Cowboys and Indians-the Legacy

Growing up in  Arizona I was raised on “cowboys and Indians” as true Western lore. Native Americans (as more properly identified collectively  now) were regarded as the estranged, invisible ones among us be they of the Pima, Apache, Hopi, Navaho or Pueblo tribes.  They were my first exposure to a dark-skinned race distinguished as “red”. Even Hispanics with Spanish ancestral roots bore “pale faces”. As a displaced blonde blue-eyed Scottish/Scandinavian with Minnesota roots, I could hardly have been mistaken for either ethnicity despite the seasonal sun  exposure which left me with painful red skin.

The institutional cruelty inflicted upon those I  saw as different from us lay right next door to my Central High at the Phoenix Indian School where government sanctioned racism sought to “civilize the young savages” from distant reservations out state by boarding them in the middle of an all too “white” culture. The high fenced school property covered more than a square mile and kept those curious among us out and the Indians in. In all my youth there was never one protest of unfairness about this treatment…though harsh. We were told that being taken from family each school year until summer they were “far better off” to escape the poverty, drunkenness, suicide, homicide and disease of their families back on the reservation. Of course the native language had to go. Only English spoken here. They had their own police,the BIA to preserve law and order on the federal land upon which the government school sat. Those who tried to runaway from the loneliness and unhappiness of incarcerated education were dutifully returned as delinquents to juvenile detention. Such was the noble endeavor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1950-60s.

Cowboys and Indians glamorized on radio, tv and film also were paraded down Central Avenue at the annual rodeo and state fair seasons. The Native Americans were dressed in their finest Regalia (ceremonial attire akin to clergy robes and spiritual adornments). In stark and mocking contrast  Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Zorro the masked bandit,  the Cisco Kid with sidekick Pancho in Hollywood comic costumes  stole the show to the equal delight of young children and adults. I don’t ever recall seeing a Native American watching or cheering on  the spectacle from street side. They were truly invisible and silent, found only behind the chain link fence of the Government schools and reservations. They were as strangers in a strange land.

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Guatemalan refugees and “Pandora Lost”

For nine years our Midwestern church has aided the efforts in restoration of an indigenous village  near San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. “Nuevo Providencia” it is called by the collaboration of several tribes whose former villages were washed away from the steep sister volcanoes that rim the southwestern shores of Lake Atitlan. We sent our 19 year old twins, Ellie and Joe who joined other peers with whom they had trekked the Santiago Pilgrimage  50 miles across northern Spain two years prior.  Joe was  in need of “doing some service work” after a first year at the university. Ellie our crafts girl was  captivated by the photos of a colorfully clothed natives and sought a closer look. For ten days they worked besides the villagers (8 to 80 years age) hauling sandbags by hand down a narrow trail to build a road. No power tools or earth movers, the village is slated for electricity later this summer by a water driven turbine. Much as during my mountain mission in Haiti the twins also were struck by the joy and spiritual strength these souls possessed in the utter simplicity of their hardscrabble lives. Their spirituality was forged of ancient Mayan mythology and more recent Hispanic Catholicism. Unlike the refugee immigrant children of Central America flooding our southern borders in flight from poverty and cartel crime of the bigger cities, these families only sought to better their lives where they remained beside an ancient lake and twin volcanoes. Their Pandora-like jungle appears spared from environmental destruction in the service of first world exploitation thus far, but for how long?

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I took a  course from Paul Riesman at a small Midwestern college in the late 60s. He challenged us to consider how much  personality is innate with in us and how much was a reflection of our culture. He had lived in Africa among a tribe cut off from outside influences by the forest as part of his graduate work. His father David, had written a book called “the lonely crowd” so I guess his search was preordained to some extent. A series of readings, discussions and writings upended our simplistic assumptions and I have  never stopped exploring the query decades later. When I spent thanksgiving 2010 in Haiti on mountain medical service spurred on by Paul Farmer’s legacy there the idea burned ever stronger…more on that later . Welcome to our journey together where ever  you reside on our beloved planet earth.

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