“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.