Growing Up Part-Time Indian Revisted
Back in February, I was asked to give a talk at Eastern Connecticut State University to give a talk on growing up as a part-time Indian. I had been meaning to come back to this topic for some time, hoping to expand on this story for those of you who didn’t hear my talk. Which, let’s face it, was most of you. All these months later, I have returned to it.
I borrow the title from Sherman Alexie, whom I hope can forgive me, because it really did apply to me. I would spend ten months of the year living in a residential southern California city (San Diego) and then spend my summers in the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Nevada-Idaho border. To say that I lived my young life in two very different worlds would be to understand the matter significantly. As a young man, I struggled mightily to figure out which world I truly belonged to. I still sometimes wonder.
A little background: the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863 recognized Western Shoshone sovereignty and the tribes right to control 60 million acres of territory, most of it in Nevada. Like many treaties between American Indian nations and the United States government, it has been ignored and violated over the centuries. This should surprise no student of American history. Whether the example is the horrid Trail of Tears, the slaughter at Wounded Knee, small pox blankets, or the ghastly boarding schools of the twentieth century, Indian sovereignty has been scarcely respected. Unless, of course, your tribe has a profitable casino that provides the tribe with political clout. This is the case of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun here in Connecticut; most reservation Indians do not live in environments flush with cash.
In addition to these crimes, the Western Shoshone have had to cope with two other egregious violations of their land rights: one on end of Shoshone territory is the Nevada Test Site, where since 1951, 1021 atomic tests have occurred on lands that by treaty belong to the Western Shoshone. The end result is that the Shoshone nation is the single most bombed nation on earth. It is common to read the terrible accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the test on Bikini Island, and all humans should be aware of this. No other country in the world has had to endure the destruction caused by the detonation of over 1,000 bombs, in addition to the sicknesses and health issues brought about by the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere and the environment.
That would be bad enough, but on the other end of Shoshone territory is something called the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository. Despite its holy status to the Western Shoshone, Yucca Mountain was annexed decades ago for this purpose, and no member of the tribe has been able to set foot on the Mountain since. In the meantime, a tunnel several miles deep has been dug in anticipation of the repository opening and accepting shipments of nuclear waste from throughout the country (and, if profitable, the world). Never mind that no member of the tribe consented to the use of the mountain for this purpose, or that it rests on an aquifer and an earthquake fault. The good news is that Harry Reid’s clout in the United States Senate has kept the repository from opening. There is no guarantee, though, this will remain constant.
It is into this environment I found myself thrust each summer I visited the tribe. I had no idea how it would fundamentally form the person I would become in ways so profound I am still struggling to understand them. And it is with this background I will next time begin to tell my story.