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Almost Trayvon: The Fear That Stalks Every Indian

When I heard of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, my thoughts went not to my 10-year-old son, but to my dad, when he was 18. I avoided coverage of the trial because I knew the unrepentant Zimmerman defense would blame his victim, Trayvon Martin, for his own death. I knew that listening to it would mean listening again to the same old ugliness that has plagued this country since Columbus first landed on an island in the New World he named San Salvador (the savior), a prophetic name that could also be used to describe Zimmerman’s view of himself and his volunteer work as a member of the neighborhood watch. "These guys all get away," said Zimmerman after he shooting the 17-year-old. “I feel it was all God’s plan.” I say, it all sounds too familiar.

And so it was after the verdict, I thought of my dad when he was 18, unarmed and facing down a gun pointed at him by a white man he had known his entire life. This was not during the Jim Crow era in the United States and my dad was not black, but a mixed-blood Dakota Sioux Indian.

It’s funny to think that in most South Dakota border towns, even today, Zimmerman—who looks more Indian than white—would be subject to the exact same scrutiny that he gave Trayvon Martin, that he could even be struck down under very similar circumstances. The line in the sand of “race” or “caste” is a tricky one as you move around the country; which side you fall on is an educated guess at best, but getting it right can mean the difference between life and death.

My dad was raised in Lake Andes, a white town located on the Yankton Sioux reservation. His mixed-blood family occupied a strange nether world, neither white nor Indian. My dad recounts having the white folks boo him when he dribbled a basketball during a game and then, on the other side, the full-bloods would boo him, too. His dad, whose father and uncle had owned the first car dealership in that part of South Dakota (yes, Indians did things like this), was best friends with the sheriff and the two of them had even engaged in bootlegging together during Prohibition. My grandmother, who could pass for white (her Dakota name was Green Eyes) regularly had her hair done at the beauty salon on main street. I did not learn until a few years ago that most Indian people of that time were not allowed to get their hair cut in town or play snooker at the bar with the sheriff.

But despite this seeming acceptance by the white community, things began to unravel for our family. My grandfather died under suspicious circumstances; he was found drowned in the Missouri River. My mother claimed she heard from her in-laws that he had been beaten to death by white friends for his paycheck. When I asked my dad he just shook his head. “No,” he said, “It was a work accident, the dam.” But his voice was shaking and he looked like I had never seen him before: raw with grief. I can still remember as a child asking a dining room full of aunts and uncles and my grandmother, “What about grandfather? Tell me about my grandfather,” and being greeted by complete silence. My dad was 15 and identified his father’s body, which had been so horribly disfigured, by a mole on his ankle.

It was only recently that he told me why he joined the army and left his home town for good: He had been captain of the Lake Andes High School football team (the first Indian in 25 years), Snowball King and a straight-A student. Then, suddenly the white men in town, men like the sheriff who had been good friends with his father, began to act as if they were afraid of him. It culminated in the sheriff pulling his gun without cause on my dad while he was walking down the street. He had been given two choices: leave town immediately or go to jail. He joined the army, went to college, married my mom and raised his children proud to be Indian far away from Lake Andes.

Many people look back to that time before the Civil Rights movement as a period of greater law and order in this country. Even my grandmother once fondly recalled that time as one, “When everyone got along.” I asked my dad, “Did everyone really get along?” A part of me wanted to believe it, preferring it to the constant threat of violence that hung over us in every generation. “She said that?” he shook his head and said dismissively, “Well, everyone got along because everyone knew their place!”

In the Jim Crow era, African American families clung to their green books, which told them where it was safe to stay when traveling and which towns to avoid after sundown. No such book existed for Native Americans in the South. One of my dad’s summer jobs was as a truck driver and one of his deliveries took him to the deep south. At a gas station he was confronted with a choice of restrooms, one for white and one for colored. My dad’s hair is black, but due to his mixed-ancestry, his skin is white; baffled, he asked the white owner which he should use. The old man looked at him impatiently, and waved him off. “White, of course.” “But, I’m not white,” my dad insisted. And with that the old man threw up his hands and stormed off.

When my dad joined the Army he scored very high on an IQ test and was placed in an elite intelligence unit. Everyone else was older than him and many were Ivy League graduates. They mentored him and gave him books to read and encouraged him go on to college. By the time I knew him, the teenager driven out of his hometown by an armed adult had long ago been replaced by a confident adult, a steady and loving father and husband.

