Over the past two weeks, my inbox has been jammed with comments related to an “Off the Reservation” column regarding the Republican Party. One of the more humorous e-mails begins with “off the reservation doesn’t begin to describe where you are.” Some pose the question as to the origin of the column title, which I have yet to fully explain within these pages. A little clarification is in order.
The majority of the observations in this column are political or environmental and Long Island-centric. But a personal mission is to highlight and, when necessary, advocate for issues related to American Indians. The title “Off the Reservation” refers to the land mass located outside of reservation territory, or if you prefer, the United States of America. As a true American mutt, the most significant percentage of my heritage is Mohawk and I have found the Indian cultural perspective an interesting lens through which to view the world, our nation and this little Island of ours.
Predictably, most of the pushback regarding the title comes from Indians who happen across the column online and take issue with the derogatory nature of the phrase. Once explained, they are extremely forthcoming in expressing their frustration at how the “white media” covers Indian issues. It’s hard to disagree. Much of what I read about Indian life in non-native publications is woefully devoid of context. Virtually nothing is straightforward in Indian country, no matter where the territory is located. Every tribe, every reserve and every generation is different, complicated. To get inside the heads of America’s indigenous population is a perspective-altering experience that opens the mind to how insane our world has become.
Perhaps this is due to the keen understanding they have of their past and current circumstances. While our culture moves in nanoseconds, Indian culture is stubbornly and beautifully rooted in tradition; a tradition that presupposes land is free to roam on, Earth provides all we need for life and embraces us again in death. The notion that we are not independent of our environment but merely a small part of the ecosystem is the only prevailing thread I have discovered among the tribes I have met with. It is why there is little wonder most Indians have gotten on terribly in so-called modern life. They are confounded by restrictive borders and an increasingly poisoned Mother.
The racial insensitivity of the phrase “Off the Reservation” rarely, if ever, occurs to non-Indians. But for Indians, it’s as intolerant as having an Indian as the mascot for a sports team. It would seem crazy to root for the New York Jews, Indianapolis Caucasians or Washington Negroes, but we’ve got the Braves, Indians and Redskins. There’s probably a few pissed-off Swedes and Danes out there that think new grandfather Brett Favre isn’t much of a Viking either.
I’m of two minds about the wave of political correctness that has washed over us. On one hand, 10 years in the catering/restaurant business taught me to celebrate diversity and that stereotypes exist for one profound reason—they tend to be partially accurate. But elaborating on cultural idiosyncrasies is only safe in the purview of comedians. On the other hand, if uttering a particular word or phrase requires you first look over your shoulder, you probably shouldn’t. Still, I’m amazed at how flip most people are when referring to Indians.
Last weekend my wife and I met up with friends from New Jersey and two other couples we had never met. At some point over dinner the conversation turned to someone they know who was acquitted from shooting and killing an Indian near a reservation in New Jersey. None of them looked over their shoulders when declaring “there are no real Indians,” “they’re all black these days” and “they live like animals anyway.” None of them looked over their shoulders when uniformly concluding, when it comes to protecting reservation territory, “those people are crazy.”
They’re funny that way. At least that’s the way it seems over here. You know, off the reservation.