For Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans, author Alison Owings journeyed across America—east to west, north to south, and back again—to document what Native Americans from 16 tribal nations—including Pawnee, Ojibwe, Navajo, Hopi, Lakota and Tonawanda Seneca Indians—had to say about what it is like to be a Native American in the 21st century. Owings conducted long, intimate and sometimes shockingly candid interviews that touched on many topics, from adultery to haircuts to politics, but often circled back to the often staggering ignorance of non-Natives, some of whom do not realize that Native Americans still exist, much less speak English, have cell phones, use the Internet, and attend both pow wows and power lunches. It is no coincidence that the book is being published on the anniversary of the 1879 trial in Omaha that stood to determine whether Indians were people under U.S. law.
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Here are a few small “sound bites” from some of those vibrant voices:
Closing the Circle
Darrell Newell (Passamaquoddy)
On the first day of the Passamaquoddy blueberry harvest, Darrell Newell slept until 2 a.m., tossed and turned for an hour, then left the Northeastern Blueberry Company’s ranch-style house he uses at harvest time, walked down the driveway into Northeastern’s warehouse and got to work.
By 7 a.m., he was consulting his clipboard and assigning the last drivers and loaders their areas. He then went into the adjoining office, spoke with two women working there, including his eldest daughter, Nakia, grabbed some paperwork, and climbed into Northeastern’s pickup to head to the blueberry barrens. A walkie-talkie, seldom mute, hung on the dashboard. A feather hung from the rearview mirror, and a ZZ Top CD peeked out from a door pocket.
As manager of the Passamaquoddy-owned Northeastern Blueberry Company, Darrell is in charge of everything from getting the barrens and the five sleeping camps ready, to hiring 800 or so blueberry gatherers, loaders and drivers. He is an arresting figure—a tall, slim, dark, craggy, mustachioed man of 49, in T-shirt, jeans, rubber-soled moccasins, with a ponytail almost to his waist and arms adorned with tattoos. He grew up on the northernmost of the two reservations, Indian Township. Nuns at the reservation missionary grammar school did not allow Passamaquoddy children to speak their language, he said, holding up his weathered hands as he drove his truck. “I got the knuckles to prove it, ’cause they hit us with the ruler.
“I grew up with my grandparents, kind of like what we’re doing for Ryan now.” Ryan, the child of Darrell’s second daughter, was born with addictions so strong it took eight months to get him clean, but he is now chubby, lively and curious. Taking care of Ryan, Darrell said, “has kind of come full circle for me.” That circle began when his mother gave him up. “She was a single parent. Basically, the problem was alcoholism. It all makes sense here,” he said, pointing to his head with his right hand, steering with his left, and staring at the road, “but it doesn’t make sense here,” pointing to his heart.
“What interests me is my loyalty to the people that raised me. Those were my parents. They loved me unconditionally. That’s why I’m so spoiled now.” A grin. “There were probably a hundred people in Indian Township. Nobody locked their doors. Nobody knocked on doors. You’d just go to somebody’s house and walk in. If you knocked on the door, you’d hear people inside say, ‘Oh gee, that must be a white person.’?”
Darrell said his excursions into “the dominant society” have been mixed. “There was a period of time [when] I kind of tried to fit in and tried to be somebody I wasn’t, trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I still recognized that I was an Indian, [but] I made a lot of effort trying to fit into a white world.”
In his late 30s, he enrolled in classes at the Machias campus of the University of Maine, about 50 miles from his home. He studied business administration, and tribal leaders took notice, as did the Northeastern Blueberry Company, which the tribe owns. “The manager of the company approached me to come and work for them.” Darrell learned the ropes under the company’s first manager, and in 2001, when he retired, Darrell was promoted.
He said working for a tribally owned business was less difficult than moving to a part of the state that was unfriendly to tribal people. “When I came to work here 18 years ago, my former boss drove me around to show me our land and I’d be waving every time we’d meet somebody. Finally he just took my hand”—Darrell grabbed mine and slammed it down on the seat—“and he said, ‘Don’t wave to them. They don’t want you waving to them.’ ”
“I’d go into a store [in town] and I’d greet somebody and they would have almost a rage in their [faces]. They were offended I would make contact, that I would say hello to them. That’s how open the racism was back then here.”
