Geronimo and Warriors 1886. My conception of Native Americans in my youth, Hell Geronimo is still a hero of mine.
Approaching Indian Time: A memory laden semi-review of the absolutely true diary of a part-time indian
Growing up watching Injuns, as a little kid, Noble Savages, as a preteen and Native Americans as I entered my mid-teen radical period, I encountered the gamut of stereotypes of Native Americans. I also have had some friends over the years who are Native Americans, but no real long term relationships, so even though I am familiar, I am not totally free from some stereotypical attitudes that would be disabused with an on going relationship. With that said, this is my experience over the years as described in a short paper based on personal experience as related to the Alexie story.
the new native stereotype, the “magical nature native” that replaced the more dated stereotype of the “unintelligent savage.” Photo via feministdisney
Driving across South Dakota, while returning to Los Angeles after briefly attending the protests at the Republican Convention in 2008, I tuned into the Native American Radio broadcasting from the Lakota reservation. Here was being broadcast an early season football game between the Pine Ridge Reservation high school and one of the local white high schools. This was brought to mind while reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. A book for teens, that I read for a class, American Ethnic Writers. The broadcast, the only thing on the FM dial of the airwaves in that vast expanse of seemingly empty prairie, captured my attention, having attended the 1979 Black Hills Alliance Survival Fair with a Lakota professor from Denver University and his two young female protégés from the Dine reservation in Arizona, I had a context in which this broadcast was of interest, since I don’t generally like listening to sports on the radio. As I read the book, I flashed back to the different trips. I could relate to the depreciating, death bed humor of Arnold the protagonist in Alexie’s book about life on a modern day reservation and one youth’s attempt to escape the despair of life on a reservation with no jobs and few resources.
My Understanding of Navajo’s as I went to visit the Reservation in 1973.
In my more adventurous youth I had hitchhiked to the Dine reservation in search of an authentic Navajo Blanket for my high school sweetheart’s sister’s wedding present. I had just dropped out of community college in Colorado, enamored with my Humanities teacher who had instilled in me a desire to take the grand tour in Europe, but meantime I had hitched up to Maine to see my old high school girlfriend, she told me about her sister’s wedding and I wanted to do something special, something impressively different. So in the late spring of 1973 I caught a ride with an AWOL sailor, who took me from Winter Harbor, Maine and the blueberry bog I had been fitfully roto-tilling. Once back in Connecticut, where I grew up and my mom still lived, my AWOL friend and I parted ways. I stuck my thumb out on the Merritt Parkway outside of Bridgeport and trekked to Colorado Springs where I had a bank account and a little money saved from my job at the Air Force Academy, where I had been one of three Anglos among the forty or so Chicano waiters, at the Cadet Dining Hall.
Site of my first real job.
From Colorado I hitched down the I-25 to Albuquerque to the I-40 where I was deposited in Gallup, New Mexico there I thought I would find the perfect blanket. I was my own personal version of the white man seeking his piece of Native American authenticity, satirized by Alexie, as a poor man’s “Ted” (Alexie 161-163), decked out not in Native American regalia, as Ted was a rich collector of Native American memorabilia, but my hippie American jeans, work shirt and sneakers. Like Ted I was seeking some authentic experience of the Native American world. Unlike Ted I was not coming from a position of extreme privilege. I was just a young idealistic kid following out my own fantasy of version of meeting the Indians. I had seen the movie Little Big Man. My Mom loved Indians, and I could relate, I thought.
Scene from Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman’s Encounter with US Calvary on the big screen.
Gallup had little to offer, other than overpriced freeway side tourist attractions. I had perhaps $100.00 to spend and nothing was that cheap, nothing but machine made imitations from Belgium or Mexico. I had been reading up on rugs, playing with the idea of going off to Istanbul and becoming a rug merchant. I decided to seek the authentic Indian blanket weaver. I envisioned some old Navajo woman sitting in her Hogan surrounded by sheep busy at her loom, a semi-tragic Penelope, who would be grateful for my willingness to take the burden of dreams she was weaving for a few pennies. This was my first foray into foreign country, off America into the Rez’. But I needed a guide. I stuck my thumb out and found Charlie Deer Hunter who was driving his pickup along the main drag.
Gallup street scene.
