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Rosenblum writes: "The 574 indigenous tribes across the United States define themselves with their own words."

Window Rock, capital of the extensive Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona. (photo: Getty)
Window Rock, capital of the extensive Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona. (photo: Getty)

On the Rez, What's in a Name?

By Mort Rosenblum, Reader Supported News

16 April 21


INDOW ROCK, Arizona – Patty Dimitriou smiled down at 4-year-old Wynter, contented in her lap on a break from raising hell. “This,” she said, tucking strands of long black hair from behind his copper-toned ear, “is what America now looks like.”

Exactly. These days, that is easy to forget as meaningless ethnic labels distort a new reality: the American melting pot has cooked down into a savory fusion of home-grown flavors seasoned with every exotic spice a big world has to offer.

Inspiring “diversity” is unmissable up among the dramatic high red rocks of the Navajo Nation, where tribalism means unity, not division. For a sense of it, try to pigeonhole Patty and her husband, Rob Day.

Patty’s mother, Flora, grew up in a dirt-floor hogan with no electricity or plumbing. She slept in her first bed at 11 in boarding school. As a secretarial student in San Francisco, Flora bedazzled Nicholas Dimitriou, an enterprising Macedonian immigrant from Canada. He pursued her back to the reservation and married her.

With a University of Arizona degree, Patty built a thriving public relations firm in Phoenix, hobnobbing with clients in Washington and Europe. When her father became ill in 2015, she moved to Window Rock to manage her parents’ properties.

In heels and a smart dress, Patty drives a Cadillac Escalade with plates that read “RezDiva.” In hot-babe mode (she doesn’t mind the term), she puts on leathers to roam the West with Rob on her monster motorcycle. An Indian Chieftain.

Rob sums himself up with a laugh: “I’m a half-breed.” In fact, he goes back five generations to the first Sam Day, an Irishman who, bored with life in Ohio, took a job surveying the reservation. He founded a dynasty with Irish, Dutch and Navajo wives.

The Days built some of the first trading posts and discovered ancient ruins. An old family treasure is an aging photograph signed, “To my friend, Sam Day. Theodore Roosevelt.” That was Sam III, who fired up the visiting president’s fondness for Indian heritage.

Rob’s passion is creating artful big bikes, but Day Customs Mechanical can fix or build just about anything. He wakes before dawn to direct far-flung crews but makes it home for dinner with the kids.

Wynter’s face reflects dominant Indian genes. His little sister Rebel is, as her Grandma Flora jokes, “white as a sheet of paper.”

Patty just smiled when I asked my usual question in tribal territories. Is she Indian or Native American? Whatever. The 574 indigenous tribes across the United States define themselves with their own words. The Navajo are simply Diné, the people.

“Whatever” pretty much says it. We are each something specific that defies catchall labels. Yet all earthlings trace back to the same gorges in East Africa. Today, as we face looming common calamities, we had better get it together fast.

Partisan politics and polemics obsess on the present with little sense of how we got where we are. Republicans exploit Donald Trump’s racist tropes, but racism is too vague a word for societal disconnects behind so much fear and loathing.

Black Americans suffer the most. George Floyd’s murder shed glaring light on brutality and injustice that date back to slave days. It sparked a critical mass into action, which in turn triggers white supremacist backlash. And, even in Minneapolis, police keep on killing.

We need laws and norms to entrench equality, along with reforms not only in law enforcement but also in school curricula to help kids see beyond skin tones. Of course, “infrastructure” is about more than roads and bridges.

These are urgent problems for today and tomorrow. The past is past. But if indelible history can’t be rewritten or reduced to simplicities, we can learn from it.

Slavery, reprehensible by any measure, has always been with us humans, and it still is. The pyramids in Egypt were not built with union labor. Before American settlers intruded, warring indigenous tribes — the Navajo, for one — enslaved captives.

Some American whites kept slaves. Others died fighting to set them free. As with our drug habits today, there was a demand, and people of all colors responded. Today, such demands as across-the-board reparations would likely lead to acrimonious deadlock.

One black writer, in a New York Times op-ed, heaped blanket blame on “white people,” imagining himself in Ghana, during earlier days, in a princely Ashanti palace. If so, his minions would have been marching prisoners from other tribes to ships at Elmina Castle.

I went to Accra in the 1970s after Alex Haley’s Roots inspired back-to-Africa tourism. Ghanaian friends were bemused by American strangers calling them brother. Back then, authenticity seekers studied Swahili, the lingua franca of Arab slavers.

Times change. A wise old hand who edits the Associated Press Style Book ruled black should be capitalized in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense to convey “an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community … in the African diaspora and within Africa.”

He has a point, but I respectfully demur. Black, like white, is a color with too many human shades to be a community. Americans focus on Africa, but that leaves out Tamils, Pacific Islanders and all the rest.

Blacks predominate in America’s underclass because so much is stacked against them. They are a collective target of ignorant bigots, who overlook the opposite extremes, which include an ex-president I wish could return for a third term.

Isabel Wilkerson, a former Times reporter, comes closer to it in her brilliant book: Caste. Actual Indians are bound by a rigid pecking order that neither education nor hard work allows them to escape. Social justice can break down America’s informal castes.

In any case, racial, ethnic and cultural bias goes far beyond black and white.

I was lucky at the outset, a minority Jewish kid at Tucson High among Latinos, Asians and much else. Once a red-haired, freckled tough with the Mexican name of Tellez gave me shit about Hanukah. Florence Chandler, a black fullback friend, loomed up behind him, and he slithered away.

Today, even we lapsed Jews who shrug off slurs watch vicious identity politics with alarm. When some fool flaunts a “six million aren’t enough” t-shirt, I think of how many Rosen-somethings were exterminated during my life span. “Germans” aren’t to blame. Hitler was. But why did so many people blindly follow a depraved despot?

My toes curl when some hypocrite not-really Christian calls me a bad Jew for thinking others also have rights in the unholy land. In fact, condemning Palestinians to apartheid squalor is an existential threat to Israel.

In the Navajo Nation, these labels blur. I’m a native American, lower-case “n,” born in Wisconsin. But I’m a parvenu to indigenous people whose roots within America’s boundaries run 35 generations deep.

The Navajos’ disparate clans still share a common respect for the Blessing Way, elaborate rituals that honor their creator and the four sacred mountains that delineate their rugged lands. But these are divisive times.

Social media, television and a consumer mentality tug at old roots. Casinos and tourism bring in new revenue (or will, if Covid-19 finally subsides) but also destructive elements. A troubling number of Navajo Trumpers want to privatize trust lands.

But Indians finally have a voice in Washington. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland from nearby Laguna Pueblo is wresting back hallowed land that her plundering predecessor opened to miners and drillers. Young people are rediscovering their languages and lore. Congress earmarked $1.7 billion to help tribes weather the pandemic.

Patty Dimitriou is hopeful. “Between technology, a huge chunk of money and emerging leadership, it could make for some interesting times,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Little Wynter Day, beaming up from her lap, made the point. His polyglot parents teach him Navajo along with English. He’ll likely pick up Spanish. But mostly, they’re giving him solid instruction in basic humanity and love for the natural world.

However he turns out, no misconceived label will define him.

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs

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