Earth Day 2010/Vine Deloria Jr. Tribute

I try not to be too much of a “name-dropper,” but I will do so here shamelessly. This name-drop story involves one of my heroes, someone who was not my friend (I wish!), but still someone who shaped the way I think, write and believe.


Vine Deloria, Jr. was a cool dude. Now, of course we know that he was an icon, legend, scholar, genius, etc., etc. But…in addition to all of those absolutely appropriate titles—he was also a genuinely cool dude. Let me tell you why:

I was not a huge reader as a kid. In fact, During my teenage years I really had an interest in reading only a few things. I read comic books (Thor and one called “Groo the Wanderer” were my favorites), True Story Magazines (long story) and Vine Deloria books. In fact, I probably got a good 97% of my classroom rhetoric as a college student from Custer Died for Your Sins and God is Red. Vine successfully put some science behind the Creation story “myths” that my grandpa and others taught me as a kid—gave me fodder to argue the empirical viability of Native ways in anthropology classes.

So he was essentially a god to me; a Native nerd’s man-crush.

In college, I happened upon Vine’s email address. Wow! I felt like the nerd in “Can’t Buy Me Love” when he knew that Cindy actually liked him! I had power in my hands…

But how do I randomly send Vine—my hero—an email when I had nothing to talk about? This was a real conundrum—there was no real “smooth” way to say, “I stalked you and managed to somehow find your email address, and although I don’t know you, I just HAD to talk to you.” Seems a bit weird. I did that same thing once, (in a completely different context)–tried to do the old “stalk and conversation” technique: while walking, I followed a hot girl into a Victoria’s Secret to try to make conversation in a way that seemed “natural.” Since I just blindly followed the young lady, I didn’t realize that I was in a Victoria’s Secret store until I casually bumped into the 50% off polyester teddy section. It was painfully bad.


Me: >acting like I’m looking at some strawberry body wash, happened to turn to the hot chick< Oh, HI! Hey…um, do you think that this stuff would make a guy smell too, um…fruity?

Hot Chick: >Looking Disgusted At Me< Ew. You really want to wear that? Are you really shopping for yourself here? >Fiddles through lingerie<

Me: >sneaking out the store like a 6’4” bushy-haired and pigeon toed gardner snake< …er, exactly?

So as you can see, the “awkward first conversation with my crush” thing hasn’t worked out so well for me. Maybe I need to try banana body wash next time?

But I digress.

Anyway, after a few years (probably 4) of deliberating this prized email address—not wanting to blow my first impression with my hero—I finally found the perfect conduit to break the ice. See, I read a book called “The Ecological Indian” in 2000; the premise for the book was that Natives were not, in fact, the hyper-earthy ecological types of “The Crying Indian” fame, above. Instead, the author asserts that it was because there were simply too few Natives to have made much of a difference on this continent before European contact.

So here I am, a nobody, living in a 200 square foot apartment and barely enough credentials to fill out my FAFSA application (I’m still a nobody, by the way, but at least now I don’t have to fill out those applications anymore). And I’m sending out emails to my hero–the dude who, if he said “the sky was purple,” I would’ve probably noticed a purple tint to it. In the email, I wrote that “I think that Krech (the author of “Ecological Indian”) is wrong in his analysis, but I think that Natives have to be just as cognizant of the “good” stereotypes, like our enviromental-friendliness, as we do about our “bad” stereotypes, like concerning alcohol.”

I mean, I definitely didn’t agree with Krech, but I THOUGHT that I understood where he was coming from. I was diplomatic–playing the middle of the road. And I thought that I made a good point–“perhaps we weren’t quite the conservationists that I thought that we were.”

Vine tore me a new one.

Apparently he was working on a response to Krech, and I think that I messed with him in the middle of writing mode. He worked on his best responses/material with me, pummeling me with journal citations, historical documents and anthropological writings. Ouch. Not only did he beat me up, but he beat me up and I also couldn’t really understand most of the words coming at me. But I DID understand a few of his more, how shall we say, “colorful” words…of course, I won’t write his reaction in full detail, but I will post his “official” response:

“It’s nonsense…the Indians did not make any appreciable dent in buffalo numbers in the Northern Plains. It’s anti-Indian stuff…”

He told me that if I defended Krech’s point of view, since he’s writing “anti-Indian stuff,” that I must be anti-Indian. Of COURSE we Natives took care of the Earth. She’s our mother.

Ouch. But you know what…?? I was so flattered. I was thankful that he–my hero–took the time to kick my butt. A nobody’s butt (does that = “no butt?”).

