The Amazing Bicentennial Girl




This piece appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal: Catharsis, No.25 

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The summer of 1976, I was a seven-year-old girl with two long braids, a backward baseball cap, and a cockamamie plan. I would memorize the entire list of US presidents. Starting with honest George and ending with our peanut-man Jimmy Carter, I would impress everyone by reciting them in chronological order. I practiced for weeks, enunciating the seventh name, Andrew Jackson, with special emphasis because my father said that a hundred years ago our family had been named after him. “All the oldest families on our reservation were given presidents’ names by the government,” he said.

I sat on a lawn chair out back, flipped through the pages of my picture book, and stared at Old Hickory when I came to him. I traced his bushy eyebrows and widow’s peak with sticky lemonade fingers. Just the sight of the old guy made me feel important. It was the Bicentennial, the Vietnam War had ended, and the summer hummed with the chatter of special events.     

A new dollar coin would soon hit the streets with Susan B. Anthony on its face. Our brownie troop rode on a flatbed truck in the Fourth of July parade displaying a banner that read, “Two Hundred Years of American History!” Dodger Stadium erupted into a spontaneous rendition of God Bless America after Cubs center fielder Rick Monday stopped a hippie and his kid from burning the flag on live television.

After growing bored with my memorization, I wandered inside and found Dad on the couch watching the game. The Dodgers were at bat when Vin Scully, the broadcaster, announced the intruders. “Wait a minute,” Scully said, “there’s an animal on the field.” He said it so calmly, I thought he was hallucinating. But then he added, “There are two,” and I realized he was using the word “animal” to refer to the men.

We watched as the protesters jumped the fence near third base and ran into the outfield. The camera panned in on the pair as they unfurled and poured kerosene on an American flag, then knelt before it, and fumbled with matches. They looked related, like a father and a son. Dad leaned forward in concentration. I bounced up and down beside him. We waited for the tongues of fire, for the flag to turn into a scorched black spot.

Suddenly, from the right-hand corner of our TV screen, Monday zipped in to snatch Old Glory away before they could burn it. The crowd leapt to their feet and cheered as the left-field message board flashed the words, “Rick Monday you made a great play!” Security officers arrived on the field. Tommy Lasorda yelled at the two men, spit flying in the older man’s face as he and his son got arrested.

After the excitement died down, Dad went into the kitchen for a beer and Mom put down her sewing. I was left staring at the TV, too embarrassed to ask if anyone else noticed that the man and his son looked like our family.

“Don’t forget your brother fought in Vietnam,” Mom called to Dad in the kitchen.

“I didn’t say nothing,” he replied.

I spent the last free month of that summer sitting outside with my US presidents book, cracking sunflower seeds until my lips burned from too much salt. My dad said my grandpa had been tribal president, my great-grandpa before him. He said we came from a long line of civic leaders, leading back to granny Ethel’s great-aunt — but this didn’t mean much to me. None of them were famous. None of my teachers talked about them in school. 

On the other hand, here was Andrew Jackson, recognizable. He gave me something to brag about in the classroom. I thought I finally understood why the dirt road leading to my grandma’s old house, my uncles’ houses, and our family land on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation had a sign that read Jackson Road, and I planned to make the most of it in school. I couldn’t wait for second grade to start. I planned to ask my friends if their family was named after a famous president.

All that summer my big sisters called me Chaka, after the Neanderthal from Land of the Lost. I was only seven, but my boyish gait and deep voice made it seem like I was channeling the spirit of a middle-aged man. I was desperate for them to stop before any of my new classmates caught on, so I fawned over my oldest sister Joan hoping she might go soft. I said her new feathered haircut and her red softball uniform with blue stripes and white socks made her look like a brown-skinned Wonder Woman. I complimented the way she stretched her softball mitt out for a line drive, then fired from third to first for a double play — her speed reminded me of how Wonder Woman used her gold bracelets to deflect bullets in battle.

