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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Dissing American Indians, Part I: A Month a Year

November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s a good opportunity to acknowledge our oldest inhabitants, but a month a year just doesn’t do the job of revealing the rich Native heritage and more importantly the lives of contemporary Indians and their communities. White Americans’ continual disregard for and ignorance about Americans is the most basic form of disrespect.

Perhaps we were luckier than most Americans in our access to American Indians. Living for many years in Albuquerque, NM, a place with a significant percentage of Indians, we had many opportunities to meet Native people. Just thirty minutes away was San Felipe Pueblo, where friends welcomed us for family and holiday celebrations. About 30,000 of New Mexico’s Pueblos live in their own reservation towns. Some of those towns have casinos, others do not. Folks from the pueblos near Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Los Alamos commute to jobs, school and shopping. Whether close to a city or in more remote areas, these generous and welcoming people retain their cultures, languages and religions.

The Pueblos are also superb craftspeople. I have intricately carved fetishes that represent spirits and qualities that the Zuni revere, for instance, Corn Maiden who assures fertility of the land. I also have splendid ceramic pots from Acoma Pueblo. Artists like Roxanne Swentzell produce stunning visions of contemporary life.

Not too far from Albuquerque is also the Navajo Nation. About 180,000 enrolled tribal members live on the 27,000 square-mile reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, and Utah. With its spectacular landscapes, the Nation is also a place of extremes. The reservation’s unemployment rate is around 50%, some rural areas lack electricity and running water, and substance abuse is a scourge. But the reservation is fully “wired,” the Nation is rich with mineral resources, and it has opened three casinos. Some residents are steeped in tradition, while others have advanced college degrees (or both). Besides traditional jewelry and weavings, Navajo artists like Lorenzo Clayton also produce probing contemporary work.

After nearly a century of dire poverty and near extinction, the Southern Utes Nation has leveraged its energy resources with strategic investments to become a global corporation now worth up to $14 billion. The tribe’s 1500 members live on its reservation in southwestern Colorado.

These are just a few of 535 American Indian nations in the United States. They lived in my backyard, so to speak, and just this handful have such a wealth of Native American “heritage”― traditions, languages, histories and economies. The majority of today’s American Indians live in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Albuquerque and Anchorage. I have seen the despair that Americans associate with reservations and dire conditions in cities. But I have also felt the enormous energy among American Indians, in all areas of life. Young Native people are engaged in physics, medicine, the arts, education, and civic life.

Most Americans can show a modicum of respect to our continent’s first peoples easily, because most live within traveling distance from a Native American community or urban neighborhood. Organizations like the National Congress of American Indians and the National Museum of the American Indian are places to expand your knowledge of Native American heritage―year round and in your own backyard. You can go from dissing to respecting with just some reading and a few clicks on the web.
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