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The Story to Tell

“I – don’t – speak – English – so – you – have – to – speak – very – slowly – to – me.”

Robert Howard, the young administrative assistant to Wendsler Nosie, the Tribal Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and a former vice chairman himself, is staring me very soberly in the face as he tells me this in English.

I’m wondering what I’m being confronted with here.

Then Howard laughs heartily.

White man on notice. Who exactly are you, and what particular set of preconceptual baggage do you bring with you this time?

We continue to talk in an increasingly friendly and receptive manner, but the pattern is established. With few exceptions, every new encounter begins with a demeanor like a wary squint. Who are you? Tell me about yourself. What’s your motivation? What do you expect to accomplish? Remarkable, really – given a legacy of genocidal abuse, dishonesty, and betrayal extensive enough to form a bill of particulars against Beelzebub and his hordes – is how quickly, often, a first level of trust is achieved. But Howard says something to us.

“It’s very common, you know – white people come to the reservation. They get what they need for their project. Then they’re gone. What has it done for the Apache?”

“It’s the reservation,” he said. “Different rules apply.”

The night before we visited Howard at the offices of the tribal government, we picked up an apparently Native newspaper in the gift shop of the Apache Gold Casino on Route 70, on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and twelve miles from the reservation’s main town of San Carlos – six miles from Globe, the nearest “white” city off the reservation. (Actually, the town of just over 7,000 is 32% Hispanic, with 4% Native American.) The Apache Moccasin is really an eight-page side venture of the Arizona Silver Belt, the longtime Globe newspaper, that publishes little more than press releases and reservation puffery about Santa visits and bazaars. It does, however, include strongly opinionated letters to the editor and regular guest editorials by a San Carlos Apache, though the young, white publisher/editor of the Moccasin seemed unfamiliar with the content of the letters and uncertain about the identity of his editorialist. He acknowledged he didn’t know much.

“It’s the reservation,” he said. “Different rules apply.”

On the reservation, talking with Howard, we show around the photo of the editorial writer that accompanied his latest piece – about negative stereotypes of Apaches among the local whites – while his name had been omitted. He is instantly recognized.

Sweat Lodge
Sweat Lodge

“That’s Dale Miles,” one of the office workers says. “He works down the street at the Department of Education.

In fact, Miles’s job is to arrange supplemental financial support for college-bound Apaches. As the tribe’s first official historian, Dale and Paul R. Machula produced the official History of the San Carlos Apache, with drawings by Dale’s artist brother Douglas.

At a local café operated by his niece (family relations are extended and closely kept – his sister Arlene, who is renovating another café down the street, soon arrives with friends) Dale explains why he sends his children to Globe High School rather than the reservation’s San Carlos High School. They need to be able to navigate the wider culture, he says, to be familiar with its ways and its prejudices. Otherwise the reservation becomes a ghetto. He also explains his belief in Christianity despite his strong feelings about the crimes committed against Apaches, and all Native Americans, by Europeans. Miles is Pentecostal, and, in fact, his older brother, David Miles, is the minister of the reservation’s American Indian Church, a Pentecostal congregation.

“The Europeans may have brought Christianity here,” he argues logically, “and sought to impose it, but it’s not their religion. It didn’t originate with them or in Europe. Its truth is independent of the people who carried it here and how they behaved.”

Across from the café is the Boys and Girls Club of San Carlos. Its director is D.J. Lott a Sioux from Montana. Lott has worked for a variety of non-profits and national organizations, including in Washington D.C. along with his wife, an Apache, who is the reason he is in San Carlos. Lott, young and intellectual, started the club with no budget. Over time, he has grown the funding to $600,000 a year. In a deep and wide ranging conversation, Lott talks about the “historical trauma,” the “soul wound” suffered by Native Americans that still needs to be healed.

Walking outside the Club a couple of days later, photographing the morning vendors who line the road, Julia is stopped by a passing pick-up truck.

“I hear you’re looking for me,” says the driver, who turns out to be Douglas Miles, Dale’s brother. Just last month the brothers were in Rhode Island, at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology to make a joint presentation: Dale’s The Apaches and the Borderlands Conflict, an account of Spanish colonization and the Mexican War of 1846-48 and their effect on Apache nomadic life, and Douglas’s Apachelypse Now, “a mixed media presentation that connects the universality of mainstream’s skateboard culture to today’s Indian youth as a way to see the reciprocal influences of pop culture and Native cultures.”

Later in the afternoon the three of us are at a basketball tournament at San Carlos High School, where Douglas’s daughter is playing for rival Globe. Julia walks the sideline taking pictures while Douglas and I sit in the stands getting to know each other. Douglas voices a by now familiar observation.

“White people come here – historians, journalists, academics, anthropologists. They get what they need. They show the same old poverty and dysfunction. Then they move on. We’re still here.”

We talk about what it means for Apaches to live in the modern world.

Non-natives, says Douglas, always see the Apache first, the victim, and if they want to heal Natives of their victimhood, then they want to place them back in the nineteenth century, to make anthropological objects of them. But the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would have happened anyway, regardless of the conquest. One doesn’t have to live in a wickiup to be an Apache.

To a degree, this is a division among Apaches, between Christians, to a significant extent, and traditionalists or “trads.” The latter reject the “white man’s religion” and seek to embrace the old spiritual practices. They do not want to integrate with the general culture.

Douglas rejects the opposition. They are just different ways to be Apache.

We have already talked about my Jewishness.

“If I don’t practice the old customs or follow religious law,” I offer, “if I don’t return to Israel, am I still Jewish?”

“Of course you are,” says Miles, “if that is how you understand and identify yourself.”

“Listen,” he says, “if I told you I could introduce you to a powerful medicine man who would offer you entrée into secrets and aspects of Apache life that few non-Natives get to see, would you take me up on it?”

“Of course,” I say.

“Well, I can offer you the same kind of access – but not to that version of Apache life. I can introduce you to how people are living life as Apaches in the contemporary world. You said you want to report on contemporary Native American life, right?”

“That’s right.”

“It’s all a question of what story you want to tell.”

The game over, Julia joins us, perspiring.

“Man,” says Miles, “I was watching you. You were in the zone.”

Later, I tell Julia about my conversation with Douglas, and about the common complaint about white people who come and take what they need, then move on.

“I don’t want that to be us,” Julia says.

“Neither do I,” I say.

AJA