THERE ARE, in the Rockwellian deluge of American holiday art, inconvenient truths that are obscured. I’ve walked on the other side of these depictions my whole life, alongside every other Indigenous person who’s endured the mythos of this time of year. My intention is to give voice to that.
How do you coherently sum up the last 500 years for us? Thousands of nations. Bands. Clans. Stew recipes.
The question has cuffs on me, paralyzes my fingers — except the one that raps impatiently on the table. The cursor winks, mockingly. My mind is stubborn. Something else is in order.
I rummage around my medicine cupboard and pluck out a small sage bundle. Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe, and …
Still nothing. But nothing-y-er? My thoughts drift more fluidly between objects of impermanence.
Kick back and get used to it, squirt. I heard that countless times when I was a kid.
I grew up in Indiana, away from my community, just one of two Indians (that I know of) in my hometown. The other one was named in their peoples’ language. And then there was me. Miles Brady.
The inferiority complex is implicit.
It took me a long time to feel comfortable. Sometimes I still don’t, this far from the tribe. This far from home. Real home, with which I’ve only ever brushed fingertips. Out here, I’ve found a sort of peace, but it’s held together with duct tape and a prayer, hardly resilient to trains of thought like this.
Get off the tracks, kid. I heard that one too.
I find myself driving roads on the city’s outskirts that claw at the edge of the desert; the skeleton of new housing developments and strip malls. My eyes dart around the Las Vegas waste, looking for something to bring me back. Something like water. A pond, a small stream. I’d take a busted pipe in a brutal corporate basement if there was a place to put down tobacco.
Never mind. Pack it in.
The holiday is coming up. You know the one. That one. That’s my tribe in those paintings you’ve seen, all feathers and hat buckles. You saw those Indians that were make-believe to you in some pageant or skit you put on, that time in a room full of squirming classmates and watch-checking parents who were focusing really, really hard on keeping their eyes open.
My people. Real home.
I’m not going back this year. It’s not in the cards. Matter of fact, I have coworkers who’ve been to my people’s land more times than I have in 2022.
Let’s try this again. Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe … Let the smoke drift over my back … Try to let the guilt go.
I talked to Chief Sequan Pijakì last week. He’s been one who has always stepped in and helped me, answered my questions, cleared up my confusion. He reminds me — all of us — who we are.
About the holiday, he told the Massachusetts Telegram & Gazette: “The climate we’re in right now, where we’re talking about changing this country … You should definitely be reaching out to the original people so we can tell the original story to children.”
A lot of us don’t speak on these things in this way — like we’d want to — the sting of past rebuked attempts still following us from childhood. Even from the here-and-now. This is why we look to our elders.
Tall Oak, a Pequot and Wampanoag elder, who passed on February 11 of this year, was one of six activists who established the first National Day of Mourning. In 1970 Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, was asked by then-Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent to give a speech commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Europeans who rolled up on Plymouth Rock. (The rest, as they say, is history.) The Governor’s office found James’s speech too “extreme” to be delivered at the event, an edict that angered the Indigenous folks in the area.
Tall Oak, Frank James, and their compatriots held the first Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that year.
Wampanoags across the U.S. — that’s right, we’re everywhere — still vary in perspective and position on how to approach the holiday. Other tribes do, too. Wampanoags have been known to march in Plymouth’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I’ve known some Natives to ignore it altogether. It’s just another day … never mind the floats.
Others, still, gather and celebrate in a way that you might find around any other table. “Freedom from Want,” but with backstrap.
Beyond that, some Wampanoag tribes have adopted “Thanks Giving,” a celebration that, in some respect, subverts colonial expectations and centers our lifeways and traditions.
In my work as a writer/journalist/professional Indian, my stargazing, misty-eyed pipe dream is to find and cast a light on the real Indian Country. Whatever that means. And, exceedingly, it becomes difficult to pin down. It is, at this point, trite and useless to declare that Indigenous people aren’t a monolith. We’ve said it plenty of times, too many times, in the hope that people will recognize the spectrum of experiences that encapsulate the post-1492 condition. We’ve been left wanting.
The experience, the viewpoint, the conclusions, are varied. But we Indians, all of us, have been dragged through the various flavors of colonization and genocide to the end that our understanding of the world hinges on one simple fact: We survived.
During a panel at Bristol Community College in 2017, Tall Oak addressed the audience, saying: “My obligation is to speak for my ancestors, who have paid with their blood for what little we may have today. And to hold on to it best — best we can — for our generations yet unborn.”
To that point, we have something we say in Wôpanâak: Âs Nutayuneân.
Âs Nutayuneân means, literally, “We still live here.”
Âs Nutayuneân means, to our people, “We are still here.” We survived. We still fight. We still breathe.
Regardless of what understanding our Peoples may have accumulated in that 500-year chasm between then and now, we can all say the same.
Pick the leaves, take the bowl, light the match, breathe. That’s the way.
Editor's note: This story was updated to remove the English name of Tall Oak.