And we argued via email for years. About George Bush. About Shepherd Krech. About Richard Nixon. And even though I only met Vine twice, and I doubt that he put it together that I was the guy that stalked him so that he could argue with the great Vine Deloria, Jr. (why would he–who was I??), I felt special, because one of my heroes took the time to respond to an email or two.

The reason I’m writing this? Well, for one, it’s a Sunday evening and a rerun of the Family Guy is on, so I felt like writing. The other–Earth Day’s coming up. I know we all laughed when we saw the image of the “crying Indian” in the youtube video above. But the truth is that, from what I can see, we AREN’T the stewards of our environment that we paint ourselves to be. If the Earth is our Mother, as many of our creation stories say, we treat our mothers pretty badly. I see the way we leave our yards in complete disarray (mine included). Sometimes I understand what Cooch meant in “Thunderheart,” “They want all of America back but they can’t even keep the garbage out of their own front yards.”

We can and must do better. We are the original stewards of this land.

Therefore, just some Earth Day 2010 food for thought: pick up some trash around your house. Don’t run the water the whole time you’re brushing your teeth. Little stuff makes a big difference. Teach your children that “waste not, want not,” because as Vine taught me (in very colorful language)–taking care of the Earth is in our blood.

Thanks Vine, for being a cool dude. Happy Earth Day.

Published in: on April 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm  Comments (5)  


I wish I would’ve thought of this title. Wow. From

The latest group to be caught up in and split apart by the monetizing of suffering and injustice has been American Indians, all stirred up about the Eloise Cobell case that will (soon, we hope) bring them some money. The lawsuit has been an attempt at compensation and closure to the admitted government raid on reservation assets, the profits of which were supposed to have been held in trust for tribal members. Instead they were thrown into the general revenues without earmarks and with such lousy bookkeeping (in some cases literally “ratty” records in substandard warehouses) that no one really knew who was owed what. The Cobell lawsuit had two goals. One was to compensate for the losses already due to mismanagement and the other was to reform the future handling of all funds in trust. The computer software alone was so hack-able that the judge closed down the Department of the Interior system until it could be fixed.

This is NOT a general award to all Indians everywhere but only those who benefit from trust status. Money that will be sent to the plaintiffs at this time is the estimated loss of money by PEOPLE WHO HAD LAND IN TRUST STATUS. Not every Indian has lands in trust status. Those who do don’t have access to their ownership but must “trust” the government to manage them for the most profit and send the owners the proceeds. In the Sixties there was a movement to return private-Indian-owned land to trust status in order to avoid county and state tax jurisdiction. Whether they are subject to county and state law enforcement has never been questioned from that angle. I suspect that the ultimate outcome of the Cobell lawsuit will simply be the elimination of government trust for Indian-owned land, an outcome some have wanted for a long time. One of the abiding controversies among tribal peoples has always been between those who want to manage their own affairs and those who would rather the government managed things.

Trust lands are not the same thing as reservation lands. There are residential lots in Valier (which is off the reservation), which are in trust with the federal government for the benefit of the legal Indian owners rather than being privately owned and managed. Land is taken OUT of trust status through action by the owner, maybe by petitioning for reclassification from “incompetent” (like being too young, not speaking English, or not understanding fancy legal categories and rules) to competence. This is called “patenting.” Some people patented their land simply because they did NOT consider themselves incompetent and thought the legal term had something personal to do with their intelligence.

After the Dawes Act, which divvied the tribal land up Homestead style, assigning allotments to individuals, the land was always first put into trust. Then some people patented their land. The accusation is that some people who truly WERE incompetent for some reason were “helped” to patent their land, which meant that it could be sold by them — maybe not at a fair price nor for a good reason — or attached to pay bills owed to local merchants, which the owners had not expected to happen. Whatever it was that happened, that’s an entirely different matter that has not been consolidated into a class action, at least not as far as I know. There are diligent and dedicated people accumulating facts and it may be that in the future there will be such a lawsuit.

Another kind of claim that distracts and confuses people is compensation for lands seized or overrun in contradiction of treaty assurances; for example, both the Black Hills and the Sweetgrass Hills, both of which were assigned to the Indians and then grabbed back by non-Indians because of the discovery of gold. These violations were eventually compensated by a government pay-out of a major block of money. On the Native American side a big part of the argument was that these high refugia hills were spiritually valorized places of enormous significance to the autochthonous peoples in the same way as European cathedrals. (A lot of white people also feel they are sacred.) The payout did not come to individuals, but to tribes as a whole.

