So, it's the summer of 2002, late spring, actually, May, in the town of Del Rio, Texas, perhaps one of the last places on earth I thought I would be engaged in identity crisis. For the sake of accuracy, though, the crisis occurs externally, not internally, but truly, I should have been more careful. I am here with a friend, Donnie, who has a piece of land in this small border town. He is showing me around the state to facilitate some research. He asks me if I want to cross the border into Acuña, as it is right there. Though the temperature is over a hundred degrees, we walk across the bridge above the Rio Grandé, into Mexico. On the exact border, large metal pegs mar the full surface of the pavement, gleam in the heat, announce the change of country in full-size versions of that dotted line you see on maps.
Here, trucks pull up, from the United States' end of the bridge, and stop, right on the dotted line. Other trucks meet them on the Mexican side. The drivers descend from their cabs and carry large boxes from the cargo areas of the U.S. trucks to those of the Mexican trucks. The border guards sit disinterested, watch this transaction under the bright sun, so I take a cue from them, that this activity is nothing worth noting, and move on.
Acuña's commercial districts evidently consist almost exclusively of three things: souvenir shops, severely economical dentists, and pharmacies, where the picture windows are full of containers housing large quantities of discount prescription drugs, in the same manner candy is displayed in the windows of Chocolateers. Cipro is, by far, the most popular drug. It is mere months after the anthrax scare of 2001, and the national obsession with this antibiotic, as the cure-all for its fears of biological terrorism, has not yet waned. Donnie has obtained prescription drugs here before as, for most, a prescription is not needed at these places, and a man standing in one of the shop doors invites me to buy a prescription, which I can then take into the building to make my purchase. Donnie explains this is for controlled-substance prescriptions, which the border guards would need to see with official documentation. The man shows me his prescription pad.
This offer seems more than slightly illegal, but Donnie assures me, the border guards have no interest in examining these sorts of drugs all that closely--this is routine. I have no need for controlled substances at the moment, so I decline and we move on, past more competitive dentists, stores displaying, among other things, taxidermy armadillos and alligators, and lastly, we pass busses advertising reasonable rates to cross the span to the United States. While it was an unpleasantly hot walk across, I see little justification for a bus to make the trip, and again, Donnie clarifies that sometimes it is less of a hassle for Mexicans to cross the border, if they use the bus instead of walking the bridge.
We leave Mexico a few minutes later, on the bridge's northbound sidewalk, again stepping on the hot metal pegs, delineating one place from another. Below us, the Rio Grandé seems more like the Rio Averagé, a muddy stream surrounded by dense growth of cane, and above the sidewalk overlooking the river, heavy-gauge-steel mesh curves inward on sturdy beams nearly encircling us overhead. This architectural feature is designed to dissuade jumpers from making the five-story leap into the river or thick brush below. Donnie mentions that people have made the attempt and that random surveillance cameras are mounted in the cane--all of this, to keep people from entering the United States in inappropriate fashion. As we continue, young men all around us are engaged in last ditch efforts to catch a ride into the country, attempting to avoid interrogation, holding their thumbs out to all vehicles, even within sight of the immigration office.
Walking past them, I make eye-contact with one of the young men and nod, but I hold no interest for him, in my current state of carlessness. We arrive at the office and are both relieved that it is air-conditioned. Donnie shows his license to the officer, who waves him on, and I reach into my pocket, pull out my wallet, and wonder how many minutes it will take for Donnie's truck-cab to cool down.
Opening the fold, I am momentarily confused by the version of my face staring back at me from the plastic card in the easiest access slot. I am almost ten years younger, wearing enormous late-eighties glasses, my hair is long, wavy, and pulled back, and behind me, the lush foliage of a reservation road fills the rest of the image. It is my tribal identification card, documenting my name, birth date, clan, tribe, reservation address, blood quantum, and the signature of the man on the reservation who officiates on such matters, next to my own signature. Mine is a little more complicated than some, but not unfathomably so. I am a member of the Onondaga Nation, but the card was issued by the Tuscarora Nation, which involves its own little hierarchical messes, but those generally concern inter-tribal animosities and have nothing to do with issues anyone from beyond tribal borders would even understand, much less engage. The back of the card lists several agreements with the United States, asserting the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee, the league of six nations to which both the Onondaga and Tuscarora nations belong, known in the United States as "The Iroquois."
