Ray Cook

A Conversation in American

People who get used to having it good think that’s the natural order of things, an all too human reaction.

I had a conversation with a stranger in a hotel bar in Manhattan the other day. The fellow was of Irish descent and we were discussing … well, actually, he was talking and I was sorting out his misconceptions about Indians. I found that when talking with Celtic people we have a better time of it if we start by relating to the similarities with our common British experience. But not this time.

During the conversation I used the word Indigenous and he said, “Stop right there, I don’t believe that about Natives.” He went into the Bering Strait land-bridge theory and how we all evolved from apes on the plains of Africa. He ended his side of the conversation with, ‘Well why don’t you guys just assimilate? What’s so great about the reservations (system) anyway?’” He was very sincere about that—what he thought was a logical question.

I said, “Well, I’ll put it this way: Just because France is an ally to the U.S. you wouldn’t expect the French to leave France and join American society would you? Friend, we are Nations too.” That kind of blew his mind. Not wanting to abandon his position he said something to the effect that Indians don’t actually have sovereignty because of all the government-funded programs we accept.

The French leave France? Mon Dieu! But the Irish sure enough left Ireland. They didn’t leave to assimilate, but to survive. Famine, stone-fence enclosures that ended the idea of communal property rights, imperial expansion and poverty drove the Irish across an ocean. And as later generations thrived, prosperity eclipsed the memory of struggle, the respect for heritage. They became good Americans and forgot there was ever anyone else, and discredit those who would be anyone else. It’s the devolutionary moment American settlers won’t admit to: You come to this country, you make it, life is good, then you don’t show respect. Certainly not for Indians who take their stand, so to speak, on that long-forsaken stone outside Dan Murphy’s door.

But when I thought about his last point I had to admit he is right, partly. There are IRA Tribal governments after all – those willing domestic dependents – Tribes that buy (using their lands as collateral) into the U.S. definition of the “Trust” responsibility, there are Christianized Indians who proselytize against practicing our traditional ways, and proud Americans who happen to be Indian, and Tribal Indians that vote in American elections and so on. To accept the misdirect that is the U.S. interpretation of the Trust responsibility one admits that they are less than mature and cannot handle full sovereignty, full handling of all their affairs. Some will argue this, but it would be fantasy.

The American education system is partly about conveying knowledge and partly about honing social skills. This system has a second name: indoctrination. Their kids, and your kids too don’t forget, are indoctrinated in American think: Absorption of concepts and behavior distinctly American.

‘No little Johnny, the Indian has long since been assimilated.’ But no! Thank the spirits, little Johnny: the indoctrination process is not so total, yet. There are Indigenous people who don’t want to be American, didn’t ask and don’t ask to be American and were never asked if they wanted to become Americans, there are those of us who don’t care to think in American.

Here is something schools will not teach. A very wise Seneca pointed out that Jesus once said something to the effect, “Trust in God (read: nature), for as he provides for the birds, he will provide for those who trust in him.” Soon after that, western man developed the largest and most sophisticated technology to store food – and began mass deforestation to make charcoal to make iron weaponry to protect those food stores for those times when God chose not to provide for those who trust in him. At that exact point the saying became, “God helps those, who help themselves”. This is where my American acquaintance is in his thinking.

Anyway, we parted on good terms. He gave me his biz card; I noticed his last name is Lyons. I pointed out that Lyons is a common Onondaga sir name. He said “Really? It’s a famous name in Ireland. Where my family is from.” Well, imagine that, I thought.

So, even in this well indoctrinated American guy, there is a little thread somewhere inside him that still stretches all the way over the Ocean to some little house on some little land in the middle of a British-empire-era-inspired stone fence enclosure where that little thread is tied to his ancestor’s belly buttons that are still buried and will be forever and he just acknowledged them, honored them by his remembering them, even though he did not know it … yet. Maybe he is not so American after all.


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A Conversation in American

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