A third kind of payout is the dividends earned by the tribal corporation. The tribal council operates on the model of a corporation in which each member is entitled to a share. The council is the same as the board of a corporation. Thus, at the end of the year, the dividends might be distributed as per capita checks.

A strong reason for monetizing society the way we do today is that it keeps order, but some people have figured out that it is a system that can be used as emotional extortion, among other things. It is in the extortionists’ interest to remain angrily “afflicted.” Since the situation of NA’s is already so confused in most minds, this tendency is easily exploited, if for nothing more than political and emotional self-righteousness.

Gyasi Ross, a lawyer and blogger associated with “Indian Country Today,” recently tried to make some points about these matters. On “Thing About Skins and Other Curios” he brought into the equation his grandfather, Percy Bullchild, who wrote “The Sun Comes Down,” an authentic Blackfeet-written book legitimately published. Right way there was a firestorm of criticism: that Percy was selfish, that he had it wrong, that he should not have told what he did, that he was a “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.” Almost exactly the same accusations as of Eloise. If you’ve lived on a rez, you’ll know this is predictable. Under it is the same demand: “Where’s MY cut?”

Said Gyasi, “. . . frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves. . .”

“In my estimation, this Native woman [Eloise] is a hero, a warrior.”

As soon as Gyasi posted this, he got another wave of flame, all of it anonymous, as well as some approval from people with real names, including me. As soon as my name appeared, the attacks turned from Eloise to me. That was predictable. I’m white. And I couldn’t help but note that the anonymous people were evidently hiding behind the door in English class. I don’t know how they managed to learn to keyboard.

So Eloise is a two-fold heroine, first for facing down the government and second for having to withstand illiterate attacks from her own people. The latter force is what makes so many people reluctant to stand up for what is right. Also, it reinforces the prejudices of people who have a bad opinion of Indians. And it makes heroes wonder what they were thinking.

I just don’t get why the critics comment anonymously. If they think they will get money out of their high dudgeon, how will anyone know where to send the check? Any anonymous person who sends an anonymous comment to this blog on this post will be deleted. I just hate to see them embarrass themselves.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 5:41 pm  Comments (2)  


Recently, I was walking around at the University of Washington’s First Nations’ Pow-wow with my 3 year old son holding onto my finger. He loves pow-wows and round dance music—when he rides with me in our car, he always asks me to turn off my Beatles or Journey or Run DMC CDs and put on the “new pow-wow music” (round dance music). Since I told him that there was “new pow-music” at this particular pow-wow, he wanted to see it and hang out with all of the hand drummers.

As my son and I walked around looking for the hand drum contest (they had it hidden downstairs), he began to notice all of the vendors’ wares. I watched his eyes literally get bigger as he began pointing at all of the pretty Navajo jewelry, and the Kachina dolls. He was SO ready to buy SOMETHING when we passed the little Mexican dudes with the sweaters, flutes and “Made in China” toys that are at every pow-wow. While my son and I debated purchasing a squishy ball that lights up, a Coastal Native lady came up to me with her (presumably) grandson, who was slightly bigger than my son.

She gave me a side-glance, “Heyyyyy…don’t you write?”

I smiled at her, “Hi. Yeah, I write a bit.”

She looked up at me, “Yeah, I remember you when you were a little kid—your folks used to stay with us over at Treaty Days—I remember our dog bit you once. Your name is “Joshie,” huh?”

I nodded yes. Obviously she pronounced my name slightly wrong. But since all my cousins and aunties and uncles called me “Josh,” “Joshie” or “Gyas,” I guess I could let her get away with it too. I felt like Ted on “There’s Something About Mary”—“some of my best friends didn’t know my name.”

We continued talking and she continued mispronouncing my name—and that made me feel right at home. “I haven’t spoke to your mom in years, since she stopped dancing. Then one day I saw you on the computer. Your lips looked kinda chapped in that picture—cha!!! HA HA HA…Jokes…but I don’t think we’ve stood this close since you were a little kid. I never realized that you were this tall! And I never realized that you had wavy hair…y’know, I have a daughter who’s single… gawwwww.”

She smiled mischievously and raised her eyebrows, pointing at her grandson. Apparently this boy was her single daughter’s son.

I laughed my fake laugh. “HA!” Everyone who knows me knows my fake laugh, usually reserved for when I feel just a wee bit uncomfortable. “Thank you, but I have a girlfriend. But…how old is your daughter?? Ayyyyeezzz!!!”

She started laughing. Phew. She didn’t take me seriously. I really risked getting slapped just then.

She asked if I was enjoying the pow-wow, and whether I ever dance. “Yeah, this is one of my favorites. I dance sometimes. Not often. I’m honestly not that good.”

