jeudi 19 mars 2015
AN EXTRAORDINARY WEEK IN THE USA WITH INDIANS OF NORTH AMERICA
ONE WEEK IN THE USA: A TRAVELOGUE
This is a not an ordinary travelogue. I have just spent one week in the USA. I flew in from London on American Airlines and left on Etihad Airways.
All of the seven days were spent with American Indians, from now referred as Indians. I touched the Non-Indian world briefly, for food and transportation but friendships, joy, celebrations were carried out in the world of the Indians.
Ethiopian Restaurant with an Indian friend, who has good taste in food and wants to try various types of food and we went to this Ethiopian Restaurant. It is amazing that the owners had left their country, for whatever reason and now are cooking for a Midwestern USA population, hoping they would like the Ethiopian Cuisine. It is not an exciting cuisine, the meat and bread (Injera) based cuisine is hardy, does remind you of Africa. The spices are pungent rather than smooth that you find in Asian Curries.
Drive to the Indian reservation on this sunny day was pleasant enough. You pass through some small towns which have seen better days. Vast tracks of land, stretching to the horizon. Loess hills which is a unique form of sand hills, found only in three places on earth, guards you as you drive up to the Reservation. Cars speed along the highway, otherwise there is no sign of human presence,
The next three days we were busy looking after the health and welfare of many Indians. Such an immersion (you are not here to do a “job”) sees you in the front seat of the drama of symbolism, so obviously present in their behavior and ways of thinking. All the patients without exceptions went home happier, since we pay attention to what and where they need attention.
Here are some of their explanatory models, which are so culturally bound.
:Now that I am older, they gave me too much food
:When there is no halushka (dance) my blood sugar goes up.
:I don’t feel good because I went drinking with my girlfriend. (The explanation is not the obvious one, but the fact that the bar he was drinking was raided and the police found an outstanding arrest warrant from many years ago, thus he was incarcerated for 30 days)
Food is central to Health and Ill-health. Food has many symbolic meanings for the Indians, which makes it somewhat difficult to eat wisely or dieting.
In this isolated community of Indians, there are always some ceremonies or “doings” during the week, especially during the weekends.
For American (Non-Indians) who may have rigid meanings to their ceremonies ( going to a place of worship) or who have assimilated their ceremonies to the mainstream modernism, it may be hard to imagine that small communities of Indians carrying on their tradition and ceremonies, as they have done for hundreds of years.
I attended one of them.
You do not need any special invitation. The level of your participation is up to you. You can don the full regalia of a war dancer and dance to your heart’s content or simply walk around the arena to the timing of the drum. Or, wait your turn at the buffet table to be set. People who organize these ceremonies are happy you are there, expect nothing in return.
A girl was turning four years of age, so it is a significant birthday. The drum and the singers were going to sing war songs of yesteryears, this is not done often. The proficient dancers welcome this, as would those Indians who love to listen to these songs,
There were about 100 people present, people of all ages. Many of the children were dressed in traditional dresses, as were many of the adults. The dancers were in full regalia (it takes a while to don it, and you need help). Grandmothers were braiding the hair of their granddaughters, girlfriends helping adjust the costumes of their boyfriends, little boys and girls were running around while dressed in homemade, bright, traditional dresses. A sense of togetherness pervaded, they were affirming their cultural identity. I have long association with this tribe, I noted with gratification that I was the only Non-Indian present.
Many tourists including Americans and Australians and Europeans go to Vietnam and Thailand and visit the “hill tribes: where a performance is put on, for a fee for the tourists. These very same tourists would not take the time to look into their own backyards, whether it is American Indians in USA, or Aboriginals in Australia or Bretons in France, where the rich cultural traditions are maintained, not for show but for affirmation of identity and a sense of togetherness, to assert the importance of the collective over the individual.
Prayers are an integral part of the Indian life and spirituality, the person organizing the ceremony, talks, bringing in the culture of the tribe, the lineage of the family, importance of solidarity and good will, he offers gratitude and prayers, this serving as a lesson for the younger ones and the benefit of prayers for all present, with its attendant ceremonies.
When the prayers and the ceremonies were over, often to the accomplishment of the drums, while the fully ornamented dancers walked around, the buffet table was set up. Food is served in a certain order, the elders are served first and then they invite people in the order. It was gratifying to see the children not growling but patiently awaiting their turn. I noticed also that parcels of food were being made ready for the elders to take home. Tonight it was a balanced meal of traditional and modern foods. I enjoyed the traditional soup with hominy and meat, which was very tender.
Even an outside like me, who is not an expert on the songs of this tribe, I could feel the power and force of the dancers. I was told that these beautiful songs are not sung that often, the dances that go with are different, including the mocking of the enemy.
The girl whose birthday it was, was not at the centre of attraction. They were being together to show their solidarity and affirm their identity. Equality and lack of hierarchy are fundamental characteristics of the Indians. There was special dance for the Little Girl, when all in the audience, participated to show their respect for her.
The village is in the midst of a food desert, the nearest restaurant or food store is a good 40 km away. I feel lucky that the nearby town has two Thai (one good and one so-so) and a Vietnamese restaurant with unchanging good quality food. In the week I was there I had three Thai meals and one Viet meals and needless to say, when you are with Indians, you never eat alone.
The highlight of the week was a visit to the home of an Indian couple, in the company of four other Indians (who had all known each other for ages). We had gone out to eat together earlier (at the Thai restaurant). I thoroughly enjoyed observing them, while participating in the conversations and laughing my guts out at the recall of stories and jokes so abundant among them.
I have to remind Europeans and Asian Indians that it is important to know WHO you are and not WHAT you are. Those impressed by qualifications and an engorged CV, would be attracted to the next bigger one. Indians from the very beginning has taught me: pay attention to WHO you are. To this day I am not interested in the quantitative aspects of people when I meet them, but pay attention to the qualitative aspects of their character.
I was so happy to be among them, because they were all so happy to be with each other. No one in America laughs the way Indians do, the laughter arising out of the depth of their souls. Constantly, jokes, stories, laughter were exchanged, each taking their turn spontaneously. Indians are very family oriented and young adults join the older ones in these long hours of conversation and laughter.
It is interesting to note that conversations tend to focus on the welfare of the individuals within the tribe and also about the tribe itself, and also our own personal efforts to better the ill health of the people. The emphasis is never on the individual and always on the collective.
On the day I left the village, the local high school basketball team had won the State Level championships. One of the elders remarked, perhaps the work of all of us, over the years to prevent illness and promote good health, teaching healthy lifestyle to the younger Indians were bearing fruit, and boys and girls are beginning to show their prowess of their knowledge about good health and lifestyle!
It felt gratifying.
The last time the championship was won by this high school was back in 1940, a distant 75 years ago. The festive mood in the village was palpable.
Almost one week to the hour of my arrival to the USA from Bruxelles, Belgium, this flight takes off, taking me over the Loess Hills formation (found in only three places on earth) in the direction of Chicago.
PS Within 40 hours after that take off, I would arrive at Cochin International Airport, having taken the 14 hour flight from Chicago to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways and connecting with a flight to Cochin. On this geographical dislocation ( I thought to myself, I am going from Indians to Indians), I made four new friends from Etihad Airways : a Tunisian, a Palestinian with whom I had a lovely talk (if only our politicians can get along as well as we did!), an Indian from Bombay as well as a Japanese from Nagoya.