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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Have You Seen Any Indians?

When I was interviewing for my current job in Florida, I asked the host institution to arrange
for me to meet with other Native and Black faculty. They had me meet with an old white man wearing feathers who interspersed his authenticity questions about my heritage with anecdotes about all the ceremonial objects he had acquired from Indians. In his office he actually had a number of sacred objects on display on bookshelves on top of books. He took them to class for show and tell, he explained.

I was too busy clenching my teeth to ensure that the smoke did not escape to ask him the
only question he was in a position to answer,

"Have you seen any Indians?"

After getting hired and relocating to Florida, I heard rumors of an Indian professor on campus who reportedly also had a gig as a judge back home (somewhere in the Southwest) As a result he was rarely seen on campus. After five years of not meeting him I became convinced he was merely a myth.

Then I met another mixedblood Black/Indian in a faculty workshop and we practically knocked people over trying to claim each other in some mad spastic rush to recognize each other as kindred. It was hilarious only because it was so pathetic.

He too had heard about the mythical judge but like me, he had never met him. "We should start a Native faculty group," he said. "Yeah, we should," I replied, knowing full well two people does not an organization make. "We might need to find the other Indians to do that," I suggested. He assented and then we both sighed.

Neither one of us had seen any other Indians.

Mostly when I want to see Indians I drive down south to the reservation to hang with my peoples. Its always a good time but four hours is a long way to drive in search of Indians so I began looking locally.
I started going to Pow Wows in the area. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found them peopled by non-Indians in Indian garb. I brought a white friend who had never been to a Pow Wow and because she is a shopper she insisted on visiting all of the vendor booths that circled the arena. Since I had nothing better to do I joined her. Big mistake.

In every booth for four booths in a row somebody felt the need to say something anti-Indian to me. All the vendors were white men and I was wearing my Seminole jacket and had my hair in braids. A caustic combo apparently. After four stops and four insults I told my friend I wanted to sit out the shopping expedition. She understood. In fact she was shocked by all the bad behavior.

She turned to me and asked in all sincerity why a person who hates Indians would sell Indian artifacts and go to Pow Wows for a living?

Good question, my friend. I wish I didn't know the answer. I wish I was blissfully ignorant. It would be so much easier.

"They act like that because they don't like Indians," I told her. "Just Indian stuff. Dead Indian stuff."

I went home still wondering where all the Indians in Central Florida were.

Then I heard about this Spiritualist camp. The religion of spiritualism shares many beliefs with Native American religions and it turns out that the founder of one particular Florida settlement claimed to have been led by Native American spirits to the tract of land. Many early Spiritualists wrote books they channeled from Native American spirits and most of the mediums in the settlement claimed to have Indian Spirit Guides. In general, Native American culture and beliefs appeared to be held in high regard in this community.

Or so I thought.

Then I met church members who were holding ceremonies and organizing their own tribe. They called themselves Indians, burned sage, and had monthly meetings compete with drums and dancing. They seemed harmless enough- hobbyists perhaps?- until they began to actively try to get federal status as a tribe. Why become a tribe? They wanted to be able to become healing practitioners, to bill themselves as medicine men and women, to give mediumistic readings without following state laws regulating such practices and they wanted to sell Indian items without paying taxes. They openly pitched this ability to make money as Indians to potential recruits as the benefits of joining their "tribe."

Nobody invited me to join their tribe (somehow they knew better) but I overheard their recruitment speech one day at a church event.

My mouth dropped so far so fast it took a week to close it. Were they serious? Did they really think they had a right as white people to benefit from treaty obligations the federal government had with tribes as a result of stealing land? And why so shameless? How can people claim to love Indians and want to exploit them? Oh, right, they don't love Indians, just Indian ways.

So just when I had resigned myself to making the four hour drive to the rez, I got schooled on where all the Indians were.....

There had been a rash of small time burglaries in the community, all committed by white men against the residents late at night. Then, the unthinkable happened: tourists visiting the Camp in broad daylight were robbed on the street by armed gunmen.

Word spread like wildfire: this small time spiritual community was no longer safe. Officers in the Religious Association began sending out emails to the membership alerting the residents to the danger and advising them on how to be safe. An email went out describing a "suspicious looking black man" prowling the area. Only later did an email go out informing people that the armed gunmen and women were all white.

Next an email went out advising residents to talk to their neighbors and to be alert. It was suggested that people begin to employ a codeword to alert one another when a dangerous person was nearby. Guess what code phrase the Association Officer recommended?

She suggested, "Have You Seen Any Indians?"