She asked if I was really a lawyer; said that I didn’t look like one. “Ain’t it a rule that lawyers are supposed to dress all business?” I told her that rule only applies only to the lawyers with money. I’m the new breed of lawyers—Section 8 lawyers who grew up between a trailer and small apartment units. We broke lawyers have a different rulebook.

She laughed again. Her son liked my red Yankees hat so I put it on his little head and it fell down over his braids and eyes. I have a massive head, and so it would’ve probably fell down over 99% of the population’s braids and eyes, but he had a particularly small peanut shaped head, and his thick braids barely added any radius to it. He smiled up at me.

After we talked for awhile, she paid me the best compliment that anybody’s ever given to me, “Joshie, I’ve never said this to anyone, but I’d like him (pointing at her grandson) to grow up and be like you. I’ve been watching you throughout the years—at this pow-wow, at basketball tournaments. You always had that same pigeon-toed walk and the same big head with a big smile—I can see that you’re a good man. And even though you cut off your braids, I still think that you are an incredible role model.”

I felt myself blushing—my big old head turning red like the Kool-Aid Man. I wasn’t sure how to respond, other than, “Wow…that’s so nice. Thank you.”

I was cheesing really big. I’m not the most modest person in the world, but this little old coastal lady made me embarrassed! I prepared to say more, but then I thought about her words a bit more. I smiled at her and said, “Y’know, I think that’s the nicest thing that anybody’s ever said to me. But you know what? Oddly enough, that title scares me. I mean, no disrespect—I’m flattered. But I’m not sure if I can handle the weight of that honor.”

She looked at me sort of strange—I think that she thought that I was joking because I was still smiling. She said, “Why do you think that you couldn’t handle that?”

I began to answer her, but I was more thinking out loud, “Well, it might just be me, but it seems like “role model” and “the public eye” is a dangerous place for an Indian to be. I mean, doesn’t it seem like we sometimes set people up just to see them fall? Not you, of course—you want me to succeed because you see your little boy in me. You want me to succeed because you want him to succeed. But it seems like our people have a problem with really rooting for our people. As soon as one of our people gets a little bit of success, a little notoriety or money, we start really looking for all of the flaws in those people.”

She started grilling me a little bit when I said that. I’m not sure how many of you know little Coastal women, but they’re focused! When they’re on a mission, they’re gonna get what they want! She asked, “Well, don’t we need Indian men and women who are going to stand up to that heat? Cripe, it sounds like you don’t want people to expect anything of you because you’re afraid you might fail. Don’t our children—my grandson—need leaders and role models who are going to stand up to the miserable people and complain about everything under the sun? My beautiful daughter calls those miserable people “haters.’”

I sighed. “Of course you’re right. But I think that most of the people who are trying to do good—whether it’s tribal leaders or pow-wow dancers or teachers—they’re just trying to lead by example. I don’t think that most of them are trying to make a deep political statement or save the world. They’re not, generally, religious leaders or spiritual. But people expect them to be perfect and the moment that someone sees them in a bar—it’s a scandal! Or the moment that someone hears a RUMOR that they did something in business that was questionable, our people jump to conclusions! Our people seem to love to see our people fail! I’ve seen that happen to so many people, and I’m just not sure how much that I want to be a part of that. Call me weak.”

Then she told me something that made me rethink my position. She pointed to the beautiful little Native kid wearing my oversized red Yankees hat and said, “What you’re saying is true, Joshie. But…If my grandson isn’t looking up to you—doesn’t see you as his role model, who is he going to look up to? Whether or not you choose to accept it, you ARE a role model for him. For better or for worse.”

I’m still not convinced that she’s 100% right, but I had to concede that she had a point. Although I still wonder why our people love to tear “us” down, she forced me to also wonder who is willing to stand up as strong examples of “us” if we’re not.

Any thoughts?

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 8:29 pm  Comments (24)  

Smokin’ Hot Fridays–Beautifully Weird White People

Sorry–it’s been a couple of Fridays with no “Smokin’ Hot Fridays.” Lots going on, but rest assured that it’s mainly because of being EXHAUSTED each and every friday. Sometimes…the week seems so long. Good weeks, mind you–I’m thankful for being able to say that I’m “busy.” Still…some Fridays, I just want to come home and do my little hellos, smooches, smooches, watch Family Guy and pass out.

That nowithstanding, here’s something special. These folks are amazing. I wish I had their audacity (and fruit!!) and singing ability…

At work they’ve had to deal with my singing “Squish Our Fruit Together” for the better part of two weeks now…amazing.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)