May 14, 2003
I lagged behind my husband, looking at articles in the store aisle while he hurried to find what we had come for. As I approached him, a saleswoman wove past him without a glance and strode straight toward me. “Would you like to sign up for our optimum card today?” she asked smiling.
I knew what I had just seen, but one can’t always be certain.
“Sure,” I answered, having decided to play with her, “I’ll look at it.” I quickly filled out the application, omitting my husband’s name. When the woman had given me my card and moved on, I glanced around for my husband. I saw him at the end of the next aisle and I approached him, stopping with some distance in between us. Without a word, we knew what was on each other’s minds. He shook his head, letting me know he wasn’t asked. I indicated to him I was going to stay separated, and we’d see what she would do.
He moved up and down the aisles, passing her on several occasions. She never looked at him. I watched as she greeted all other customers with a big smile and welcome, quickly informing them of the cards benefits and helping them find a place to sit while they filled it out. At one point as I wandered the store, she again greeted me warmly and asked if I was finding everything I needed. She never said a word to my husband, the only tribal member in the store.
After twenty minutes, I asked him if he was ready to go. “Just one more time,” he said, and went off down the aisle again to stand directly behind her. She failed the test and ignored him completely. He returned. “If we didn’t need this right now, I wouldn’t buy it,” he said, as he handed our item to me along with the cash for the purchase. “I’m going outside.”
I went to the person in charge and explained “if my husband isn’t good enough for your card, than neither am I.” The man answered, “But I’ve given the card to several Natives today. We don’t mind Natives.” “Maybe you don’t,” I responded, but she does.” I returned the card. We wouldn’t be shopping there again.
My husband and I rarely cry “racism”. Most of the time we give people the benefit of the doubt. A person can be having a bad day for any number of reasons and that may be the root of a moment’s rudeness. And many times an initial standoffishness toward tribal members has more to do with federal Indian policy and the untenable and divisive situations it has created in many communities than anything else. One might equate it to the feelings existing in sibling rivalry, with father government favoring one son over another. Usually that standoffishness dissolves once the ice is broken though, and is not an issue of hatred based on race.
I would like to take this time to remind those of us frustrated by federal and tribal government policies to keep in mind that it is inequitable, unconstitutional and destructive law that we are fighting, not tribal members themselves. Although I know many in our organization are already aware of this, please keep in mind as you greet and meet your tribal neighbors that you have no idea what their individual politics are, and in no way should you ever assume they are connected to or supporting the inequities in federal Indian policy. To be sure, many do not support it, and on many North American reservations the greater percentage of members have moved away rather than deal with tribal government.
But there is also a loftier character trait in which a person is able to be kind-hearted even toward political opponents. Some of our group have attained that trait; it’s my prayer that we all might.