It's puzzled me for years to not understand how people didn't see the world as I did until I realized I am a part of an ethnic group that despite living in the land of my ancestors feels a stranger more often than not. I suppose my first experience of this came in fourth grade when I met my first 'white' friend who became my long time friend who I was even best man for in his wedding no so long ago. On the elementary playground looking for something to do I decided to take a stab at joining a basketball game. After all I was at Native basketball tournaments all the time on reservations. I should point out at this juncture that although I lived on a reservation and my school was on tribal land it was a public school and I was one of maybe four kids in a modest sized school district comprised of mostly rural kids in what was mostly farm land.
I approached the group some others lined up to be picked for a team. I'll never forget a kid who would be classified as a stereotypical looking bully form an Adam Sandler movie stand as one of the team captains choosing. Looking back in my memory it seemed more like he was choosing for each side even though it's highly doubtful but that's how it felt. I should also mention I was an elevation challenged child, skinny at that. What stood out from this however is the reason I wasn't picked from the mix to be even teams and I'll never forget what followed.
"I'm not picking him" he said to everyone even tho I was last.
"why not"? on of the kids asked.
"Because he's an Indian". Again I should point out how this was a predominantly white school. Others were frustrated because recess is a time limited activity so each second is precious time, especially in youth where time is eternity. I was thrown back for realizing for the first time that I wasn't perceived as everyone else but something different. It wasn't that I was short or skinny it was that I was a Native American.
"Screw that man" came from the boy who shoved him in front to challenge the sturdy framed bully who stood tallest of the group. The shove came from one his height but maybe even 1/3 less his mass, tall but skinny for our age group.
"Let's just play" he said, a fight broke out and we never got to play that day but it gave me my first long time friend. I eventually played with them all but with the awareness that I was different from that moment forward.
Another example stemming on a new level of that very experience came on the Monday where on the same playground one of the boys asked "what did you guys do this weekend"? and I was first to reply "I went to a pow wow with my grandma and grandpa"
"what. no no no." the boy replied without missing a beat "pow wow's are for Indian chiefs ONLY, my dad told me so"
I had to ask although be it confused "are you and Indian"?
"No" he replied "but you guys know right that's how it is"? looking to the group who I had been accepted as one of. And to my great surprise, they all nodded their heads in agreement.
I share this as the intro to this topic as a display of taking sides or playing on a team. In my youth and throughout my life I have had the Native American experience first hand, not in some version of watching "Dances with Wolves" or "Avatar" and before that "Little Big Man". I live as a Native American in a time that exists outside the cowboy western complex. My life consisted of social responsibilities that I was raised in relating to ceremony and protocol. By the age of 11 I'd attended many funeral services and even if not in person, knew the people who passed in some way as members of my tribal community. I learned the practice of our community roles in those things, the cooks who prepared the food, the fisherman who caught the food, or the hunters who provided the elk, the weavers and artists who made works to gift to witnesses of the community. The practice of potlatching that I grew up with as a sense of belonging. The ceremony that tied us to other tribes and tribal communities.
Taking long car trips with my family to honor the passing of someone important to another tribe was a practice that I grew up with as a sense of what I understood as a foundation. I never thought of this as foreign because it is a practice and tradition that long stretches before the word America itself.
Flash forward many years forward becoming a father myself and seeing what the present day looks like I've arrived at a new basketball court. One without a bully but an equally powerful authoritarian idea that shapes a new playground. One who uses the very word tribe and tribal in condemnation for a game where the goal seems to be to win favor of opinion more than anything. The game of who is right and who is wrong and not the players involved. Politics are not foreign to myself nor many Native Americans. My grandfather was a member of our tribal council throughout my childhood. His shared some fairly complex ideas with me as a child what I see now as his way of his sense of urgency to entrust me with such knowledge. At the age of 10 I'd already known a lot of struggle that affected our community as 'tribal' people.
A key example is the act of fishing. A long pass time act one might think of as what it is to be American. Although my uncles and grandfather fished on the river of our family property along our tribes river, I didn't go very often. I wondered about this when I would hear other kids at school talk about fishing with their fathers. Until one day I wanted to go on the boat with my dad and my uncle, standing at the side of the river bank with my grandfather. My grandfather started cursing and I just remember him say "Not again, dammit". I didn't understand as he told me to get in his truck. I just remember a lot of yelling and confrontation with white men on the lower bank of the trees where I couldn't see them.
On that car ride back up to the family property. I was told about the time he'd hoped we were passed. I was educated on that car ride about being shot at, having our nets seized and our boats stolen or damaged because we were Native American but in his words "Savage".
"That's what they call us grandson" he muttered with clenched hands at the wheel "It drives me mad no matter how much we work at this."
I listened to him and listened on. If you asked me though now I wouldn't be able to tell you all the details but it kept me from going out there again for years. He was my hero and still is like a lot of grandkids who grow up close to their grandparents which to be honest is probably just as rare as being an Indian in a public school at that time. My understanding of tribe came from a closeness of family and extension of my families relations and tribal ties.
Back to the present day. I've been at many services and travelled to many tribal reservations to visit and participate in ceremony. Perhaps what sparked this blog post alone was that passing of my friend who was a diver and great example of a single father upholding culture pass early in his life. I was moved at his service by the number of tribes from other nations come to attend. I had seen larger attendance to services before but something struck me there. I loved him dearly as a friend and something in me regretted never being able to tell him although we went to the same high school how I was proud to have him as a member of my tribe. I knew him as selfless and one to really extend himself in his efforts to be available to others in what he could offer as a fisherman or singer to families who had lost someone in their community.
To me that is what I hear when I hear the words 'tribal'. So today when the culture climate of the larger population talks about polarization and how we've become 'tribal'. I am again that confused child wondering why the larger group can't play the game and just call it 'teams' because that is what it still is to me. A game of opposition where the teams are at odds to win something. Native people and to be clear "Tribes" are fighting for something that is clear, to protect lands and our environment that has been an underlying value of our way of life that has become known as a cultural practice. It's only in a political climate that I see the divide happen as we veer from our very 'tribalism'.
I am but an artist sharing thoughts reflecting in a sea of mass media but it's something that has been on my mind as an avid listener of podcasts and political news thinking of my grandfather and at a larger scale, my tribal community who is largely marginalized on the sidelines at others fight for something that isn't clear to me while the recess bell is short from going off. Are we not looking at the clock and enjoying this game of life or are we consumed by who is right?