Amsterdam and NANAI

I’m back from the trip to the settled, resolved civility of the Netherlands and Belgium and my two day stopover in the surreal, almost lunar otherness of Iceland. Like any trip, it is hard to know where to begin. I could write about the astonishing juxtaposition of realities; I could write about each of the countries themselves; I could write about the people I met and the experiences I had.

What I think I’d like to do is write a bit about NANAI and the people associated with it. NANAI is the group that invited me to attend and speak.

NANAI is the acronym for the Netherlands Association for North American Indians. It is a small private foundation started by an amazing woman named Maria van Kints and ably carried on by her son, Leo van Kints. Maria is now 94, and the gathering I attended was, to some extent in her honor, though its actual purpose was to serve as the 35th anniversary and annual meeting of the foundation members.

To a non-Native American who must tread carefully in Native reality in order to have any credibility at all, the NANAI gathering was, at first glance, almost impossible to understand. There were Dutch folks wearing beads and feathers (though they were in the minority), there were displays of substantial and legitimate artifacts and decorative finery such as parfleche bags and beaded moccasins, there was a table and shelves of books for sale that would have been the envy of almost any bookstore dedicated exclusively to the Native American subjects, there was a tipi, there were Peruvian and Mapuchean singers and dancers in traditional costumes, there were boards of jewelry for sale — well, you get the idea. And it was all being held at a stately two-story manor in a beautiful, verdant park in a leafy suburb of Amsterdam. To add to the strangeness of the event, at least to American eyes, in an adjacent area of the park was a scamster who called himself Carl Big Bear selling sweat lodge experiences to willing Dutch participants for, I believe, 50 Euros (about $70) a person. Blessedly, NANAI had no association with him. Nonetheless, to an outsider walking into the whole scene, the Admiral Stockton question quickly rose up: “Who am I and what am I doing here?”

Despite my first inclination to turn and run, several facts and elements caused me to look more closely. The selection of books for sale was impeccable. New Agers do not read Vine Deloria and Father Paul Prucha. The people in attendance (who numbered in the hundreds) had, for the most part, an air of education and erudition about them. Franci Taylor, a Northern Cheyenne/Choctaw scholar and practitioner of traditional ways was involved, as were several traditional folks from Pine Ridge, and Dan Agent, one of the founders of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and a prime force behind the movement to provide free and open press in Indian country. Clearly, this was not a simple gathering that could be easily categorized and understood.

As the day went along, I began to understand. In the Netherlands, the interest in Native subjects does not carry the same ideological freight that it does here in America. Of course there are the New Agers, and New Agers are New Agers wherever you go: they will believe they have a Cherokee grandmother and, thus, an Indian heart, or they will think they have channeled an Indian spirit or will, quite innocently, say they feel an affinity to Native spirituality and create a syncretized belief system that then trails off into crystals and talismen. Some of them will claim they want an Indian baby, a desire which many Indian men will be happy to oblige, and others will simply want to be around Indians. At their worst they will give sweat lodges and charge money; at their best they will be wide-eyed spiritual seekers who truly believe that there is a common spirituality at the heart of all belief systems, and simply feel an affinity for Native cultural practices and beliefs.

However, as you move out from there, you run into intelligent people who wish to know more about a part of American history that has been distorted and poorly told; who are committed to the growing movement to hear and value indigenous voices; who wish to provide assistance and service to native groups that can use financial or political support. These folks are the heart of NANAI.

NANAI itself has evolved from its origins as a relatively political organization that associated with and felt solidarity with the AIM folks, to an organization that now is dedicated to education and correcting stereotypes. The myth of the noble Indian is strong in Europe, in no small part because of a man named Karl May who wrote a series of books that most northern European school children read in which Indians were a pure, untainted race involved in all sorts of rousing dime novel adventures. NANAI wants to correct this, and to establish that the Native peoples of America live ordinary lives with the joys and sorrows of all of us, and live neither in tipis nor on the casino dole — both of which are beliefs that remain current in much of Europe, as well as in certain places on our side of the pond.

They also give grants directly to groups and individuals in the Native communities in America — no strings attached, no controls over the performance of the group or individual other than the honor felt by the recipient to spend the money well and for the purpose for which it was given.

