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Growing up in the Philippines I developed a negative attitude toward American Indians, more aptly called Native Americans. I blame the American media for this, particularly the Hollywood films that l watched. The cowboy and Indian movies depicted Native Americans as fearsome savages, enemies of the peace-loving pioneers who braved the prairies and Rockies in covered wagons. When Indians appeared on the horizon, yelping away, their bows and arrows and hatchets in hand, I cringed. When the pioneers shot the Indians one by one, I cheered, glad that the scalp- hungry enemies were being destroyed.
It was years later, after meeting Native Americans and seeing their bleak reservations, when I thought about their situation. I realized that the Hollywood movies were terribly incorrect. The victims were really the Native Americans, not the pioneers. Native Americans have been robbed of their land and sentenced to a slow genocide.
I first saw Native Americans in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while shopping for torquoise and silver jewelry in a tourist trap. I noticed that the Navajo vendors, though stockier in build, had brown skin, dark straight hair, and facial features like Filipinos. The Navajos had cast puzzled glances at me as if to ask: Why are you buying this junk?
On another occasion, Elsie Running deer, who managed a trading post, asked if I was Indian because I could get a discount for things I'd buy. When I told her I was Filipino, she gave me a discount anyway. And once the Native American lady minding the entrance to Monument Valley didn't charge me entry fee.
Perhaps it is this bond in physical appearance that fascinates me about Native Americans. Perhaps more, because their history and culture are rich like ours; and like ours, have been distorted by another group of people. They, like Filipinos and Filipino Americans, must look to their roots to find their true identity. Surrounded by Kentucky Fried Chicken and Big Macs, they have a great task ahead of them, just as we, saturated with Spanish and American influences, musts work to discover what is Filipino.
High up in Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado are hundreds of caves that shelter Indian cliff dwellings. The mud and stone ruins were built during the 13th century and were occupied by Native Americans for about a hundred years. Also present in Mesa Verde are subterranean pithouses, kivas (ceremonial rooms), stone masonry houses, and numerous artifacts which Indians built and used from 500-750 A.D.
When I first saw these ruins, I was moved, and had to adjust my mental concept of Native Americans. I realized that they lived in this land long before Christopher Columbus existence. They owned this land and roamed it. But unlike the Europeans who later settled here, Native Americans did not try to reshape the land according to their needs. They lived harmoniously with their environment, using yucca and other plants that grew in abundance for food, medicines, and clothing.
If necessary, they lived a nomadic life, adjusting to the seasons and the fruits of the earth.
Once I went with some Anglo friends to Needles, California, to go rafting down the Colorado River. There is an annual contest where participants use flotation devices to race down the river. While searching for the starting place, we mistakenly trespassed on an Indian reservation. It was around 8 a.m. but there were about half a dozen Indian men, already drunk. My companions became afraid because three Indians approached us. They were big and angry.
This is Indian land, one of them said. What are you doing here?
While one of my companions feebly explained that we were lost, another Indian looked at me and asked, Are you Indian?
I shook my head. No, I replied, Filipino.
He paused. You can stay, the others go.
This incident stuck in my mind perhaps because I felt racial tension most palpably. I recalled a newspaper article about the high suicide rate among young Indian males, and I understood their hatred towards a culture that is slowly destroying theirs. I could not really blame them.