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Vicenti: The Native refugee

I am a refugee. I only recently discovered this. For years I had carried with me an odd and vague sense of displacement in a land that belonged to my ancestors. It feels like exile. I know many people who love the intoxication of travel and who savor the opportunity to leave the reservation, but I was raised at a sheep camp on the high ponderosa-covered mesas. I find comfort in the embrace and musk of my own people, in the language and ceremony of the Apache world. America, as it has evolved, has become a foreign country to me. I do not like its politics; I do not appreciate a tongue that cloaks exploitation in euphemisms; I do not appreciate a culture that prefers to forget rather than confront the injustices upon which it was built.

If I hadn't noticed other Native refugees around me, this would have left me feeling dismally lonely. The state of refuge so often is a mental one. So many of us leave our peoples and our reservations finding ironic refuge in the wastelands of American culture. Many Natives leave their reservations for schooling. Most tribes offer nothing beyond the 12th grade. Young men and women take flight with scholarships in hand, spending the money away from home, graduating far away and considering at some distant place whether returning home is even a good idea. Older, non-traditional college students often leave the rez with their entire families.

Still others leave to join the military: poverty's favored destination. In the military a Native gets the benefits of uniform, economic stability, mission and status; sacrificing, in the process, the memory of ancestors held as prisoners of the United States. Artists, to be successful, must leave to find buyers. Others take flight from legal worries, evading divorce lawsuits, or worse, arrest warrants. Some are simply walking away from bad relationships. Some are driven out by the dangers of tribal politics, where the fighting gets rough, as someone once told me, "because the stakes are so low."

My own destiny as a refugee was foretold when I was young, in the Kennedy years: along with many other Jicarilla Apache youth, I was encouraged to make it to college and beyond. We were led to believe that survival "in the white world" required an education. Education, though, was only the beginning of a life of refuge. Returning back to the reservation after I completed college, it was difficult to find work. My absence, it was said, left me out of touch with our people. In due time I did find a niche within the Indian judiciary. It offered only a modest wage, but it wasn't the money that was important: it was the chance to make a meaningful change in our Indian world that I was after, and that chance was ever evasive. After several years as a tribal judge, however, I needed growth. But an opportunity for an expansion of skills and of the mind did not fully exist in Dulce, N.M., the seat of tribal government. I had become over-qualified for every job on the reservation. And so I became a refugee.

Retrospection upon this educated life of exile was inevitable. Certainly, I had a sense of betrayal. One of the earliest cautions my grandfather had offered me was that life would be harsh. I was prepared for that. But I did not think that education itself would become a formidable barrier and, ultimately, the cause of my exile. The irony to my own circumstances was that I knew that my own tribe, like most others, suffers from a human resource deficit. In my case, however, a position was simply not available in spite of the level of my educational and professional accomplishment. Exile was inevitable.

Within exile, however, there are many other things at work. When we are gone from the reservation, we strain the social, political and cultural connections with friends, family and tribe. Our presence off the reservation creates distortions of who we really are, both to the non-Indian and to the Indian worlds.

Like it or not, unlike the privileged white person, we become ambassadors, symbols, of our peoples. Our peoples become judged by our behavior, good and bad. If we show off, we convey the impression that our people are showy. If we do not know the political issues of our peoples, we either convey that we do not care about those things that our leaders fight for, or, that we no longer care about our peoples - that, somehow, our people don't matter to us any more.

This wouldn't necessarily be the wrong assumption. Life in American society cloaks us in a rare measure of anonymity. Add to that the privilege of individualism, and we then find that we can evade all responsibility to our peoples. It is not a sudden transformation; rather, our senses are soon overcome by the opiate distractions of media, restaurants, and consumer products. (If we are fortunate to join the ranks of the Indian elite, as lawyers, professors, artists or actors, we have the added distraction of popularity!) We learn to tolerate negligence of property and humanity. Our interactions with the Western world then shape how we socialize and dress, and, before long, we don't fit in ? at home. Being back on the rez, then, is no longer as comfortable.

With our feet planted safely in two worlds we find ourselves infected by disparate values. We often become confused, idle, addicted, obsessive, angry, desperate, destitute, or, as the Western world would hope, distracted into consumption. In the Western world this is called 'neurosis.' This is hard to escape.

The Native refugee has chosen the most complicated of lives. This kind of life involves a one-way transfer of values, from America to Native America. We are the vessels of contamination to our own peoples. We are the manipulated clay of those non-Indians who would be inclined to characterize us for American consumption, by gossip, by fascination, by depiction and by status (of incidentally having known us), into some projection of who they would want us to be - to suit the tranquility of their metaphysics.

We are each obliged, under these circumstances to assume the worst, to fear for the people at home. Our political existence is always at risk. Our physical absence from the rez charges us with special challenges, and, by implication, political and social duties. The conflict between Native and non-Native that has endured for these five centuries now falls into our hands. We must work to keep our home relations strong and vivid. But we must also be careful ambassadors on this new front.

Judge Carey N. Vicenti, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation of northwest New Mexico, currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He sits as a judicial official for several American Indian nations and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.