“My Navajo ancestry means nothing to me”, the waiter told us. Me and my college friend Tsjomme were having dinner in Cameron, Arizona, during our three week trip across the American South; New Orleans to Phoenix. The way I see it, travelling is one of the best ways to experience cultural diversity, minority identities, and how they mix with dominant national culture. In the first part of this ‘US Trip Trilogy’ I would like to share some of our impressions of the Native Americans in today’s USA.
“So I hope I am not being too personal, but you appear to have Indian roots, is that right?” I asked the waiter hesitantly. As waiters in America depend on their tips, a little chat could get the guy a few more of my dollars. Up until now we hadn’t actually talked to any Native Americans. We had noticed them along the road in their stands at touristic hotspots, selling their rugs and jewellery; somewhere between seemingly authentic and dreadfully kitsch.
Native Americans have a brutal history with great numbers being exiled or murdered up until the late 1800s. The good news is they now have territories of their own, allowing them a certain level of self-determination. However, this has neither resulted in the preservation of traditional Navajo lifestyle, nor in the growth or integration of Indian communities into American society.
“I don’t care”, the waiter said, “my parents speak the Navajo language, but they didn’t pass it on to me”, a language situation that we learned is typical for Native Americans of the younger generations. What many parents do pass on to their children is significant obesity; physically, they are adapting to US standards strikingly fast.
“I don’t believe in the Navajo traditions” he said, “I follow my own ideas”. But for someone who rejected his Navajo past, he was quite heavily involved with it. To begin with, he has a Navajo girlfriend. He works in a restaurant run by Native Americans, which shows images of Indians everywhere on its walls and that sells all possible mementos, and what have you, about Native Americans in a gift shop.
But maybe this was all just a facade for tourists: Navajo life reduced to a commodification of culture. The grandchildren’s grandchildren of those proud Navajos riding the plains on their horses, now sell jewellery to tourists and serve them hamburgers. And the waiter said he is American.