Friday, July 11, 2008

I Wonder What The Indians Think

I went into the truck stop on I-70 last night and saw a whole new selection of Kansas kitsch for sale. There were typical Wizard of Oz joke shirts, hats and gee gaws next to the fundamental tornado/sunflower postcards. There was the eternal KU/KSU memorabilia, and folksy flotsam anywhere you looked. That is alright by me. It is Kansas after all. People traveling on I-70 might need a souvenir commemorating their drive through. It was the new Indian kitsch prominently displayed that stood out.

All across the store were large black and blue "medicine shields" with wolves and lightning and cool stuff like that airbrushed on them. They were decorated with chicken feathers and yarn. To me, the most offensive thing about Indian kitsch is the famous painting of a plains warrior on horseback, his head down in defeat. Every time I see "The End of the Trail" I want to tear it down. Maybe white people see it as a symbol and a tribute to America's "glorious" Old West. To me, it is an affront to every living Indian, and an insult to the memory of every warrior who died fighting for his family and way of life, in the past or in modern times.

An entire race of people are carelessly dismissed by America-at-large and the proud traditions of nations turned into Indian kitsch. It always hits me in the heart and I want to shout out the names of the Indian people I love. I could name a long list and not a single Indian named possesses a defeated spirit like that painting "The End of the Trail".

One of the dearest people in my life was Mr. Leonard McKinney. He was a full blood Prairie Band Potawatomi, WWII and Korean veteran, gourd dancer, fluent speaker of Potawatomi, and examples of his extraordinary beadwork are in the Smithsonian. After he and I knew each other well, I was telling him about a commercial aired on the local radio station for a certain pharmacy. Even though there are three Indian reservations in the broadcast area, the pharmacy was advertising with Tonto and the Lone Ranger characters! Of course, Tonto spoke in pidgin English and was the butt of the joke. I was angry at the ignorance of the people at the pharmacy and the radio station! I wrote a letter of protest to the pharmacy but received no reply. I also never heard the commercial again, but I honestly do not know if it was taken off the air. I doubt it.

Leonard, being a much older and wiser human being, and having seen far worse prejudice in his long life, told me simply that Indians did not consider prejudice against them as their problem. His quiet dignity calmed my heart. As the years go by, the more deeply that lesson illuminates my life. That old warrior, that story teller, elder and artist, that dear old white haired man knew his worth, and neither Tonto nor "The End of the Trail" had power over him. I hope that is what all the Indians think.

Pama mine, Nekon.

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