Dialogue-Rolling

The press release looks pretty good. "One America in the 21st Century," it reads. It's the President's Initiative on Race, and it's happening in Phoenix.

The president won't show up, of course. But U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman will (freshly accused of accepting bribes when she was a White House aide). Over the course of two days, there will be a series of meetings and conferences.

Herman says, "The president has initiated a dialogue with the American people about race. It is important that all Americans participate. . . . The voices of all Americans must be heard."

The first meeting is on Tuesday evening, at the Heard Museum, scheduled to run from 5 'til 7. The President's Initiative on Race's advisory board is to meet a group of Native American leaders so that the board can "hear directly the challenging issues of race that affect American Indians from this region of the country. Special emphasis will be placed on the role of race in employment and economic opportunity . . ."

The museum's Lincoln Auditorium is packed with people eager to hear how the president's going to create One America. The audience is mostly Native American, but there's a fair number of blacks, whites and Latinos as well.

So it's a pity that nothing happens.
The Native American leaders, along with Herman, sit in a semicircle, open toward the audience. In her opening remarks, Herman declares that, of the population, Native Americans "face the greatest economic and social challenges." There are black, Latino and Asian people who'd give her some argument on that score. But, she tells the Indians, "I want you to know that President Clinton does care."

He may care, but what he plans to do about it never arises. There's much talk from Herman about "this great opportunity the president has given us," but it's unclear what that opportunity is, outside of having some meetings.

Then it becomes clear--this is all it's going to be. Herman explains that she's here to listen to Indian grievances, and then report back to the president.

Having delivered her spiel, Herman hands it over to the moderator, Laura Harris, who represents a group called Americans for Indian Opportunity. Harris begins by talking about "our specialness and uniqueness" in the kind of tone you hear in New Age gestalt meetings. These remarks are common enough. But then it gets weird.

Harris asks all of the Indian speakers--there are 14 of them--to stand up and introduce themselves. This makes perfect sense. But she also requires them to talk a little about what they like most about being Indian. When one of them doesn't do this, Harris--whose manner reminds me of the hippie schoolteacher in Beavis and Butt-head--prompts her.

At this point, I'm hoping that one of them will stand up and say, "Well, actually, I think being Indian really sucks, which is why I'm here. If I thought being Indian was so wonderful, I wouldn't have any complaints for you to take back to the president."

But no one does.
Most of them seem awkward, straining for something to say. So you can't blame them for reciting cliches. Mary Thomas, the first woman governor of the Gila River Indian Community, says that Harris' question is "hard," and then, like a good sport, says she values "our very connection to the earth, the smell of jackrabbit cooking and bread baking, the hard work of repairing our houses and keeping them clean. The sound of the coyote, the hoot of the owl." She doesn't say these experiences are the exclusive territory of the Native Americans, but it's implied.

The others spout more of the same. When all have finished introducing themselves and saying why they love being who they are, more than an hour has gone by. There are only about 50 minutes of the meeting left.

Harris thanks the speakers for their "very insightful introductions." Then she says she wants to go round in a circle again, and have each speaker talk about what he considers to be the main barriers to Native Americans participating in the economy. She asks that they be brief, keeping it to two or three minutes, so that everyone will have a chance to speak and they can go round the group again and discuss solutions.

No one sticks to the set time. And no one says anything we haven't heard before. By the time we've learned that Indians face racial prejudice in the workplace, often live in economically depressed areas with no work available locally and don't have the transport to drive to work across town, 40 minutes have gone by and only seven of the speakers have been heard.

When Harris asks a speaker--who has already had a turn--to reply to a point another has just made, Albert Hale, president of the Navajo Nation, has had enough. He rightly interrupts, complaining about being left out of the discussion. He takes the microphone, and makes the only interesting point of the whole meeting, that Indian nations are not treated as the sovereign nations they're supposed to be. "If a non-Indian commits a crime on our land, he's not tried by us, on our land. But if an Indian commits a crime on non-Indian land, that's where he's tried."

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