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How It Feels to Be a Minority

Posted on 2015.08.06 at 18:42
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Radio broadcasts in languages I don't know a word of are generally not my favorite things, but this is different. I'm on the section of I-40 that passes along the southern edge of the Navajo reservation and I'm listening to the Voice of the Navajo Nation.

Not that there's no English at all. Most of the ads are in English. There's one for a pawn shop, one for a car dealership ("We value our Native American customers"), one for a jewelry supply store (not a bead shop, but a store for professional jewelry makers) and one mostly in Navajo but with occasional bits of English: "New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange", "managed care", "behealthynewmexico.com" and a phone number. I've actually found three stations coming out of the rez, although two of them might be the AM and FM outlets of the same broadcaster. In any case, there is also music ranging from rigidly traditional chanting and drumming to intermixtures between Native and various Anglo styles to ordinary pop and country songs that happen to be performed by Natives. It's a real education.

Gallup, New Mexico, the American Indian Capital of the World, is a small city in a river plain surrounded by dramatic dry-country cliffs, like Sedona and like Durango, Colorado. Originally a coal mining town and railhead for coal shipments, it now depends on the Mighty Tourist Dollar. The Historic Route 66 passes through, and there is, of course, remarkable natural beauty, both of which bring in out-of-towners. Mainly, however, this is where the Navajo, Apache, Zuni and Hopi do most of their interfacing with the worldwide capitalist economy.

Now, I've been eating local cuisine, including the occasional Native American meal, and enjoying it, but one thing all these Southwestern cuisines have in common is a scarcity of vegetables. It's started to catch up with me. So when I got to Gallup, I ended up eating at the King Dragon, the fanciest of at least three Chinese restaurants here, although the buffet is quite reasonably priced. It seems to have a lot of Native customers. During the course of my first lunch there, the crowd went from about half Native to three-quarters to "Looks like I'm the only white person in here." A white couple came in as I went out, so I'm sure this was a statistical fluke. The staff were Chinese and the host had a Chinese accent.

Aside from him, most of the people I saw working behind counters were Native. I went to a laundromat and I really was the only non-Native in there. I was outnumbered in the supermarket, at the public library and on the street. Even at the Nightly Indian Dances, which I was sure would be a total tourist hook, half the crowd was Native. One night, a Hopi group performed, with a young Hopi woman announcer. One of the three dances they performed was the Turkey Dance. The announcer talked about the significance of the turkey in various local Native traditions and asked for correction from any Navajo in the audience if she'd mispronounced the Navajo word for turkey. There were several who assured her that she'd done fine.

It's not like being in a foreign country. Everyone speaks English and wears tee shirts and jeans or dresses or other ordinary modern clothes. There's a supermarket instead of a mercado. And I certainly haven't felt any hostility. In fact, it's the friendliest town I've just rolled into, not expected by anyone, in a long time. Certainly there are lots of shops and galleries and restaurants eager to do business with me. It's just that I get the clear sense that this is their town in a way that it can never be mine, even if I were to spend the rest of my life here and make friends with everybody.

It's a real consciousness-raising moment.

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