Now at this point I need to discuss something of my hippie version of Anglo American times and destinations. Even as a hippie youth, without a job, I was driven by time tables. I had places to go, things to do. I had left Maine just as the weather had turned probably first week of June and had to be back later that month for the wedding in Connecticut. I planned to hitch hike out to Colorado, three days, spend a day there taking care of business, spend another day getting to Indian Country, spend a day locating and buying the blanket and then head to California, another day’s trip, to visit my dad, spend a couple days and then spend a five days hitching back, a total of fourteen days, with four days leeway for getting stuck in places or side trips. By the time I got to Gallup it had been a week. I had spent an extra day in Colorado due to my arriving on the weekend and having to wait a day for the bank to open. So when I went off American time, I was entering into an entirely different conceptual framework of time that of Indian time.
Anonymous saying attributed to wise old Native American
I was sanding on the main drag in Gallup and an Indian guy told me to hop in back of his pickup. Charlie had black hair showing from under a plaid hunting cap, gun rack in the back, a rather old western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He was going up to Shiprock, the headquarters of the Navajo Reservation, a straight three hour drive. After six stops at different bars, corner stores and long conversations with his buddies, pointing to the hippie in the back of his pickup, he, now drunk, with a couple buddies decided it was time to head to the reservation. We drove a weaving path in the gathering darkness. About an hour or so out of town on some desolate spot in State Highway 666, they decided to go rabbit hunting. There I was in the middle of nowhere alone, standing by an empty pickup truck while the three took a rifle and a couple six packs off into the desert hills. After an hour, I realized they were not coming back. I stuck my thumb out, got a lift in the middle of the night to town as the guy said. Town was a an all night store and gas station, a couple of shacks and not much else, enclosed in red sandstone buttes that occasionally could be seen by headlights of pickups. There was no liquor, it was dry. Young Indian guys drove around and around the store for hours. They saw me, but I was an anomalous character, just another stranded hippie in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was strange, nobody was curious, or would talk to me. There were no friendly or unfriendly overtures. I was reminded of that desert outpost while reading the description of Wellpinit, Washington, the reservation town Arnold describes in Absolutely True Diary….
Scene from Wellpinit, WA. Spokane Indian Reservation.
Finally, the next morning, I managed to get a lift to a trading post from an old white guy draped in Ted like splendor, who says that he had been trading with the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni for years, and told me to forget finding an ignorant Indian woman, wasn’t going to happen. Only building a relationship, he married a Dine woman, and that took time, “Indian time” as he put it. White people don’t have the patience, they want to do business. So they figure out other ways to get Indian wealth. “Why do you think there are so many bars and pawn shops in that tiny place” he said speaking of Gallup. Catching someone on a drunk was cheating, pointing at the huge turquoise and silver bracelets and rings on his deep tanned wrinkled skin, “I had to earn these.”
“Navajo jewelry - Nizhoni!! They say the older you get the bigger your jewelry gets”
He took me to a trading post where I found my rug for $60.00, not a big beautiful piece, just a small runner, but it was real, and all I could afford. The old guy had driven off and stuck my thumb out again. I was picked up by a twenty something native guy. He said he was going to Barstow, California, and I had decided to visit my dad in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Barstow was on the way. This guy, Roger, had long hair like a hippie, but it was braided and he had turquoise and silver jewelry, wore a clean white western shirt and pressed jeans, even his Tony Lamas were polished. We listened to the pop radio in his Chevi van. He seemed pretty regular, until he began to tell me his plight. He was in love with a college educated Indian woman, a knock out but he was a reservation guy, a Rowdy type, he didn’t know how to talk to her. Rowdy is a character in Alexi’s book, the best friend of Arnold, with minimal social skills. He wanted to pick her up from work and give her a ride while I talked with her. We stopped at the Reservation school where she taught, a rather newish single story concrete building where this stunning black haired beautiful woman came out. She became the model on my mind of Zitkala-Ša. Who in her story “An Indian Teacher Among Indians,” describes her experiences at the Indian school (Ša 104-105). This woman was decidedly different from the sad teacher Mr. P, in Alexie’s book (28-29). This Pocahontas, Indian princess and I were introduced and I was happy to play my part talking to her in the back of Roger’s van.
