Jacqueline Keeler in Native Condition. Discussion »
When I heard of George Zimmerman's acquittal, my thoughts went not to my 10 years old son but to my dad when he was 18 years old. I avoided coverage of the trial because I knew an unrepentant Zimmerman's defense would be to blame his victim, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old carrying a bag of Skittles and iced tea, for his own death. I knew that listening to it would mean listening again to the same old ugliness that has plagued this country since Columbus first landed on an island in the New World he named San Salvador, "the savior." A prophetic name as it can also be used to describe Zimmerman's view of himself and his volunteer work as member of the neighborhood watch. He said describing the victim, "These guys all get away," and after he shot the 17 year old, "I feel it was all God's plan." I say, it all sounds too familiar.
And so it was after the verdict, my thoughts were filled of my father at 18, unarmed and facing down a gun pointed at him by a white man he had known his entire life. This was during the Jim Crow era in the United States and my dad was not Black, but a mixed blood Dakota Sioux Indian.
It's funny to think that in most South Dakota border towns, even today, Zimmerman, who looks more Indian than white, would be subject to the exact same scrutiny that he gave Trayvon Martin, that he could even, himself, be shot under very similar circumstances. The line in the sand of "race" or "caste" is a tricky one as you move around the country. Which side you fall on is an educated guess at best, but getting it right can mean the difference between life and death.
My dad was raised in Lake Andes, a white town located on the Yankton Sioux reservation. His mixed blood family occupied a strange nether world, neither white nor Indian. My dad recounts having the white folks boo him when he dribbled a basketball during a game and then on the other side, the full bloods would boo him, too. His dad, whose father and uncle had owned the first car dealership in that part of South Dakota yes, Indians did things like this, was best friends with the Sheriff and the two of them had even engaged in bootlegging together during Prohibition. My grandmother, who could pass for white her Dakota name was "Green Eyes" regularly had her hair done at the beauty salon on main street. I did not learn until a few years ago that most Indian people of that time period were not allowed to get their hair cut in town or play snooker at the bar with the Sheriff.
But despite this seeming acceptance by the white community, things began to unravel for our family. My grandfather died under suspicious circumstances and was found drowned in the Missouri River. My mother claimed she heard from her in-laws that he had been beaten to death by white friends for his paycheck. When I asked my dad he just shook his head, "No," he said, "It was a work accident, the dam," but his voice was shaking and his looked like I had never seen him before. Raw with grief. I can still remember as a child asking a dining room full of aunts and uncles and my grandmother, "What about grandfather? Tell me about my grandfather," and being greeted by complete silence. My dad was 15 and was the one sent to identify his father's body which had been so horribly disfigured he made the identification by a mole on his ankle.
And it was only recently that he told me why he joined the Army and left his home town for good. He had been captain of the Lake Andes High School football team the first Indian in 25 years Snowball King and a straight A student. Then, he said, suddenly the white men in town, men like the Sheriff who had been good friends with his father, began to act like they were afraid of him. It culminated in the Sheriff pulling his gun without cause on my unarmed, teenage dad while my dad was walking down the street. My dad was given two choices, leave town immediately or go to jail. He joined the army and went to college and married a full blood and raised his children proud to be Indian far away from Lake Andes.
Many people look back to that time before the Civil Rights movement as a period of greater law and order in this country. Even my grandmother once fondly recalled that time as one, "When everyone got along." I asked my dad, "Did everyone really get along?" A part of me wanted to believe it preferring it to the constant threat of violence that hung over us in every generation. "She said that?" he shook his head and said dismissively, "Well, everyone got a long because everyone knew their place!"
In the Jim Crow era, African American families clung to their Green Books which told them where it was safe to stay when traveling and which town to avoid after sundown. No such book existed for Native Americans in the South. One of my dad’s summer jobs was as a truck driver and one of his deliveries took him to the Deep South. At a gas station he was confronted with a choice of restrooms, one for White and one for Colored. My dad's hair is black, but due to his mixed-ancestry, his skin is white and baffled, he asked the white owner which he should use. The old white man looked at him and irritated, waved him off, "White, of course." "But, I'm not white," my dad insisted. And with that the old man threw up his hands and stormed off.
When my dad joined the Army he scored very high on an IQ test and was placed in an elite intelligence unit. Everyone else was older than him and many were Ivy League graduates. They mentored him and gave him books to read and encouraged him go on to college. By the time I knew him, the teenager driven out of his hometown by an armed adult had long ago been replaced by a confident adult, steady and loving father and husband, but there were clues.
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posted July 17, 2013 6:00 am est