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Obama and the Indians

Last week my eighteen year old son, Nik, completely on his own initiative, took a bus down to Chicago (about 700 miles from here) to participate in Camp Obama, a two day training session for community organizers in the Obama campaign. I don’t think Nik knew exactly what he was getting into, and I don’t think he fit the profile of a potential organizer. But he met some interesting people, received training in organizing skills, and came home energized about Obama in particular and politics in general.

I applaud his initiative, just as I applaud the young people everywhere who overcome their cynicism to enter meaningfully into the political process. Those of us who have been around for awhile know that everything is political, and that every political decision reverberates throughout the fabric of society until it gets at least to your front door and probably into your living room and pocket book, and maybe even into your bedroom. To see young people choosing to be engaged is to know that this strange, imperfect, and wonderfully resilient democracy of ours still has its roots in hope and possibility.

Nik has spent his life, with the exception of the last year, up here in the north country in a town that is sandwiched between three Indian reservations. He’s gone to school with Indian kids, skated with them in skate parks, gone with me to Turtle Mountain and Pine Ridge and Rosebud, and drunk in the issues of Indian politics and contemporary culture. So it was no surprise that he raised the issue of Indian policy when he was at Camp Obama.

There were two surprising developments. The first was that Obama has already met with Indian leaders, showing me that he is a man with a more than ordinary breadth of vision. The second was that some of the young people at Camp Obama said, quite literally, “You know, I have never even thought about Indians once in my life.”

After I picked Nik up in Minneapolis upon his return from Obama camp, we drove north 150 miles to the Adam Beach Scholarship golf tournament at the casino course of the Fond Du Lac Ojibwe reservation deep in the woods of northern Minnesota. There we were in the company of several hundred Indian folks, ranging from national leaders to actors to tribal members who just wanted to play a pleasant round of golf. It was a festive event, filled with the good natured ribbing and bonhomie that characterizes Indian gatherings. No sense of status, no judgment — just good, honest folk having good, honest fun.

What struck me above all else was how familial and egalitarian everything was. A guy in Wal-mart jeans was completely at ease with someone who was ironed and spit shined. Children ran happily among the adults as they would at a family picnic. The laughter was easy; the friendships were good. In fact, the whole event had the feel of an extended family reunion, which, in a way, it was.

Whenever I get in an Indian gathering — and it has happened many times over the years — I am struck by the good-natured, good humored ease with which everything takes place. The embrace is large, and all are included. Where there are petty differences or animosities of long standing, they are simply ignored rather than accentuated through backbiting and criticism.

Nik had a good time. In fact, he was thrilled to meet and be met by celebrities and people of importance. I, too, had a good time. I generally am more comfortable in the company of Native people than non-Native folks because, as I have often noted, you are judged more by the quality of your heart than the length of your resume.

My hope is that some of the ease and grace and familiality of Native reality can be infused into this political campaign by Obama and others. There has been too much mean spiritedness and anger in American politics of late. I have been guilty of it as much as anyone. But when I see ordinary, hopeful people being run roughshod over by people in power, I get angry in a very deep part of me. I don’t want this; I don’t want it for anyone. We have become a nation of winners and losers, and I prefer to think of us as a large family in which we are all responsible for each other.

This is what the Indian world, at its best, offers. It is sad when you hear someone say that they have never thought of Indians even once in their life. Perhaps Obama can change that. Perhaps Nik’s experience can be of some assistance. Perhaps my writings can, too.

In the interim, summer begins to wane and the edges of a few of the leaves on our property are turning to reds and yellows.

Next post I may have some interesting news regarding the movie of Neither Wolf nor Dog, the reissue of To Walk the Red Road, and a project involving the Lakota people of Pine Ridge .

Thank you for checking back periodically, and please subscribe to the blog on the button at the top of the page if you are not already a member. I’ll make sure to send out notifications each time I write something. And, as always, I love to hear back from you. This is a medium that allows an amazing intimacy between author and reader. Though I have to be judicious with my time and communications, I value your presence more than you know.

Keep the faith and do good works.


