MASHANTUCKET PEQUOT RESERVATION, Conn. ? "Why are you doing this?" Jewell Praying Wolf James said he was often asked as he and a small convoy brought their Healing Pole across country to dedicate to the victims of the Sept. 11 catastrophe. "Haven't Indians suffered great wrongs from the United States?"
"Yes," he replies, "but all healing has to begin from within." By helping the U.S. heal from the terrorist attacks, he said, Indian peoples are making themselves whole.
This is the spirit that seems to prevail in Indian country on the anniversary of the most devastating surprise attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor. With only a few isolated voices to the contrary, the First Peoples felt the attack as deeply and personally as any other inhabitant of the continent, and perhaps even more so. As the approaching anniversary takes on a popular emotional aura surpassing the current observance of traditional memorial days, Indian country is contributing its wisdom and celebrating its own heroic response to the disaster.
"As Native Americans, as the first Americans, we take very strongly this attack," said Mark Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Nation, shortly after the disaster, reflecting a sentiment among many elders that the First Peoples have a special responsibility to defend the continent. As a former police officer, Brown led the Mohegan tribal council last September in pledging $1 million for victims of the attack and their families as well as families of rescue personnel.
Tribal leaders were directly affected by the attack, in a way not widely noted during its turbulent aftermath. Some 300 delegates from around the country were sitting in a National Congress of American Indians meeting in Washington D.C. when the first plane hit the World Trade Center and a plane crashed into the Pentagon. James, one of the delegates, vividly remembers the appearance of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
"He was scheduled to talk to us. So he told us what was happening. While he was speaking, the second tower was hit." As Inouye left hurriedly, the delegates debated whether to continue working.
"People were going crazy," James said. "The phone lines were jammed. Cell phones were jammed. People were abandoning cars in the street. It was like a science fiction movie."
So rather than add to the panic, the delegates decided to continue the meeting. Only later, when many managed to call home and heard their wives crying, did they realize how worried their home tribes were about what had happened to them.
This experience was part of the inspiration for James and his fellow Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers to undertake a memorial totem pole to be dedicated to the children of attack victims Sept. 7 in the Sterling Forest preserve north of New York City. To their surprise, their cross-country trip to deliver the pole has drawn attention and support not only from the tribes they visited but also from national media and the general public.
The attacks also rekindled public awareness of the Mohawk ironworkers, who emerged as heroes of the World Trade Center clean-up effort along with New York City police, firemen and emergency personnel. National newspapers gave prominent play to photographs from the ironworkers' exhibit "Booming Out" at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan.
On Aug. 24, the Ironworkers Local 440 at the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation held a recognition ceremony for more than 800 union members and their guests. The largest event ever held at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, it honored the dozens of Mohawk men who worked long hours in the smoking remains of the World Trade Center as well as long-time members of the union (formally known as the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Union.)
A dramatic account of Sept. 11 came from Marion Diabo, a native of the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec, who was working at Morgan Stanley on the 74th floor of the WTC South Tower. "We made it outside with seconds to spare," she said. "The South Tower was collapsing and we ran hard. It is as if there was a blanket of protection surrounding us."
Another honoring ceremony at Glen Cove, Long Island, on July 22 celebrated the service of the high-speed ferries of Fox Navigation, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which made a dozen trips on Sept. 11 evacuating people from lower Manhattan and bringing in medical personnel. Glen Cove is the terminus of the ferry route, which docks in Manhattan at Pier 11, just half a mile from Ground Zero.
Tribal Vice Chairman Richard "Skip" Hayward, president of Fox Navigation, told crew members, "That day you were part of a heroic effort. Your teamwork on the high-speed ferries of Fox Navigation ? helped save lives and bring solace to hundreds of people who suffered needlessly."
As the commemorations of Sept. 11 continue, the First Peoples are certain to continue in a prominent role, both as heroes and healers.