“…I got up early and started digging my moat.”

One of my favorite toys to play with when I was little was called outside… also one of my only toys. I had a decrepit fort in my backyard that came from a church in Sunny slope. My Dad and I took his red pickup truck to go haul it home. I remember that day and that truck.

It was a warm summer morning and we took my Dad’s red 1979 F100 step side to go pick it up. My Dad’s truck was the definition of a rez ride. You couldn’t put gas past a half of a tank or else the gas would leak, you could use a butter knife to start it, and we had these Mexican style blankets that covered all the rips in the single cab seat. We took his raggedy truck to go get that raggedy fort. The wood was all rotted, there was termite damage, and the fort barely stood on three of the four leg supports. But I loved that fort. We put it in my Dad’s truck and headed home to set it up. On the ride home, my Dad told me, “We’ll fix it up, let’s go set it up first.”

We unloaded the fort and set it all up. We realized we were going to need more wood and supplies to fix it up. Being that we didn’t have a lot of spare cash to go to home depot, we headed out to construction sites along greenway parkway along the new housing development going up. We went from house to house in my Dad’s red truck and asked the foreman for scrap wood. To my surprise, the foreman was always willing to give us whatever leftover wood they had. Including nails, and even paint they didn’t need. We did this same process every Saturday for weeks. Soon I had a ton of wood, nails, and paint to fix up my fort. We started reinforcing, and replacing wood on the fort and got it stable. We added a trap door and ladder to the fort. I was able to put up one side of a wall with a window. I painted my fort with the left over red paint from housing construction. I banged in nails randomly, just because I was 8 and I liked to use my hammer. Pretty soon, I had a nice-looking fort. I decided that something was missing though… a moat to be exact.

One Saturday morning I got up early and started digging my moat. In my 8-year old mind, I was thinking I would put alligators in there with a draw bridge. I started digging and digging. After making it about a foot down I hit something hard. I thought was a rock. I started jamming my shovel into the rock trying to break it and get it out. When that didn’t work, I started jumping on my shovel to break the rock. And then I jumped some more, and more. After about my fifth time jumping on my shovel, I thought the rock broke. But it wasn’t a rock, it was a water pipe and water started shooting up from the ground to about the height of our roof. I started freaking out running around in a circle. I had no idea what to do.

I was dreading it, but knew I had to tell my Dad. I walked in the house doing that Native kid cry (where you’re huffing and puffing, pretending to cry with no tears, and while sneaking a finger into your nose to grab a booger). I was trying to tell my Dad about the water pipe, but couldn’t, or at least I was pretending I couldn’t. Finally he said, “Calm down, what’s wrong?” I calmed myself and said, “Dad, I was shoveling, and hit a rock, but it wasn’t and now…. Well now there’s WATER EVERYWHERE.” Then I went back to my Native cry. My Dad didn’t say anything. He walked outside, looked at the water spewing from the pipe going 15 feet in the air and calmly walked right back into the house without saying anything. I was like, “what’s happening.” When my Dad came back from the house he had two things in his hands. One was a rag and the other was duct tape. He put the rag around the pipe, and duct taped it. He walked back toward the house and said, “Bury the hole.” Morale of the story…. Anything in life can be fixed with some duct tape.

“…marry a younger wild Native man.”

I remember being taught in elementary school about inventors such as Thomas Edison, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, etc. You ever wonder why we were mostly taught about White European descendant inventors in elementary school? Surely there were inventors from other ethnicities that we could have learned about. In my later years of life, I realized there were actually lots of inventors from various ethnicities and even Native inventors.

 

I was at the Arizona Indian Gaming Association meeting a few years back hosted by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. A councilman from the tribe stood up and greeted the crowd in a room named after Wassaja, Carlos Montezuma, one of the first American Indians with a medical doctorate. He went on to share the story about how Carlos Montezuma developed a mixture of vaseline and menthol to treat chest coughs. It was later called Vicks vapor rub. I never knew that all those years as a kid, my Mom was rubbing medicine created by a Native on me. Natives have been inventing things for years and I began to think more about Native inventions.

