First, I'd like to welcome all the new blog readers! Thank you for your participation in this project and for journeying alongside me and the different communities I'll be visiting and working in this upcoming year. I am so grateful for all of your support. And—a sincere thank you and hello to those who have been reading this blog since that first post when I gave away all of my stuff in Oakland earlier this summer to start this pro bono adventure. It's been great getting to dialogue with you all—some of you used to be strangers and I absolutely now consider you friends and most of you I've had the pleasure of knowing for a very long time. I'm looking forward to continuing to grow all of these relationships!
I've been thinking about writing this post for a long time—not only what life is like on a reservation, but how I happen to be living on/near two different reservations during the holiday season.
As I've written about before, the reservation community in America is unlike any other community in the United States. The lingering effects of post-colonization can be seen on nearly every systemic level—in and out of the legal world. There is a tripartite form of government on the federal, state, and tribal levels.
Possible legal complications that can arise out of tribal sovereignty prevent a lot of typical corporate American business from opening up shop on the res. Namely, many corporations are afraid that their contracts won't get fully enforced in tribal court, and clear precedent/commercial code is often lacking because there may not be as many previous issues on a reservation. So, that's one of many reasons why there is not a lot of infrastructure on the reservation.
For example, here in Window Rock, there are 3 or so restaurants, a few stores, and that's about it—and that's a *lot* going on for a res. 98% of the reservation is wide open land with people living on it here and there (and it's beautiful).
The federal, state, and tribal influences—as well as nationalist factors—on the reservations are tough to navigate. I've noticed a few moments when I've been particularly struck by its confluence.
On Halloween, I was living in Cut Bank, Montana—a very small border town right outside of the Blackfeet reservation to the east. That night, I was driving along the streets of Browning—the main hub of the res. I naively wondered if Halloween was a big deal on the reservation—it is a holiday that is surely celebrated fully in non-reservation communities throughout the United States. I was curious what the evening may look like there.
And it was definitely celebrated in full trick or treating fashion that night. As I was passing one dilapidated structure after another (many with boards over windows, or holes in windows, etc.), I noticed a small boy who couldn't have been older than 5 barreling down the sidewalk with his friends, and he was wearing a Captain America costume. It really struck me.
It struck me that although this little boy was living on the Blackfeet reservation—an area that for centuries was indigenous to the Blackfeet tribe before European colonizers set foot on this continent—he was undoubtedly one of present day America's community members. And the immediate afterthought was while he was wearing the Captain America costume, was America really protecting his best interests, or the interests of his people?
This same question has repeatedly come up on a constant, daily basis for me over the last couple months.
I was still living near the Blackfeet reservation during Thanksgiving week. I also wondered about how the holiday would be viewed by those tribal members living on the reservation. I wondered about my own views on the holiday. It seemed to be a mix of some celebrating the holiday, some not as much. But it certainly didn't have that tone of America!!!! like my home state of Massachusetts did.
Living in Massachusetts as I did growing up, it is pretty much ground zero for all federal American holidays. Thanksgiving—happened in Massachusetts. Fourth of July—happened in Boston. The state even has a Patriots Day where the Boston Marathon is run every year. Out of every place I have ever lived, federal holidays is at a fever pitch in Massachusetts—as it is where so much of European-centric Americana originated.
Am I saying that people should not be celebrating these holidays? Not at all. But after spending the last couple months with the Blackfeet and Navajo Nations, I see holidays like Thanksgiving more like this: it's like a party that the majority of people in this country are having a great time at, but it is not inclusive or representative of so many of our friends.
This past weekend, I went to the opposite side of the Navajo reservation, curious to see if it was similar to its southern edges and what differences there may be. It is also worth saying that although the Nation is certainly an impacted community, I have noticed that there are more resources here than on the Blackfeet res. It's attributed largely to size (the Navajo Nation is one of the largest tribes on all of North America) and many systems here are more developed as such.
