Monday, October 12, 2009

Indian to Indian

One in every 130 people living in the United States today is Native American.

Last night, my nieces reminded me that today was Columbus Day. I got to thinking about Christopher -- a monumental, yet controversial figure. After five centuries, he has been variously described as one of the greatest maritime navigators, a visionary genius, a mystic, a national hero, a failed administrator, a naive entrepreneur, and a ruthless and greedy imperialist.
Soon it triggered a memory of when I was a twelve. While visiting my sister, who was a college student, we hopped on a bus and headed across Oakland towards UC Berkeley. One of the regulars on the bus, a dapper old lady – a social butterfly and self proclaimed bus monitor, looked at us and asked where we were from. We said we were Indian. She paused a moment, analyzed our appearance and asked, “From which tribe?” My sister and I looked at each other and it dawned on us that she thought we were Native American. “No,” replied my sister. “We’re not that kind of Indian,” we’re from India. “Oh,” she said, and wandered off.

Photo 1: White Shield, an Indian Chief, 1908 by Edward S. Curtis. Photo 2: Maharaja of Patiala’, Bhupinder Singh, source unknown.
So, I’m the kind of Indian Columbus was actually looking for when he set sail from Spain, hoping to hit the Indies. His charter was to establish a foothold for Spain in the lucrative spice trade, which at the time was controlled by the Arabs and the Italians. And he would have found us if he’d followed common convention and gone east, over land, instead of west, across the sea. But instead, he had the idea that crossing the Atlantic was faster – he believed that earth's circumference was smaller than commonly agreed upon, thus the route would be quicker. I wonder what would have happened if he’d found us, instead of the Americas, and not set forth the domino effect of exploration, imperialism, colonization, exploitation and the eradication of native peoples.
I just reread Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. When I read it, years ago, they were simply words on a page – powerful and impactful for sure, but it wasn’t’ till I saw him speak at SCBWI LA, that the words transformed into a living reality of what the repercussions of Columbus travel plans were – so here was the other Indian that Columbus had mistakenly found. The reality sank into my bones and hit me viscerally. So we are connected, the two Indians, in an odd tenuous way -- and for what is worth, I’m very, truly sorry Columbus didn’t go east instead of west.

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