Our family had finally turned the corner on Southwestern poor. We were still Indians, but we were the good kind of Indians, the kind you would not mind having as your neighbors. We lived in a clean house in a new town. We kept our yard tidy. My dad got bumped up to foreman and bought a long yellow Firebird that we drove down the hill for Chinese food. We went to church. On the Fourth of July, my mother dressed us in matching outfits and took our picture with her new camera. My older sisters, Joan and Lori, wore plaid pantsuits. They towered over me and my little sister, Monica, in our bumblebee sundresses. We stood in front of the apple tree in the backyard and flashed the peace sign for prosperity.

On the day we moved from the reservation to northern New Mexico, a mob of cousins milled around the moving truck. Mom filled every square inch of our car, a Chevy Nova, with blankets, sheets, towels, pillows, and clothing. The windows were blocked with garbage bags. Our cat, Inky, had to ride in the Chevy too, which meant that she would be separated from us, pulled behind the moving truck. We kissed Inky goodbye and shoved her into the maze of bags.

Dad and his brother Johnny had just finished loading the U-Haul with our Big Wheels, bikes, beds, the brown flower couch, a black-and-white TV, our kitchen table and chairs with the chrome pipe legs and vinyl seats that stuck to the back of my thighs on hot summer days. Uncle Johnny handed Dad the last piece of furniture, one of those metal TV stands. Dad jumped on the truck’s bumper, stretched his arms up high, and shoved the stand on top of a large brown box. He jumped down and pulled the rolling door shut. He and Johnny locked arms.

“Thanks, bro.”

Uncle Johnny shrugged. “No problem.”

“You guys get in the truck,” Dad said. Then he reached in his front jeans pocket, pulled out a ball of crumpled bills and handed it to Johnny. “Take Anita and Tonia out to dinner.”

Uncle Johnny got stiff. “Why you gotta tell me what to do with it? You think I’m gonna waste it on booze?”

But Dad knew how to handle his little brother. “Shut up,” he grinned. “It’s my day, not yours.” He punched Johnny’s arm and they laughed, then Dad hitched the Nova to the bumper of the U-Haul and climbed into the cab.

As we pulled away from our old house in Yuma, the dogs shot out from their resting place under our older cousin’s jalopy. They barked and chased us down the road. I looked out the side window as I perched on Mom’s lap, until the dust settled, we hit pavement, and I couldn’t see them anymore.

Dad lectured us as we drove — about ambition, about not being afraid to get out in the world and try. “You just gotta do your best,” he said. “Get good grades in school. Lots of tribes got chopped in half when the US and Mexican border was created. There’s a whole southern band of Yumans down there. Imagine if you were in Algodones trying to get by.”

Mom sniffled and blew her nose. 

Dad was quiet until we passed through Phoenix and started climbing toward the Kachina Mountains and Flagstaff. “We ain’t complaining about having to move away from Yuma for this job. Right? We’re going to do our work and our homework and don’t complain.”

Mom had put blankets on the floor of the truck where my little sister Monica and I were supposed to lie or sit or squat as we traveled north to our new town in northern New Mexico. But we were worried about the Nova on the hitch behind the truck and couldn’t sit still.

We ran to check on Inky when Dad pulled into a gas station, but she hid. We couldn’t see her in the Nova at all. We worried that she had died and begged Mom to open the doors so we could find her. Mom wrinkled her nose and said she better not be dead because that would smell bad. In Kayenta, Arizona, Mom finally agreed to unlock the door. Joan and Lori hogged the doorway and stuck their heads inside calling for her, “Inky? Come out, Inky!” Then Joan screamed, “Inky scratched me!” and Inky slithered right through her legs. She darted past the gas pumps and around the dumpster at the side of the mechanic’s garage. Dad had his hand on the hose, the nozzle in the side of the truck. He looked at us and shook his head. He was mad. “Why’d you open the door? Stupids.”

