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.

5 thoughts on “Obama and the Indians”

  1. Mr. Nerburn,

    You have put into words exactly what I felt during my stay at Pine Ridge. When I try to explain to people what my experience entailed, I’m at a loss. I’ve never been able to verbalize the absolute acceptance I felt. I felt more at peace on Pine Ridge than I have anywhere else in a long time.

    As a side note, when I returned from Pine Ridge I e-mailed Norm (Coleman) and Amy (Klobuchar) asking them to move the senate to conduct an accounting of what is owed the Oglala Lakota people for land leases. I never expected to hear anything from either of them, but then this is an election year.

    Yesterday morning an assistant for Norm called me to let me know he appreciated my e-mail and concern and that he, too, is very concerned with Native issues. He promises to “look into” the matter. I sent him another e-mail thanking him, and reminding him that America has had its own holocaust but it has never been spoken about. I also told him I would be closely following his promise to “look into” the matter. Then I e-mailed Amy again and told her I was disappointed that I haven’t heard from her–especially since I’m on her side.

    It will be interesting to watch Norm in action. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t think for one moment Norm has ever even considered anything about Native people. And I don’t for one moment believe he will actually do anything about this issue. But, as I told my son (who nows calls me Mom the Activist), I can complain and moan about Indian issues, but that will accomplish nothing. I told him it was important for me to act. He’s my good little liberal at 16 years of age.

    I’m about half way through Chief Joseph. I must put it down from time to time to stem the anger rising in me as I read once again about atrocities visited on Indians.

    I attended the Mystic Lake pow-wow last weekend, and it was beautiful. It felt wonderful to be there and watch dancing and listen to drumming. The Remembrance Pow-Wow is in Mankato on September 20 through September 22.

    Thanks for writing and for listening. I’m anxious to read about your Pine Ridge project. I hope somehow your readers will be able to be involved.


  2. Dear Kent,

    My son has also been enticed by the Obama campaign. It also pleases me to read that Nik is now 18, grown to be a man. I have treasured your Letters to My Son for years. I’ve given it as gifts to my own sons and many others. I also borrowed from it, with credit to you, when I was honored to officiate at the wedding of one not a son of my body, but of my Spirit. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading. Joan

  3. Kent: Thank you so much for yet another wonderful gift to others. So many mornings I begin my day reading from one of your books, and I especially like “Small Graces”. This morning I started my day reading from the Introduction, and marveled at the nearly poetic quality of your writing. You have an amazing gift – thank you, thank you for using it to touch and inspire others.

    Tom Doman
    Indianapolis, IN, USA

  4. thank you for sharing your feelings and encouraging us to be aware and involved. BTW, check the comments left, there’s one that probably shouldn’t be left on.
    Thanks, Meredith

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