Without Reservation

I attended the annual Shinnecock Pow Wow twice this Labor Day weekend. I look forward to this special event throughout the year, sometimes finding myself counting the months until it would arrive. I can’t fully explain why it affects me the way it does, but my intention here is to try.

I started to develop some kind of affinity for or connection with Native cultures in my early twenties, as I continued the process of re-education from the stereotypes and lies I had learned in school. But as sympathetic, hopefully empathetic, as I may have felt with African Americans or the Vietnamese, this was somehow different, different from that and different, I think, from the romanticized fantasies that were not uncommon among hippies of my time. Spirituality has always had difficulty breaking through my “rationality.” But I did, if somewhat skeptically, take a past life regression workshop back then, convinced that if I saw anything it would be the life of a Native American. I’m too over-controlled to be very susceptible to hypnosis, but when I blurred my eyes sufficiently while looking in the mirror, I thought that just maybe I may have envisioned a grizzled fur trapper, someone who would at least have had dealings with Native Americans, the next best thing, or wishful thinking. I started wearing Native jewelry, but was at least smart and aware enough to dismiss a prevailing idea that through dress one could “become an Indian.”

When I started teaching young children, I became particularly sensitive to the Fall period from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving. I resisted the stereotypical crafts and books, instead finding Nathaniel Benchley’s “Small Wolf,” an imperfect but better alternative to the books being used by other teachers, and creating some activities that were intended to remove the inappropriate and dehumanizing elements so commonly relied on. According to what research I have done, there still is really no book for young children that counters the misrepresentations rampant in the Eurocentric library of “holiday books.” Developing one has been one of the writing projects in the back of my mind for some time, especially after publishing “Not for Hurting,” my children’s book on the other poorly represented subject, war. After this weekend, I am now fired up to find a way to approach it, and have already played with a few ideas. I am still hoping to undertake this with a Native American collaborator, for obvious reasons.

As an early childhood teacher educator, I came in with some “agendas,” albeit none that were not in the true spirit of the field. I wanted my suburban, somewhat less than heterogeneous students to be sensitized to realities they may have been sheltered from. So I launched an annual toy drive for homeless children, and I introduced into the curriculum books by Jonathan Kozol, a fighter for educational equality whose eightieth birthday just happens to be today. I also, as well as trying to generally align the course to affirm equality and diversity, integrated a lecture I had been giving as an educational consultant on the hidden messages of holidays, among other subtle symbols of prejudice and discrimination lurking within the calendar, classroom and curriculum. Each semester I take my students on a journey from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving to Christmas to President’s Day. I don’t tell them what to believe, I share alternative perspectives and resources and tell them to seek truth on their own, because to be a teacher one needs to know before one can teach. I also don’t tell them what to do, I share with them what I did and suggest that they follow their own senses of integrity and creativity.

When my son was born, it became more personal, not that it necessarily needed to be. Whatever may or may not be within my spirit or have been in a previous incarnation, he is unspeculatively part Cherokee. When he was in Kindergarten, I and the other parents waiting to pick up their children watched from the vestibule as one class after another paraded down the hall wearing the same inaccurate, stereotypical and cheapening paper headdresses (“Indian hats”) that I had made when I was in nursery school. On a positive note, one of the teachers happened to have been a former student of mine and her children had not been subjected to this ignorant project. We were handed a flyer which announced that in recognition of the time of year, a “Pow Wow” would subsequently be held in the gym for the children and their families. I wrote a letter to the Principal, essentially communicating the following. Imagine, I suggested, that the upcoming holiday was not a day boycotted by many Native Americans, as Thanksgiving is, but, say, a holiday boycotted by Jews. What better way to handle that than to have a mock religious ceremony, trivialized in a school gymnasium, replete with paper yarmulkes whose authentic appearance teachers didn’t even bother to research, decorated by some sacred religious symbols done as a careless craft project, and punctuated by some music which “sounded Jewish”… all to celebrate a holiday that the Jewish community wanted no part of? To her credit, she did circulate at least part of the letter to her staff. On a less positive note, the tradition is still going on sixteen years later.

So, back to the present. Something came over me this weekend, as evidenced by this blog. For whatever reason, I always find myself more at peace and more at home when I come to the reservation than I do anywhere else, with the exception of Woodstock, which I can at least visit whenever I like and can afford. At least in part, the part I can “know,” it’s the smell of the white sage, the beat of the drums, the valuing of the children, and, mostly, the welcomingness, diversity and “ways” of the people. I was smudged for the first time, and felt something instantaneously, a sense of calm and connectedness which usually escapes me. Was it all in my mind, I don’t know, what’s “real” anyway? I (pardon the expression) “discovered” Arvel Bird, whose musicianship, storytelling, messages and being touched me powerfully. I saw children running free and dancing with respect, an abundance of artwork and craftwork, jewelry and clothing, blankets and oils that I wanted to take with me, and a red sunset. I did buy a magnificent carved and beaded cane for a mutual friend, Kokopelli earrings for my girlfriend, a “Cherokee Prayer” plaque for my son, and a couple of Arvel Bird CD’s, one for myself and one for my acupuncturist, who had just given me as a gift an elegant black and white Native print.

But I didn’t want to leave. Part of me was asking, “Why go home when you’re already there?” As I said, I am quite well aware that no matter what I wear (and I have two beautiful pieces of Native jewelry, a ring and a watchband, that my girlfriend bought me and I wear every day, along with the perfect denim jacket adorned with delicately stitched important Native symbols, and moccasins that I put on just for this occasion), or what I might ever feel or believe, I am not, nor shall I ever be, Indian. I envy my son for his triraciality, at least until we ever become post-racial, which will not be in my lifetime. But, while trying not to romanticize the realities as those hippies of yesteryear once did, I might be dissuaded from my fairly long-standing dream of moving to Woodstock were I able to spend my days in this environment and with these people, maybe working with them in some capacity if not being welcomed to live with them as an outsider. I certainly don’t want to minimize poverty, but I also can’t ignore my poverty of the spirit. My first book was about going through the chapters of finding one’s true and whole self, and where and with whom one belongs. This should be one of the chapters. It’s too late, though, at least for the book.