We never saw Inky again. She disappeared down an alley and Dad gave up looking for her. Monica sobbed herself to sleep during the last hours of the trip, but Dad stayed ruthless and calm. Even then, I knew that the cat was not all that we had lost that day. I had also lost a sense of perspective, some sense of both past and future. If we had stayed in Yuma, the pride I felt in our presidential surname would have died out faster. With family around, somebody would have explained its origins to me. Someone would have explained that in 1894, on the day our reservation was allotted, fraud had already tarnished the treaty signing. The white Indian Commissioner rounded up as many local Natives as he could and told them: “If any of you refuse to obey the orders [to sign], the police will see to it that you do.” Tribal members who weren’t present had their signatures forged with newly assigned names.

Andrew Jackson is known as the “Indian Killer,” for ordering his soldiers to murder Native women and children. Even though he billed himself as a populist, who fought to advance the rights of common men against a corrupt elite, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which led to the forced relocation of 60,000 Native Americans and ended, of course, in the Trail of Tears. Born into poverty, he became wealthy, in part, by mining lead at a mine in Kentucky. His wealth grew with the purchase of a cotton plantation east of Nashville. Over time, he came to own over a hundred enslaved men, women, and children, who worked on his property.

It was April when we arrived in Farmington for Dad’s new job on the Navajo
Reservation. Mom enrolled Joan and Lori in a private Catholic school right away, but she refused to enroll me. “She’s way ahead of her classmates,” Mom said, convincing Dad we’d save money if we waited until the following year. 

 

Joan and Lori made fun of me. “Debbie’s an elementary school drop-out!” But after the first couple of days, their smiles were gone. They hated Catholic school in Farmington. They feigned fevers in an effort to skip, and cried when they came home in the afternoon.

Lori said, “The nuns are mean.”

Joan said, “The kids are brats.”

Mom dragged me and Monica to mass every morning so she could watch Joan and Lori file in with their classes. She studied the other girls, trying to pick out the ones who were giving ours trouble. Joan and Lori stared at me with sad eyes but there was nothing I could do. A priest named Father Ben said mass. He was a fun Franciscan who played the guitar and took the eighth graders to the Anasazi Ruins at Chaco Canyon every year.

“Too bad he doesn’t teach,” Dad said.

One day Mom started crying while we were waiting for the students to come in to the church. I tried to hug her, but she wasn’t in a cuddly mood. She stood and sat on cue, but she kept blowing her nose and tears kept streaming down her face. I thought I knew why she was crying. In Farmington, we were nobody. There was no running into one of Mom’s 14 siblings at Del Sol Grocery. There were no all-Indian baseball tournaments, and even if there had been, Dad didn’t have his six brothers and five cousins to enter an all-Jackson team. There were no dinner invites from Dad’s older sisters. No mulberry trees to climb, no frogs to catch, no septic tanks to serve as base during tag with the cousins. I even missed the old, funny-smelling ladies on the res who raised their eyebrows and said they knew exactly who my family was when I told them my last name.

¤

Watching Lori and Joan adjust to parochial school was tough, and that summer only heightened my anxiety. I felt nostalgia for Yuma, and worried about my own upcoming semester. One day, when Mom went to run errands, and my sisters were outside playing freeze tag, I snuck in the back door to the kitchen and overheard Dad listening to his new record, Richard Pryor’s Bicentennial Nigger.

The recording was clearly a black minister: “We are gathered here today, to celebrate this year of bicentenniality, in the hope of freedom and dignity. We are celebrating two hundred years of white folk kicking ass!” The audience hooted and laughed. “We offer this prayer, and the prayer is: how long will this bullshit go on?”

I slumped down against the wall and listened to Dad chuckling on the couch. It wasn’t the first time I had heard about black slaves. I was an advanced reader and had recently finished a book about Harriet Tubman. Even so, I didn’t know what black history had to do with us.

Throughout my earliest childhood there were hints that our political relationship with the United States was complicated. Dad loved boxing, and I had heard him praise Muhammad Ali for being anti-establishment. There was the look he gave me when I came home from the library with the biographies of patriotic men like Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale. There was the expression on his face when Rick Monday ripped the American flag away from the two protesters at Dodger Stadium.

