When I was in high school, my class read a short story (I don’t recall the name of said story) in which a young British boy is sent to live with his aunt in England. He detests her, and takes solace in spending time with his pet mongoose (that he eventually comes to revere as a god). At the end of the story, the aunt goes to remove the mongoose from her house, only to have the cage open and the mongoose kill her as the nephew listens on while calmly eating breakfast.
My senior-year literature teacher, Nancy Barr, suggested that the boy had willed his aunt’s death. She then proceeded to ask various members of the class if we believed it was possible to actually do this – to imagine a situation and believe in it so strongly that it becomes physical reality.
Ten years later, I got the chance to put this hypothesis to the test.
I spent a year and a half as an intern in the environmental conservation office at Vandenberg Air Force Base. During this time, a group that was dedicated to establishing a walking trail that covered the entirety of the Californian coastline decided to walk the proposed path, from the Oregon border all the way down to the border of Mexico. However, this meant walking through Vandenberg Air Force Base – and it probably goes without saying that the officers running the base were uneasy about allowing these “long-haired-hippie-type pedestrians” wander about the base, and so my boss and I were dispatched to act as guides and chaperones.
For the most part, it was enjoyable – we shepherded the trail-advocates across the base, and found most of them to be pleasant, if sometimes comically idealistic, folks (for example, the leader of the group spent a good deal of time talking about his rank in the Peace Corps, why he loved Birkenstocks, the number of Nalgene bottles he owned, and the joys he found in a tofu burger – I managed to not ask him how it felt to be a walking stereotype). The weather was nice, the scenery beautiful, and the work easy. All in all, a damn fine day.
Except for one conversation.
During the lunch break, one of the hikers, a woman of about 45 or so, approached me and asked what my function on the base was.
“I’m an archaeologist,” I responded, thinking nothing of the question at the time.
“Oh, that’s what I thought! Are you interested in Native American Culture?”
I knew where this was going, but could think of no gracious way to not answer. “Well, I kinda’ hafta’ be in order to do my job.”
“Do you have any of THAT blood in you?” She asked eagerly, clearly hoping that she had met some mystical creature of the sort that doesn’t exist outside of the mind of a modern white suburbanite.
“Pardon?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“Do you have any of THEIR blood in you?”
“Well,” I looked up, thoughtfully, “I’ve managed to avoid needing a transfusion, so I don’t have anyone’s blood in me except for my own.”
She blinked, looked momentarily confused, and decided to phrase her question in a more plain and straight-forward way. “Do you have any Native American Ancestry?”
“Yeah. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was half Cherokee and half Choctaw.”
“Oh!” She believed that she had found her prey – the elusive Injun Nature Mystic, so popular in the imaginings of wanna-be Sierra Club members who don’t get out much, “what was her name?”
“Buna” (pronounced “B-YOO-NA” for those of you who aren’t familiar with English butchering of words adopted from other languages) I stated.
She looked frustrated. “What was her REAL name?”
I looked at her blankly and said, again, “Buna.”
“Right, but what was her REAL name? You know, her REAL name?”
It was at this point that I decided to try testing Ms. Barr’s hypothesis, and I imagined, with as much force as I could muster, this woman getting a clue. It didn’t work.
“I told you her REAL name.”
She looked confused. Then she looked frustrated, as if I was somehow hiding a secret from her, and if only she knew how to ask correctly, or could complete some task, I would open the door and let her into the world of true Native American ecological enlightenment.
I decided to again test Ms. Barr’s hypothesis, this time imagining, with all of the will I had in my mind and body, that this woman’s tongue would shrivel and fall out. It didn’t work.
“Well,” she looked both confused and determined, “how do you know that THAT was her real name?”
“You mean aside from the fact that it was on her birth certificate, on her driver’s license, was what she called herself, and is what everyone else called her?”
“Oh.” She slunk away, and I tried to test Ms. Barr’s Hypothesis a third time, this time imagining that the woman’s head would explode. It still didn’t work.
The sad thing is that this woman probably doesn’t realize that her assumption that all Native Americans have names like “Deer Who Frolics in the Rain” or “Bear Who Hunts Walks in the Night” is based on a bigoted belief that all Native Americans are wilderness-dwelling mystics who are out of place in the modern world –with people making life frustrating for many Native Amaericans because so many folks believe that the “Indians aren’t capable of running businesses/being a lawyer/becoming a doctor/serving as a police officer/etc.”, because they are, apparently, only capable of being icons for a lost idyllic past in which humans had mystical connections to the trees and streams. This sort of cultural pornography, the titillating display of another culture to show only those aspects that appeal to the viewer without an acknowledgement of the reality of the individual or group of people being put on display, really gets under my skin - it's essentially a vestige of the racist 19th century notion that white Europeans were rational and responsible, and the rest of the world nothing but brown-skinned superstitious mystics and witch doctors. The fact that the white people are now revering the superstitious and the witch doctors doesn't change the fact that this is still a racist portrayal of the rest of the world.
I’d like to think that my responses helped slap this woman back to reality, and led her to ponder the fact that Native Americans are humans, just like the rest of us, and deserving of some basic respect, not pseudo-reverence where they are put up as bizarre inhuman idols of magic.
But the truth is that she probably walked away thinking of me as the ignorant one, and is still clinging to her racist stereotypes of my grandmother’s ethnicity.
And unfortunately, Ms. Barr’s hypothesis failed, but my high school physics teacher would be happy to know that his dismissal of such things as psychic powers was further confirmed.
So it goes.