"Grandma Cly," courtesy of the Utah Dept. of Heritage and Arts.
Last evening my wife Michele and I walked a few blocks from the hotel in Phoenix where the National Association of State Community Services Programs (NASCSP) is holding its Annual Training Conference, to an Open Market. There were a circle of food trucks and tables offering fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables around a covered parking lot with tables and chairs. We picked a food truck offering Mexican and Native American food and bought our meal of fish tacos and fry bread. Ever since reading the novels of Sherman Alexi, where fry bread is described as a kind of Native American comfort food, I’ve wanted to try it. I liked it. It reminded me a bit of the Zeppoli my Italian grandmother used to make, without the coating of sugar and cinnamon.
But I wanted an expert opinion. I had recently participated in a conference session “United We Stand—Collaborating to Serve Indian Country,” with Melanie Plucinski of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. When she joined Michele and I at our table, I asked her opinion. “It’s very good,” she says. “And I’m a pretty harsh critic.” Like all Native Americans, Plucinski has many reasons to criticize state and federal governments. Native American history is littered with broken treaties, blankets infected with smallpox, and starvation at the hands of the United States Government. But I actually experienced a lot of hope in the conference session, realism, and a feeling of mutual respect between the tribal leaders, such as Plucinski, and Ralph Atcitty of the Navajo Division of Social Services, and the federal and state leaders at the session. (Atcitty is the translation of a Navaho word meaning “banging with a hammer,” or something close to that. Atcitty’s grandfather was a copper smith.)
Leaders of the Indian Health Service (IHS), a part of the federal Health and Human Services, spoke of collaborating with tribal leaders in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah to get fresh water to tribal members living in remote locations. Debbie Broermann, of the Multi-Agency Tribal Infrastructure Collaborative (MATIC), a resource of the federal government tasked with coordinating the many state and federal government agencies—such as HUD, USDA, EPA, DOE, and other important acronyms—partners with Native American tribes. Broermann described projects like building modular bathrooms for tribal housing in remote areas, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever remediation.
What I describe above are partnerships, not the government solving problems. On projects where IHS helps tribes access clean water, for example, IHS trains tribal members to build and maintain water delivery systems.
I think I found the most hope in the relationship between the 11 recognized tribal groups in Minnesota and the state government. In August, Governor Mark Dayton signed an agreement that proclaims, among other things, “… the State of Minnesota recognizes and supports the unique status of the Minnesota Tribal Nations and their right to existence, self-government, and self determination...” and “…members of the Minnesota Tribal Nations are citizens of the State of Minnesota and posses all the rights and privileges afforded by the State…”
In quiet ways, Native American tribes and organizations such as MATIC and IHS are rewriting the history of the relationship between the people living here before Columbus arrived and the rest of us newcomers who came here from all over the world. This recent history is more about mutual respect and common purpose than conflict; more about solving problems and creating benefits for everyone than about isolation and resentment.
My grandmother, Carmela Romeo, lived to be three months short of 100 years old. Looking back, her brown skin, prominent cheekbones, and well-earned wrinkled skin remind me of photos of older Native American women taken in the late 19th Century. I think all of us have a lot more in common than comfort food. The more we can celebrate that, the better we’ll all be.