Teacher from Absolutely True Diary… by Ellen Forney
Thing were going great, back then I was a gregarious sort and her fantastic flowing black hair, inspired my interest. She spoke of the events up in Pine Ridge, where there had been an occupation by AIM the American Indian Movement. Pine Ridge which had been the scene of the deaths of two of the occupiers, including one an ex-marine Buddy Lamont, shot in the heart during a heavy firefight with US Marshals and the FBI on April 27th, They had declared the themselves to be an independent nation and the Feds had shot them (Crow Dog 142-143). I told her about my days with another AIM in Connecticut and the trials of the Black Panthers in New Haven that I had organized caravans of protesters to support the Panthers. She talked of her efforts as part of a group organizing to get Native American teachers and directors at the Reservation school. The BIA take over in Washington the previous year had been part of the process leading to the Indian Education Act of 1972 that gave funding for her now being able to become part of the policy making group for the reorganized schools. This was a part of the general Indigenous effort to increase autonomy and part of the Red Power movement.
Occupation of BIA in 1972.
Before long Roger began to get agitated. We were driving along and suddenly Roger pulls over to the side of the road, and tells me to get out. It was mid-day, I hadn’t had anything to drink or eat and it was boiling hot in the mid-day sun. He zoomed off with his educated love. She seemed a bit disturbed, but not surprised at my departure. I was stuck on the side of the road, I-17 it turned out. But it was hot and I was dehydrated. I decided to crawl under an abandoned roadside booth where I had seen Indians selling trinkets before. Making lots of noise to chaise away any rattle snakes, I then ventured to sleep the afternoon away, since the night before I had little sleep standing around in the cold at that lonely gas station. These Indian guys had a strange way of treating outsiders I thought using my Navajo blanket as a pillow while waiting for things to cool down.
Models for the “Women of the Navajo” 2013 calender pose for pictures at the 66th Annual Navajo Nation Fair. Source: Flickr / dshortey
A few years later in 1979, while involved in my Rock Against Racism organizing in Boulder, Colorado, I went to hear Wallace Black Elk talk about the Black Hills Alliance. Two Buffaloes, a Lakota, sometimes college student with a pockmarked face, and two long braids told me about it when bugging me one day to get some LSD for him to use at some kind of ceremony since he couldn’t get any peyote. Two Buffaloes had a white dad and Lakota mom, and had pretty pale skin, but he dressed in a variation of the indigenous pride outfits, those bone neck collars worn by warriors in the old days and feathers in his hair. Stuff most regular Indians didn’t wear, except for Pow Wows and tourist events.
The drum contest highlights groups of 10 to 12 members each, and they sing traditional family songs that are passed down orally from one generation to the next. National Museum of the American Indian Photo #46 by Walter Larrimore
When I was five my mom worked at a fake cowboy town in the Catskill Mountains called Cimarron City. There was a group of Native Americans, Injuns we called them, down the hill in a fake Indian village where they would perform ‘genuine Indian rituals’ and participate in the fake battles between the cowboys and Indians put on every afternoon for the tourists. I used to hang out with the Indian boy my age, we would go hide behind the archery range stealing stray arrows. One time during an evening gathering where the adults sat around drinking beer and eating corn on the cob out of a big pot, my friend’s dad challenged us to a traditional ritual, picking up a tooth pick out of a peace pipe placed on the ground with our mouths, from a standing position without touching the ground with our hands. I remember how hard it was, he did it. It was his part of the routine done for tourists, but it must have meant something in their reality as well. I fell on my face.
Dramatic portrayal of Native American man stabbing “Custer,” with dead Native Americans lying on ground, in scene by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show performers. MEDIUM: 1 photographic print. CREATED/PUBLISHED: c1905
So I went to this meeting, Wallace Black Elk was speaking to a group of highly educated University of Colorado students and professors, he was speaker after an AIM representative who talked about the politics of indigenous land rights, the tradition of land theft from the tribes going back to the 1868 treaty with Red Cloud, how the Black Hills were sacred territory and should remain inviolate. There had been gold mining in the past, the immediate cause for the conflict that had led to Custer’s famous last stand at the battle of Greasy Grass as it is known among the Natives. Now the Bureau of Indian affairs with the Bureau of Land Management wanted to mine uranium and contaminate the region calling this area a National Sacrifice Zone as part of the cold war efforts to stockpile fissionable uranium. After a sober and politicized presentation, Wallace Black Elk, medicine man, descendent of the Black Elk who had participated as a thirteen year old in the battle Lakota’s who could trace their family relationship to Crazy Horse (Argonito 211-213), got up, we were all excited to hear his words of wisdom, Boulder was famous for its New Age spiritualism and NAROPA Institute, the Buddhist school.
