I wandered into a very serious conversation recently with a few of my compatriots re: whether or not a Native American candidate for the American presidency would suffer the same fate as JFK.
Jack was hated and berated for his Catholicism, and people condemned his "allegiance" to the Pope in Rome before and after his election to the American throne.
"He is a member of the Catholic church," they'd argue. "And, therefore, he is a subject of a foreign autocrat. … We cannot have someone like that running the White House."
My fellow Natives and I, quaffing fine whiskey and dining on bacon-wrapped dates at one of New York City's only Native-owned lounges, pondered the potential accusations of this nation's bigots and birthers (were a Native to audaciously run for the American presidency):
"Indians are Americans, yes, but they're also citizens – not members – of quasi separate-sovereign nations," they'll say. "They hold their own elections, and not like a city voting for a mayor, but a nation electing their own president."
"Dates! Dates!" a voice bellowed. "We need more dates!"
It was at this moment as he, the maniacal epicurean, demanded more finger food that I felt I'd jump in with some awful news:
"There’s only one enrolled Native American at Congress,” I said. "And it’s not Elizabeth Warren. No, sir. She opted to return to her European roots and registered as white.”
"Well, who the hell is it then?" said the man who demanded so many more dates and a fresh round of cheeses and fruit.
"Congressman Tom Cole. He’s Chickasaw, in the House and, wait for it … he’s GOP."
"What?!" the date man exploded, silencing for a moment the deep moans of a Billie Holiday humming from the back of the place.
"That's sacrilege! You know how he’ll vote when the hammer falls. Straight Keystone XL Pipeline!” he cursed.
"Yeah, he’s a champion of the thing,” I said. “But what’s worse: no Native American candidate vying for the U.S. presidency or a Native American politician who gets elected as Commander in Chief and then pushes Keystone all the way through – along with a bushel of republican bills?"
"You're killing … my buzz," he said, swallowing the last date. "All this talk of republican Natives, that goddamn pipeline, and jeezuz! Elizabeth Warren ta' boot! What's wrong with you?"
The opening brass notes of Billie's "Strange Fruit" came over the speaker and calmed the mad chatter. Her somber lyrics prompted me to ponder: What was our strange fruit? "Blood on the leaves and blood on the root."
Yes, there were accounts of Natives strung up on tree branches, stretched at the necks, but, more commonly, bloodied Native bodies laid strewn on soil like stomped strawberries at a fruit farm – black & blue, smashed on the heel of a boot. Goddamn, how awful, I thought.
But as more cheese and fruit and friends flooded the lounge, the conversation returned to the baleful fate of any Native American presidential candidate.
“What about disenrollment?” one said.
“What do you mean?” I uttered. The word ‘disenrollment’ piqued my interest.
“You know – if a Native candidate disenrolls from their nation they’ll no longer be a citizen of it and then they’ll only be a citizen of the U.S.”
“And you know that that’s exactly what the tea party tarts and GOP pundits will call for,” I grunted. “Dual citizenship is unheard of for a presidential election. Americans on the teabag side of the isle won’t have any of it.”
“And JFK, man,” a voice said, “they took him out, maybe not just for being Catholic, but there were a lot of people who hated him for it.”
I called the waiter over and asked for the check. An hour later, we were done with fruit and whiskey and cheeses and crackers and desired ramen and pork buns and then some chocolate from the joint we passed by when we shot up the street near Washington Square Park.
It was an ominous conversation amid a beautiful scene. Snow had recently coated the sidewalks and trees and Christmas wreaths and the city lights glistened on black asphalt like stars on the Hudson.
“Are we suggesting here that a Native American who doesn’t disenroll from his or her tribe and runs for the presidency also runs the chance of getting assassinated?” someone’s white friend said. He’d been mum the entire night up to that point.
“Well … yeah,” one in the group said. “Americans – white Americans – were worried Kennedy would answer to and do the bidding of the Pope. People might be scared that a Native U.S. president will answer to a chief or tribal president.”
“And Creator save us if it’s fucking Tom Cole!” another bellowed.
“I think they’d also worry that the Native POTUS would release Leonard (Peltier),” I said, which is true.
By midnight we’d had enough. The wind picked up and the wiggy had gotten louder and violent and were making their way into the subway station for warmth and to find a bench, but benches on nights like these are taken by the homeless with plastic bags and carts filled to the brim with everything from bottles to blankets – the accumulation of what they’ve gathered over the months or years to cherish, sell or trade. Welcome to America, where the rich suffer from affluenza and the cold and hungry sleep on benches in New York subway stations until the fuzz comes trundling in. The saga continues. Until then, ta-ta.
Oliver B. Barker is a writer and poet. He lives in New York City.