January 14, 2009, 10:00 PM
Return of the Natives
SALT RIVER INDIAN RESERVATION, Ariz. — Nearly 50 years ago, a Pima native took a Greyhound bus from this sun-roasted redoubt of Indian land to the winter chill of Washington, D.C.,to witness the first day of a young American president.
“When he came home, my father was so excited because John Kennedy stood up for him when he walked by him in the parade,” said Diane Enos. “The president stood up for an Indian! He couldn’t stop talking about that.”
Next week, Diane Enos will make the same trip, along with hundreds of other American Indians who hope that Barack Obama’s inauguration will bring the wind of possiblity to Indian Country.
In less than a week’s time, the Great White Father will be black. Amidst the euphoria and stirring of fresh ideas, there remains some suspicion.
“He’s still a politician and I’m still an Indian,” said Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning writer, a Spokane and Coeur d’Alene native.
“They all look like treaty-makers to me,” said Alexie, paraphrasing the native musician, John Trudell. “I guess that’s the puzzling and I suppose lovely thing about Indians’ love of Obama. Many have suspended their natural suspicion of politicians for him.”
So often, they are invisible, these first Americans, or frozen in iconic images of the past. We see them in Curtis prints and Remington poses, or hear something attributed to them in New Age spiritual circles. Cool, Indians.
And then a new casino opens off the interstate or a pottery exhibit is unveiled, and we realize: ah yes, they’re with us still.
With Obama’s rise, Indians have allowed themselves to dream — some, even to fall in love. He was adopted into an Indian family in Montana last May, given the name “Barack Black Eagle” by the Crow Nation.
When asked about immigration concerns in New Mexico, Obama pointed to a handful of elderly natives in the front row of a high school gym.
“He said, ‘The only real native people in this country are sitting right in front of me,’ ” recalled Joe Garcia, who is president of the National Congress of American Indians. “You should have heard the applause.”
The epic struggle for natives has been to avoid getting washed away by the flood of dominant culture, where Indians make up less than 2 percent of more than 300 million Americans.
That, and the physical toll that losing this big land has taken on them. Indians die younger than most other Americans, suffer from higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, debilitating dietary problems.
The Pimas, who hold to this 52,000-acre homeland amidst the predatory sprawl of 4.2 million people here in the Phoenix metro area, have one of the world’s highest rates of type 2 diabetes — a consequence of the rough adjustment from their world to one handed down by Europeans.
Presidents come and go. They promise to uphold treaty rights and appoint somebody to oversee Indian affairs who understands that history did not end when Custer fell to his hubris. It’s ho-hum, usually, with a mournful shrug on the reservations.
But on the most recent Election Day, on the Navajo Rez, which spills into three states and is the size of West Virginia, high school kids held up Obama signs at intersections in the town of Window Rock, and cheered themselves hoarse as returns came in.
“I feel very elated,” said Joe Shirley, Jr., president of the Navajo Nation. “All of Navajo Country came out strong for Obama.”
Shirley says nearly half of Navajo families heat their homes with wood they cut themselves, drink water hauled into their homes in barrels and light their rooms with kerosene lamps.
Talk about stimulus: a billion dollars, one-seven-hundredth of what taxpayers are giving the financial institutions that caused the Crash of 2008, could bring much of Navajo land into the modern age, Shirley said.
But beyond the desire for urgent, fundamental infrastructure help, Indians look to Obama as a powerful narrative. People who were subjugated, with near-genocidal brutality, feel a kinship with people who were first brought here in chains, even though Obama is an immigrant’s son.
“There’s a bond there,” said Shirley. “Birds of a feather flock together. We try to teach that there are no impossibilities to Navajo people. His election speaks to the young especially.”
Cynicism is the poison of so many young people. In Indian Country, where despair is often woven into the landscape, it takes hold even earlier.
So when Diane Enos, who is president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, arrives in the festive capital next week she will have a teenage tribal leader with her.
“Obama’s life has been a journey to find identity,” she said. “That’s the Indian stuggle. And it starts with children.”
On Inauguration Day, the capital will host the likes of Ludacris and Chaka Khan, corporate titans and political giants, and balls too numerous to count.
Among the sea of Americans ushering in the president will be a small contingent of people who have clung to this continent longer than any other. And for once — if only for a January moment — they will feel like they belong.