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Mohawk: The Indian Scrooge

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Everybody called him Scrooge, even though his other name is Ebenezer Blue Nose. It started a long time ago. Blue Nose was a young man climbing the tribal administration ladder, a bureaucrat. Even then, he was known to his family for his tight-fisted ways, and for his snide attitude for anything requiring him to be a giving person, including potlatches, giveaways, and Christmas. Bring up any of these things, and he would say something that was not positive. One year he was so annoyed by piped-in Jingle Bells music in his office that he sued, claiming that listening endlessly to Christmas Muzak amounted to mental torture. He went to tribal court and found a fellow on the bench who was of like mind, Marley Crooked Stick. Marley agreed, Jingle Bells was out, and a long partnership between the two was born.

Soon Blue Nose was at the top of the tribal hierarchy and with his friend Marley was able to find properties on tribal lands with no surviving direct heirs and deeds emerged in Blue Nose's name which were processed by the good judge. One of these properties was sold to the tribe in a deal Blue Nose negotiated to make a place for a nuclear waste dump and this helped to finance a small convenience store empire owned and run by the two partners. The stores were both legendary and notorious. If it didn't contribute to diabetes or obesity or some other health problem, they didn't sell it. And they were famous for their cheap wages - the cheapest allowable under the law - and they made the law. When their businesses polluted the environment they spent lavishly for legal defense to avoid taking responsibility for the damage and spent none for cleaning up. The skinflint way they managed their empire and exploited their workers matched the Scrooge nickname, but the parallels to the old Dickens story didn't end there.

Scrooge and Marley may have been overly economical in the way they treated others, but nothing was too good for them at home: fancy cars, pools, vacation homes in sunny climes. They lived what they thought was the good life. But the good life changed them.

Scrooge married and had two children and soon found himself on an unknown treadmill. The children had to have things - soccer practice, ballet lessons, tutoring to get into good schools, private school tuition. Prosperity meant a growing obsession with material things, and with status symbols including having the right clothes, having the right friends, and making certain the children had all the advantages money could buy. Then the children grew up, went to college, and got jobs far from home. And Mrs. Scrooge needed more space of her own, so she went back to college, leaving him all by himself in the house. By that time, no one else talked much to him, and he didn't much talk to them either.

Then disaster struck. Marley was killed when he fell off a porch while trying to evict a poor family from one of his substandard housing units.

Scrooge had an idealistic nephew, Bob, who got his MBA from the Wharton School but wanted to work on the reservation and the only job he could get was at minimum wage working in Scrooge's convenience store sweatshop. He had a son, Tiny Tim, who suffered from serious Attention Deficit Disorder issues for which Bob couldn't afford treatments.

The next year, at around the time of the winter solstice, Scrooge Blue Nose began to have dreams, just like those of the Dickens character. Marley appeared to him in chains, but they were the kinds of chains you see in jail, and he was wearing prison garb in the dream. Unlike the original Scrooge, Blue Nose didn't necessarily believe in heaven or hell - especially hell - but he believed in prison. And on successive nights, perhaps under the power of suggestion, he saw spirits of the past, present, and future, and each painted a picture of the poor quality and futility of his life if he continued to be the societally regressive borderline criminal miserable miscreant he had always been.

The experience was transformative. It happened 20 years ago and Scrooge turned a new leaf. For one thing, he pledged to be an honest person who would do no harm to others, not even when it was technically legal to do so. He began giving generously to food kitchens and other charities, and he doubled Bob's salary over night. He began paying for Tiny Tim's treatments. He searched for people who needed his help and often gave anonymously; asking nothing, not even thanks, in return. He began to see the world differently, including developing a new appreciation for his people. There were problems there, but good things too, and he was dedicated to being one of the good things.

For one thing, he noticed that although many were poor, they enjoyed the closeness of extended family. They joked and visited, and appreciated one another much more than he had done when he was social climbing. Among the epiphanies was that as long as people had food to eat and a warm, adequate and safe place to live and work, even poor people often live happy and relatively well-adjusted lives in which their time and energy is directed in support of family and community instead of chasing dollars and the social memberships which prosperity is expected to bring. It was this quality of life issue, a quality found in abundance in the Indian country, which keeps so many rooted there, and so many coming back. The old Scrooge didn't add to it a whit. The new Scrooge was a bit better.

Things improved for Scrooge, but not everything was exactly perfect. Tiny Tim isn't so tiny any more. In fact, he is huge, and sometimes, during the summer, at the beach, small children gather close to him to get relief from the sun. He never followed in his father's footsteps, never went far in college. He married, has a job with the tribe, three children of his own. And he seems happy, Attention Deficit Disorder aside. That was as much as Ebenezer had ever hoped for. And Ebenezer isn't really Scrooge any more - people call him Ben now - and he can gaze into the mirror in the knowledge he has lived a life promoted by the traditional values of his people, a satisfaction money can't bring. And at the winter solstice, in his nation, his story inspires people to pride and appreciation for who they are as a people. At least, if I were Dickens, that's how I would have told it.

Disclaimer: Any similarities between the purely fictitious characters here and persons living or dead are purely coincidental.

John C. Mohawk Ph.D. and columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.