My mouth felt dry as I listened to Dad laughing. In a second skit, Richard Pryor played a 200-year-old slave with “white stars and stripes on his forehead” and a “lovely white folk expression.” He was laughing about death, poverty, and the loss of family as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” played quietly in the background. After talking about the disappearance of his wife and kids he said, “I don’t even know where my old mama is now hyuck, hycuck. She up yonder in that big white folks in the sky hyuck, hyuck,” and I felt a knot in my throat thinking about Grandma Esther.

I stared at my reflection in the chrome legs of our kitchen chairs, suddenly realizing that my family stood outside the standard version of patriotism. There were two Americas, and if God guided one, he must have been against the other. I was intuiting who I was, and I was discovering that it wasn’t good. History takes time to come into focus for a Native child, and the lesson I learned that day lacked language.

It existed only as a vague feeling that no matter how hard I tried I would never be able to cheer whole-heartedly for the home team. For me, being patriotic meant willing the death of my ancestors. It meant hoping that the settler family on the Oregon Trail encountered no obstacles, human or otherwise. It meant hoping that this pioneering family found their happily ever after, no matter the destruction wrought in their wake. My education, over the course of my childhood, came together like a puzzle, painfully slow, one edifying piece at a time.

I wish someone had told me that Sky City in Acoma Pueblo had been continuously lived in for 900 years, making America’s 200th birthday an omission and a snub. I wish I had heard that the Dodger Stadium duo were Native Americans protesting the lack of health care in Indian Country. I wish Dad had told me that Vin Scully’s slur was evidence of a culture that undervalued the animal world, while we came from one that valorized it. If only I had known sooner that I could have reclaimed the pejorative by simply taking pride in this fact.

Instead I have to remember myself as a buck-toothed kid who worked all summer trying to memorize the list of American presidents. As if being aware of my displacement was not pain enough, I must live with the insult of how vague that awareness was, and how stupidly it allowed me to behave. My childhood self is such an embarrassing caricature I may as well laugh: a little Indian girl who spent all of her bicentennial quarters playing an arcade cowboy on Boot Hill, trying her hardest to kill her Indian sisters.

   

The day after this realization, I wanted to play freeze tag with Joan and Lori, but they had made friends with two girls down the street and didn’t want me around. I sat in front of the big box fan, reciting the list of presidents into its whirr to hear the distorted sound of my own deep voice: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan.

When they came in for lunch, Joan said I was stupid to be studying and Lori said I should appreciate the summer, a time when I was free to be me, veg out in front of the television, and use sentences like “you ain’t the boss of me” and “I’m gonna get me something to eat” without anyone telling me otherwise.

Joan laughed so hard at Lori’s comment that she choked on her Kool-Aid. But then she got serious. “Catholic school is rough,” she said.

I chewed on my nails all afternoon. When Dad got home, I waited until the sound of the lawn mower cut off, then I went outside to talk to him. Rather than tell him how homesick I was for Yuma, I told him I was worried that I had gotten behind. I’d lost days of school, and Sacred Heart sounded scary.

I said, “Joan and Lori say the nuns are really strict, and Catholic kids have bionic brains. What if I can’t catch up?”

“Bionic brains?” He laughed. “Is that what your sisters are telling you?”

I shrugged.

He shook his head. “Everyone has a few bumps when they start something new. That’s just normal.”

“Did you go to school with nuns?”

“Yeah, but your school won’t be like mine.”

“Why not?”

“Things were different back then.”

“Like how?”

“When I got in trouble Sister used to rap my knuckles real hard, but one day she gave me the ruler and said from then on, whenever I got in trouble, she was going to hold out her hand and I was going to hit her instead.”

“What do you mean?”

He stared past me with vacant eyes. “She put out her hand. She told me to swat her palm with the ruler as hard as I could for my punishment.”

“Why?”

He looked at me as if he suddenly remembered that I was there. He shrugged. “I don’t know, but I could hear her sucking in her breath when I hit her.”

We sat and stared at a line of ants making their way across the patio.

“It must’ve hurt,” he said, before heading to the garage.

I called after him. “Why do we have to go to Sacred Heart instead of public schools?”

