As far back as I can remember I’ve had trouble sleeping. Tonight I stayed up late reading about Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. He’s a Rob Ford-type so the articles are gossipy. When restless a few weeks ago I lay in bed making recordings of myself. I never do anything useful with this time, like cleaning.
When I was a kid I used to draw my face over and over again with charcoal. I have entire sketchbooks filled with middle of the night images. Another period was when I was in elementary school and would stay up late with my father. For months during tax season my accountant dad would come home after I had already gone to bed. Once in the house he would head to the kitchen and cook a middle of the night dinner. Just before he sat down, I would inexplicably rise, put my red fuzzy robe on over my pajamas and join him in the kitchen. I loved my red fuzzy robe because it had white piping and it made me look like a boxer readying to go into the ring.
In late fall and winter, on a free weekend my father would go hunting. The only occasions in my childhood I can ever recall seeing him teetering from inebriation is when he would return from one of these trips that he would take with a once-neighbor of ours and his four sons. And at my Bat Mitzvah party.
My dad likes shooting wild turkeys. At that time he used a shotgun, which sprays the fowl with countless projectiles. Each bite was a minefield. One must chomp slowly as to avoid the metal pieces that pierced the flesh of the bird.
Turkey season overlapped with tax time, and I cherish the memories of midnight dinners with my father. Just the two of us, and my Muhammad Ali cloak of glory, and the smell of wild game spilling out of the oven. In those late nights my dad taught me how to prepare gravy, make a balance sheet and throw my weight into a right-jab. But most of all when I think of those nights, what I remember most is the feeling of being special. My sisters didn’t have these secret dinners, just me. And my father was always letting me do things I was too young for. I got to puff my first cigar when I was 12, and he taught me to drive when I was 14. When I was in trouble, I got to draft a contract designing my own punishments, the oldest of which were inscribed in crayon.
But as the years passed the simplicity of those midnight meals ended. As a teenager if I’d been invited for turkey, I would have rejected the invitation. And I became a militant vegetarian.
At that time, I had adjusted to waking in the middle of the night. I usually stayed in bed, though. No room to go into, no one I wanted to see. I let my thoughts wander to some surrealist nightmare. I have vivid memories of looking from my bedroom window out to see evergreens and contemplating how long ago were those trees planted? Or were they never planted by humans and rose up from the earth naturally through the conifer seeding process we were learning about in science class?
One thought haunted me.
Who lived here before us? And did they see those same trees before me? Where I’m from there are no Native American communities. European colonists exterminated them, and those they did not exterminate fled or were marched up the Ohio River basin to the mid-West. And yet nearly every surrounding river is named after tribes that were brutally forced out of their historic lands at the hands of the white man building his city on the hill.
Before the land I grew up in was “Maryland” it was home to four major tribes. Most were part of the Iroquois Confederacy whose governing documents served as a model for the U.S.’s Articles of Confederation, although they’re hardly ever credited for it. Where I grew up specifically was home to the Susquehannock, who were never part of the Confederacy of first nations. Today they have totally been exterminated. Those that were not killed in the 1600s and 1700s joined up with other tribes, assimilating into the protection of a larger group.
The thought haunted me because I would suppress it as soon as it surfaced. Genocide is not the starter of pleasant dreams. Furthermore there was no reason I should be thinking about Native Americans and what trees they looked at before going to bed. I should be thinking about Emilio Pucci dresses, and finally get around to reading that Tolstoy I took from my grandfather’s bookshelf. I was like an imprint of a design of a person that is trying to find ways to think uncluttered thoughts. No matter what, I’d always soft land on some self-absorbed lamentation. So I didn’t think seriously about anything serious at all. Although I did try to emulate what I thought a very serious person would think about.
In school Native peoples were presented as a historic past that suffered from a solitary moment of trauma that has long since been dusted over. There was no comprehension that there are hundreds of tribes still living under the boot of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And those who are in reservations are constantly having their Native sovereignty violated when it comes to water, or corporations mining for uranium. Or that others live in our shared society, one that has betrayed and slanders them.
In class we were told that it was one salient historical act that wiped the whole population out. And yes it was very sad, but the past is the past and what people could do now is appreciate some of their artifacts. Kids in my classes used to find arrowheads when digging in their backyards. With leather string they would bind the sharp metal and wear it like an amulet. A fighter, a warrior bejeweled.