The card, itself, is not confusing to me, of course, but it usually rests in my wallet behind a document I tend to need much more frequently: my driver's license. My license is nowhere to be found within the wallet, and then I suddenly can see the card in my mind, can picture its exact location, and thus can confirm it is not on my body. I had flown into Lubbock the day before, and though I hate flying, I realize it is a necessary annoyance of what I do professionally, so I accept it and try to make the situation as uneventful as possible.
Since September of 2001, flying has changed, and while I most definitely do not mind greater security, I have had to remove my shoes several times in airports, have my bags rifled through, as well, but the most consistent change has been nearly relentless requests for my identification, from airport personnel. To make things easier on myself and on those asking, I have gotten a "flight wallet", the size of an airline ticket, and in this, I keep my boarding pass, frequent flyer card, and, yes, while I am traveling, my driver's license. The flight wallet, at the moment I approach the immigration officer, sits approximately a hundred yards away, in Donnie's truck, across the road, but more importantly, across the border.
"Identification?" the officer asks, and I hand him my Native American Identification Card. He looks at it, tosses it down, and looks at me, smirking. "Now," he says, and before he can go on, he notices Donnie, paying attention to this interaction, standing on the far side of the turnstile and asks what he wants.
"Just waiting," is Donnie's reply--perhaps not the most useful one for me, at the moment, but we go with what we have.
"You can wait outside," the officer says, and Donnie looks at me. Being in no position to convey much information, I shrug my shoulders and watch him leave the air-conditioned building. The officer turns back to me, lifts the card again, and apparently engages the scenario he had foreseen a couple of minutes before. "Now," he repeats, snapping the card on his desk this time, perhaps for emphasis, as if he had gotten an Ace in a game of Solitaire, "do you have any real ID?"
I am, what you might call, ethnically ambiguous in appearance. Over the years, the odd looks, vague frowns, and unasked questions have become the routine. It has been kind of interesting, existing as a walking, breathing, Rorschach test for others' perceptions and stereotype templates. The unfortunate part of this is generally I am mistaken for a member of an ethnic group deemed undesirable by the person making observations about where I lie on the color chart.
I have been mistaken for Italian, Armenian, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian, Russian, Polish, German, Portuguese, and Jewish, but I am most often wrongly assumed to be Latino. The first time it happened was in a men's room at a concert, when a drunken patron at the next urinal insisted I was a member of Los Lobos, the band whose set had finished about a half hour before. I insisted I was not, as you can imagine, but he was convinced, and told me not to worry, that he was cool, that my secret was safe with him. That confusion was amusing the first time, under those circumstances, as I have only infrequently been mistaken for a urinating rock star. The less glamorous mistake with my ethnicity happens nearly every time I am in the Southwest. This stands to reason, as Mexicans are Indians across the border, in essence, and we are the same in that we had very different, unique cultures before colonialism came along and divided us up with those stainless steel rivets in the bridge.
I was born and raised on a reservation in western New York State, a small place, home to fewer than two thousand people. Many of those people claim full-blood status, though some are blonde, some have blue eyes, and some have complexions more fair than those babies have, you know the ones, those babies who star in detergent commercials. My complexion is slightly dark, and deepens easily in the summer, so that by the end of June, even with minimal exposure, I usually sport what used to be called, "A Savage Tan." My eyes are dark brown, as well, and my hair appears to be black, most of the year, but by late summer, dark red highlights have burned into it. My body also reveals other tell-tale signs that I could never claim full-blood status. I have genetic qualities that allow me to grow a beard and a mustache, and I have chosen to cultivate those traits.
