Sunday, August 23, 2009

Indian Summer

For this year's Bataan Death March Kravitz family vacation, we packed up the minivan and motored down to Washington DC, a remarkable city, brimming with culture, diversity and really scary traffic.

I've had the privilege of visiting DC several times on my own and have long wanted to share the experience with my kids, especially now that they were old enough to appreciate it - little realizing as I made hotel reservations that a preponderance of museums, the vast distances between them and temperatures in the 90's, not to mention a marked lack of roller coasters and raspberry slurpees had already doomed the trip from the start.

But I didn't care. Mommy needed some culture. I needed museums and art and interesting things. I needed inspiration and time with my kids. And I really needed to get away. After two and a half years fighting casinos, I was burnt.

Not to mention lightly salted, scrambled and served over toast.

And so, there I was, fleeing an unimaginable two and a half years touched off by the attempts of an Indian tribe I'd barely heard of to erect the world's largest casino mere minutes from my front door, when I found myself bumping into Indians at every turn.

From the sunbathed peak of the capitol dome (day two) to the subdued halls of the National Gallery of Art (day seven) and everywhere in between, my family and I were reminded of the significance and contributions of the first Americans.

We even found Indians at the Spy Museum - which featured an exhibit on Navajo 'wind talkers'.
On Capitol Hill, where we learned that each State can send life-sized statues of two of it's most respected citizens to represent it under the dome, we discovered that some had chosen Indians for the honor.

At the Museum of American History we found out who was on the five dollar bill before Abe:

And back at the hotel after one long day, we all watched a family movie called “Imagine That” which featured Eddie Murphy as a corporate ladder climber whose biggest foil and fiercest rival was a guy named “Johnny Whitefeather” - a Native American colleague who sports longish hair, a fusion of business and tribal attire and impresses clients and co-workers alike with his deadpan delivery of new-age “Indian” wisdom.

In the end, it turns out that Whitefeather is as Indian as I am. He'd managed to get ahead at the office thanks to an easy willingness by those around him to accept his over-the-top portrayal of a stereotypical Native American, hand-in-hand with a reluctance to doubt his authenticity for fear of being racist.

...this movie seems oddly familiar...

Back in the city I was excited to finally visit the Museum of the American Indian. On the outside this is certainly one of the most beautiful buildings in DC, but on the inside I found it a bit austere and a tad confusing, with little to engage the interest of children – the anathema of the parental tourist.

It occurred to me that they could really use a living museum sort of exhibit like the Wampanoag village at Plimoth Plantation – where you can walk into an authentic-feeling hut, sit down on real animal hides, and still detect the scent an extinguished campfire. A place where pole beans curl around the stalks of corn, encircled by an upturned umbrella of squash leaves, as a live-actor wearing a loin cloth in November explains how the squash plants keep down weeds, the corn supports the bean vines, that local alewives were used to fertilize the seeds at planting time, and suddenly you get the urge to grow a vegetable garden in your back yard.

Of course, back in Middleboro, the actual modern-day Mashpee Wampanoag are still willing to kill off the local alewife population with road and parking lot run-off if it would give them a casino.

Speaking of which, along one wall, high up overhead, is a poetic quotation from the Mashantucket Pequot tribe – aka the Foxwoods Indians.


And on a floor above, there is yet another quote from the Mohegan Sun Casino Tribe.

(Forgive me for not taking a picture. I was on vacation after all.)

I didn't notice any other billboard sized quotes by other Tribes in the museum, and suspect that they had as much to do with marketing as they did with cultural pride. Heck, the money from the world's two largest tribal casinos can buy a lot of legitimacy.

We made a point to eat in the Cafe at the museum – which purportedly serves regional Native American cuisine. The museum's web site had made the food here look authentic and incredible and earthy and both Abner and Gladys Jr. couldn't wait to try bison - which they both agreed was way too salty. I chose to stay close to home with a pretty decent Northeastern grilled Salmon sandwich (they had tarter sauce in the North woods?) and a salad of something supposedly indigenous - which was actually kind of rubbery and not very tasty and didn't look anything like the food on the web site. Abner Jr., no slave to culinary adventure, played it safe with the chicken nuggets.

