Friday, September 07, 2007

You Bet I'm Indian

"Mee-ta-lee. Now that's a pretty name. Are you Indian?"

I tried to hide my surprise over her ethnic savvy. We were checking into an RV park in a one-gas-station town, and the only other brown face I'd spotted for miles around was Michael Vick's on the flickering screen behind the desk.

I couldn't stop myself: "How did you know?"

"We got a reservation fifty miles down the road, sweetie."

No, I didn't shame her. I didn't even gently correct. After all, a Wampanoag man had once asked me the same question in my home state of Massachusetts. Truth be told, I was grateful yet again that my appearance allows me to be perceived differently than white folk visiting brown-skinned nations.

When you drive across the United States, you're almost certain to pass through at least one of our country's 300 or so reservations (not all of the more than 550 recognized tribes have a reservation, and some have more than one.) We stayed with friends in Apsaalooke (Crow) nation, near the site of the Battle of the Greasy Grass (aka the Battle of the Little Big Horn). I'd read about the suffering endured by this country's original inhabitants and their descendants, and been educated about dangerous stereotypes. Nonetheless, my heart wasn't prepared for the vibrancy of the cultures, the everyday use of Indian languages, and the strong sense of pride and community. Why did I only know bad news?

Thanks to sites like Oyate, blogs like Debbie Reese's, and YA novels like Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which earned starred reviews in PW and Horn Book, among others, and has moved to the top of my nightstand stack), I'm hoping for a more accurate picture of reservation life to replace my mistaken perceptions. PW's review of Alexie's book includes this intriguing quote:
Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity.
Separating to preserve instead of reclaiming to find? Now there's a different between-cultures experience; tell me more, please.

2 comments:

zee said...

Ooh, ouch, Mitali! You handled it gracefully, and that's what counts.

Mitali Perkins said...

Thanks, Zee. And I promise I wasn't anywhere near the Carolinas when it happened.