This was not always the case. My hair was long a fair amount of my childhood and through adolescence--though not the long, straight, Lakota hair all Indians are supposed to have. It seems many eastern Indians have a rougher textured hair, and mine falls into this category. No matter how much I might brush my hair out every morning, invariably, I looked less like any Indians in Edward Curtis photographs and more like Gerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, or Gilda Radner, playing Rosanne Rosannadanna, on early Saturday Night Live episodes (yes, they do look like one another, and yes, I looked like their illegitimate love child). My brothers, being brothers, insisted on reminding me of this resemblance, every single day, in efforts to encourage a trip to the barber for me. They even offered to drive and pay for the haircut. You can imagine, it was not pretty.
I resisted, for years, though. On the reservation, as in many other places, hair is a political statement. I learned this reality early. One of my brothers, Lee, the only one, incidentally, who did not encourage me in a trip to the barber, began growing his hair long in the late 1960s, before he burned his draft card, but after our oldest brother had been shipped out to Vietnam. Lee was suspended from high-school a number of times for having his hair too long, until one time my mother grew tired of his forced removals, took him to school, herself, grabbed an idle white kid in the hallway whose hair was longer than my brother's, and dragged them both into the office, to confront the principal with this discrepancy. My brother was reinstated, but one of his instructors insisted he had missed too much time in his suspensions to graduate, so he went to summer school, but he did it in long hair, and graduated in August.
He is not the first member of my family to have an educational institution intervene in his hair. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Dawes Act was in full swing, and my grandfather's parents were persuaded by government agents, to allow their son the great privilege of attending one of the Indian Boarding schools, that he would have a much better chance of surviving in the world if he could learn a trade in the broader culture at large. He learned to play western instruments, the piccolo, I believe, and eventually remembered nothing about water drums, but was well versed in snare and bass. Before his musical transformation, however, the school administrators had introduced other changes to him.
A few years after I had begun teaching in a college, I received, in an inter-office mailer one day, a few pages that had been photocopied from a book on the Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a note from the acquisitions librarian, wondering if the young man in the photo on one of the pages was any connection to me. I flipped through the sheets quickly, and there, on the third page, my grandfather looked out onto the future, a twelve year old in some sort of militaristic uniform, his hair: short, clipped, blunt. The only other photo I had seen of his youth had been taken when he was five or so, and his hair streamed wavy and thick from his head, past his shoulders--seven years before the Industrial School asserted itself into his life. My own hair at the time I examined these pages, was growing out of its "Job Interview Cut"
Through college, I had kept my hair in various stages of long, but it always looked wild, like some cross pollination between Howard Stern and Paul Stanley, from the rock group, KISS. In graduate school, I got rid of it all and kept a reasonably short style through that period, until I graduated, and got past my first set of job interviews. As I began teaching at the college a few miles from the reservation where I grew up, my hair was still fairly short, appropriate for the era, the early 1990s, but as soon as I signed the contract, I let it grow back out, and in 1998, my braid was about a foot and a half long, when I decided to get rid of it.
I had been involved in the Indian Academic community for a number of years by that point. The more I looked around, the politics of hair seemed to have grown into some absurd hierarchy, people trying to out-Indian one another with all sorts of visual landmarks, secretly eyeing up the braids of others, comparing, calculating whose was longer, thicker, more impressive, who had more ribbon shirts, more turquoise, accumulating identity in acquisition. There seemed to be some unspoken club, and the membership card--our approximate resemblance to those Edward Curtis photographs, as if that somehow defined our experience as indigenous people.
At a group "Native American Poetry Reading," (a great selling label, that), sometime in 1999, I read with three other Indian writers, and at the conclusion, one of them leaned over and whispered to me that I was the only one who looked like I should be up on the stage. Though I was the only one that night who had grown up on a reservation, that was certainly not represented in my appearance. In response to my puzzled look, she clarified, "Well, you know, that braid and all. Look at me, I'm blonde, for Christ's sake."
"I have a goatee," I pointed out.
"So," she said, which was not really a reply, per se. She seemed to want so badly to not be blonde that night. In some unclear part of her thoughts on herself, blonde hair apparently negated her identity for her, but my goatee was all right as long as I had a dark braid.
