Reservations: the Well-Meaning White Man

Petroglyph.jpg

“Welcome, everyone, to today’s competency training! To begin, we will have an exercise. I want everyone to stand somewhere in the room. Spread out, make sure you have plenty of room. There are about one hundred of you here, so you should be able to stand with enough space to spread out your arms and turn in a circle without touching anyone. Make yourselves pretty comfortable.”

I did as instructed, watching the crowd spread out around me. I didn’t really know anyone, so it was nice to have space.

The woman spoke back into her microphone. “Okay, now that a few minutes have passed, We are going to take away half of your space. One entire half of the room is no longer available to you. Everything from this line of chairs to the door. Everyone please move to that side of the room.”

We all did as instructed, cramming together in the smaller space, not touching each other still, but with much less space between us. Then the woman shrank the space by fifty per cent one more time, placing us all into one quarter of the room, where we were now standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Okay, please meet your neighbors, get comfortable. We will just leave you there for a few minutes.” But after only thirty seconds, she spoke again. “Just kidding, I know this is uncomfortable. But I have bad news. We are taking away half of your space once again. You must now fit between this section of wall and that space on the floor. Please move closer to accommodate everyone.”

And with that, we crushed ourselves into each other in the corner of the room, feeling desperately uncomfortable. She only left us there for a few seconds, but it was enough time to feel humiliated, frustrated, angry, and, for some, panicked. But then the woman finally instructed us to take our seats, with all of us wondering what the point had been. She taught us quickly.

“This is what it was like for Native Americans over time. For hundreds of years, our ancestors had the rule of the entire land. But when settlers came, their land was taken, and taken, and taken, and taken. Many thousands were killed, and their religion was mocked. They were called savages. Their children were forced to covert to Christianity. Their resources were pillaged. They were given alcohol to appease them, and they were subjected to hard labor for little pay, and finally poverty. Then, when there was little left to take, they were crushed into the corners of the room, placed into reservations. And while they struggled to survive in these harsh conditions, the white man mocked them, calling them drunks and wife-beaters, and resented it when they spoke up and wanted to govern themselves. They laughed about how easy the Natives had it while the life of the white man was much harder. And that is the story of our people, crushed into the corners and resented for trying to succeed.”

Back in 2007, when I underwent this training, it had a profound impact on me. For the following four years, I worked as a mental health clinician on a reservation, with a population of people I’d scarcely given thought to. When I think back hard enough, now in 2018, I can still feel the goosebumps on my skin from my co-worker singing a family chant while playing a hand-drum, I can still watch the sunrise over the distant corners of the reservation’s sacred lands, I can still picture the grieving Native families rubbing sage on themselves to honor a deceased loved one as the coffin sat in front of a Christian cross, I can still recall the bravery of the young woman who fought the system to get herself a full-ride scholarship in an attempt to honor herself and her family.

Today, just outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, I walked among the Petroglyphs. In the hills around the city, Native Americans lived for hundreds of years, and they carved on rocks. People, birds, images, animals, arrows. Some of these faded drawings date back to the 1300s, the signs say. The European settlers came, slowly trickling in over the following few centuries, and the Natives were forced to change with them. The white men brought diseases, money, conquest, and unfamiliar customs, with words like ‘rape’ and ‘pillage’, ‘kill’ and ‘exploit’. I think of my own childhood in the 1980s, still playing leftover games of ‘cowboys and Indians’, with the cowboys always being the heroes as they stole the land.

I stood on a hilltop today and looked across the brown New Mexican landscape. The plants are unfamiliar here. They are sharper, dustier, with needs and crags. They are the desert and the mesa. I look down and a small spotted lizard no bigger than my pinky finger rushes across the rock, leaps into the grass nearby, then scampers out and into the rock face. It it foraging for food, watching for rattlesnakes around it and birds above? Nearby, a dove of some kind gives a long trilling call, over and over again, and I shiver with the loneliness. The rock behind me has a drawing of some kind of man on it, or perhaps a woman. I have no idea what it means. No one can possibly know. But it is beautiful because it is old, and because it is all that remains.

A sign nearby references the original settlers of this land, the Pueblo. It talks about the honor paid to ancestors, who built a layered city around the banks of the Rio Grande, sharing the water source for survival. Even from here, I can hear the electric buzz of the buildings and the impatient bustle of the cars, and my phone buzzes in my pocket.

I turn back to the petroglyph, and I think back to my first days working on the reservation, far from here, but a place with a similar history. A strong woman I worked with, a Native American grandmother, grew frustrated with me one day. I had been complaining about the long list of clients waiting for drug and alcohol assessments, frustrated that I might never catch up.

“We are paying you to help us here. These are people. Not a list of names, but people. They are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And they need your help.” And after I’d apologized, she’d smiled affectionately, and said, “Don’t apologize. Just help. You have your heart in the right place. Well, as much as a well-meaning white boy can.” Then she laughed, a loud cackle that I can still hear.

I turn back to the petroglyph again, and I grieve.

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