Flummoxed

Last weekend, I met a girl who grew up near the Indian Reservation where I used to work. I should note right up front that she is white, and other than that I know very little about her. She was pleasant and perfectly cordial, and she is a college graduate. She had also had a fair bit to drink while sitting in the summery sun.

Anyway, I don’t remember how we got to this point in the conversation, but she said that, from what she’d heard, Indians had stolen a lot more from white people than vice versa. This drew me up short. Surely anyone who has the slightest concept of American history knows that, by and large, the whites of this country have screwed Indians every chance they get. Surely in this day and age, everyone knows this. Surely.

She then extemporized about locking her car doors anytime she had to drive through the reservation, and about driving all the way out of town before pulling over for a cop’s flashing lights. This was when she mentioned the reservation by name, drawing my attention to how very ludicrous her notions were.

My husband entered the conversation next, putting my thoughts into words. (This is one of the things I love about being married to him. Constant ally!) He pointed out in his jokey way that, among non-Indians living around reservations, there is a lot of bad feeling toward Indians. It’s probably hard to grow up in a bigoted area without absorbing some of that fear, no matter how irrational.

It is a sad fact of life that populations who live in close proximity often suffer from mutual fear and hatred. It’s hard to be objective about the person who lives next door and plays his music until 3 a.m. (or smokes so much that it leaks into your home–believe me, I know that of which I speak). Which is why Jesus said to love your NEIGHBOR. Your neighbor is the hardest person to love.

I told the girl that I had worked on that reservation for four years, and I had never had any trouble (aside from the crazy AmeriCorps guy, but I hardly count him–mentally unstable folks can be found in every race). I had never heard of anyone boarding up their windows when they were going out of town for a long weekend. No one had ever stolen anything from me, or slashed my tires, or threatened me. In fact, when I grazed a parked car with my bumper, the owner was so surprised I left a note that he called just to set my mind at ease. He could have asked for money. He did not.

I won’t say that my experiences there were ideal. Reservation life is very different from the way I grew up, and I suffered quite a bit of culture shock. Many acts that are taboo (or illegal) in my world are accepted there. There is a lot of substance abuse and a huge lack of personal responsibility, especially on the part of the young.

I was also saddened by the attitudes I encountered. Many people mistrusted me because I am (mostly) white, and they could never truly accept that I was not trying to take anything from them. But, like the girl at the party, they are the products of their environment–how can I expect them to look past my skin when white people have been the source of so many torments to them?

I can’t, I suppose, but I still hoped they would. It is possible.

I met a lot of wonderful people on the reservation. M, whose generosity is leaps and bounds beyond anyone else I’ve ever known. N, who gave me a chance to prove myself and made a family of our office. S, who put aside his prejudices day after day to let me learn at his feet. V, who believed in me. E, who showed me what true commitment means.

These people (and many more) did look past my skin color. They cared about me. They stood up for me. And they cried with me when we said goodbye. I can’t stand for them to be maligned, just because they are Indian.

I don’t understand why a fresh-faced white girl would choose to speak so blithely about her prejudices to total strangers at a party. Did she expect us to share them? I doubt I’ll ever see her again, and even if I did, this is a question I have never felt able to ask. A pity.

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