“Because the public schools in this town are crappy,” he said. “Now get inside for dinner.”

¤

All summer long Dad tried to fix the homesick feeling in the house by keeping us busy. He bought us softball gloves and record albums. He took us to restaurants, the roller rink, and movies. But for all his encouragement to stay positive, I suspected he was homesick, too.

I was suspicious because he was drinking alone, staying up late with too little sleep, trying to recreate the reservation in small but obvious ways. He drank his beer in tall singles wrapped in paper bags like his brother Johnny did back home. He looked for beat-up dives with questionable-looking characters to eat Sunday breakfast. Mom liked going to the fancy side of town, but Dad liked the rough side and that’s where he wanted to go to celebrate the last free weekend of summer.

We grabbed a corner booth. Dad ordered stuffed sopapillas all around, but Mom wrinkled her nose and said she wanted enchiladas. We gabbed about Mom’s bowling league and the skates Joan wanted to buy. The food was rich and filling, and when we left the restaurant, I felt happy. But as we were walking to the car we saw a Navajo couple arguing in the parking lot.

“They’re drunk,” Dad said, watching with calm interest.

I climbed in the back seat with my sisters.

Dad started the motor. He revved the engine, but he didn’t pull away. Mom said we should leave. “Let’s go,” she told Dad, but he sat there with his hand on the gearshift, watching what was happening.

The couple went from yelling to shoving each other. Mom tried to push my head down on the seat, but I fought her to see. The man socked the woman hard in the jaw and she fell, her hair spreading in the air like a Chinese fan.

“I can’t watch,” Mom said, covering her face.

The guy ran to the driver’s door and got in his truck. He revved the motor and started backing out. The lady was lying in between the tires, and it seemed the truck would go around her, but at the last minute she lifted her head and looked toward the truck. Then she hugged her arms to her body and rolled right into the path of the oncoming wheels. The two left tires bumped right over her chest.

The Indian guy sped out of the parking lot and disappeared down the street as the lady lay wounded on the dirt and gravel drive. Dad opened his door but decided against it when the manager of the restaurant came running out. Sirens started up in the distance. He said, “Someone called the cops,” and we rolled slowly out of the parking lot.

When the manager came out I looked away and couldn’t look back. Monica couldn’t look either, but Joan and Lori had their faces pressed to the window. “She’s still moving,” Joan said, her voice sounding scratchy.

Dad said, “The tires would have gone around her if she hadn’t rolled.”      

That night in bed I heard my older sisters whispering. Lori said, “That man looked like Dad.”

Joan was outraged. “No, he did not look like Dad,” she said. “He looked like Uncle Johnny. Dad’s a welder!”

She said the word welder as if it meant doctor.

They fell asleep, but I felt afraid of the tree outside, the way its long branches cast shadows across the wallpaper like monstrous arms.

We’d seen a terrible thing. We had moved to a foreign town, and we were completely alone. The cocoon of safety provided by our extended family had broken open and I was raw and rubbing against a scary new world.

My stomach was queasy. I got out of bed and made my way down the hallway, following the dim glow of the TV. My parents were relaxing on the couch, watching The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

“I can’t sleep,” I said.

“Well, okay,” Mom told me. “But don’t complain when it’s time to get up tomorrow.”

I sat cross legged on the floor in front of them. Dad said that Cher was part Indian and I stared at her on the TV. She shimmied across the stage in a sequined dress, glamorous as any woman I’d ever seen. I looked hard, wondering if she wore thick makeup because Sonny sometimes socked her and she needed to cover the bruises.

I finally came out and asked, “Why did we have to move away from Yuma?”

Dad turned the volume down and then dragged me next to him and Mom on the couch. Mom asked if I saw what happened in the parking lot. I said yes, and she said that kind of violence mostly happened between family members.

Dad put his hand up to stop Mom from talking. He said he loved the reservation but had to be able to criticize it as well. “It would have held me back,” he said, “and you and your sisters, too.”

