A little more than 35 years ago, I found myself working as a volunteer on the Cheyenne River Indian River Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
Life was good. I had a full head of hair, a smoking hot girlfriend and I was doing my part to make the world a better place by promoting social justice, peace and everything else that is super important when you’re 23 and someone else is paying your bills.
One day, on a particularly hot and arid August afternoon, I found myself in a local tavern (imagine that) and I attempted to engage one of the local residents in conversation.
“It must be really hard to be a Native American on the reservation,” I said with all due sincerity and earnestness.
He put down his drink and turned to face me with a quizzical (if not supper annoyed) expression upon his face. “What?” he asked.
So, against my better judgment, I repeated myself. He did not take it well.
He sighed heavily and said, “Please don’t call me that. I am an Indian.” He could see immediately that I was surprised by his response.
“The last thing I need is to have some self-serving white punk attempt to pat himself on the back by patronizing me,” he continued.
His tone told me that this would be an especially short conversation.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” I stammered, eyeing the exit.
“That’s my point,” he said. “You somehow think that a bunch of politically correct words are going to make up for the fact that your people stole our land, murdered our children and raped our women.”
He sighed and returned to his drink. “Look, I know you’re probably a nice kid, and I really do appreciate what you’re trying to do to help my community but I’ve had my fill of white apologies.”
And that was that. There were not a whole lot of people living on the reservation, but strangely I never saw that man again after that day. He did, however, teach me an invaluable lesson: more often than not, words are nothing more than just words.
Life During Wartime
My grandfather, whom some of you may recall as an eccentric English teacher at Biddeford High School in the 1960s, tried to teach me the values of developing critical thinking skills and avoiding populism. I was 12. The world was all about being popular and not thinking too hard about anything.
And so it is that I find myself, more than 40 years later, on this bitterly cold morning — an overweight, bald, middle-aged, underachieving white guy — briefly contemplating whether I should continue this column because I know deep in my bones that it is going to piss some people off. (Look, Grampa! I just ended a sentence with a preposition! Ha!)
Tomorrow, our nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day in honor of one of history’s most prolific and courageous leaders who inspired all people to be better versions of themselves while promoting peace, justice and equality by his stunning examples of how to find common-ground with our fellow man.
Ironically, on this same day — here in my hometown of Biddeford, Maine – the city council will be holding a special meeting to decide whether we should create two committees that aim to study and foster the development of goals, policies and practices that are intended to foster the principles of “diversity, inclusion and equality.”
No, I did not stutter. The city is not creating a committee to study these issues. They will be discussing the formation of TWO committees to basically do the same thing. Why do one when you can have two for the same price? (A popular mantra in the world of government).
Here, hold my beer.
Look, don’t get me wrong. I am as a big a fan of diversity, inclusion and equality as the next guy, but really? This is something that warrants the need to create two committees in the city?
For starters, who on Earth, will serve on these committees? It’s not like we have a mass of people beating down the doors of City Hall to serve as volunteers on various city committees. For Christ’ sake, more than half of the city council seats were unopposed in the last election.
Begging my pardon. But this seems to be a classic example of a solution desperately in search of a problem.
If the city council is really concerned about “diversity” and “inclusion” why are they so blind to the plight of downtown residents who do not live in such pretty hip, cool neighborhoods when it comes to snow ban parking rules designed to support a privately operated parking garage?
Is Mayor Casavant going to stand outside of 3D’s Variety on Main Street and ask customers who just purchased a carton of generic cigarettes whether they feel included and well represented by their local government?
What about working-families that are struggling to get by and hoping – against all odds – to be able to someday buy their own, affordable home and then listen to Councilors Marc Lessard and Amy Clearwater bad-mouth and dismiss the notion of a housing development with modular homes? “I think the majority of residents would much prefer to see the creation of stick-built homes.” Lessard reportedly said during a recent meeting about a proposed housing development.
Hmmm, the good people of Cathedral Oaks Drive and Thacher Brook Lane aren’t too crazy about new neighbors with modular homes, huh? How inclusive! How diverse! It’s just that some animals are more equal than other animals, I suppose. Diversity, my ass!
Okay, I think I have made my point. Now, I’m going to head down to Mulligan’s for a beer. If I run into Casavant, Lessard or Clearwater there, I will drop dead on the spot. After all, the place isn’t especially known for its diversity. Strangely, however, the regular patrons are really nice people who are always more than happy to welcome a new face to the crowd. And that, my friends, is the definition of inclusion.
Originally published in Saco Bay News