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Leaving the Reservation:

Last week I occupied my time with the annual Christmas ritual of helping Mom buy Christmas presents for her distant grandchildren. This year was challenging—not because Mom’s on a fixed income. We all are; we just don’t admit it. (Years ago Steinbeck observed that the American working class is full of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We’ve bought the “anyone can be a millionaire” myth and turned it into “everyone should be a millionaire” and forgot the math. Most people with only a high-school diploma earn less than $30,000 a year; most with a college degree earn between $30 and $100,000.) It was unfortunate that Mom’s worsening arthritis prevented her from shuffling downtown or through the local shops at the Cotton Exchange. But that wasn’t what got me.

Through a haze of her Native smokes, Mom directed my points and clicks. “Your niece has her heart set on this Indian girl doll,” she said. “Order it, and the pony and teepee. They live out West. $250? That’s robbery! But get it.”

My heart sunk. Haunting strains of Neil Young’s “Pocahantas” arose from the dead. “They killed us in our teepee, and they cut our women down…”

Maybe I’ve completely left the reservation, but the gift troubled me. A while back I bought a copy of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown at Old Books on Front. I read it over Thanksgiving. It’s one of at least three things Americans should never actually read, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights being the other two. The book might cause “God and Country” patriots to question whether our occupation of this country had anything to do with any god at all.

Three take-home points hit pretty hard. Obviously, the continent was occupied prior to the Lone Ranger, manifest destiny, Columbus and Alexander VI’s 1493 papal bull that determined indigenous Americans weren’t people. Alexander granted inhabited continents to European countries and helped open the door for colonization and savage soul-saving (most “un-Baby Jesus-like” if you ask me.) Less obvious, I scoured 400 pages hoping to find which native nations invented land mines and which forests hid factories making weapons of mass destruction. I was disappointed to learn that in 400 years of civilizing savage soul-saving genocide, every industrial-age weapon native nations had was taken from us or sold to them by us.

Me? I’m generally against civilizing and soul-saving. A quarter century ago I was packing to fly to American Samoa to teach English for a year. Father Tom touched my shoulder. “You’re job is not just teaching vocabulary,” he said, “but helping to civilize a race and save souls.” A priest’s gentle touch repulsed me enough, but his job description convinced me to tear up the ticket. I wanted to teach English and catch some waves. If anyone was to become civilized or have his soul saved in the South Pacific, it would be me.

The final and least obvious take-home point is Sitting Bull’s link to the Occupy Movement. Like flocks of canaries in thousands of coal mines, global Occupiers alert us to the poisoned air in the mines of materialism. Our current global anti-greed movement reminds us that like Steinbeck, Sitting Bull’s observation still rings true: “The white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it.”

I may have taken a step off the reservation, but I don’t want to live in a teepee without running water or reliable WiFi, and I hope my niece has fun with her doll set. I’m optimistic. I’m confident my niece’s generation has the courage to confront a host of inconvenient truths, including this: The planet’s freest people, the nation that crafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights built the foundations of the world’s most “productive” economy on the graves of Cherokee children and the backs of slaves. I’m sure she’ll wonder how Sitting Bull’s few survivors felt during Christmas 1890, in that church near Wounded Knee, freezing and bleeding under a “Peace on Earth Goodwill Toward Men” banner. She’ll wonder how that baby in a manger felt about all the civilizing and soul-saving. She’ll take another step off the reservation, a step toward true peace on earth, goodwill to all!

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