On Monday I watched the sun set over Battery Park, as we gathered in front of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York for a concert/performance series sponsored by the NMAI in a partnership with the Lincoln Center. The Las Casita stage, with a colorful tarp “house” of brightly painted murals shimmered in front of the steps of the old Customs House. The rush of going-home traffic swirled around the tip of the island. “There used to be a wall here”, a singer told me. “The Dutch erected it to keep British settlers out.”
An indigenous dance and music ensemble from Ecuador opened the set. One of their most poignant tunes was a song in honor of the Amazon and the rainforest. I closed my eyes to listen. I was back in the Amazon listening to the symphony of insects and animals singing at dusk. The river winds through the immense rainforest. It is a huge and complex being. When I was in elementary school in Tulsa I used to do most of my reports on creatures and the place of the Amazon. In 1990 I was present at a hemispheric gathering of native peoples from North through South America in a village outside Quito, when people from the Amazon walked up to the meeting in their brilliantly colored feathers with their spears (their equivalent of a grocery cart). They came to ask for alliances in their struggle against U.S. oil companies who were taking over and destroying their lands. Though our Muscogee people had to deal with some of those same oil companies, and still do, I didn’t know what to offer them in the way of advice. The force of the destroyers, those who take more than they need without even asking, appears overwhelming. What can stop them? Will greed one day be listed as an illness, like alcoholism?
I finally made it to the Amazon a few years ago. For years I had a recurring dream. I would arrive at Iquitos and a particular man would meet me at the boat that would take me up the river. Sometimes he spoke Navajo. The day I flew into Iquitos from Cuzco the plane was late because we had to make an emergency landing in Pucallpa. (The same plane went down in an accident there a year later. Not everyone was killed. Some people walked home!) Because I was late I missed the scheduled boat to my camp. A smaller boat was rounded up and I was introduced to the man who was to drive me. He looked nothing like the man in my dreams. He and others loaded in the baggage, some bananas and a few other things. Then, another man got in, turned around to say we were leaving. He was the man I had dreamed! He didn’t speak Navajo but he looked similar to my Navajo relatives. We drove for three hours up the river. I was absolutely alive every moment as we moved up the river.
I especially enjoyed the night paddles into the Amazon to look for caimans (a kind of alligator) and other nocturnal creatures. Every night we’d paddle out were greeted by a vast orchestra of singing voices of insects and other creatures. I was reminded of Oklahoma in the summer, and being at the ceremonial grounds, just as I was, standing in the noisy drone music of five o’clock traffic in New York City, as I listened to the Ecuadorian troupe making that beautiful tribute to the spirit of the Amazon. I would like to go back to that giant of a river, and would like to take some of our Muscogee people down that way. We might meet some of our old relatives there.
One of the other performing groups that late afternoon in front of the steps of the museum was Pamyua. They’re from Alaska and perform traditional songs. Some keep their forms. Some they contemporize. They call their music: tribal-jazz-funk. Two brothers, Stephen and Phillip Blanchett, who began sharing the ancient stories of their people through music and dance, started the group. The brothers are Yup’ik Inuit and African American. The third member, Ossie Kairaiuak grew up dancing traditionally in Chefornak, Alaska. Later they added Karina Møller, a Greenlandic Inuit singer. They travel internationally in Europe, Asia, North and South America. They performed at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards in March of 2003. They’re the ones you want to hang out with before, during, and after the party. Good people with good stories.
With groups like this out there representing natives here in North America, there’s no reason anyone should cling to worn out images created by a showman who wanted to make money in the 1800’s. We aren’t just powwow, either, though powwow might be part of the mix. It’s not just tourists or strangers who cling to these images; it’s often our own people.
And before I forget, recently I was contacted by a couple of people looking for Harjo relatives. A Ken Andersen wrote: “In October 1962 while in Navy boot camp, another young man named Joe Harjo was stationed there with me. At the end of boot camp we were sent different directions. Today…I heard the name, for the first time since 1962. Would you know of this person? He would be about 62-64?”
And another from John Harrington: “In 1967-68, I was in Central Thailand with the United States Air Force. One of my friends there was Billy Harjo, an American Indian from Kansas or Oklahoma. He was there as a technician with a contractor to the U.S. government. Is there any chance you are related to him? If he is still alive, he would be in his mid to late 60s, I would be interested in getting in touch with him.”
If anyone knows either Joe Harjo or Billy Harjo or their whereabouts please email me at email@example.com and I’ll pass the information along.
We’re now in the heat of election fever. I understand that everyone is running for office or the council this election year. Keep a few basic things into consideration when voting: how does the candidate treat their parents? How do they treat their husbands, wives or significant other(s)? Are they familiar with the Mvskoke culture? Can they listen and are they open to more than one point of view? Do their words and actions have integrity? Are they in it to take care of the people or is something else driving the need to run for office? Are they judgmental or are they compassionate? Do they have a string of debt and excuses behind them, or are they followed by the words of people who remember their kind acts?
These positions are about taking care of our people. The story of our people will be carried forth by those we elect. Are we making a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe?
Each of our lives is meant to inspire each other, no matter what we do, no matter if we are a stay-at-home mother, a mechanic, a teacher, a student, in the military, or an engineer working in California. If I remember the story correctly, in old times we had no need for jails, for bureaucratic systems or any institution that perpetuated judgment or bigotry. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other.
What a story.
Joy Harjo August 29, 2007 Albuquerque, NM