Around the same time of the Gaming meeting, I was listening to a lecture from a Native scholar. They were talking about assimilation etc., but the lecturer was making a point about traditional Native marriages and went on to say that it was acceptable (in some tribes) for older Native women to marry young wild Native men. Because it was believed that the older woman would tame the young wild man. I looked at my friend, looked back at the professor, looked back at my friend, looked back at the professor, and looked back at my friend a final time and said, “Dang, Natives invented Cougars!”

So, for all the single older Native ladies that want to go back to traditional ways, it’s acceptable to marry a younger wild Native man. And for all the educators out there, it’s time to think about inventors from other ethnicities who contributed equally as much as White inventors.

“Then my Dad spanked me.”

My Dad used to always tell me crazy stuff when I was growing up. One time when I was 8 years old, I got mad and went and sat on our curb. My Dad walked toward me, stood over me and said, “get up, a car is going to run you over and I’m not going to clean up the blood.” But one of my favorite things he told me was a story about his perspective on bad grades.

I was worried one day on my way home from school because I received a horrible grade from a teacher. I knew I would have to show my Dad eventually. My Dad was a disciplinary man. And I got spanked a lot during my childhood. Not ever out of anger or hate. My Dad was patient. He always calmly told me, “Go to your room, I’ll be there in a second.” My room was scary during those times. I just had white walls with no posters, a blanket on my window (later in life I got knock off Mickey Mouse curtains), not Pendleton because those were expensive. The room was in the middle of the house, north facing, and was always dark. My room had an old brown fan that wobbled and felt like it was barely hanging on by an electrical wire and fastener. I would move a chair to the middle of the room, and wait for my Dad. That’s why I didn’t want to tell him about my grades, because I knew what was about to happen.

When I worked up enough courage, I showed him my paper. To my surprise my Dad told me, “JD it’s Okay.” He went on to share a story, “There was a kid who used to get these kinds of grades as well. In fact, one day, he brought one home to his Mom. His Mom asked him how come he got a “0” on his paper?” The son told his Mom, “Well, Mrs. Wong ran out of stars, so she had to give me the moon.” He finished our conversation by saying, “JD we may not be “A” students, but we are moon students. Don’t be afraid of failure when you try, and your perspective will keep you going.” The words allowed me to see the value of my culture, and never fear failing in life.

Then my Dad spanked me.

“…I never got kicked out of the White children’s church.”

You ever wonder why some Native people are mean? I used to wonder why some Native people at church were mean, because I thought God wanted us to be nice to each other. I grew up going to church most days out of the week. My parents took us to a White church for the first half of my childhood. My Dad told us it was to make sure we understood how to interact with White people. Later on, my God parents started a Filipino church that we attended in the second half of my childhood. Those years were filled with adobo, pancit, lumpias, fried bananas, and rice. It was an awesome time, not just because of the nice spread at potlucks, but because my God brother was there too. However, we had a pretty mean children’s church teacher. And despite it being a Filipino church, she was one among several Natives that attended.

Our children’s church teacher was this Native lady, she was Navajo of course, and she was always riding me. Whether it was to stop chewing my gum loudly, sit in my chair, stop talking while she was, etc. She was always on my case about something, and she was always kicking me out. It was interesting because I never got kicked out of the White children’s church. It was only the Brown children’s church. All my White Sunday school teachers were mostly nice to me (although a little condescending). Or at least the White Sunday school teachers in the city, don’t get me started on the White children’s church teachers on the rez.

The most memorable time I got kicked out of children’s church was because I made a butt out of the playdoh ten commandments. Not my first or my last (reference to Bob) time getting kicked out. That older Navajo lady flipped her lid. She yelled, “Leave, now!” She took my yellow ten commandments playdoh and threw it forcefully into the garbage. According to her, Jesus doesn’t like butt references. I always like to think Jesus would have laughed if he was there… I mean, sure we were making the ten commandments that should be held in reverence, but it was out of playdoh. And she threw the ten commandments in the trash, so technically she had the greater offense. But come on’ man, cut a kid a break. And if Jesus is fully human, he would have a butt and he would like butt jokes because a cheerful heart is good medicine.