Falling Bridges and other thoughts

I drove by the fallen bridge in Minneapolis the other day. It was a strange and eerie feeling.

There is something both suspended and final about seeing a bridge hanging in parts with vehicles overturned and crushed and stopped on impossible angles. You want the scene to continue until it settles into some kind of visual resolution. But it doesn’t. The cars remain there, parked sideways on a ramp of concrete jutting like a broken bone into the sky. The overturned vehicles, piled on top of each other, feel like unfinished stories — incomplete events frozen in time.

And then there is the absence of life. There should be people in those cars. There should be movement on that bridge. Instead, it is like a room people abandoned without taking even so much as a toothbrush with them.

I have seen this once before, in La Conchita, California, where a mudslide had sent houses down the side of a cliff, and you could stand before the mountain of mud and look at houses snapped open with rooms displayed like pieces of a dollhouse dropped by a careless hand. Here a toaster hangs by a cord from a wall socket, there a curtain flutters in the breeze in a glassless window. Couches sit in rooms that have no front wall. And all of this, like the cars on the bridge, takes place on impossible angles that beg for some resolution by the laws of equilibrium and gravity.

In some ways, these two disasters share something. In each, the earth shifted, slid, and stopped. There was finality, but no resolution. Each was a ghost of an event, where you could see the result but not the action. It was like “here is where it stopped,” followed only by silence and a sense of desperate abandonment. People wander around looking, but they are miniature in scale. Rescue workers and clean up crews seem like ants scuttling over a great, fractured surface.

But, blessedly, in the bridge collapse, as in the La Conchita mudslide, the event echoes more with the absence of life than the presence of death.

It is a miracle to me that only 8 people died in this bridge collapse. It is inconceivable that a freeway bridge, packed bumper to bumper during rush hour, could fall eight stories into a river and result in only eight fatalities. My wife said she would have guessed 500 dead just by looking at the wreckage. I would have said 1000.

But the number stands at eight — no consolation to the families of those who are among that number, but a miracle in light of what could have been.

I am proud of our Minnesotans for how they responded. We are, indeed, a kind and helpful people here, and it is good to see that demonstrated before the eyes of the nation.

But I am ashamed of our governments — both state and national — for how they have betrayed the trust of those good people by selling the idea of government as the cause of problems rather than the solution. Our bridges should not have gotten to such a condition and their construction should not have been done so much on the cheap that they only have a fifty year life span. The way to avoid this is to build to maximum specifications and exacting tolerances and to maintain to an impeccable standard. But such impeccability costs money, and you cannot expect people to give over their earnings willingly when you see a government conducting an impossibly expensive and unjustified war through the use of high-paid private contractor proxies, offering up pork barrel projects to legislative districts all around the country, and all the while selling a political philosophy that government can only be wasteful and cumbersome rather than compassionate and universal in its reach.

This bridge has been reduced to a pile of rubble. It will not soon go away, but it will soon be out of the hearts and minds of those in other parts of the country. It probably is already. But we need to remember it, just as we need to remember the mine disasters that result from lax government oversight and the cities of the south that lay in ruins from a hurricane that has passed from consciousness for most of us and is being criminally ignored in the halls of our national government.

My hope is that the young people of today will soon say, “We’ve had enough. It’s time for change.” My generation did it, though I’m still not sure on balance if we did more good than harm. But at least we galvanized for collective action. This generation has new challenges where the enemy is not conformity and regimentation as it was for us, it’s selfishness and mindless consumption.

Maybe the metaphor is in that bridge. It was built in 1967 on the eve of the Tet Offensive, when my generation truly came alive to what was happening around us, and the old way of thinking began to fall. Maybe this bridge can be a different kind of Tet Offensive. Coming on the distant heels of Katrina, but touching us all with the nearness of a similar danger in our own lives, maybe it can bring a new generation alive to what is happening around us, and the current way of thinking will begin to fall.

I hope so, because if we don’t soon realize that collective responsibility is as real as individual prerogative, a lot more than that bridge is going collapse beneath us.


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