In high school my American government class was dispassionately taught by the football coach, my English class by the born-again Christian wrestling coach who closed each lesson pontificating on the teachings of Jesus, often while massaging the shoulders of male student athletes. In the government class I once had an assignment to write a mock newspaper article about manifest destiny painter Charles Marion Russell. I can recall the warm brush strokes of his paintings today. They were landscapes from the west and scenes of Natives fighters and whores, and white settlers.
Russell painted from Montana for New England audiences. He was America’s Nachum Gutman. Though in his private life he was a boozer and wife-beater. So the books in the library told me. For my essay I wrote in a voice that I assumed was appropriate to the times. I praised the drunkard Russell for casting away the savages that dirtied the pink mountains God had given to the white man. And I forgave him for his domestic crimes. “There’s only so much one man can take,” I wrote in my artist profile, explaining that Russell served as master for the rest of us. After all he was a friend of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Yet to my surprise that essay earned me an “A” for my essay and my instructor congratulated me for seeing the beauty in Russell’s wild, wild West.
My mother got a kick out of my essay. She’s a family law attorney and perhaps because in her work-life she often represents women whose husbands treat them like cattle, she was proud I could evoke the inner life of a supremacist male in order to expose the racism and abusiveness that colored Russell paintings. She even hung the essay on the wall, taking it down to read to visitors as a special treat for entering our home.
Later when I attended college at Berkeley, I didn’t need to wonder anymore about whose land I was on. The University of California, Berkeley was built on a slope belonging to the Ohlone tribe. The football stadium and a few buildings constructed with funding from the Hearst family are on a Native burial yard. When the UC broke ground for what became the Phoebe Hearst Museum (the Art Department), they stole 13,000 Native remains from this sacred site and now hold them hostage inside the museum.
The Ohlone want their ancestors back.
Sometimes when I biked to class along the south border of the burial ground an elderly Native woman would sit with a sign that she was on hunger strike, until the skeletons were returned. Things hit a fever pitch with the university when they planned to erect a parking lot to serve the football stadium on the last patch of undisturbed land in the Native burial ground. The plot is covered with Oak trees. Some are old growth, planted when the ancestors passed and protected by a special California law that says old trees have rights.
And so with the recent row over Snyder who refused to change his football team’s name despite condemnation from Native groups and politicians alike– I am reminded again of my sleepless nights wondering about Native Americans, and classroom assignments regaling their destruction.
Snyder is from Silver Springs, Maryland. It’s an affluent community close to where I was raised and once inhabited by the Susquehannock. He’s also Jewish. Aside from these two elements of identity Snyder and I don’t have much in common. But I can guesstimate that his arrogance over the team’s name– after dozens of college sports groups have done so (the Stanford Indians are now the Stanford Cardinals as on example)– stems from the same ignorance that I used to have. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I met a Native American for the first time, after I had moved to California. Even though every river and land formation in the area of Snyder’s and my rearing is named after a tribe.
What the Ohlone battle for the burial ground and Snyder with the Washington DC football both show is that Native plights for dignity hardly have subsided. Days before Thanksgiving Snyder made one more show that he has no intention to change his team’s name. He and the NFL honored Navajo code talkers, a group of Native soldiers who in World War II aided the allies by sending messages in the Dine language, which Japanese code breakers couldn’t understand. Peter MacDonald, a former chairman of the Navajo tribe and one of the code messengers, was filmed saying “go Redskins.” To the Navajo community, MacDonald is a controversial figure. Hunter Gray (Hunter Bear), a Navajo professor and activist, says that MacDonald made Faustian deals with uranium mining companies.
“MacDonald, no Braveheart, spent his long and pervasively corrupt career selling out Navajo oil and mineral and other resources [and, in that sense, very much the Dine’ people] to some of the biggest corporations in the world. He was, by far and away, the most consistent of the Republican-supporting Indian leaders of his period—and a very strong Reagan and Goldwater man,” said Gray.
If Snyder had any sensitivity to the larger Native community, he would change the team’s name. He claims the mascot honors sport history. But consider please that a few years ago he had no qualms about switching the playing green’s name from Redskins Stadium to FedEx field for a $205 million contract. And so Snyder will rely on the MacDonald’s of the world to stage an elaborate farce of caring. And in doing so he is honoring a particular legacy. But it’s the heritage of minstrel shows and profits. The image of Native peoples has long been used to sell things: tobacco, butter, football.