Now that I’m older, I’m a little more forgiving. In reality, there are mean people from every ethnicity. But I believe part of the reason the Native children’s church teachers I had were mean was because they were acting out their childhoods going through boarding schools or replicating the behavior of White missionaries who evangelized their families. Either way, it’s a good reminder to be patient and compassionate with our Native kids, because they’ll remember. And one day, they may tell a story about you.

“…I couldn’t make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes because our cereal came in bags.”

With the recent eclipse, some tutorials were popping up on my Facebook timeline talking about how to make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes. All I kept thinking about was when I was a kid I couldn’t make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes, because our cereal came in bags. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, because we had the occasional bran flakes that came with our commods.

Have you ever had commodity food? For those of you who haven’t, it’s a part of a federal food distribution program for Natives. And if you really think about the history of commodity food you realize that one of Native America’s staples, Fry Bread, is an off spring of those government rations. I’m sure for most of my Native sisters and brothers especially know about the golden brick. It was the glorified and highly anticipated commodity cheese.

However, if you have ever survived on commodity food you would know about another one of my favorites, commodity peanut butter. As my Mother would grow tired of making school lunches in my later years of grade school, I became responsible of making my own lunches. I remember the first time I tried to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with commodity peanut butter. I attempted to spread the peanut butter when instantly the peanut butter crumbled the bread. Commodity peanut butter is like trying to put on your high school jeans after years of binging on frybread, honey, and powdered sugar, everything just kind of crumbles and falls apart… including your self-esteem. I used to ask my Mom, “why can’t we just get JIF.” My Mom hated when I complained, and rightfully so. She grew up often times without food, but my Mom was also patient with me. She showed me a little trick. She said, “JD, go get the pancake syrup.” I did, and she continued, “Put about a teaspoon of syrup and mix it together. Now try to spread the peanut butter on the bread.” And boom! Wouldn’t you know, I had made knockoff JIF. As I reflect now, Natives are the syrup to the stiff consistency of our society, because we can make the best of anything.

“…thank you Taylor Lautner for generating female interest in Native men again.”

  

Hair in tribal cultures has varying meanings based on each particular tribe. I’ve read articles and watched video logs of other Natives explaining the meaning of Indigenous hair, but in reality, it’s based on respective tribal traditions (although there can be some similarities). I know for our tribe, hair is important for several reasons. One of the reasons is due to the traditional belief in dream power that, in part, came from taking enemy scalps. Both men and women in our tribe wore their hair long, and lots in our tribe wore their hair using mud to keep the bugs out and used sap from mesquite trees in small twisted braids (so if you have lice, better bust out the mesquite sap and mud). One could argue that Quechan invented dreadlocks, but we certainly had them before Bob Marley made them popular.

I started growing my hair long off and on when I was kid. Sometimes I had a tight fade, sometimes I had a buzz, sometimes I had a bowl cut like I just came out of boarding school, and then sometimes it was just a bit longer. My Mom cut my hair, or at least until she messed up my bowl cut and had me looking like a chia pet. I hid under the bed and fell asleep, something I did when I was little to avoid life.

During my undergraduate years I really started letting my hair get long, because it was my way to identify as being Native. Not that you need to grow out your hair to do that, but I saw it as some form of resistance that challenged the legalistic mindset of the church. But even then, I still didn’t (and still don’t) wear my hair as a traditional Quechan. And most Quechans I know with long hair don’t either, because If we really wanted to wear our hair traditional we would have dreadlocks.

Most people thought I was trying to be super Native when I first grew out my hair. I remember a family friend, a Navajo woman, was teasing me and saying I was “all rez” and didn’t even grow up on the rez. I laughed, but I also knew I didn’t have to grow up on the rez to have long hair, just as much as you don’t need a bowl cut to show you’ve got a government education. However, the real reason I first grew it out was because I wanted to look like Antonio Banderas in Desperado.

