Yesterday morning I sat out on the flat, lava stone who lives in the yard, while I waited for my ride to the airport. I took in all the breath I could. I knew that the next 24 hours would be marked by stale airport and airline air. In one day I’ve flown over 5,000 miles. I landed in New York City this morning, and haven’t stopped. I made phone calls, prepped for a performance, met with friends and when we came out of an elevator who was catching a nap in the lobby of the foundation building but Winona LaDuke, the Anishnabe activist,writer and wonder woman. We surprised her. “Was I snoring?” she asked. “Yes” we replied, “and you were drooling,too.” Not true. A few years ago we would have painted her up with lipstick, nail polish, ratted her hair and transformed her quietly while she slept. She got off easy.
Now it’s almost midnight, and I’m back from a stroll around Times Square. At the center of the commotion is a 21st century totem pole. Flash and neon stacked images announce everything from credit cards to electronics to food that isn’t really food. That kind of brilliance of technology and imagination is intoxicating. Night can be day.
Electricity is loud. There is no subtlety. The voice of the stone is lost here. Beneath the display of power, people roam the streets. Workers stack trash, unload boxes to restock the stores. Shows let out. Restaurants are lit up and full. Tourists gawk and photograph the lights and each other. Scammers slide through the shadows. A hot dog vendor puts up for the night. I wonder where he lives. Where does he store his cart? He’ll be out here early tomorrow to start all over again. I wonder how many family members he’s supporting, how he keeps warm as cold winds whip up from the mouth of the North and blow over from the river.
I was in southern India a few years back for collaboration with a dancer there. We rehearsed for a week before premiering a show with dancers, musicians and poetry. My musicians and I got to know our driver, Das. He was proud of his wife and three-year-old daughter, whose photographs he shyly shared with us. We assumed that when he left us at the end of the day, he was going home to them. The last day of our visit he revealed that he only got a few days off every three months to see them. The rest of the time he was permanently on call at all hours, in his taxi. There are many realms and realities on one street, in one moment. Each of these establishments depends on the lives of many workers. As I pass each person on the street, I take in their stories, I look for the shine, that gleam of promise we all carry. In some it burns bright. Others are tired or depressed and the flame flickers. One man was frightening, forced an involuntary shudder in me He had mostly, deliberately, extinguished his light.
Like everyone else in the nation, I’ve been watching, listening to, and discussing the recent Cherokee decision to exclude Freedmen from Cherokee citizenship. And like others I recognize that this decision makes a direct hit to our citizenship concerns and issues a warning for our citizenship policies. I’ve heard all the historical reasons for including Freedmen as members, and all the historical reasons for excluding. I’ve heard that the Freedmen only want benefits but don’t want responsibility of being tribal members. And I’ve heard that we can’t take care of the members we have now and adding Freedmen would overwhelm the system. I’ve heard that we are legally bound to include Freedman as tribal members; I’ve heard that we are not. It can be proved that many Freedmen who have documented Mvskoke blood have been deliberately excluded from citizenship because of race, while those who carry a predominance of European blood have been admitted as tribal members. I’ve heard that DNA testing would settle the issue once and for all, and I’ve heard that DNA tests are faulty and a tool for diminishment of our sovereignty. We have the Nazi experiment as an excellent example of what happens when a nation turns toward racial purity as measure of citizenship.
I’ve heard that being descended from the Dawes Rolls is the only measure of tribal citizenship, though the terrible irony is that the rolls were lists made by the colonizers who used these lists for diminishment of rights and lands. They are faulty for our purposes of verifying membership. Chitto Harjo, one of our most esteemed citizens refused to sign up to the Dawes Roll. Membership inconsistencies and falsehoods continue due to human fault and sometimes deliberate mistakes. (In my own family, my daughter Rainy is a member of her father’s tribe, Acoma. Her mother is listed as her father’s first wife, a Navajo. I gave birth to my daughter, I can verify that I am her mother! Yet, if the records are not changed, I will not be found.) I’ve heard personal family stories of how a particular Freedman did this or that and therefore this affirms that Freedmen should be denied tribal membership.
We can argue historical pros and cons, we can limit benefits and voting of membership according to blood quantum (and we already do that for those less than a quarter blood).
(And, by the way, what are all these benefits that are here for the taking? I, like many others, waited for the huge settlement that was coming our way in the early 70’s. My Aunt Lois Harjo Ball and her generation had waited since childhood for the big check. When the settlement finally paid out, my check covered a couple of weeks of groceries. I received help with scholarship money for school and without that help I would not have been able to attend. Most of the benefits I receive are cultural and familial and cannot be measured with dollar amounts. More than anything is the responsibility of citizenship.)
Still what is wound dangerously behind and through the discussion are inflamed cords of rage and disgust. One root is directly related to the U.S. government and its forced policies and laws. We wouldn’t have any of these problems of citizenship without the initial and continued interference of the U.S. government. We would still be operating under our traditional systems, systems based on talwa, or towns, and on relationships garnered by clan, family and direct connection to each other. In this system Freedmen, both those who had direct kinship, and those who did not, had an unquestionable place. In this system there was no doubt as to who was related to whom. Everyone had rights and responsibilities I imagine this system would have found a way to include relatives who move away and their children, as most of us naturally maintain a connection. The other root is an undisguised racism against people of African descent. I attribute this to colonizing policies in which we have learned to hate ourselves first, and then anyone who was just as dark or darker in skin color. This has become a race issue. I also attribute it to U.S. government policies of divide and conquer, from within, and without.
The bottom line question is what makes a tribal citizen, and secondly, what are the rights, privileges and responsibilities of citizenship? The truth holding up the bottom line is the truth of the heart. What is right? What is honorable and what will stand up as just and true, despite the fashions and vagaries of interloper governments, of passing philosophies and policies? The decision must be free of racism and small mindedness. Whatever we decide must pass the test of the heart and spirit.
Once I traveled far above the earth. This beloved planet we call home was covered with an elastic web of light. I watched in awe as it shimmered, stretched, dimmed and shined, shaped by the collective effort of all life within it. Dissonance attracted more dissonance. Harmony attracted harmony. I saw revolutions, droughts, famines and the births of new nations. The most humble kindnesses made the brightest lights.
Joy Harjo March 21, 2007 New York City