Other, strangely resonant, events occurred in the few months following that, and I finally decided that, while I could not stop the perpetuation of this stereotype, I did not have to be a contributing member. Tying off both ends of my braid, I cut it off in 1999, reduced my hair to a flat top and grew my mustache to join the goatee at the same time. The braid is in my top right desk drawer, where I keep it to remind me of where I have been.
My brother has kept his long hair forever, was married in a ribbon shirt, and his wardrobe contains more AIM shirts than anything else, except perhaps for Grateful Dead shirts, and for him, this is a way of life. He does not care if you're aware of Leonard Peltier; he is, and continues to be, and that is what is important to him. He has never attended one conference, but he has read volumes on our roles in history and in the current world, when he is not working twelve-hour shifts at a radiator factory
Here, at the border, I am suddenly in Los Lobos land, again, and my tribal identification is not good enough. National Identification papers, it seems, are good enough documentation for the United States, from every other nation except those housed within its borders. Haudenosaunee law stipulates we are not citizens of the United States, regardless of any federal laws on Indian citizenship. I am still not sure what the full dynamics are, here. Perhaps it is not that our ID cards are not legitimate enough, but instead that, braidless and hairy, I am not legitimate enough for my ID. This officer, I see, stares at me, is certain my name is Pedro, Hector, Jesus, and as a result of this perception, he wears his Illegal Alien Polarized Sunglasses. Regardless of what might or might not be in my pocket, he has decided it is all right to treat me with disdain, because I have been forward enough to attempt crossing borders without swimming my way in, and am merely getting what I deserve.
The accumulated artifacts stowed in my wallet are as follows: laundry carbons for shirts being cleaned while I am away, a frequent shopper card for the local music store, credit cards, a half-used phone card, phone numbers of people from home, even my prom picture, where I am sixty pounds lighter, clean shaven, and my hair is cropped short.
My faculty ID card looks promising. It is contemporary and formal, professionally laminated, and even has a bar-code on it, and you know, all bar-coded ID cards are, at their least, impressive. They indicate that I am catalogued, somewhere. I hand this over and the officer looks at it. He rapid-fires questions at me. Suddenly, I am taking a pop quiz on the academic calendar where I teach--when were finals, when was graduation, when does the school year begin, how many courses do I teach, and then it comes: what could possibly interest a college professor from New York, in Acuña, Mexico? This question is so odd, so full of his emptiness that no answer I can give, short of "cheap dentistry," "stuffed armadillos," or "controlled substances," will be satisfactory. Back to the wallet.
My driving license convictions card surfaces next. This has my New York State License number on it, and a spotless driving record, I might add, the entire convictions section--blank. The officer rejects this offer as well, observing it has no photograph. I suggest he can match the names from this to my other documents, and he merely raises his right eyebrow in a knowing way. It is apparently a slow day at immigration, so there is no pressure of a line behind me encouraging him to be more accommodating.
Finally, I remember that the workers at the gym where I work out insist on picture ID, in addition to their own issued membership card, every time I enter. Presumably, this regulation has been instated to prevent other, less-committed, fitness enthusiasts from sneaking in to use the facilities pseudonymously. We solved the dual ID show by photocopying my license and taping it to the gym card. I rifle back through the less-convincing documents in my wallet and find the card, with my shoddily photocopied license taped to it, and I am in luck; the numbers are visible and more importantly, they match the numbers on my convictions record. I feel like a lotto winner, as we compare numbers, the officer and I, and he is satisfied enough to run them through his international-criminal-driver's-license-database and see, indeed, that I do live in western New York, or at least that someone who looks remarkably like me does. He gathers my variety pack of ID cards, hands them to me, and tells me, reluctantly, that I am free to go.
My braid is seventeen hundred miles from where I am, as I leave the air-conditioned building and head out into the west Texas sun, and the fact that I can now slide my license back in my wallet, and become someone I am not--a citizen of New York State, and thus, a citizen of the United States of America, as well--is no great comfort.
© 2002 Eric Gansworth
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