You ever see Desperado? It was awhile before I saw it because I was a kid and it was rated “R”, but I was allowed to watch the opening scene of him rocking his guitar and I saw the movie poster. By taking a quick gaze at Antonio Banderas, you’ll notice the long hair, guitar, and that he had a beautiful girl by his side, Salma Hayek. I knew I wanted a girl that beautiful, so what did I do. I learned to play guitar, and grew out my hair. Or at least that’s what my initial interest was. In actuality, I don’t think either of those things got me a beautiful Latin girl. When I met Vanessa, I had short military style hair and was wearing an Aladdin vest. She didn’t see any of my skills (In my Napoleon Dynamite voice). I thought my attempt to be Desperado would of gave me some kind of higher level of attractiveness. But it was my short hair and vest that did it… or at least I thought. Or maybe it could have been that Twilight was still popular around the time we met. So, thank you Taylor Lautner for generating female interest in Native men again.

As I think about why I still keep my hair long, I continue to do it a symbol of resistance. I keep it long in memory of my ancestors who had to cut theirs because of the government assimilation process. I keep my hair long because I want people to know that whatever success comes my way, that I am undoubtedly a Native. I keep my hair long because I want my kids to know we can keep forms of our traditional identity alive today. And most importantly, I keep my hair long so Vanessa doesn’t leave me for another Native with long hair and Desperado like skills.

“I was 8-years old, and this kid looked like a Mack truck.”

My Dad discouraged fighting, but I never got in trouble for it either. Let’s face it, fighting to protect, defend, and strengthen our tribe is a part of our Warrior Spirit. Beside the point, my Dad has a ton of scars from fighting. Including a large gash in his arm when he was cut by glass, a scar on his head from being hit with a pipe, and a bunch of other remnants of his early brawler years before becoming a minister. Because my Dad was a Christian minister, I also knew I was supposed to turn the other cheek, I just wasn’t good at it.

One of my first fights I remember was in Los Angeles county in the city of Bell Gardens. Some Natives who participated in the Urban relocation program that followed WWII found themselves there around the 1950s. In the city was a small Native church that was a sanctuary for Christian and non-Christian Natives who migrated to the area to find economic opportunities. My Dad was asked to go preach there one spring and, as always, my Mom, Sisters, and I followed along. While my Dad was preaching, I went in children’s church. There awaited this ginormous Native kid who stood about a foot taller than me and weighed about 20lbs more. I was 8-years old, and this kid looked like a Mack truck. He kept poking me for no apparent reason, and telling me a bunch of stuff I can’t remember. When service was over, my Dad was still talking with people. My sister Camie and I decided to wait outside for my parents to get done chatting it up, and as we were waiting, that humungous Native kid came back. We were around these pillars outside the church, and I kept trying to head back to where my Dad was, but he kept blocking the way. My sister stepped in, and said, “Leave us alone.” He didn’t listen, and kept poking me and then teasing my sister. I knew what I had to do.

I remembered my God brother who was a few years older than me was teaching me how to throw a real punch. He told me, “All you have to do, is pull your fist back as far as it can go, and then push your fist forward as hard as you can.” I don’t know how he knew, I don’t think he had been in a fight yet either.

But I could hear my God Brother’s voice in my ear, like he was my boxing trainer, “Pull your fist back, and let it rip in his face.” Well that kid came around that pillar about ready to poke me again. Only this time, my fist was cocked as far back as I could pull it, and with as much might as an 8-year old had, I ferociously threw my fist forward. It felt like a dream, and no sooner after my fist met his nose there was blood everywhere. I mean everywhere. I must have broken the kid’s nose. I was never more scared in my life than that moment because I knew I had really hurt this bully, and I understood I should have turned the other cheek. I decided my parents couldn’t find out what happened. I watched that bully try to hold a pool of blood in his hand as he headed into the women’s restroom with his sister. I was freaking out and wasn’t sure what was going to happen, because although my Dad never seriously punished me for fighting, he just got done preaching. So, I immediately went to my Dad, asked for the car keys, and contemplated driving away. Well I was 8-years old, and that made no sense. So I did what any 8-year old kid would do to avoid trouble. I fell asleep.

