My ordeal began with a Dine man asking me for change. He called out to me through a chain link fence separating us, I on one side walking an ally row of apartments, he on the other side behind an office building and restaurants. He and I were both wandering Flagstaff, the small city on the edge of the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. He said his name was “June.” He asked me for any money I had so that he could buy coffee. I tossed a dollar in quarters over the top of the fence. We exchanged a few words, he blessing me and I wishing him well while flashing a peace sign with my fingers before he turned away and began walking back toward the staircase where a woman waited sitting. As I walked down the fence line he turned back, “actually… hold on man… you know what…?”
I was more than willing to talk more. Ever since I first drifted through the four corners area a few years back I've met many a wandering Dine. Most of them are young men, but also many older men and some women. A lot of them have left the reservation and entered the white men's cities like Flagstaff or Gallup, unhappily looking for something they cannot find, but mostly traveling and surviving from day to day under. Most of them are alcoholics who travel about by thumb. They look for work or ask for change to buy food and beer. They sleep wherever they can. Some of them have told me their life stories and I share what experiences and knowledge I have in return. They're usually quiet but will talk your ear off if given a friendly chance. I'm almost always inclined to give a friendly ear to a stranger.
June asked me if I “prayed to the Lord.” I told him that I did not, that I am not a Christian. This confused him at first. He smelled of alcohol. He looked at the books and newspaper I held in my hand (I had been on my way to buy a cup of coffee and read for several hours). He asked me what they were and I replied that they were books about politics, one of which was a history of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation's lands. My not being a Christian seemed to upset him. My mention of uranium and the Navajo set him off. His anger was unintelligible though, his words slurred, but I wanted to listen and to clarify. I imagined he saw me as some godless white man come to look down on him. He came close to me and pointed to the San Francisco peaks and said, “see that? Doko'oo'sliid! That's my mother.” I nodded and said that I thought the peaks were magnificent.
He looked at the newspaper in my hands and said to me, “I know what you are. You're one of those Wall Street people with your companies and your papers….” I was confused and felt somewhat insulted given my mutual disdain for “those Wall Street people,” or at least the business man image his words conjured in my mind, but also happy to see that June was angry, not just a passive drinking rambler type. I tried to reply that I was not a banker, a company man, even a worker bee, that I was in fact a student with deep misgivings about those at the top of the pyramid we call America.
He looked beyond me and called out, “here, my two friends can tell….” Approaching were two more Dine men, one holding a heavy bag of beer cans, the other carrying himself in a more reserved manner. June pointed to the books I held and said something about “this white man.”
The bigger fellow carrying the beer hardly gave me a chance and launched into a tirade against me and white people. I let him belt it out without one attempt to interject because I could actually agree with most of what he was saying. When he finished I responded that I was not the sort of white person they were used to, that I am in fact “anti-whiteness.” Again, as with my identification as a non-Christian, June and the bigger fellow with the beer looked at me confused, but the big man shot back, “if you're not then let's see you tell them.” He looked off toward the busy street filled with cars and trucks, lined with fast food joints and strip malls.
“Tell who?” I asked.
“Let's see you go tell a cop to go fuck himself.”
Briefly I thought about how quickly and seamlessly these men equated cops with white people. I'm sure that in their days and nights surviving in on the streets of Flagstaff the police who torment and chase them, write them tickets, jail them and wake them up in the night to keep them moving are a majority white police force. The equation made sense.
“No, I wouldn't say that to a cop because I don't want to get arrested” was the best reply I could muster. I tried to say something about knowing the history of the US Government's treatment of the Dine, about land theft, economic exploitation, the poisoning of communities, and about the racism of the white settlers that now make up a majority of Flagstaff's population and the Southwestern United States. It was to no avail. The bigger man said I shouldn't be where I am and that I had no business talking like I do.
It struck me at this point how absurd it was that this encounter had turned so deep and consequential so quickly. I had thought that June and I - and his friends when they showed up - would chat about more mundane things, where we grew up, where we were headed, our favorite this or that…. Instead the four of us were having it out: hundreds of years of pain and lies, and could there be any four men more or less in need of shouting out these rarely spoken truths? Could there be any more or less appropriate a time or place than in this grimy backstreet drizzled in rain behind the buzz of the old Route 66?
“I respect you and agree with most of what you are saying, and I want you to listen to what I'm saying,” I implored. I felt that their anger at whiteness and the system of white supremacy was clouding their eyes such that they could not recognize me for who I wanted to prove myself to be - an antiracist white in solidarity with their people's communities, willing to listen to their experiences and try to learn from them. After all, that's a large reason why I've traveled through the four corners over the past several years.
The more reserved fellow who had not spoken at this point put his hand to his chest and smiled at me. He put his other hand on the bigger fellow and pulled down on his shoulder as his friend was explaining that if I “didn't quit it I was liable to someday get fucked up by someone.” The bigger fellow now, with no less anger in his voice and body language said to me, if you think you're Indian then prove it.”
“I don't think I'm an Indian” I said. “I'm a white man who wants to prove that there's a different way of being white. A way that isn't about hurting other people. I'm trying to be your friend…. But I surely don't think I'm an Indian. I don't want to be. But I surely don't want to be this same white man you keep speaking of.”
The big man more or less wasn't listening. He said again if I wanted to be Indian then I would have to drink beer with them. “Come over here and drink beer with us then,” he demanded. Through this encounter I had been trying to keep cool and to communicate my position while also hearing theirs. But anger and other forces, forces passed down to they and I were destroying any possibility in this time and space of either they or I understanding the other's identity and needs. I could feel myself slipping into and out of control over my emotions and ability to listen and talk. This time and place was hopeless.
I told the big man that I wouldn't drink with him but that I wished them well. They walked off. June demanded that I give him one of my books. I offered the newspaper but he simply slapped it, stumbled backward and away from me to the stairway.