Thus, NANAI is a rather unusual organization.

I got to be close to the people that run it and to some of their friends. We’re all of roughly the same generation, and there is the same cultural grit under all of our fingernails. Paths diverge as we get older, but the folks who were part of the sixties and seventies, who saw the ascent of AIM, who watched the siege of Alcatraz and the second siege of Wounded Knee, all share a common base of cultural understanding, and we all can meet each other at some common place if we spend a little time seeking it out.

This is what happened in the Netherlands and Belgium. I recall fondly, and will always embrace, a simple day riding around the hidden parts of Rotterdam in a funky old yellow van owned by Nico, a Dutch man who goes into schools as a story teller and has taken it upon himself to be a chronicler of his community, accompanied by Leo, who runs NANAI; Franci, the Choctaw/Northern Cheyenne who is studying for her Ph.D. at the University of Leiden; Darlene, the Lakota woman from Pine Ridge; and Bud, her partner, another Pine Ridger who always has a knowing smile but keeps his counsel except to make an occasional salient observation. If you could invent a less likely group of folks, I would be happy to be part of it.

My hope is to be able to continue working with NANAI on projects on both sides of the pond. They bring groups over here periodically and introduce them to real reservation life, and they work hard to bring the truth of contemporary Native reality to the schoolchildren and general public of their home country.

I hope soon to be able to share more about their work with you, so those of you who might wish to join their organization as a statement of solidarity from this side of the ocean are able to do so.

But, for now, I must close this post. I just needed to pop my head out of the hole to let you know that I still exist. Sometimes the act of not writing is a response to having nothing to say; sometimes it is a response to having too much going on and no time or way to say it. This hiatus has been a result of the latter. I hope now to be able to crank out a few posts in the near future, so we can stay in touch in our strange cyberspace way.

5 comments

  1. Meredith says:

    I was just wondering about your visit to Europe and how you were finding the gathering. Thank you for the update. The more we learn about one another, the more we can appreciate the value of each human being, just for being that human being, not an exotic ‘object’ to admire or desire. Thank you for sharing your insights.
    I’ll bet it feels good to be back home!
    Looking forward to what you learned and shared.
    Meredith

  2. Elaine says:

    Hi Kent,
    I was fascinated to read about your trip to Holland and especially your impression of what NANAI stands for and does in Europe. Do we have a similar body in the UK? I am interested in what NARF does in the States but would love to know if there was anything in England. Thanks for your lovely writing by the way, I look forward to reading your blogs :0)

  3. Vera Egner McShane says:

    Hi Kent,
    Growing up in Germany I read all 70 “Karl May” books. About 40 are about Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, 29 about Kara Ben Nemsi roaming around somewhere in Arabia. These books provided heros to post-war children.

    I was delighted when my husband was posted to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The post museum and library provided better information about Native Americans than Karl May’s yarns. My inspiration came from the “Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge.” Out there, under the great Oklahoma sky, amongst grazing buffalos, under eagles wings in total solitute, I experienced a connectedness to the earth I can’t explain with words. I felt earth talking to me… I remembered how Germans sing odes to their forests, ancient linden or oak trees…

    I don’t know if I read the “right” books about Native Americans, but I understand Dutch and Belgians (I lived in Belgium twice) desire wanting to understand Native American culture,
    I feel the same way.
    Vera Egner McShane

  4. Douglas says:

    Hello Mr, Nerburn,

    I thank you with all my spirit for writing the single greatest healing experience in print my eyes have ever seen, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.”

    The title of your book alone describes my childhood: born to an American soldier father with maternal roots to the Pine Ridge rez, and a mother who was the only daughter of a German vineyard family.

    Thank you for telling Dan’s story with such bravery of conscience and respect for truth as is so rare to see. Your book truly filled in so many blanks in my own impressions of the world, impressions that my regimented German heritage (and my mother and her grandparents, Wakan Tanka grant them peace) was not equipped to fill.

    Thank you again, sir!

  5. Eric Scahill says:

    Hi Kent,

    I found your insights very helpful in understanding how NANAI has evolved into the organization it is today. Its interesting to me to see how other ‘native’ advocate groups in places such as New Zealand and Australia ( maori and aboriginal respectively ) have evolved similarly and so have much in common with NANIA.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

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