They Call Themselves Indians

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Do you miss summer vacations? I do. We can’t travel much these days, due to restrictions caused by the pandemic, so I thought I’d share my essay about a trip to a faraway state, published last year in Little Rose Magazine.

Our busload of senior citizens came to a stop on a dirt road in New Mexico, unsure of what to expect. After the balloon fiesta in Albuquerque, and a couple of days in Santa Fe, we were bound for lunch in Tesuque pueblo, at the home of Louie Pena, a Native American conservationist and river guide.   

One of New Mexico’s smallest pueblos, with a population of about 400, Tesuque has been in its present location in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for over 800 years. Louie would meet us in the road, because the bus was too big to travel down his street. No photos were permitted, a tribal decision. We would see the place framed only by our preconceptions, and I knew I had a few of those.

My Polish grandparents came to North America in the 1890s, welcomed for their labor if not for their ethnicity. They were, in fact, recruited to work in rug, broom and glove factories. Louie’s people have been here much longer. We stood on what is left of their land, most of it taken from them by white settlers before my own people arrived. An oblivious little white girl, I watched Tonto and the Lone Ranger on a black and white TV. I didn’t learn about the genocide of Native peoples – not at school, at home, at church, or in the news. Not anywhere. But I know about it now. History is being rewritten to include the uncomfortable truth, and I knew it as I stood on that dirt road in Tesuque, squarely between an ancient unfamiliar culture and the dominant one I know so well.

Standing tall in the bright October sunshine, Louie described the traditional feast his wife had prepared, then led us down a path through a small field. We walked over a dry ditch on a makeshift bridge of boards, passing an old TV tube and other unrecognizable-to-me appliance parts in the weeds. The neighborhood lacked the type of landscaping my friends and I spend bundles of money on each spring and fall. We passed no ornamental plants in pots, no hanging baskets on porches. Dogs who might be German shepherds sniffed our legs and hands, tails wagging. No leashes, no barking. Though people give them names, Louie said, and feed and pet them, they stay outside. We filed past a trampoline and a toddler’s plastic riding toy in the yard, and Louie joked the toys were “not for me, for my grandkids.”

Native art adorned the walls inside his home – baskets, paintings, rattles and feathers – and Native objects – dolls, pots, and dishes – filled a glass curio cabinet in a corner near the TV. Louie said he liked to watch the Boston Red Sox, and we all relaxed a little.     

An enormous bear head looked down from the living room wall. Louie told us how he killed that bear as it stalked the village when he was only 14, while we devoured forkfuls of shredded chicken, potato salad and a hot corn dish I wish I had the recipe for. As he talked, his wife Serena served the food with quiet grace. Two of her thirteen grandchildren, a boy and a girl, moved expertly and quietly around the large open kitchen, emptying pots and filling serving bowls.   

We sat on picnic benches in rapt attention as Louie passed around jars of dried herbs, his medicine. He talked about his classes in sustainable living, encouraging us to love our “Earth Mom.” I’ve forgotten most of what he said, but I remember the sense of comfort he and his family created. I didn’t want to leave.

Before meeting Louie’s family, I believed indigenous Americans lived sad and poor lives, confined to reservations. I thought they were mostly alcoholic, starving, and ineffective protestors against oil and gas pipelines. But in the pueblo, I saw self-confident people promoting a healthy future while teaching their children to have pride in their culture. Louie and his family take tourists on Feast and Float rafting trips, teaching about ecology and serving natural Native foods. I thought of them later as I made my own soup and sorted laundry at home, doing the little things that make up my comfortable life.

I live as an elder Anglo woman in an increasingly diverse country, and I am determined to stay awake and aware. I want to know more. On the internet, I read about the tension between the Natives and Anglos over a plan to build a casino near the Santa Fe Opera, and about Indians charging access fees to Anglo people with homes on Native land. I read about the protests at the Santa Fe Plaza where I posed for a photo, and where the Spanish conquest of the Indians is celebrated every year.

Louie and all the tribal people we met in New Mexico called themselves Indians, but I wanted to distance myself from the Cowboys and Indians ethos of my youth, when we thought we knew who the bad guys were: not us. I continued to use the term I believed to be politically correct: Native Americans.

Back home, I discovered that the U.S. government coined the term in the late 20th century and that 50% of tribal people in the American West call themselves Indians. Many prefer the name of their particular tribe: Pueblo, Navaho, Ute, Zuni, Apache, Comanche. Louie Pena is Tewa.

Like many others, I often feel compelled to form a strong opinion about matters I don’t fully understand. I don’t know how Louie and his family feel about the protests or the casinos or the access fees. Or why they don’t care about landscaping their neighborhood. I don’t know how much I have assumed about them. I only know my visit to Tesuque changed my perception of tribal peoples and reminded me to listen and learn and prepare to be surprised. Now to sign up for that rafting trip…  

What about you? Have you taken a vacation that opened your eyes? I’d love to read about it in the comments section.

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