A December to Remember
Nov. 25-Jan. 1
Are the same old advent calendar and Christmas carols failing to inspire? The Las Vegas History Museum spices up the holidays with some intercultural enrichment. Its community-created holiday bash showcases (and celebrates) holiday customs from around the world and across the religious spectrum. The six-week event will feature traditions from Mexican, Filipino, Scottish, Hawaiian, and Japanese cultures, as well as religious customs from the Muslim faith to Wiccans and everything in between. Workshops and performances from local groups will be held alongside the exhibits throughout late November and all of December. – Anne Davis
9a-4p, $12 for adults and $6 for kids 11 and under, Las Vegas Natural History Museum, lvnhm.org
Nonprofit LocalAF marks Native American Heritage Day with a pop-up market and cultural celebration. An antidote to black Friday, the market will offer gifts made by local Indigenous artists and craftspeople, as well as food, dancers, and presentations. Nuwu founder Fawn Douglas invites the public to "recognize the continuing stories of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas," adding that it will be a time to "affirm that we are still here." – HK
10a-4p, free, Nuwu Art Gallery + Community Center, 1331 S. Maryland Pkwy., indigenousaf.org
I’m late to the holiday tamale tradition. (I know, I know, but it's not my fault — I'm a Southwest newbie!) In the true spirit of a recent convert, I’ll never go back to holidays without them. This year, you can get your tamale fix at the City of Las Vegas’ food festival. This festive, family-friendly event takes over the Fifth Street School Plaza every winter with live mariachi music, Folklorico dance, fresh tamales, drinks, and workshops where you learn to make your own masa and meat masterpiece from local chefs. – AD
10a-4p, free, Fifth Street School, lasvegasnevada.gov
The U.C. Berkeley Architecture and Environmental Design Professor Ronald Rael wraps up UNLV Art's fall visiting speaker series. Rael's topic is still to be announced, but he's got no shortage of work to choose from. He researches the connections between Indigenous/traditional material practices and contemporary technologies. For instance, he's both written a book and done a TED Talk about using ancient earth building techniques in new ways. More recently, his 2017 book Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary is a work of protest combining biograpy and illustration. And he's cofounded a couple companies in the 3D printing architecture and wood technology companies. – Heidi Kyser
7p, free, Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Auditorium, unlv.edu/art/lecture-series
Still not in the holiday mood? Consider paying a visit to Clark County Museum’s annual holiday festival. Against Heritage Street’s historic backdrop, you can peruse your blues away while listening to carolers, crafting up a storm at the Discovery Children’s Museum’s tent, saying hi to Santa, and seeing the street aglow with Christmas lights — the only two days of the year when visitors are allowed after dark! – AD
5-8p, free, Clark County Museum, clarkcountynv.gov
A Cool Yule Holiday Celebration
Bernard H. Gaddis' nonprofit Contemporary West Dance Theatre applies its magic touch to the December holidays, creating an event that goes beyond dance. The family-friendly evening promises Christmas classics, sing-alongs, and all-around good cheer. – HK
7:30p, $15-30, Charleston Heights Arts Center, 702-229-6383
THE ENVIRONMENTAL INTEGRITY PROJECT and Earthjustice evaluated 292 coal plants and found that 265 of them have coal ash ponds and landfills leaking toxic metals like arsenic and lead into groundwater.
What’s more, only 11 of the sites have committed to some kind of groundwater treatment, such as adding pipes, drainage systems and pumps to remove contaminated water.
The advocacy groups published their findings on Thursday in a report titled Poisonous Coverup: The Widespread Failure of the Power Industry to Clean Up Coal Ash Dumps.
Coal ash is the toxic waste left after burning coal for electricity. While coal consumption has declined, the report says the industry continues to produce about 70 million tons of coal ash every year.
Nevada’s home to what the report ranks as the nation’s second-most contaminated site — NV Energy’s retired Reid Gardner plant northeast of Las Vegas. There, lithium levels in the groundwater are 243 times greater than what’s considered safe by the EPA, and arsenic concentrations are 121 times greater. According to the report, NV Energy’s lack of monitoring and cleanup is in violation of the federal Coal Ash Rule. (For more on Reid Gardner and its impact on the Moapa Band of Paiutes, click here.)
In Wyoming, two PacifiCorp plants — the Naughton plant near Kemmerer and the Jim Bridger plant near Point of Rocks — rank as the third- and fourth-most contaminated sites. PacifiCorp plans to close only a portion of the waste ponds at each site, and currently has no plans to clean up the ash landfills, the report notes.
Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report, said the impacts of coal ash contamination are severe.
“One by one, these groundwater aquifers are going offline, and they’re not going to be usable for drinking water for a very long time, until the groundwater fades away – which, according to EPA modeling, can take hundreds of years or even over a thousand years,” said Russ, noting that ash dumps disproportionately threaten low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Other highly polluting coal plants are scattered throughout the Mountain West. A PacifiCorp operation southeast of Salt Lake City is ranked as the ninth-most contaminated site, and the Four Corners Power Plant near Fruitland, NM, ranks No. 19. Also ranking in the top 50 are three plants in Colorado, two in Utah, and Arizona’s Cholla plant and Montana’s Colstrip plant.
The report highlights the failure by most power companies to follow the Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing coal ash disposal. The primary goals of the Coal Ash Rule, established in 2015, were to stop the continued dumping of ash in leaking ponds and landfills, clean up contaminated sites, and restore groundwater quality.
Report authors say the industry is skirting most of these rules by manipulating data and monitoring systems to avoid costly cleanups.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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