Darrell flipped on his turn signal as he turned his truck back toward the warehouse. “Now we’re established. Now they know when they come here, we’re here.”
A Mixed-Up Crowd
Curt Locklear (Lumbee)
Curt Locklear may be the most popular 84-year-old in Robeson County, North Carolina. About four decades ago, “Mr. Curt” started Pembroke Hardware, and he still worked there, coming in virtually every day to “hold court,” some said affectionately, at an old desk in the middle of the hangar-like store.
He is a tall man with a creased face, a thatch of straight gray hair and a gentle matter-of-factness. Almost the first thing he talked about was identity. “Everybody was the same thing [back then]. You didn’t have a mixed-up crowd like you got now. Back in those days, Indians weren’t allowed to marry a white. If they married a white person, they were run out of the county.”
In a 1973 interview, the late Lumbee historian and poet Lew Barton asked Curt about an inferiority complex affecting “our people,” and Curt turned the question back on Barton. “I mean, being completely honest with yourself, When did you start thinking that you was good as white man? Have you always thought you was good as a white man?”
After Barton said, “No, not really,” Curt laughed and said he hadn’t either.
In that interview, Barton recalled going to a local movie theater that hired an “Indian boy” who “knew the Indians from the white people” and whose job it was to separate who went upstairs to the segregated balcony, one side for blacks, one side for Indians, and who was allowed downstairs. “When a boy wanted to show off a little bit and sit downstairs with his girlfriend, he might tip this little Indian boy, and he’d let him go.” Curt said he never tried that. “I saw where those superior people were sitting. I knew that wasn’t for me, Lew. I headed on upstairs, where I’s supposed to go.”
[Locklear served in the Army during World War II, and almost forgot about the racism that had been so strong a part of his life back in North Carolina. But when he was discharged, he found that little had changed back home. But he had changed, as he revealed in that interview with Barton.]
Locklear: “When we left here and went in the army, we simply didn’t think about this stuff anymore. We were equal with everyone else… But then, just as soon as I come back to Robeson County and sit down on a [barber’s] chair nine days after being discharged, because I’d forgotten a little about the situation, and was refused to have my hair cut, I started to thinking about it again.”
Barton: “They let you know you were back home, quick.”
One observer recalled a Robeson County courthouse that in 1967 still had three drinking fountains with faded signs over them reading white, negro and indian. “Lumberton was baaaaad bad,” Locklear recalled. “They ain’t no more of that now in Lumberton. I mean, it’s there in the mind, but it’s not in the actions. The civil rights movement helped that.… ”
In 1958 the Ku Klux Klan, upset about a Lumbee woman dating a white man and about a Native family moving into a white neighborhood, burned crosses in both their yards. They then scheduled a big rally in Maxton—the town where Curt had been denied a haircut. Several hundred Indians, among them weapons-carrying World War II Lumbee veterans (including Curt), showed up that night. Insults led to shots being fired; tumult ensued, and the Klansmen scattered. Curt told an interviewer, “I shot up in the air a few times just to make a racket.”
In his opinion, racial attitudes started improving a few years after that rout of the KKK, and his assessment of the future was positive. “We’ll all be together one day. I’ve thought a lot on it. What the white has, the Indian has, and so forth. They’ll all be together.”
During that earlier interview, he put his views on progress more poignantly: “We’ve come a long way that we shouldn’t had to come in the first place.”
It’s All Good
Marcus Frejo, aka Quese IMC
Driving on Route 51 in northern Oklahoma’s Pawnee tribal territory, forests rolled by and snow fell lightly as disparate questions wafted. How had the Pawnees survived these winters hundreds of years ago? When would the cell-phone dead zone end? Which of two available radio stations was preferable? Choice A: golden oldie country. Choice B: even older Deuteronomy. Neither seemed likely to play Native son Marcus Frejo, the rapper Quese IMC, who has performed for Pawnee audiences near here, as well as for audiences from New York to North Dakota, Florida to Hawaii, including an annual November “Thanks-taking” event.
Quese (rhymes with peace) grew up in the quiet Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. “I was amongst white people. There was something about them I just didn’t like—I remember that as far back as three years old. Even back then, I sensed they were different. I’m not saying that white people aren’t right—there’s all kinds of people, no matter what race, that aren’t right, even our own people.”