One part of the museum featured an exhibit of Native American weapons – the most modern of which included some big scary semi-automatic rifles like you see in the movies. Yikes. Better make sure to cash out those markers before leaving the casino.

I snapped this photo of some of the oldest rifles on display since they were those used during King Philips war. (And since I have a reader or two who enjoys hunting.)

At one point in our exploration of the museum we were delighted by an exhibit which appeared to address the reality of tribal 'gaming'. (There's that code word again.)

Gaming: Pros and Cons

Members of Native nations are deeply divided over gaming. Some feel that gaming is not our way and will bring new problems to our territories. Others believe the financial benefits outweigh the risks, especially when other attempts for economic development have failed.

Native American gaming was born of controversy. Gaming began in the 1980's, when Native communities in Florida and California started offering bingo prizes larger than state law allowed. When states threatened to close down these operations, Native people sued. States continued to tussle with Indian communities over gaming, challenging the sovereign rights of Native governments.

Jolene Rickard, guest curator
and Gabrielle Tayac, NMAI, 2004

And that reminded me that this museum wasn't just a tribute to the Federally recognized tribes we hear about all the time – but in fact, all members of all American Tribes – and that many of these tribes really do oppose casinos and gambling. Tribal members are "deeply divided" in fact - something you never read in the papers.

In both Middleboro and Palmer, various non-federally recognized tribes have stepped forward to oppose the Mashpee and the Mohegan's plans to build casinos in Massachusetts.

And I suppose that somewhere in this museum, in the basement perhaps, in a far corner, behind the furnace, covered up by some old cardboard boxes, there may actually be an exhibit expressing their views.

For what had been delight at the sight of some unexpected even-handedness on the topic of casinos here at the National Museum of the Native American, was replaced by more cynicism as I read through the rest of the exhibit - which gave credit to casino proceeds for installing or updating power lines and building housing or providing medical care - without a single acknowledgment of the costs of bringing gambling to communities or individuals, tribal or otherwise.

Also unacknowledged was that sovereign tribal governments distribute 'gaming' proceeds and federal dollars as they see fit – leaving some members to go without the basics. Or that some tribes feel that plunking a water-sucking, environment-killing, alewife-poisoning money factory in the middle of the wilderness is at odds with their native philosophy.

This exhibit also featured an aerial photograph of the Pequot museum at Foxwoods, looking noble in it's innocuous footprint in the Connecticut woods. And another of the tiny and tastefully adobe Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs California.

Probably because it wouldn't have played well for Native American culture to show this aerial of another part of the Foxwoods complex...

... nor this one of the star-jacking 'teepee of light' casino in Canada that my friend Carverchick and I both blogged about...

...and certainly not this glass and concrete cathedral of avarice rising out of the asphalt in Uncasville Connecticut.

But, it is Washington, after all – so why let a little honesty stand in the way.

I suppose I should just be happy there wasn't a diorama in the lobby with a wax likeness of Glenn Marshall meeting the Pilgrims.

Sometimes I wonder if the modern-day Mohegan and Pequot Tribes carved the world's largest casinos into the Connecticut landscape because they had never really lived in the way of their extinguished ancestors did - having been reborn on the sea foam whipped up by the rising tide of Indian Gaming.

And, had they somehow managed to relearn and put into practice those ways in the years since then, I have some serious doubts that the tribe would be trying to raise yet another skyscraper in the the heart of Western Massachusetts right now.

Off to the side of the casino exhibit, a video about a remote tribe and how their casino brought them much joy and happiness is looping on a small monitor. Perhaps there was equal time on this video given to the opposition - I hope there was - but heck, I stood there for a long time and didn't see it. Besides, I had two restless kids in tow - and dammit I'm on vacation.

Enough casinos! Enough!

Another part of the museum was hosting an exhibition by the one-quarter Indian artist Fritz Scholder which I liked very much. The exhibit was called Indian/not Indian.

