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High stakes

When I checked in to the Wildhorse Casino Hotel on Wednesday, the front desk lady said, “Good luck!” I smiled and asked why, thinking, does she know I’m here not really knowing what I’m looking for?! And she said, “You’re checked in for so long, you’re here for the million-dollar high-stakes poker game, right?” I laughed and said not really. But then again…maybe yes, maybe no, maybe ice cream! Have never stayed in a casino before, ha!

Had my first interview yesterday—with Chuck Sams, III, Director of Communications, Confederated Tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla) of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR).  He had a different kind of job in Portland for 14 years, where he worked with the Trust for Public Land as National Director of the Tribal & Native Lands Program. Assisting over seventy tribes and native communities, he helped develop strategies to reclaim Native lands with a focus on watersheds, wildlife corridors, working forests, and waterways. He told me, “Then I came home.” Two more times during the interview he used that word, instead of reservation or Rez. “At home, we…” And each time, the word resonated.

Shocking thing to hear (but then I can be so naive sometimes. As my students know, it’s all about sovereignty): “Obama might have told our youth in Washington, D.C. that he has their back, but we cannot trust the courts, and Congress runs our affairs, contrary to international law. And this Congress will do nothing for us.” What was shocking was his resignation and acceptance. I KNOW this, I know the history, but to be sitting across from a nice 40-something man who is articulate and kind and willing to put up with my questions, and hear, “We don’t trust the courts,” in a tone which brooks no argument, brings the history into the room and I look at his photos of military buddies and think he might have been in Iraq during Desert Storm, and my heart is not happy.

I am struggling with many emotions on this trip, and as is my way, writing is how I process. Which is why my long-starved blog is now feeding on words. One thing is that I’m seeing through a Social Science point-of-view…me! Well, my own people. I’m not in South Africa listening to Eastern Cape Xhosa anymore, I’m in America, watching white (maybe) Christians in a casino. And what an eye-opener that is! I walked through the casino yesterday for the first time and had a physical reaction to the noise and cigarette smoke and passivity of the people I passed. They are either heavily tattooed or elderly, mostly very overweight, slumped in front of the 1200 slots, eyes glazed over, pushing buttons, as music and video game racket screams from each machine over and over. Multiply that 1200 times and it’s a shocking contrast to the Nixyaawii Governance Center where I met Chuck. This tall building of stone and wood reached out and welcomed me with its peace and quiet. As I waited for Chuck (arrived 10 minutes early in true Dutch fashion), an elderly Native man, tiny, sat at the reception desk and told me how he doesn’t mind the 90-minute drive to work every day because he lives in beautiful country. Where, I asked. “You know where Pilot Rock is?” I nodded I saw the exit the day before. “Get on that road,” he said, “and just keep on driving.”

The Governance Center, like their museum is an architectural delight: high ceilings, a turning and twisting of corners and hidden corridors, so I am disoriented, but willing to trust the being lost. A water exhibit on the ground floor explains water rights. So still, then laughter from an office. In the parking lot, there are spaces spray painted: Reserved for Elder.

After the interview I go to the museum, then back to the hotel to type my notes. I need a margarita, I think. But I discover no alcohol is served in the hotel. What, no alcohol served anywhere on the reservation except the casino? Is this the elders’ doing? I go to the sports bar in the casino. Have to walk through the casino again, and this time I find myself holding my breath as I pass the bodies hunched forward over the slots. There are more of them. The contrast with the people I just spoke with is as great as the living and the living dead.

I do a mini-interview with the bartender: Why no alcohol served in the hotel? “Tribal law. This is sovereign land, so some of the laws are different than those of the state of Oregon.” Like what? “No liquor store either. We allow smoking in public places, like the casino.” Why? “It draws more gamblers.” What else? “No pot allowed on the reservation” (Oregon recently legalised pot and there were farms selling it during my drive on Wednesday). He smiles. “But this might change.”

I order a margarita and it is a huge bowl of ice with some mix and a few drops of tequila. Ok, that wasn’t worth the walk through the casino. I look up at the screens and see the Open being played at St Andrews!!! Yes, something familiar!! And they all look so cold and windblown. My eyes feast on the green dunes of the Old Course.

On my walk back through the casino to get to the hotel, I get all turned around. It’s a confusing place with all the noise and Annie really doesn’t like it there. So I try and hurry, but I pass the poker room, where the first rounds of the million-dollar tournament are being played, and sneak the shot shown at the top of this post.

See who the dealers are? See who the security guard walking the tables is? Native. Back in the hotel lobby a young man is sweeping the stone floor between stunning bronze statues of horses. His hair tied back, reaches below his waist. I wonder what the people who work here, mostly from the Tribes, must think of the people who come here and provide them with jobs. Am I the only one who sees the irony of white greed providing jobs for a Native community?

More interviews today: a former member of the Board of Trustees (their term for Council of Elders), she is an advocate for children’s rights and helped establish a Youth Council, and I’ll be listening to some of the young people on that council. Chuck has set this up for me. And he is also setting up an interview with at least one of the Elders, who are very busy and very protected.

I keep wondering why I have been accepted, or am being tolerated. When I first spoke to Chuck on the phone in February for my paper (see previous post), instead of me interviewing him, he interviewed me and put me in my place. (“We don’t need your help,” when I had asked, what do you need? And he got all quiet and didn’t like it when I referred to them as a marginalized group. Steep learning curve for me.) Now I have found favor. Maybe the TEDx talk helped? Yesterday’s interview with him was all about my establishing trust. I found myself telling him stories of Dad; it’s a precious story he told on the Hoek van Holland beach as we were walking together many years ago. A story about when he was 18 during WWII and on the Navy carrier off the coast of Japan. A friend of his was gay and Dad woke up one morning to find his friend gone. He’d been thrown overboard during the night. Because it was wartime, they had called it a casualty. Dad said he was so afraid to speak up, scared if he did that the same might happen to him. So he kept quiet for 60 years. And I was the first person he told. He still felt so bad about not saying anything. I told him it’s high time to let it go; it wasn’t your fault.

And then, when Dad was with me and Juul in eastern Oregon during our road trip several years ago, he told the only other war story I ever heard from him, about how ashamed he was of friends who raped Japanese women at the end of the war. “Good Catholic boys like me,” he said.

So, for whatever reason, I told these stories to Chuck yesterday. Offered them up like gems. And it broke through, bringing a new depth to our conversation. He leaned forward and nodded. “Anne, you asked why our WWII veterans came back and took the tribe in a different direction. It’s exactly because of what your father experienced. They saw the American war machine close up and knew the U.S. can get what whatever it wants. They could come and take away our land at anytime. The only way we would survive is if we learned to speak their language. So they convinced the members we needed a constitution. And we hired a lawyer on a $5 retainer to write one for us.”

That constitution was the turning point for the Tribes.

Anyway, certainly a place of shrill contrasts here. A people not just surviving, but thriving. I’ve read their 2010 Comprehensive Plan and they have a long-term vision. They have grown from 200 members in 1900 to 3000 today, and had an operating budget in 2010 of $194 million. They use the money to buy back land (sometimes from bankrupt ranchers), and to give scholarships to their youth. I asked him about present challenges, and he said dealing wisely with their prosperity.

Doesn’t really fit the picture of your average Indian reservation, does it? That’s why I’m here.

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