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A Look at Indian Time

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona—There are different kinds of time.

We have daylight saving time, quitting time, "Hammer time," a stitch in time and bedtime, for example. Some people think time is on their side; others want to save time in a bottle.

And then, there's a crazy little thing called "Indian time."

"We flow with the ebb and flow of nature, daylight and moonlight, with flow of seasons; not with modern time frames," said Loren Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Indian Museum. Spears, who founded the Nuweetooun Indian School, is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island.

"True Indian time is before the sun rises," said Navajo journalist Flora Benn.

You become acutely aware of this time phenomenon when waiting for a tribal council meeting to start, or some other scheduled event on Indian reservations across the country.

If Indians could save time in a bottle, they'd need a really large one.

"I haven't the slightest idea as to how Indian time started," Zuni police officer Lee M. Lucio said. "The very first time I heard of Indian time was when I moved back here to Zuni 18 years or so ago."

"Indians didn't have clocks or calendars, so their perception of time was different than the white man's, probably causing a bit of frustration in the old days when meetings were being arranged," suggested Kathy Curley of the Rez Quilters group.

"I've theorized that Native Americans learned Indian time from the federal government," said Dawn Walschinski, an Oneida from Green Bay, Wisconsin. "How many forced relocations were scheduled for spring or summer, and then kicked off in October? Who hasn't heard stories about rotten food deliveries?"

"More and more, I am convinced Indian time is just 'human time,' " said Native poet Sondra Ball of New Jersey. "Humans were not meant to keep exact times. We were meant to live within the confines of seasons, light and dark, and our own body's rhythms, which are not the same from day to day or from year to year."

The only group that seems to be preoccupied with exact time is the Western Europeans, Ball said.

"And you know what a mess they've made of the world!" she added.

Curley admits to often finding herself running late. And her favorite excuse is Indian time.

"I'm often guilty, and when I'm late, I love to use that rationale," Curley said.

San Carlos Apache Vern Grant said Indian time started when the white man came and told Natives to "get things done in a certain amount of measured time [breakfast at 7 a.m. versus getting up to prepare breakfast just before the sun rises]."

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"I'm guilty of running on my own 'Apache Vern time,' which is Indian times two, possibly three sometimes!" she added. "I say, 'If I ever show up on time, then something is wrong!' "

That does not apply when she is participating in ceremonies, Grant said.

Walschinski said she was actually told once that she is the most "on-time person," and is hardly ever late to work, appointments or social events. But, occasionally, she's lapsed a little.

"Of course, I've been late to things," Walschinski said. "It's not because of Indian time; it's just being tardy."

Indian time is a real phenomenon in Indian country, and it comes with a certain amount of frustration.

"I do think it often goes to extremes, sometimes taking hours to attain a quorum for meetings," Curley said. "I'm truly surprised people wait that long. I should think that after waiting an hour, people would give up and go home. But they don't!

"I do appreciate a casual atmosphere, and sometimes Indian time goes with it. Navajo life, diverse priorities and travel distances all affect 'time of arrival' on the Navajo Nation."

Spears said observing Indian time is an individual choice.

"I think each individual has to make their own decision whether they are to follow modern mores of time or their own bodily or cultural time clock," she explained.

It's not worth trying to fight it, Lucio said.

"The way I view Indian time is during our social events that take place. When whoever puts on a social gathering and they say it's going to start at a certain time, but almost never does. To me, that is Indian time."

Though he doesn't think Indian time will ever disappear, he said, "anything is possible."

Walschinski is unsure if Indian time will ever end.

"I don't know," she said with a chuckle. "The federal government is still in power ..."

"When Indian time disappears, will the Indians disappear too?" Grant wondered.

John Christian Hopkins can be reached at