When I did wake up, we were at Denny’s. The pastor and his wife took our family out to lunch. During lunch the Pastor’s wife said, “I don’t know what happened, but there was a bunch of blood outside and in the women’s restroom.” I didn’t say a word, and just quietly kept eating my club sandwich in remorse. (I finally told the Pastor’s wife about this a few years ago… she didn’t remember, but I hope whoever I punched is okay). But now you know, don’t poke people.

“I would have gladly settled for a Suns shirt…”

 

Growing up we always watched the Phoenix Suns, especially in the early 90s when it was Barkley, KJ, and Majerle. I remember sitting around our small 19 inch tv (remember it had vice grips and foil antenna) on our dark living room carpet trying to get a glimpse of greatness running the hard wood floors. I always had a dream of going to a Suns game. Although, we didn’t have much money back then, like most families below the poverty line. I would have gladly settled for a Suns shirt, but we couldn’t afford that either. So, I had to get creative.

I spent a lot of time around the college where my parents worked. My Mom taught elementary education courses, and my Dad was an administrator for a long time. I loved that I grew up on that campus, (you ask how could we be poor, well it was a small underfunded Christian college for Natives relying on the hearts of donors and God’s grace). My Mom often bought various art supplies and things for the undergrads to use when they student taught at elementary schools. Sometimes she had left over supplies that weren’t used. And I got first dibs. Using the Elmer’s glue, safety scissors, rubber bands, popsicle sticks, and red solo cups left over from the college events I made a variety of toys. I created catapults, little bows and arrows, a trash can (don’t know why), but I made whatever I could think up. Well one day I was in my Mom’s office and I found green and blue t-shirt paint. I asked my Mom, “Can I have this.” She said, “sure.” I was excited, I knew exactly what I was gonna make.

I got home and found my cleanest White undershirt. I laid it out on the floor and got to work. First, I drew a circle, then I drew lines coming behind it. “Perfect.” Then I drew the basketball in the circle. I drew the fire around the ball, and then I finished it off with the flames coming behind the ball. Below it, I wrote “SUNS.” It was my first Suns shirt. Green and Blue paint on a white undershirt. I was so proud and loved that shirt so much that I wore it for the next few days. I was even more excited because my cousins were coming to visit and I couldn’t wait to show off my new shirt.

Almost as soon as I went outside to greet my cousins they saw my shirt and started teasing me. I didn’t understand why, and I felt bad. I mean, it was my Suns shirt, the one I could afford. I was reppin’ my team the best I could. I love Barkley, KJ, Majerle. The pride I had swiftly left my soul, and I couldn’t feel anything but sad. I still wore that shirt, but not in public. Just at home watching games on our old tv. I made a promise to myself that one day, I wouldn’t just have a Suns shirt, but a Suns jersey so no one could make me feel sad about representing my team… except maybe the past 7 seasons of no playoff appearances. But I also realized that if I didn’t want to be teased the rest of my life, I was going to have to work for it.

“I didn’t want to deport all White people, just the criminals”

The essay I wrote on why I wanted to be an Army officer, should have contained the text below…

Throughout my childhood my Dad always asked me, “J.D., what do you want to be when you grow up.” I wasn’t very good at school and I often skipped months out of the year by missing the bus and/or telling my parents I had a chronic diarrhea problem. In my naïve mind, I thought maybe I would be a border patrol officer.

Our reservation is along the Colorado River on the California and Arizona state boundaries. It also happens to border a relatively safe crossing to Mexico, and one reason we get lots of winter visitors who like to cross over to get their medicine and teeth worked on. But, most of the land is on the California side with a small land base in Arizona… just enough for a casino. Due to the close proximity of Mexico, growing up I would see border patrol officers. To me, the border patrol officers had it made. They have guns, cruise around in a 4×4, and chase people off their land that didn’t belong there. Sounds like a dream job for a Native person. But when I found out I couldn’t deport White people, I changed my mind….(I didn’t want to deport all White people, just the criminals). Needless to say, being a border patrol officer was no longer compelling to me.

