Being Native Means Honoring Our Elders
Indian Country Today
If you ask the old man his name, he will look at you with his dark brown eyes. He will smile. And he will tell you it is Marlon. The Spirits know him by a different name. Marlon doesn't mention his Indian name to just about anybody. They wouldn't understand it anyway – it's a long name, it is sacred to him and it is in his Native language. “Don't mention your Indian name to strangers,” Marlon had told his grandchildren several years ago, “they may put a curse on you. But if they don't know your Indian name, they cannot put a curse on you.” His grandchildren lived on land that belongs to a white farmer today but they are all grown up now and moved to the city, so Marlon never gets to see his grandchildren these days.
This morning that white farmer came speeding toward Marlon on his ATV. Marlon looked up and saw that he was carrying a shotgun. He said to the farmer, “Just taking my morning walk, Sir. I live in that small house three miles up this road.” Marlon indicated the red house that was still visible in the distance with his chin. He didn't point. He never pointed. Only the skin-walkers pointed.
“I don't care where you live,” was the response. “I don't like someone walking along the road that borders my farm. Do you see a sidewalk here anywhere? I don't know where you're from but in this country, we walk only on sidewalks. If I see you here again, I will have you deported to wherever you are from, do you understand?”
Marlon nodded. He didn't want trouble with the cops. The cops give Marlon a hard time too. Most people who walk are illegal Mexicans, who don't look all that different from Marlon. The cops have stopped Marlon so often that you would think they would know him by now. They ask him for his driver's license but Marlon has always been too poor to own a car and all he has is his tribal ID which is frequently not acceptable to the police. “I'm just going down to the local store to buy milk and bread, Officer,” he would tell them.
Marlon doesn't like going to the store much these days but that's where he gets his groceries. The store isn't what it used to be seventy years ago. It is now as large as any Walmart. Marlon doesn't know any of the people who work there any more. There is one pretty white girl who works there who is nice to him. She frequently compliments him on his English. Marlon likes this girl. She reminds him of his granddaughter who he never gets to see. But the other employees are quite rude. The cashiers want to see some “real ID” before they sell him cigarettes. One would think someone who is close to 80 years old wouldn't need an ID to buy cigarettes but the influx of Mexicans has made life harder for Marlon. It has repositioned him as an illegal on his own land. Marlon never returns any defective products to the store any more. The cashiers at the returns counter give him a hard time. They think he is an illegal immigrant.
The neighborhood clinic is a hospital now. Marlon hasn't been able to see a doctor in over ten years because they always shunt him off to a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. A new clinician examines him each time, so no one knows his medical history. Marlon's wife died in this hospital. She met her end in much pain. They would not give her the morphine she needed. The cough had made her lose much of her voice and she was begging for her pain meds. “I am sorry we have to wait until the interpreter gets here, I don't speak any Spanish,” was what the nurse told her. But Marlon's wife didn't speak any Spanish either. The tribe didn't have money to pay for funeral expenses. So Marlon had her cremated and he scattered her ashes near her favorite tree by a stream at the local state park. That state park has an entrance fee now and Marlon can no longer afford to go there to pay his respects. Which is a good thing too, because the punks go there on their pickup trucks, turn up the music, get drunk and urinate on that tree.
The local pharmacy is a steep walk up the hill. That's where Marlon buys his diabetes medications. The pharmacist is a highly educated man from Asia. But he is not very nice to Marlon. He thinks all these “illegals” bypass the frustrating wait and the queue that legal immigrants like him have to go through to live on this land. The pharmacy staff pick up on the pharmacist's attitude and as a result the rest of them give Marlon a hard time too.
On the way back from the pharmacy is the Mormon Institute of Religion. They have clean bathrooms. Marlon would use the bathroom on his long walk home. At his age you keep an eye out for bathrooms, wherever they are. But Mrs. Steinberg told Marlon the bathrooms were meant only for Mormon students. She said she would call the cops if Marlon tried to use the bathrooms again.
Sometimes Marlon runs into young tribal members in town. They don't speak their language and they don't care that Marlon is one of the only three people in the tribe who speaks the language fluently. They usually walk past Marlon without noticing him. When you are into rap and basketball and hang out with cool black friends, old Indians from your tribe are usually nonexistent to you. But they are out there. Lonely. Usually neglected by their families, who don't realize that neglect of elders is a form of abuse. These elders are struggling to pay their bills. They are struggling to get their medications. Getting to a dialysis center is hard for them. Life is hard for them whichever way you look at it. When there is snow on the roads and the sidewalks aren't plowed, falling down and breaking a hip is their biggest fear. So they cannot get to the store to buy food and they go hungry.
We may think that donning regalia and dancing at pow wows makes us Indian but if we neglect our elders, we are clearly and demonstratively not even close.
Dr. Amy Moore is a professor, currently on sabbatical, who is passionate about saving as many Native American languages as possible. Mike Taylor is a student in the Harvard University ALB program.