We were sitting outside an L.A. coffee shop. His forelock today was yellow-green, and he wore a hoodie that read warrior and included a portrait of Crow warrior Plenty Coups. He put down his hazelnut latte as he recounted a childhood memory. “When I’d be walking to school, maybe in kindergarten, as the white ladies would drive by, they’d put their hand up by their eyes like this—” He held one hand flat against the side of his face as if to screen his eyes. “Imagine what that does to a kid at three, four, five years old. In the morning, before the school bus would pick me up, I’d light all the white people’s trash cans on fire, and run.”
One of his positive influences was an older brother. “He’d go to the eastside in Oklahoma City, where the black people live, and he’d go buy records. He got a turntable, and I’d just listen to music. I would say 1984 is when I heard hip-hop music for the first time. I was just captivated by it, you know?” This was his introduction to, “mainstream, modern-day music, non-Native music.” Native music, on the other hand, “was always around us. That’s what I remember growing up, hearing Indian music, songs, seeing dances, going to pow wows, going to ceremonies.”
“These things I have to say [in my music], they’re for everybody. It is about cultural awareness, which means being aware of where you come from. Empowerment. Be proud of who you are as Indian people.” He said that he often introduces Native language into his songs and his performances. “Turahe!” he will shout to his audiences. “Turahe!” they cry back. The Pawnee expression means, “It’s good,” he explained, “but English can’t really translate our words.”
Create Something Meaningful
Karen Artichoker (Lakota)
The unemployment rate on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is over 75 percent, the alcoholism rate is 85 percent, and there are at least 40 gangs plaguing a population of just 5,000. It’s no surprise that violence against women is a problem there. What is surprising is that Pine Ridge is home to perhaps the most innovative program in Native America for stopping the abuse of Native women. Cangleska, Lakota for “medicine wheel,” was established by Karen Artichoker.
Karen got a sociology degree in college, then got work as “a mental health technician.… That’s really where I got started with domestic violence. The women were coming to the unit for depression. They were invariably battered women and had experienced incest and rape.” She mocked the term “domestic violence” as, “such a nice word. Even nicer is ‘relationship’ violence. What does that mean? This relationship isn’t violent, he is violent.”
“I’d never thought about sexism [till then]. I always thought about oppression in terms of racism. Even when I graduated from high school 11th in my class and the school counselor was encouraging me to go to cosmetology school because the home ec teacher liked how I did somebody’s hair. It never occurred to me that this cosmetology thing had do with [me] being female. At that point, to start thinking about being an Indian and being a woman, and that they were both who I am, was an awakening. I started hearing sexism everywhere. I remember being really angry. Of course, I was always angry as an Indian, but now I was angry as a woman.”
“The statistics say one in three Indian women will be raped. [When I’m] sitting in a room full of Indian women invariably at least one woman will say, ‘Don’t you think that [statistic] is kind of low?’?”
Karen convinced tribal leadership that this violence was a problem for the tribe—“Women are a major force in tribal communities, and the violence perpetrated against women is impeding the economic development efforts. In all our materials and presentations, we relate our belief that all of this stems from colonization. That we are a colonized people and don’t believe this [violence] was typical of our people.”
Her program was one of the first to treat the abusers as well as the battered women. To do that, she focused on this message: “You say you want to be a Lakota man. This behavior is not the true Lakota man.” And it works, she said. “If we use the mental intellect we’ve been given and the inspiration we have through our spiritual channels, we can create something meaningful for people. I think the men have been touched by our work because it made sense. It provided them with some answers and helped them understand some things better about why women in their lives behaved the way they did. I think it was also a healing for men, [knowing] that their mothers didn’t willingly abandon them. That the pain and oppression and violence their mothers and sisters and aunties and grandmas lived with prohibited them from loving them the way [they] should.”
“I believe the thing that’s going to pull us through is that we are all Indian people and have a shared genetic memory of what that means. That’s part of our work—to give those genes a little jump start, so we can release whatever in our brains will help us to remember who we are and how we’re supposed to be in the world.… We don’t know what our population was at contact, but we know there were a lot more Indians then than now. We survived an attempt at genocide. We’re a miracle.”
From INDIAN VOICES: Listening to Native Americans by Alison Owings, copyright © 2011 by Alison Owings. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press. Note that these interviews were conducted over a period of several years, and the circumstances of some participants may have changed since then.