This is a guest post by JAY DESAI
As I approached the brown fields at the foothills of the rugged San Bernardino Mountains, the rhythm of the foot- stomping grew into a crescendo. I was visiting the annual pow wow of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians. Thousands of Natives from many of the 500 or so Indian nations of North America had gathered for three days of dance, song and celebration of their rich heritage. Above us, the autumn California sun had turned the barren high peaks into a shade of angry red at dusk. As the night fell, the enthusiasm of the dancers grew to match the vibrant colors of their traditional outfits and headdresses. My young niece, visiting from India, asked me if the dancers wore these dresses in their everyday lives and if yes, why she never saw them during her long travels through this vast country. She asked me if they were Americans.
On the sidelines, there was a row of temporary shops selling Native jewelry and art. Nearby, some sold fry-bread. Others, t-shirts with curious designs and prints like ‘Illegal Immigration Started in 1492’ and ‘Regretting Thanksgiving since 1619′.
With experience of working on Indian reservations previously, I was at ease with the surroundings. Upon striking a friendly chord, I heard chilling accounts of history as if it had happened yesterday. The last of many massacres, at Wounded Knee, may have occurred more than a hundred years back in 1890 but the memories, perhaps passed down the generations, were fresh in the 21st century. I was aware of Native Indians’ past but to hear it in words was shockingly different. The gunfire, the helpless screams of innocent women and children, the mutilated bodies: it all came alive again.
As my brother-in-law shopped for a Native ring, we heard the story of the seller’s long struggle in his attempt to assimilate with the ‘mainland’. Next door, in a ‘bookshop’, we flipped through the pages of rage by a young Native writer. It appeared that this pow wow was not only a celebration of Native life but also a release of its pent-up frustration.
After a couple of hours, I could not take it anymore. As I dragged my feet off the pow wow grounds with a heavy heart, a feeling of guilt came over me. As a recent immigrant from India, I was not exactly mainstream in this naturally beautiful and blessed land. But, I was at least knocking on its doorstep. I wondered if the Natives felt that they were mainstream in their own backyard. I wondered if the mood of that gathering represented the day to day feelings of all Natives in the US today. I hoped that the reality was different than what I had perceived it to be that night.
p.s. Up to 18 million people were indigenous to North America in pre-Columbus era per one estimate published in 1983 by Henry Dobyns. Currently, there are about 3 million in the US. Many of them struggle with poverty and disease.
[Jay Desai is an amateur writer and neurologist and has traveled extensively through various reservations in the US in an effort to understand the Native way of life]