I met David at his office. It was the first time I noticed how many people, mostly men, were in wheelchairs . . . amputees from advanced diabetes. They stared right through me or did not look anywhere at all. I felt very uncomfortable in the waiting room at his building. The weight of what has happened here, manifest in the people – sick and depressed – hit home in real time. Our policies killed and maimed.
David greeted me about ten minutes late and apologized. By my demeanor, it must have registered how difficult that time had been for me. I could not shake a profound sense of guilt.
“Don’t go down taking the sins of the fathers upon you,” he said as we walked down a long hallway into the sunlight at the back entrance.
“I can’t help it. Our policies, our theft . . . I am struggling with it.”
“Well, then do something about it. It’s not like it’s over,” he bluntly stated.
I looked up to find he was smiling.
“Guess that’s why I am here, though I am not sure how a little environmental education program can make a difference.”
“You might be surprised. Some things get done by just showing up.”
I was pleasantly surprised to join the museum director and elders at the new cultural center. It was small but beautiful, featuring the art of the River People, their history and material culture: clothing, fishing and hunting implements, war clubs, and many other daily objects from the times past.
The director was a tall stately woman dressed impeccably in long flowing skirt and jacket top, with dramatic makeup and jewelry. Her long dark hair was pulled back on both sides with beaded hair pins. She looked almost Asian, with very pale skin and watery grey eyes. Her assistants, though younger, presented themselves as grandly as their director. A breakfast buffet with coffee and juice has been prepared. Compared to my last meeting with the elders, this felt closer to how I greet guests at our offices in Tempe. However, later I was told by the director that the cultural center and museum always lavish on the elders. That was a reality check. This was for them, not me.
David left me there to mingle in the all-woman gathering. He said he would return at noon. I would miss his supporting presence. I gulped and joined the group. I felt too casually dressed compared with the museum crew. My culture’s ways of relating
were varied, and my workplace had gone casual. For a moment, I wondered if I should upgrade how we do things in the almost all male Southwest Center. As a daughter of a military officer, my mother had taught her girls how to dress to show respect but then
the women’s lib movement shattered that tradition. University culture sealed the deal. I made a mental note to clean up my act on the next visit.
Marion, the director, introduced me to her assistants and then invited the elders to the table, and suggested her assistant could also bring them a plate if they preferred. I waited with her as the elders were served, then she indicated I should go next. After we all had our plates and beverages and returned to our seats, arranged in a circle, we simple ate in silence with an occasional comment from someone about the food, or an observation about the beautiful morning, and so on. It was an old fashioned social meeting among women. I had not been in on a scene like that since sorority days in
college with tiny sandwiches, frosted demi-cakes and punch.
After everyone finished and the plates were collected, we began a formal meeting with the elders. Marion led the way.
“The elders have discussed the idea of a project for youth. They think it might work well if the children learn something about gardening in the old way, and then to learn the names of the traditional plants, and farming practices. It could be also a way to add to the language recovery efforts.” She paused and looked among the elders to make sure she was communicating what they intended.
“Do any of our elders wish to comment?” she asked them.
A woman named Georgina spoke up. She had wavy, graying hair, shoulder length; fleshy cheeks with many wrinkles, and dark merry eyes. She was rotund and wore a flowing rose-patterned dress over her large bosom and belly. She was wearing support hose and heavy black orthopedic shoes. Her ears were adorned with long shimmering pink and white beaded earrings.
“Back when I was a little girl, we still farmed in the mud of the river after the flood was finished. The seeds we planted are the old ones, the ones that grow well here.” She pointed toward the landscape visible through the large glass windows in the meeting
space. “Most of our kids today have never seen nor tasted the native melons, beans, and greens that were all we had to eat back then. I think that kids could grow some of these old ones in a garden near the museum.” She looked at Marion then.
Marion was quiet for a while. Another elder spoke up: “It will be a challenge to interest the teens; they are too far into the modern culture to care. But the little guys might want to do it.”
We sat in silence thinking about this idea, to start with much younger members of the nation. Another elder spoke. “Teens are lost, you know, many already getting bad attitudes.” She was a little younger than the other elders, slim by comparison, with beautiful hands, Vicky noticed.
“I am thinking we should ask them to help the little guys. Give them a leadership role. They will learn along with the kids…without admitting it!” That made the room fill with laughter.
“Miss Greenway, do you think the university would support such a project?” Marion addressed me.
“Yes. I think it fits very well with the intent of the center,” I said. “Learning the native plants is directly connected to land and water and will be a wonderful, fun . . . a delicious way for children to learn at the same time.”
Then I decided to announce that the center had agreed to invest $5,000 in this project. “That should be enough to buy whatever you may need and have some left over to support all the ideas the kids may come up with.”
There were murmured comments among the elders. Marion cautioned us it would only be successful if kids wanted to do it. She offered for the project to be based in the museum programs, and to manage the money. The elders and Marion had already determined a place for a garden in their original blueprints for the museum. That seemed to be a good way to implement it, so I agreed.