Identity

April 23rd, 2018

Mission Canyon is a hidden jewel. It lies near the southern boundary of the Fort Belknap reservation, just a couple miles from the town of Hays. Mission Canyon is like a tiny version of the Grand Canyon, with sandstone cliffs of various colors at various levels. The cliffs contain numerous small caves, and the valley is full of pines and birch trees. Near the entrance to the canyon a person can find a natural stone bridge. A dirt road winds through the canyon. When I saw it, it was a river of slick, yellow mud.

I got the tour of Mission Canyon in the front seat of a police car. No, I wasn’t driving. Brad, the tribal cop, was giving me a ride. He told me about finding shark teeth (fossils) in the canyon. The canyon is ancient, and sacred. Brad smoked cigarettes and nursed an energy drink as we slowly navigated the curves on the narrow road. It was snowing heavily at the time. Other vehicles were also on the road, showing the canyon to the other members of the Longest Walk. Occasionally, we came across relatively flat portions of the canyon, places where there were picnic areas or sites for Indian ceremonies.

We stopped to turn around at one such place. There was a car sitting there with a busted front end and a windshield cracked into a spider web. Brad looked at the car and said,

“They’re tweaking in there. I know it. Look how they slump down into their seats.”

Brad didn’t try to bust them. It wasn’t a good time for it. Maybe at that point there wouldn’t have been enough evidence. I don’t know. I’m sure he will have other opportunities to nail them, whoever they are.

Brad and I talked. He pointed out that many of the picnic sites were run down or vandalized. Brad lamented the fact that the new generation on the rez didn’t seem to care. They just wanted to get fucked up.

I liked Brad. He was an Iraqi War vet, and he reminded me a lot of our son, Hans. I am certain that they would have gotten on well. Brad’s stories from Iraq were almost identical to the stories that I heard from Hans, even though they had been there at different times. It relieved me in a way that they said similar things. That meant to me that Hans was speaking the truth. But it also scared me, because the stories were so violent and so intense, and these tales were told in such a matter-of-fact way.

Brad told me that interdiction of drugs didn’t work so well. The people who were using would leave just before the cops showed up. Brad estimated that the police stopped maybe 10% of the drugs coming on to the rez. That’s not a good statistic.  The War on Drugs is not winning.

My compadres on the Longest Walk usually told people that the answer to the opioid epidemic on the reservations was for the Indians to recover their roots. If they only relearned their languages and their customs and their values, it would all go away.

I wonder.

Last Tuesday, two weeks after my return from the Walk, I went for coffee with Ken, my friend from the synagogue. As we sat in the Fuel Cafe, I described in detail my journey with the Longest Walk to Ken. He said that it sounded like a Jack Kerouac novel. Actually, it does sound like that.

In any case, I mentioned to Ken that one of the recurring themes from my travels with the Native Americans was the desire to return to the old ways. There was this strong belief among the Indians I met that, if only they could recover their original identity, they could solve all of their problems.

I asked Ken about how they can do this, and still function in the world that surrounds them.

He smiled and said, “They should ask an Orthodox Jew about it.”

Oh, so true.

The Jews have been struggling to maintain their identity and their culture for two millennia. They have some experience with this sort of thing. It is a difficult thing for a people to remain true to themselves, and still be able to survive in a world that actively opposes them. There are odd parallels between the Jews and the Native Americans. Both peoples have experienced genocide. Both peoples have tried to assimilate, and found that they simply are not allowed to do so. Both peoples are intensely tribal. They do not always welcome newcomers.

I met a young Indian named Gilbert. He traveled with us on the Walk. He was from the Sacramento area of California. Gilbert was wise for his age, maybe wise for any age. Anyway, I told him about my experiences at the synagogue. I told him (and this is true) that it took me probably seven years just to be accepted at the Shul as myself. It took years for people at the synagogue to completely trust me. Gilbert seemed surprised by that. The fact is that it would probably take me just as long to be fully accepted among the Indians. I’m not sure that Gilbert would have believed that. My gut tells me that it would be true.

I digress. My question to the Native Americans is: “Is it even possible to go back to the old ways?” I mean this seriously. With the boarding schools and the other encroachments of the white men, is it realistic to think that the ways of the ancestors ever be recovered? To a large extent, languages have been lost, rituals have been lost, basic identities have been lost. Other cultures have tried this route and failed. Italians are not able to become Romans. Black Americans cannot become Africans. My wife is from Germany, but our children will never be truly or completely German. We cannot turn back the clock, much less the calendar.

Would it help for the indigenous peoples to return to their roots? It might be very helpful. However, they will never again be who they were. They may recover some of their past, but they will always be a hybrid, something new. This new thing may turn out to be something wonderful, but it will not be what went before. That is not possible.

I admire and respect the traditions and values of the Native Americans. These people have much to teach the rest of the world. For better or worse, these people. like the Jews, need to adapt to the outside world. It is not a good nor bad. It is just a fact.

 

 

 

 

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