Happy Thanksgiving to Our Friends on the Rez

     Happy Thanksgiving to the 5.4 million Native Americans in the United States. And to the Anglos and black white people (as the Indians called them) and to the Mexicans and Chinese-Americans and Syrian refugees and to everyone else.
     As we gorge ourselves on Thanksgiving, let us remember that our national holiday was created by President Abraham Lincoln to thank the Indians, who accepted us, and fed us, and helped us until we could survive on our own, while white people were refugees.
     I write a column of thanksgiving every year to my friends on the rez. I lived on a reservation for six years in Arizona, and spent another year on the edge of another rez, teaching English, music and Native American history.
     I tell you Anglos this to establish my credentials.
     I can see my Indian friends smiling, hiding their mouth with their hands, because I’m bragging.
     But I’m not bragging. I’m telling white people how it is.
     What a world we Anglos have created.
     What a world we are destroying.
     When I left the rez, I told myself, I would not broadcast what I learned there. That was between me and the people. I break my promise once a year, on Thanksgiving. Because I love the people, and I wish they had had immigration officers when the Mayflower pulled in.
     But oh, well.
     Here is a story from the rez. After I had lived there for several years, teaching high school and coaching track, I thought it would be cool to have a foot race to kick off a tribal celebration. So I went to the district council and asked tribal leaders for permission.
     Thirty seconds of silence ensued. I’d been on the rez long enough to know I didn’t have to shoot off my mouth anymore. I shut up and sat there.
     Finally, a tribal official asked me, “Who are you?”
     I’d been coaching track at the high school for five years. We’d won a state championship. I gave them my spiel. The council agreed to consider it. That race never happened. That’s all right. Things happen slowly on the rez, and that’s good.
     A few years later, on the border of another reservation, I was assigned to teach Apaches about Apache culture and language, in a public high school.
     Right? Mr. White Man teaching Apaches their own language – though I didn’t speak a word of it – and about their own traditions – though I knew nothing about them.
     For the record: I didn’t quit because I knew the next white man they hired would do it worse than I did. And I was given my new assignment the day before classes began.
     When I taught Apaches that year – and I believe I did teach them something – I discovered this essay by Kenneth Basso, a respected anthropologist, whom I respect too: “Silence in Western Apache Culture.”
     Basso wrote: “In Western Apache culture, the absence of verbal communication is associated with social situations in which the status of focal participants is ambiguous.
     “Under these conditions, fixed role expectations lose their applicability and the illusion of predictability in social interaction is lost.
     “To sum up and reiterate: keeping silent among the Western Apache is a response to uncertainty and unpredictability in social relations.”
     My Apache friends thought that Basso essay was hilarious. I think it’s ridiculous.
     I think that many Indians are simply more comfortable with silence than Anglos are. And that if an Indian refuses to talk to an Anglo for long enough, the white man, eventually, will go away.
     I think that explains it.

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