“Sir, I was wondering if you’d shake my hand and let me touch your hair.”


Growing up I had a bazillion awkward interactions with White people. One would usually happen when the mission teams came to the Native church camps I used to attend. I loved those camps, and although I haven’t helped out in a few years, I still enjoy going. Now that I’ve gone in and out of the Army, I can tell you that these camps in the earlier years were somewhat like Army basic training. Not even exaggerating. It was probably because a good portion of our dorm room counselors had gone through the service. But I remember the very first year I went to church camp I was 7 years old. I was a little nervous because I was one of the youngest in camp, the age requirement being 8. The first night I slept on the top of this high metal bunk bed on one of those plastic pee mattresses. The grey concrete floor had cracks and seemed a million miles down from my bed with an industrial fan below that gave a rhythmic buzzing sound throughout the night. I fell asleep the first night after being scared into salvation by the reading of Revelation in the evening service. In the middle of the night I felt myself roll, and completely woke up when I realized I was mid-air falling to the concrete beneath my bed. I probably would have got seriously injured if that industrial fan didn’t break my fall. I made a loud, “Ompffff,” sound. The camp counselor, now Fort McDowell Yavapai councilman Paul Russell, woke up and said, “JD, you okay?” I replied back in a moan, “Yeaaahh.” The counselor said, “Well then go back to bed.” We both laughed the next day, and I still laugh about it today.

In my latter years of life though, I’ve also become more critical in self-reflection of those camps. It was strange to me because a bunch of white kids from churches normally in the Midwest would come to the camp to evangelize us Native kids. They would come and ask us repeatedly to get “saved,” to get high numbers of conversions to report to the people that donated to their small crusade. These mission teams felt like they came to somehow fulfill their dreams of being another White savior to Native communities. As if they watched Dances with Wolves, Dangerous Minds, etc. a bazillion times before embarking on their mission. They had this fantasy of going to the camp and becoming one of us, becoming accepted, or at the very least take pictures with us.

Pictures always consisted of a group of us Natives with one of the mission team members as the sole White face in the middle. My Buddy Kyle, who is White Mountain Apache, had these long braids and rather intimidating persona with a stoic face that seemed to draw all these mission teams to ask for photo ops. In reality, he was a cool dude and really funny. He never let that through to them though. Nonetheless, these camps were awesome because it was a huge group of Native kids from across the southwest, something I never got growing up. But the mission teams that came still seemed strange to me, and I thought to myself, “All these White people are coming to us Natives, we should be going to them too.”

 I took an opportunity during my college years to go to one of these churches in Arkansas that sent mission teams to our tribes in Arizona. I remember thinking to myself, all these years they have been sending mission teams, now it’s my turn to take a picture as the sole Brown face amongst a bunch of White people. After I spoke at this church in the middle the sticks in Arkansas, this little girl ran up to me. She said (in my southern stick voice), “hey sir, I just wanted to let you know that I told my Mama I’m coming to church today. So I jumped on that bus and came to church.” I said, “well, nice to meet you.” And that little girl went on, “I told my Mama, I have to make it to church, because there’s gonna be a real Indian there. And I’m gonna shake his hand and touch his hair.” She paused a few seconds and said seriously, “Sir, I was wondering if you’d shake my hand and let me touch your hair.” Not knowing what to do, I said, “Sure.” So that little girl shook my hand and she touched my hair…. That little girl was Hillary Rodham Clinton…. Hahaha, just kidding. It wasn’t Hillary Clinton, but I’ll never forget the time I went to visit the White people on their rez (aka Arkansas).

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