Scholder was an enrolled member of the Luiseno Tribe, but had been 'raised white' - and apparently had some interesting conflicts about that.

Scholder didn't seem to want to conform to anyone's pre-conception, whether it was as an artist or as an Indian. Maybe that's what came through for me, and I looked him up after I got home.
"People don't really like Indians," declared Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), whose taboo-breaking, colorist images of fellow Native Americans now showing as Indian/Not Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) still provoke controversy. "Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian - usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system...we have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox -- a monster to himself and a non-person to society"

From NPR, December 2008:

Fritz Scholder broke almost every rule there was for a American Indian artist. He combined pop art with abstract expressionism. He shunned the sentimental portrayal of traditional Indians and in so doing helped pave the way for artists who followed.

Scholder was only part American Indian, and when he created the work that put him on the art world map — his "Indian" series in the 1960s — he made a lot of people mad. The first painting had the word "Indian" stenciled on it, as if the image couldn't be identified without the label.

Well, I liked Scholder's art whether he was Indian or not. And I liked his honesty and ambivilance about who he was, and who he wasn't.

But the kids are unimpressed and want to go to the Air and Space museum where I have suggested there may be more excitement and potentially even Tang and freeze dried space ice cream.

I suppose a lot of folks take their kids to this city every year, drag them around the National Mall where they can catch a glimpse of Michelle's vegetable garden, encourage them to trudge up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed out loud, and force them to stand in long hot sweaty lines so that they may gaze upon our Constitution. We might even take an extra day of vacation to fit in the same star spangled banner that Francis Scott Key beheld through the rocket's red glare.

And we all hope they'll appreciate it, if not now, then later in life. That it' ll fill them with a sense of national pride, and a belief in the Great Experiment. A single nation, indivisible, despite being divided by 50 states, numerous cultures, and myriad political, spiritual, physical and personal differences.

Except it's not.

Thanks to the events of the last two and a half years, I now know better.

Now I know that, through actions both righteous and contemptuous, fueled by the greed and guilt of administrations past, we have officially become many nations within a nation. A nation where we may have finally learned not to judge a man by the color of his skin, but where we continue to judge him on the amount of 'indian' in his blood.

Maybe this duality wouldn't seem so dysfunctional, merely an inconsistency of culture, had I not experienced first hand the investor-driven process of taking land into trust for gaming, or read about how a neophyte nation of Johnny Whitefeather's altered the economic face of New England, creating a casino arms race that came right to my front door.

Or, if I'd never made the acquaintance of some folks, Indian and non-Indian, whose homes, lands and rights were stripped away by Tribes, who lost children through cracks in the Indian Child Welfare Act, suffered shunning, disenfranchisement and extortion at the hands of their own tribal governments, or lost lost a friend under mysterious circumstances after she dared to speak out these very things – all with the blessing, assistance or apathy of the government of the United States.

We deride injustices inflicted on Native Americans in the past, but look the other way when they happen to other Americans in the here and now. As if it is some cosmic assuaging of our common conscience to right old wrongs by making new wrongs.

Back in the 90's, Time Magazine ran a cover featuring the computer-generated photograph of a young woman based on the facial features of several races. The Headline, The New Face of America, caused me to often wonder if there may indeed be a point in humanity's time line when, after the conquest of our distances and differences, we will all share the same DNA.

And then, how will they decide who's Indian/Not Indian?

But I have no doubt that when the time comes we, as a country, will figure something out.

Or screw it up royally.

That is our way.

And to tell the truth, while I suspect we take our families to Washington in search of national pride, what we actually find when we get there is a celebration of the individual.

The artist who inspires, the mind that invents, the hands that build, the voice that speaks out, the leader who leads. The giving heart, the tested soul. Fingertips pressed to a single name carved into a black granite wall.

And that's what I think we really hope our kids will take back with them from DC. The certainty that a single person can make a difference. And that this person could even be them.

Because, despite all the things that keep us apart, there is one thing we have in common that seems to make all things possible: We are Americans.