THE LAWSON’S PEAK BOOKS

You Can’t Get It Out Of A Cracker Jack Box

Drew Hayden Taylor wrote a memoir about his life as a mixed-blood indigenous person that probably bore the most fitting title ever to describe the conundrum of us ‘Breeds.

The book is Funny, You Don’t Look Like One: Adventures of a Blue-eyed Ojibway. I read it many, many years ago and gave myself a sore neck from nodding emphatically all the way through.

These stereotypes are as broad and ingenious as those applied to any ethnic group. In fact, the phrase “ethnic group” itself is a stereotype. It presupposes that there is a group which is considered the “standard” and then there are the others. Sometimes we don’t even realize how we speak, do we?

In the 1960s, the hippie movement was largely based on the stereotypical belief systems attributed—mostly falsely—to Native Americans. As Thomas observed in the movie Smoke Signals, during those years it was hard for an indigenous person to be heard because all the hippies were trying to be Indians.

The environmental movement has also taken on the stereotype of the Indian, quoting Black Elk and Chief Joseph and Chief Seatl ad nauseum.

I’ll bet there’s a buncha old hippies and young environmentalists seething and gritting their teeth right about now, pulling out pen and paper to write a letter to the editor. I’m not saying that there isn’t truth in the stereotype, but like all stereotypes, they’re based on exaggeration.

Here’s one: I was in Browning, Montana several years ago and went to the Blackfeet tribal wildlife and fisheries office to get a fishing license to go stalk wild cutthroat and rainbow trout on tribal land. The wildlife officer there eyed me with disdained amusement when my host told him I was an Indian from Louisiana.

“Oh,” he said. “I bet you’re Cherokee, enit?”

Enit is an Indian contraction of “isn’t it” heard on most reservations though most prevalent in the west. “I bet you’re Cherokee” is something of a put down in Indian country nationwide, the other being, “If I had a nickel for every person who had a Cherokee grandmother I’d buy myself a new Rez car.”

Now, before those of you with Cherokee grandmothers pull out a pen and paper and start writing a letter to the editor, there’s no doubt that there are many Cherokee descendants walking around today because so many Cherokees escaped prior to and during the Trail of Tears. They married into both indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

It’s sort of like Woodstock, though: There were somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 people at that big jam session, and somewhere between 3 and 4 million who claim they were.

So I’m coming across the desk at him because out west male Indians survive on three things: Fishing, hunting and testosterone. Joe, my host, puts his hands between us and says, “No, no, there really are Indians in Louisiana and Roger’s dad was the chief.”

Gail apologized profusely and with shame at his faux pas. I forgave him, but talked to him as many times and with as much mocking as I could.

A day or two later, Joe took us up to a certain creek, the name of which I won’t share, high, high up in Glacier National Park. It took four hours of back-breaking four-wheel-drive riding to get us there. Two comments stand out in my mind: Joe said that creek saw maybe half a dozen fly fishermen a year and he brought them all up there, and Mick, producer of the television show I was filming, said, “You-Know-Who would have given his left arm to fish this.”

“You-Know-Who” being Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It who lived a bit father south on the Big Blackfoot River at Missoula.

Beside this creek stood Chief Mountain. It dominated the horizon as we moved upstream, a sentinel, a place Blackfeet had gone to share spatial and temporal existence with their ancestors for a time. I never forgot the view of Chief Mountain up the singing flow of that creek. Sometimes I still dream of it.

So there’s stereotypes within and outside of Native America, too. People like Drew Hayden Taylor and I exist in a sort of netherworld between the two.

Here’s some fun facts you might now know about Native America.

It’s rude to point with your finger, especially during ceremonies. If you want to indicate something, point with a nod of your chin and a slight pucker of your lips to indicate direction.

That wonderful garb Indian dancers wear is not a costume. Repeat after me: It is not a costume. A costume is something you wear for Halloween or to otherwise pretend. It is regalia. Not a costume, not a uniform, not “traditional dress” or any other clever descriptive concoction. It is regalia.

But the truth is that yes, we were and sometimes are still in tune with the natural and spiritual world in a different way than westerners. Not necessarily a better way. And don’t overlook that a good chunk of European-descended people on this continent have the same spirit, without a drop of indigenous blood or experience. It doesn’t take sessions in a sweat lodge or smudging to tune a person to nature; you either have it, or you don’t.

The only way to know that you have it is to get close to it. By 1492, most of Europe lived in its squalid cities. Here in the Americas, there were cities of great magnificence as well: Cahokia. Machu Picchu. Teotihuacan. But far, far more natives lived in the wilds, and even those in the cities were constantly moving in and out of natural environs.

The hippies and the rad environmentalists get it all wrong. You don’t get that balance, that resonance, by hanging out with some self-proclaimed or even legitimate shaman. You don’t garner that vision, that special umbilical to the natural world reading Black Elk.

You either have it, or you foster it until you do. It’s all inside you. Or it’s not. If it’s not, you probably can’t get it. It’s not a skill. It’s not like learning to play the piano.

It’s astereotypical. It’s abnormal, by today’s standards. You can’t get it from buckskin and turquoise. Those are not conduits; they’re badges of identity. You can’t divine it from “Mother Earth” with quartz. That’s not to say there isn’t power in the earth, for goodness sakes, of course there is! But if you’ve got it, if it’s in your soul already, you don’t require those stereotypical instruments. It’s in you. You are the device. It’s that weird concoction of molecules in your spinal cord and your solar plexus; it’s the certain rapid-fire rate and pattern in which the little switches in your brain fire; it’s the way the pores of your skin reject or soak up the air and all its vivid scents. People who say, “Oh, the flu doesn’t cause (name a symptom),” overlook that we are not all the same height, have the same color hair and eyes, build, bones, even sometimes our organs are in different places. What in the heck makes people think we’re identical down to the last subatomic particle?

Because they want us to be. It keeps them comfortable in their conformity. That’s what most people like, what they live, work and breathe for: Conformity. Comfort zones. Safety.

Others strive for resonance, but too often they find the quest disturbing. See, there’s basically three kinds of people in the world: Those who are searching, and eventually find their personal truths. Then there are those who are also searching, and may or may not ever find an answer, but gain a certain solace and fulfillment from the search itself. And there are those who don’t have a clue, never had a clue, don’t want a clue and might as well throw in the towel and join the rest of the nameless and faceless in the rat race.

I’m glad I have that resonance from somewhere far in the past. My oddly-formed molecules and the misfiring synapses in my cranium are tuning forks, humming to the frequency of wildness. Perhaps it’s my ancestry, but I think likely as not it’s my spirit, whether by some channeling of collective consciousness or by pure dumb, stupid luck.

No matter. I can’t stay away from it. That’s the greatest gift, I think, and it didn’t come from a book or a silver-set crystal. It came from within, as naturally as a spring flows from beneath the ground and forms a river.

Problem is, sometimes it hurts, too.

1 comment to You Can’t Get It Out Of A Cracker Jack Box

  • Damn, Boy, keep writing like that, and one day you just might get good at it.
    Incidentally, I was perhaps in the time if not the place, but I was far from being a “Hippie”! (Did like Peter, Paul, and Mary, though!).
    Incidentally again, Barbara was close!
    Pete

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