On the Rez

Thanksgiving was invented so white men could thank Indians, but it’s hard for white men to do that – not just because white men are not exactly the thankfullest people on Earth – though they are not – but because most white men don’t know any Indians.
     I’m thankful I lived with Indians for six years, and spent another year working with another tribe, living on the border of their reservation.
     I was a vegetarian when I lived and coached track on the Tohono O’odham rez, and I’m sure my runners were just as amused by me as I was by them.
     I had to drive the van hundreds of miles each time we went to a track meet – Sells, Arizona is pretty much in the middle of nowhere – and because I wouldn’t eat fast food, I brought my own meals of rice and vegetables, which I ate with chopsticks.
     After state meet, I’d take the team out to a sit-down restaurant. They thought I was crazy the year I ordered fish. The O’odham live on the southern Arizona desert. Most of my kids had never seen a fish. The thought of eating one revolted them. It was even stranger than eating with chopsticks.
     My main man Jimmie shook his head as the waiters delivered the team steaks and brought me a fish.
     “What can you expect from a guy who eats with pencils?” Jimmie said.
     Unlike white folks, as Indians grow up they are not told to try to stand out, to try to be better than their peers, to be first, to try to become richer than others, to have more, to grab more, to stand out in a crowd.
     I was the band teacher on the rez and the first year there I prepared a Christmas concert, with a chorus to sing along with the band. The O’odham love music as much as anyone else does, more, probably. I managed to cajole a bunch of kids and teachers and teacher’s aides into singing in the chorus – just a few Christmas songs that everyone knows. We rehearsed in my room at lunch and everything went swell.
     On the last day before vacation, the final class was called off so the whole school could troop into the lunchroom for the Christmas concert.
     The whole school except for the chorus.
     As the lunchroom filled up, the chorus realized that they would have to stand in front of everyone else and sing. One minute the chorus was standing there, lined up next to the band, then I looked over and they were gone. Every single one of them had disappeared and hid until the concert was over. Even the teachers hid out.
     I loved the rez, and I loved the People, and I learned a little bit about the culture, but you don’t learn about Indian culture by asking about it. You learn it by just being there, year after year.
     The deal was pretty well summed up by a girl I had in my sophomore English class, who started school a week late one year. On her first day, I asked her to write me a one-page essay about anything – the assignment I usually gave on the first day of class.
     At the end of class, she dropped her essay on my desk and followed her classmates toward the door.
     “Whoa, hold it,” I said.
     She had written two sentences for me. Beautiful handwriting, perfect spelling, impeccable grammar, but just two little sentences. I still remember it: “My name is (her name.) I live in (such and such) village with my parents and my brother and sister.”
     She came back to my desk.
     “That’s pretty good,” I said. “Good spelling, good grammar, nice handwriting. But I asked for a page.”
     She told me: “Everything else I know is private.”
     Happy Thanksgiving.

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