Assistant U.S. attorney general Kent Frizzell, right, listens to AIM Indian as other AIM leaders sit by in tepee prior to signing of peace settlement, April 5, 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Kneeling is Wallace Black Elk and to his left are AIM leaders Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Carter Camp, in that order. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Wallace spoke of going up on a flying saucer and speaking with the spirit people and how radiation could not harm his people because it was part of nature and they were natural people protected by the Great Spirit. This struck me, as being hardly reason to rally concerned white people to the cause of Native land rights. Wallace was speaking of spirits and space people. It seemed reminiscent of the tales of the Messiah Wovoka, originator of Ghost Dances, who told his followers that they were protected from the white man’s bullets (Brown 434). In many ways Wallace Black Elk seemed to be living in that other world, of the rabbit hunters, living on a time and in a place that did not translate well to western concerns in my mind. Wallace was one of the spiritual advisers to the Pine Ridge occupation in 1973 and along with Leonard Crow Dog was responsible for bringing the Ghost Dance back to Pine Ridge according to Mary Crow Dog in her memoir of that period Lakota Woman (Crow Dog 144-145). So here was this leader spiritual leader of the Lakota, speaking what seemed to me to be crazy talk about space people. Yet this was a man commanding respect and a standing room only crowd in that early spring day. I decided to make the trek to the Black Hills and find out what these crazy Indians were all about.
Later that summer, 1979 I went with my ride the professor to the Black Hills Survival gathering. Again I was in the back of a pickup, rotating to the front of the prof’s Toyota, with the girls as we drove from our meeting place in Denver to the Black Hills. On the way to this serious political gathering they wanted to stop along the way. We went to Mount Rushmore and spent hours there. I was somewhat aghast that they would want to stop at this symbol of American Anglo dominance in their sacred territory. But the professor said the college girls had never been to the Black Hills and wanted to tourist as well as attend a political gathering. Eventually we arrived, a day late. The professor mingled with his Lakota buddies, I went to find a ‘serious’ political group of anglo-leftists and anarchists. The young women went off elsewhere… to visit other Native American students. The young women didn’t need to be educated about the realities of reservation life, they lived it. The fact that white ranchers had joined in an alliance with the Native Americans to defend their land against the needs of the military industrial complex was heartening. “BHA [Black Hills Alliance] co-founder Mark Tilsen remembers that before the group was founded, the Lakota and white ranchers had only two points of social contact: rodeo and basketball” (Grossman).
“Members of the Dakota Rural Action Black Hills Chapter and the Clean Water Alliance rallied against proposed uranium mining and milling on May 27, 2013 outside Custer City Hall, while inside Powertech (USA), Inc. used the government offices to promote the private project 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Photo: Dakota Rural Action” - Ongoing struggle.
As I read the scenes of the basketball game in Alexie’s book I thought of that drive past the Pine Ridge Reservation, years later, listening to the high drama of local football on the endless sea of the greasy grass prairie. I thought of Wallace Black Elk and realized that he was not crazy, he was not saying radiation is not dangerous, but in nature, left where it would naturally be, it is no more dangerous than any other part of the natural world. Only man’s intervention, without taking into account the long term consequences could make such a foolish choice as to want to create bombs out of the naturally occurrence of radioactive material. I thought that we too need to learn to think at least seven generations ahead when planning changes as the old Native American saying about time indicates. Indian time is not something foolish, it is seeing the big picture, the broad lay of time and space and taking into account more than just the immediate desires of a few. Indian time, at least in this highly allegorical sense is a warning to us moderns, as we face the consequences of our actions upon the Earth.
“You should pay attention. That way, you honor them.” - Wallace Black Elk
Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney, illustrations. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Print.
Agonito, Joseph. Lakota Portraits Lives of the Legendary Plains People. Guilford, CT. Globe Pequot Press. 2011.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 2000. Print.
Crow Dog, Mary and Erodoes, Richard. Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Press. 1990. Print.
Grossman, Zoltan. “The Black Hills Alliance.” Unlikely Alliances: Treaty conflicts and environmental cooperation between Native American and rural White communities. Madison: U. of Wisconsin. 2002. Evergreen.edu. Web. 20 April. 2004.
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin), American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.