Our Quechan Nation, has a strong warrior tradition. As a kid the tradition was evident as I witnessed our veterans lead events on my rez. I remember watching all the WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm vets lead our parades.  It was mostly men, that resembled Sponge Bob (square body, skinny legs, and a flat butt) who would be holding the colors and you could see in their eyes the reminisce of their time in war. But it wasn’t just the men, throughout our history our matriarch carried and still carries the warrior spirit (I didn’t mention our women right away, because I didn’t want you to think they look like Sponge Bob too). Every moment I saw the Quechan warriors lead our ceremonies, I could feel my warrior spirit yearning and calling. I knew that I was one of those warriors, and no one had to tell me or could tell me otherwise.

Practically speaking, I knew eventually I would inherit a commod bod, and so as a kid I did my best to train as a soldier. I think for most kids, we would get a general understanding from TV, and for some training I thought the GI Joes could teach me. But our black and white TV had vice grips, and foil antenna. So even if we did get reception, I still wasn’t allowed to watch the cartoon because my Dad said I was already too violent. The one thing going for me was that I had nine Uncles in Vietnam, and one who I often spent summers with. My Uncle Gordie, a dark Quechan man who had a white spot on wrist where he would wear his watch every day. He was and still is our tribe’s Game Warden. Not only was he in war, but he knew about tracking, animals, shooting, hunting, fishing, fighting, etc. He was like Billy from Predator but real life. During our summers he would tell me some war stories when my Auntie Dodo wasn’t around. He told me about horrific helicopter crashes, adrenaline in a fire fight, the dancing mouse tattoo he got on his leg while drunk on leave. He taught me how to play poker, slam bones, and about the meaning of being a Quechan warrior through his actions. It was a good thing I had my Uncle(s).

Anyways… I wish this was part of my essay on why I wanted to join the Army.

“Son, I have something to tell you… you’re not Black.”

My experience as a Native American growing up in a metropolitan area is a bit different than those on my reservation and probably much different than those from other reservations. In the city, I attended a predominately White school in North Phoenix. I happened to be the darkest and only red/brownish kid in my class. Being what it was, one day I started telling kids that I was Black. I never seen a real Black person in my life until a few years later, or at least none that I knew about. I was telling all the kids in my class, and finally my teacher overheard me. My teacher immediately called my Mother and said, “Ma’am, it’s not a big deal, but your son is telling all the kids that he is Black. He’s not Black is he?” My Mother replied laughing, “No. He is Native American.”

That day I came home, and my Mom sat me down. She said, “Son, I have something to tell you… you’re not Black.” I was in shock! For the first 8 years of my life I was Black, and now she dropped this bomb on me. I was completely disappointed, because I thoroughly enjoyed being African American all those years. So I asked my Mother, “So what am I.” She told me, “You’re Native American.” My face lit up, and with big eyes I looked up at her and said, “Are you serious?” My Mom said, “Yes.” Immediately I ran to the bathroom and threw my shirt on the floor. I took my Mom’s lipstick and began to put on my war paint across my face. I smeared it on my chest, and I started acting and looking like what I thought a Native American did. I took a steak knife from the kitchen, and from that day on my Mom would never be able to keep a hibiscus tree. I started cutting off limbs from that tree and made bow and arrows. I would use my home fashioned bow to hone my hunting skills against the alley cats in my backyard (I never got one). I was so proud of who I was that day.

Later on I figured out that the ideal I had of who and what a Native American is and does, was wrong. Native Americans today do not run around with their shirts off and wearing war paint everywhere (although some Natives do on occasion). I realized that this very experience of being an Urban Native American in the city, trying to understand my identity, was a real American Indian experience.