Mid-Life Crisis Trip
Entry 25.2: Robert in Indian Country (Part 2)
Robert continues his report of the ATNI conference
Mon, Sep 11, 2006
Boy, howdy, waking up with the ocean right outside your window is pretty dang slick. As the sun rises, Robert can see that the surf is running about three to five feet. Of course, it's breaking mostly across rocks, so even Nutty Bob isn't about to get in any body surfing. Still, it's fun to walk down the beach at low tide and notice that there's practically nothing growing. Just sand and rocks. And rocks and sand. And the occasional piece of kelp.
And watching the sunrise over the casino is, well, pretty ordinary.
All the delegates are gathered in a big room (with coffee and pastries at the back) for the opening ceremonies. And Indians do know how to get things started (this is similar to the opening ceremonies we saw at the pow wows we attended).
First you get a parade of flags carried by veterans (including one guy who was in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam that Robert talked to for a while; and one of HIS cousins was in the 101st in WWII as seen in Band of Brothers). Then you get a flag song sung in one of the Indian languages (probably Chinook, because this is a coastal tribe). Then you get a welcome in English, another welcome (this time in Yakama), and then a prayer. Another song, and we're ready for the first item on our agenda: a welcome speech from the head of the Siletz Indians! (The Siletz are hosting the conference, so they get the welcoming honors.)
One of the interesting things Robert has noticed about Indian meetings is that they tend to start out with a history lesson. If you're meeting about printing a booklet, you start with a history of the booklet. If you're meeting about economic development, you start with a history of Indian economic development.
In this case, because we're meeting about Northwest Indians, we start with a 45-minute history lesson on Northwest Indians.
Surprisingly, Americans are not responsible for wiping out most of the Indians (although we have plenty to be ashamed of). That honor belongs to smallpox that was introduced by a Spanish trading ship. Because Indians had never been exposed to it (and it's extremely virulent) it wiped out 90% of all Indians in the Northwest in the 1800s.
Yup, that's ninety percent. (Talking to folks afterwards, they say they have tribal stories of entire villages wiped out except for one baby.) Then the Americans showed up and started the process of wiping out the land that fed and clothed the Indians. And boy, as a white person, you start feeling smaller and smaller as they go along. Whenever the government wanted more land, they'd just decide that a few million acres were "surplus" and the Indians weren't really doing anything important with it, like logging or mining gold (they were just using it for food and shelter).
This process culminated with "Termination" in the 1950s when the US Government decided that the best thing for Indians was for them to stop being Indians and get with the program already. So entire reservations were eliminated and tribal treaty rights were taken away, so those poor Indians could be proper Americans.
Of course, those poor Indians were Americans back before it was even called "America," so they took a dim view of this. That's when they founded the ATNI (Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians) and starting fighting (in Congress) for their treaty rights.
It's getting better, but there's still a long way to go (in their view).
We are welcomed (again) at lunch, and Robert wishes he were older. Seems that Indian tradition is for elders (people over 55) to be served first, so all us youngers sit around the tables awaiting our turn.
While we're chatting, we find out that one of the women at our table is going to South Africa in November to be a conference with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Everybody at the table said "Cool!" at the same time. The South African government is putting on a conference about Forgiveness, and is inviting folks from around the world (like Israeli/Palestinians, Irish/English, Indian/White people) to participate. Robert volunteers to represent white people, but it seems there's no shortage of folks eager to go. Dang.
After lunch, Billy Frank, Jr., gets up and harangues us (and very well) about how the land is being poisoned (apparently, you can't even drink out of the Yukon River). He reminds us that we have a responsibility as Indians (and at this point, he wasn't really talking to Robert) to preserve and protect the land, and we can't really expect the white people to do it for us (okay, now he's talking to Robert).
The afternoon was taken up with "committee" meetings. This is where a particular interest group will get together, and everybody who shows up is automatically on the committee. The folks will talk about stuff for a while (some agendas are more detailed than others) and express ideas and views about the committee topic.
One thing that seems to be pretty important to Indians is to give everybody a chance to talk. So you get to hear people present a variety of opinions, and sometimes wander off into the bushes (figuratively speaking).
Robert goes to a Tourism committee and to an Economic Development committee. At the economic committee, we get to hear a pitch from an Indian who's working with the Venezuelan government and promises cheap gas and oil to Indian tribes.
Since, technically, the US Government despises the Venezuelan government (and they reciprocate, but we still buy their oil and they still sell it to us), this made the ATNI organizers a little nervous. But the guy got through his somewhat scattered presentation with democracy still firmly in place (and it is worth pointing out that Hugo Chavez, the head of Venezuela, is a democratically elected President).
Now we're being welcomed (for the third time today) by the same lady who heads the Siletz tribe. This time, we're being welcomed to a buffet dinner, featuring much yummy food. Indians seem to understand the virtue of a full stomach, as every meal so far has been provided.
There's even a live band! They play a set of about half an hour and then take a ten minute break. Robert seems to be the only one who notices that every set they play is radically different. The first set is early electrified folk (such as Dylan). The second set is lounge jazz. The third set is Caribbean music, and Robert leaves during Margaritaville because it's been a long damn day and he's ready to stare out his hotel window at the surf and read for a while.