When Dad talked about the opportunities we had in this country, he always spoke about the Yuma Indians who lived south of the border and who were not recognized as US citizens. He asked me to imagine all the families trying to cross the border in the heat and sand, some of them dying for the chance to make a living in America when our family had made the cut by mere miles.

As Dad spoke, I thought of the state lines we passed coming to New Mexico. I thought of the times he drove us across the border to go to Algodones, Mexico. There were no marks in the earth to indicate we were crossing. There were only men in uniforms standing at their posts. I realized then that we didn’t cross the border; the border was built to cross and separate us.

By the time Dad was 28, he had seen both of his parents die. He was intimate with catastrophe, and knew that it was as central to life as the sun. One day in the future each of us would die, and our families would kiss our foreheads for the last time. The trouble, in his opinion, was not death, but the way some people never accepted it as a part of life. People thought they would live forever, they never questioned the rules of their existence, and they were willing to imprison themselves in taboos, traditions, tribal politics, religious rituals, superstitions, and totems to prolong the illusion of safety and deny that final breath. Dad said, “I want to live and die as an individual,” and he used that statement as his north star, his guiding principle, the point on the horizon he used to set his tack.

For me, all my life I’ve been edging toward home without fully arriving. I was raised between cultural and historical differences. I was taught to practice two types of religious ritual: earth-based and Catholic. I learned to juggle and balance two types of educational wisdom: one intuitive and myth-driven, the other rational and scientific. I was a citizen of an Indian tribe and America, two historically warring nations.

The result of my bicentennial summer was not to retreat, but to grow into an adult who stands against artificial boundaries and despises a divided land. Dad knew that building a life in mainstream America wouldn’t be easy, but when he spoke of my future he always spoke of its promise — he must have believed in the Declaration of Independence. The circumstances of America’s founding are not insignificant, and neither is the role of Native Americans in that story. The idea of the federal government, in which certain powers are given to a central government and all other powers are reserved for the states, was borrowed from the system of government used by the Iroquoian League of Nations. Rather than whitewashing history or throwing our government’s mistakes out the window, my Dad showed me that we must try to see our founding in all its complexities. America’s narrow form of patriotism did not fit my family, but that did not mean we were unworthy of belonging in this nation, even if that belonging came at a price, even if it was painful.

Just before the start of school, Dad drove us to the Four Corners Monument: the point where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. It sat in a majestic canyon on the Navajo reservation, and as we got out of the car I could see sandstone mesas descending and arching in the distance. A strong wind snapped a collection of flags on their poles. There was the red, white, and blue, and the Navajo Nation. There were the four state flags.

We climbed the steps leading to the center of the flag poles. As we drew close, a simple tomb-like plaque with a cross appeared. Each quarter of the plaque was labeled with one of the four intersecting states. Dad’s cowboy boots clicked on the pavement as he marched up on the plaque and straddled the north-flowing line, placing one foot in Arizona, and one in New Mexico. He looked over his shoulder at us and said, “See? I’m in two states at once.”

The possibilities became clear.

Joan — bigger, stronger, faster — was the first to react. “Me next!” She hopped the lines like a jump rope, calling each state by name. Monica ran around the plaque in a circle yelling state names as she went. Lori got down on all fours, placing her hands in Utah and Colorado, her knees in Arizona and New Mexico. Not to be outdone, Joan returned and did a backbend like one of the gymnasts at the Olympics.

When it was my turn, I walked up on the plaque. The sky seemed immense as I reclined directly on the lines and opened my arms in a cross. “I’m between the states,” I said.

I didn’t understand the size of the North American continent. I didn’t understand the size of the country. I had been in few states and even the scope of the Southwest region was beyond my comprehension. I imagined my own world — New Mexico, Yuma, the church — as inordinately large, the most important piece in the big puzzle of earth. Now I added Colorado and Utah and I felt even larger.

Dad came and stood over me. “Right over the crossroads,” he said, smiling.

¤

Deborah Taffa is an enrolled member of the Yuma Indian Nation. Her writing can be found on PBS, Salon, A Public Space, the Best American series, and in other publications. 

 

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