That’s what you get for waking up in Vegas

Las Vegas.

I love the desert. I want my periphery to always be at least 2/3rds sky. Want the blues to be so bright they burn and the brittle brush to crack the world right open. The desert sighs, its bald mountains fold me up and a thousand balloons release inside my chest. It makes me feel like I’m applauding an empty stadium. And I do it gladly. But eventually the fanfare and vast expanse of nothingness give way to kitsch and kachina dolls. We stopped at Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner for lunch, which was advertised for about 50 miles with signs like “Come see our diner-saur park! We now have a Stegasaurus and King Kong.”

In Arizona, we passed the Navajo reservation – “the world’s largest reservation” advertised the signs, as if it were a contest or a resort. It made me think of what Sherman Alexi once said about reservations. “If poverty were a skyscraper, then reservations would be in the basement. You can’t get much poorer.” And I think also of the Yaqui rez in Tucson, where my mom worked for so many years. I would visit her and all the grandmas would call me Little White Girl in Spanish and offer me red chili burritos. Dogs ran around everywhere; no one knew who they belonged to. And the houses had no doors and even though the streets seemed to spill over with life, a sense of abandonment pervaded.

In 6th grade, I went to “camp” on the rez, which was, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure a drug prevention outreach camp. We sat in a circle and told stories and talked about positive reinforcement. I was the only white kid there and the only one whose parents didn’t have substance abuse problems. I made one friend that summer, Sienna. I remember her name because it was my favorite Crayola crayon color. Years later, I ran into her at Skate Country and I was so shocked to see her outside of the rez that I exclaimed, “What are you doing here?” And she said, “Skating.”

After our group therapy, we would make jewelry. My mom taught the class and I was always really happy to see her. One day, toward the end of camp, the counselor let us out early and we decided to play a game of Red Rover, which is where you hold hands/arms and someone from the other team tries to break your chain. During the boys-against-girls game, I was clotheslined and knocked unconscious. The last thing I remember before blacking out was a chorus of laughter. I’m not sure if it was malicious or if they all secretly hated me or if they were just kids laughing at someone getting hurt, as kids are wont to do.

Traveling makes me very aware that I am an outsider, which is perhaps why the desert invokes my status as a part-time Native American. I’ve always been Indian enough, to get into Yaqui camp, to get a scholarship or two in college, to participate in sweat ceremonies, but the gaps and interstices of culture loom, of pigment and privilege and accountability. I’ve never lived on a reservation. My skin turns pink when it burns. My houses have all had doors and my dogs have all had collars.

my great great grandmother

my great great grandmother

But we’re always already outsiders, right? Regardless of where we come from or where we’re going or who we’ve been or who we may become. As Henry James once said,

Our doubt is our passion. And our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Here’s to doubt and madness and passion and art. And finding jobs and a place to live.

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8 Responses

  1. This made me think of Luis Alberto Urrea’s Nobody’s Song, which is about being between two cultures and feeling like an outsider, too. You should read it if you never have.

  2. i haven’t. will put it on my list of books to read.

  3. This is profound, beautiful and sad at the same time. It is my daughter and my great grandmother and our shared blood experiences that are beautiful and I feel like the photo is so awesome to see where we came from. And it makes me cry all at the same time.
    You are not an outsider anymore than all the poor pitiful people in our greater society who have no culture at all. The NM state fair had an African American Village and a Native American village and a Hispanic Village but NO White village. Who is deprived here? Who is the real outsider?
    You carry the literal blood of the beautiful woman in the photo. Make her proud by the way you live your life because she most certainly watches over you.

  4. You are a beautiful writer with a great voice… I am sure you already know this, but I had to say it!

  5. You are a beautiful writer with such a nice voice!

  6. beautiful. it’s been a long time since you’ve written–or i’ve had the chance to read what you’ve written–about this. so many wonderful lines and thoughts here: “But eventually the fanfare and vast expanse of nothingness give way to kitsch and kachina dolls.” “And she said, ‘Skating.'” You rock.

  7. I know that feeling; I claim Norwegian, where the heck does that fit in, in the desert? A white girl with red hair. I am an artist and have more of a Southwest flair to my artwork and I LOVE!! the Day of the Dead art that orginated in Mexico and I make some great Day of the Dead skulls (www.beadbible.com). I don’t fit in to either of these cultures and therefore I feel like am standing on the outside looking in, not being able to sell my work because I don’t have the right name or the right background.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, probably because I’m taking both a Race class and a Racialization class this semester. And there’s nothing on Native Americans in the readings. I think their invisibility in the literature mimics their invisibility in larger society. We don’t have to think about how fucked up it all is because they’re clear out there in the middle of the desert.

    And then I think about Mary Waters’s work on symbolic ethnicity and all the white people who are proudly one sixteenth Native American or whatever, an identity they can put on and take off without any consequence to their life changes. And Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa’s work on mestizaje.

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