA charged with negotiating treaties. Treaties which were broken over and over until we get to the Oklahoma part of my family’s history with the newly changed OIA to the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) run entirely by white immigrants whose job it was to indoctrinate a proud and ancient people in the ways of Christianity, in the ways of white culture. My mother’s people were forced to send their children away to schools run by the BIA, where they were made to be ashamed of their own language and culture. And that shame grew into such self loathing that four generations back from me the women in the family married white men who then owned their lands. Three generations back those women moved off the Reservation and started passing as white. They lived in various parts of Texas, married to ignorant cracker men who treated them like shit. So now we have my mother who could not get far enough away from her families past. Smart, good looking, determined to live a better life, she married an Army man with three boys of his own. She got pregnant with me and he went off to fight in the Second World War. While he was fighting in France, I was born on the Army Base in Paris Texas. When he came home we packed up and roamed the country in a new Ford, pulling a new Airstream trailer, which we lived in for over a year. When my mother could stand the nomadic life no more, we happened to be in Salt Lake City, camped on the outskirts of the city in a trailer park. She took my father’s remaining cash and found a big stone house on the upper avenues and bought it. He never got over being furious at her, and their marriage ended in loud, violent fights. She took me and fled in the early morning dark of a cold Utah Spring. And I was sent to live with my mother’s brother and his wife in Sherman, Texas. They tried awfully hard to give me a good life for the year I was their child. But the one thing that I could not get, could not ever understand, was their hatred of indians and black people. I could not learn bigotry. I don’t know why. Everyone else in my mother’s family got it. What was wrong with me that this very important lesson didn’t sink in? In truth I think it’s a Jungian thing. The collective unconscious. I identify with the oppressed. I personally have never experienced oppression unless being female and married counts. But I will not listen to anyone spout that kind of race or identity hated. It enrages me.

I am too far removed from my heritage to go back, go native. Everyone sees me as white. But deep in the bone I am not. I am not white. I am Choctaw. I will not give up my small, inherited plot of land. Like the Native people in North Dakota, I have a hard time paying my utility bills. I keep it cold to save money. I have moved out of the main house to live in the little house—a renovated garage at the back of the property so I can rent the main house. I try to stay out of sight. I am an old recluse living in my garage to save money so I can keep my land. But hearing about the plight of those native people in North Dakota this morning made me sob. And I can’t stop. I told the young man that I thought it was very important to make sure that all native people are registered to vote in the Presidential Election. If we make the effort to vote, we just might have a President for the first time in our nation’s history who can understand our complicated history and listen to our story. A man who looks more like us than the old white men who have ruled us since the early 1800’s. A man who just might be sympathetic to our plight.

Barack Obama gave the most important speech in American political life since the Gettysburg Address. And like Michelle Obama, for the first time in my lifetime, I am proud of my country.