I stayed overnight at the Monument Valley, Utah office (the reservation is huge) in the DNA Legal Services branch office out there. I met two of the attorneys who were working out there who shared with me more challenges on the res.
On the Navajo reservation, about 40% of homes do not have electricity. And 50% of Navajo residents do not have plumbing. The Navajo res and many other reservations have very high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and the overall poverty rate is around 46%. (I remember a conversation with a friend who works at a public assistance office up in Montana next to the Blackfeet res who told me that a number of individuals live on only $3000/year. This figure is not uncommon).
That night, I was told that the heat wasn't working too well in the office. They very luckily had a mediocre-working space heater that I pretty much put right next to my body as I slept because it was so cold (the desert temps out here can often drop to below zero). I didn't sleep well at all because I was so cold. I woke up the next morning and cut my trip short a day so I could sleep in the Window Rock office where there was adequate heat. And of course, I reflected on how lucky I was to be sleeping in a room where there was heat. On the drive home, I thought deeply about how tens if not hundreds of thousands of Native Americans living on reservations had to deal with conditions like that on a daily/nightly basis. And mainstream America isn't talking about it. The silos in which we are living in this country can unintentionally but toxically be so divisive. What isn't happening for us immediately and affecting our day-to-day can seem so out of reach. But it's happening just next door.
This same weekend, I drove into Gallup, NM—the border town minutes away from Window Rock, where I have been living. Gallup is hardly a sprawling metropolis—its population hovers around 20,000. But instantaneously upon driving over that border, I was really overwhelmed by a barrage of street lamps and neon lights and—well—lots of modern infrastructure.
I had become used to living in places where there are a couple street lamps at most, sleeping in office spaces, and feeling grateful that the heat was turned on and there was running water. A couple of the attorneys in one of the nearby offices don't have running water/electricity—like many of those living here on the reservation.
In Gallup, I was bombarded by the same holiday messages I'm so used to seeing in all the other parts of the country. Buy this, buy that; do this; do that—the messages demanded. And as I mentioned above, although my reticence of consumerism around the holidays has been there for awhile, this year—I felt a complete turn off around all of this noise.
My experience on reservations has been deeply rooted in relationships with people. There aren't a lot of distractions on the reservation—it's easily one of the least pretentious places one will find in America. Hands down. And I love that, among many other things. When I go grocery shopping on my limited budget, I have a full length conversation with my grocery store clerk. In fact, although I've only been here for a few weeks, when there is such a lack of external distraction, it forces one to go internal—and to seek things that have substance beyond the material—something that is lasting.
And that is always in the form of relationships. Paul, the custodian at the legal office, and I have become pretty good buddies—mostly because both of us are here until super late every night. So, we end up chatting about a bunch of random stuff. Although large cities may offer numerous options, on the res it's all about being with yourself and the people you're with.
And isn't that what the holiday season is about? Consumerism in and of itself is another form of exclusivity—we all know that not everyone can afford to purchase a plethora of gifts to "celebrate" the holidays. With some intentionality, we can radicalize the holiday season from being a reactive, consumer-based affair to one of deeper inclusivity and respect for whom these holidays may possibly alienate, and hold space for trying to build something better—versus a more mindless reactivity.
As for me—I'm taking this last week of the year to do some serious decompression in the Four Corners area. (Read: Attorney on the Move goes to Attorney on the Couch or Attorney Walking around Outside.) :-) It's been a helluva year and there's another big one just around the corner. I am looking forward to reflecting upon the last 6 months (!!!) of this journey and thinking intentionally about the next 12 to come.
I couldn't be more grateful or appreciative of each and every one of you reading this right now. From those who have donated to the crowdfunder to keep this project going and those who have offered their utmost and genuine friendship—thank you, thank you, thank you. It is because of all of you that we are all on the move for something better.
May this be a peaceful time of year for you and yours and may we all find the truest of meanings in what this season holds—much love.