I had an Indian in my class when I was in Kindergarten, and I had the biggest crush on him.
I thought it was the coolest thing ever, that a real life Indian was in my class. I remember being disappointed that there was no feathered headdress that came with him (like he was a toy). Other than that, it was like Sitting Bull had come to life.
That mentality, that Indians were just like me, living in regular society, having a normal life, stayed with me for years. I came to learn that they had extra benefits, like free college, and for some reason, got to own casinos, but otherwise, they were totally normal Americans.
I had a very simple and ignorant view of complex issues for most of my life.
It wasn’t until I prepared for a quick road trip vacation to South Dakota that my eyes were opened.
(And when I mean quick, I mean we drove from MI to SD, tent camped one night, and then drove back to MI. 48 hours, baby. That’s how you do family vacations on the cheap. Also? Don’t forget the Dramamine. Never. Again.)
So, to make the most of the trip, I did a little reading beforehand. I read Dakota and On the Rez, and I was appalled. Third World conditions in the USA? In the shadow of the Shine of Democracy? (I do realize that not all Native American’s stories and lives are like this.)
It’s easy for me to ignore the fact that my house sits on long ago taken land, because there are not many Native Americans around to remind me. But in a place like the Black Hills, where a large reservation lies just a few miles away, it’s much harder to ignore.
I could just read a book about an issue, because travel is not a necessity for life. But travel should be a high priority if you want to really live.
Standing on that mountain, knowing it was stolen, sacred land, was a knowledge that will never come from a line of text.
There was nothing I could do but stand witness to what greed had wrought.
The present poverty reminded me that actions have consequences and the past does not fade away.
Visiting a landmark our country is known for, I couldn’t help feeling like I was just one more drop in the ocean of oppression.
A place of so much tragedy, humiliation, and invisibility sits while the country whizzes by, funneling their money to an industry founded on greed and theft.
Traveling has made me aware of the plight of Native Americans.
Now when a person casually remarks that Indians are only about the casinos, and therefore greedy, I understand a little more of why they do what they do. I remember experiencing the disparity that exists between the shrine of democracy and the parched reservation. I think of the tragic history that continues with modern violence and discrimination.
Traveling has broken my heart.
Plenty of monuments exist to honor wars long ago. Some deaths are even honored by naming a town, a state park, after a man who despised the locals, and inspired theft. We continue to rub the crime in their face. How that feels, I can only imagine, but it makes me sad.
Traveling does not provide me with many solutions.
That takes time, learning, real hard work by involved, local people. But I am aware now. My vacation is someone else’s home, someone else’s history. When I visit, I’m more conscious of the local history, the local pain, the local needs. It’s not to say I don’t enjoy traveling, or that I spend all of my vacations focusing on the pain. I don’t. I love to visit new places and have new experiences. I love to learn more about the world, about my country. But I don’t have to ignore the pain in my quest for fun.
Travel the country.
But travel with open eyes.
Stand on that mountain and take in the majesty of the figures and of the beauty.
But remember those people, miles away, who claim that spot as holy.
Travel to the beauty that is Appalachia, winding your way over steep mountain roads, and marvel at creation. But remember the poverty that exists in the coves and hollows.
Visit history, but remember the violence that we honor, the grief we still feel.
Remember the slaves that served here.
Remember the struggle.
Remember that our United Story of America is grey and complex and can never be reduced to a paragraph on a plaque.
Embrace the beauty, but remember the pain.
And maybe, even spend a little bit of your tourism dollars on something good.
What has been something you have learned from a place you have visited?
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