As an engineer at a National Laboratory my father held the highest security clearance available to a civilian and this youth who had once been driven out of town by gunpoint was entrusted with our nation's secrets for his entire adult life. One day two FBI agents came to question him. The younger noted, “I see you have an arrest here. Can you explain it?”

My dad said, “I’m Indian.”

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“What do you mean?” The younger man was confused.

My dad said nothing more but the older man nodded at him and told the younger man, “We’re done here.” “But what about the arrest?” “We’re done.”

He knew. Everyone did; they all knew their place.

“They arrested me,” he explained to me, “because the town needed young men to clear the roads of snow after a blizzard. That’s just what they did in small South Dakota towns back then, they arrested all the young Indian men in town and put them to work.”

In the larger world away from the reservation my dad’s ethnicity rarely came up. When it did, most often, like Zimmerman, people asked if he was Jewish because of his curly hair, Dakota features and his large, round European eyes, which colored black look Middle Eastern. Ironically, shortly after 9-11 when he and my mother were boarding a plane he was detained. The TSA agents asked him numerous questions about his racial identity because they thought he was an Arab terrorist.

When they finally let him go he asked where my mom was and the flight attendant said, “Oh, you mean that Asian woman?” My mom is full-blooded Navajo. Once, she had been refused entry into the United States from Canada (she was visiting Niagara Falls) as a college student during the Vietnam War. They thought she was a Vietnamese spy and they called the Bureau of Indian Affairs to confirm her identity as an American Indian. Not only do we look like the enemy, but enemy held territory is still called "Indian Country" in military circles. In the Iraq War, soldiers referred to enemy territory as “Indian Country." For example, former Marine Second Lieutenant Ilario Pantano defense attorney explained his murder of two Iraqi captives: “This is Iraq, Indian Country is where bad guys do things.”

For a class assignment, my son Googled the Navajo clan name we gave him as his surname and came home laughing telling me, “It said Kinyaani is a Persian name. All the other kids had Scottish names. Isn’t that funny?” I find myself unable to laugh. It did not help that a Palestinian friend of ours commented on seeing our son, “If you dropped him in Gaza no one would think he was anything but Palestinian.” As war with Iran looms as a possibility I have a son with a Persian name. I worried that he might be detained like his grandfather at airports. I considered, for a moment, changing his last name to his white grandfather’s surname, Kelly. My husband and I had put it aside when he was born in an effort to reclaim our own cultural traditions, but now, the name hung before me like a charm that would protect my son.

The mixed-blood progeny of Zimmermans and Kellys have the option of turning to their white fathers and grandfathers for some protection afforded by their whiteness, the blank slate of being “blanca” upon which no profile is written, a modicum of protection in this world where the boundaries of “Indian Country” are always shifting. And the Trayvon Martins of the world must rely on the luck of whether the white man holding the gun chooses to shoot or not. Looking at my father’s life after that incident I have to wonder what would have Trayvon’s life have been like? Would he have found his way and had a family and been a trusted member of society? We will never know.

This ruling is once again telling us to “know our place.” Now, in the 21st century, 50 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. Wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” a generation of Black youth are admonished not to frighten decent White folk into killing them. And the White folk have been re-gifted with the cover the law for murder. How did we arrive full circle at this point? What does it mean for my son who has his grandfather’s curly French hair and Dakota features? Will he inspire fear once he is grown tall and strong like his Dakota and his father’s Mohawk ancestors? What then? No Skittles, I guess.

I’m disappointed in my country, in my generation for not doing better for our children. We were born after the dream of the Civil Rights Movement was made real and we have done nothing with that great inheritance but to fritter it away tending our parrots and harboring our ignorance of one another as Juror B-37 proudly proclaimed in her interview with Anderson Cooper on Monday.

The funny thing is, I don’t recall what choice my dad made that day in the Jim Crow South, to be white or to be colored. And it is a choice I hope no one ever has to make again.

Jacqueline Keeler is Navajo and Yankton Sioux. She is producing 7-Oil-1: Inside the Bakken, a documentary about the oil boom on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota. She lives in Portland, Oregon.