Day three started with Jane feeling much better, a delightful breakfast with our wonderful hosts, and a 30 minute car ride down into the heart of this specific Apache reservation, White River and Fort Apache. Today our agenda was mainly to help the employees of Johns Hopkins Center for Native American Health with whatever was on their plate for that day. Ed, our mentor was tasked with taking the photos of the newest employees and some select individuals from the surrounding areas. We helped him stage and set up the photos, and as a result met some amazing people, three of which we talk about below. In addition to meeting these people and aiding Ed in his work, we volunteered at Arrowhead Cafe, the Apache run store and cafe. The cafe sells delicious food and drinks to many of the people and, from what we saw, is a central gathering area. The adjacent store sold handmade jewelry, art, and apparel from local Apache artists. Our job was to help photograph the pieces of art so they could be posted on their online Etsy shop, which has so far been a booming success. Being in the cafe and the shop was a unique experience because it allowed us to meet people that would provide interesting conversations. As well as being able to see this thriving business all based on the efforts and determination of Apache people to help benefit their community.
One of the first Apache natives we meet was a 90 year old man. We met him while standing on the grounds of Fort Apache. Fort Apache was the military base during the Apache wars and the home to the Theodore Roosevelt Boarding School. The Theodore Roosevelt Boarding School opened in 1923 and aimed to dismantle many of the natives’ historical identities. The implementation of boarding schools trying to assimilate natives can be seen through the history of most reservations. As we stood on the grounds of Fort Apache, now the home to many offices and the newly developed Theodore Roosevelt boarding school that serves to provide education to middle school students and is approved by the tribal council, we heard about his own experiences at this place. While Ed and I photographed him, he said something that I thought was quite unexpected considering the context. He said to us “I hate Hitler because he took away my education.” When we asked him why, now intrigued by this comment, he explained that he had attended that boarding school. However, when the U.S. army started recruiting soldiers to fight in WW2 and pulled many natives from their homes to join the fight, he was one of them. Clearly, despite the acts of assimilation, had valued his education at Theodore Roosevelt Boarding School. He kept reiterating that because of Hitler, he had lost, despite the oppressive nature, his only access to education.
This idea generated a lot of thoughts in my head. It was mind blowing to think that after 73 years, this 90 year old man is still thinking about the education that he could have had. In fact, he arrived at the cafe and immediately started talking to me and within 3 minutes into that conversation he was talking about his experience at boarding school. Education was clearly very important to this man and it made my heart very heavy to think that not only was his education taken away from him but that even the education he did have wasn’t respecting who he was and his history. For me this conversation clearly stressed a very important lesson I carried with me throughout the day: that history stays with us.
One of the first Apache people we met on the reservation today was a painter. When we entered the cafe this morning, he was already there, waiting for Ed to photograph his newest painting (that had already been purchased) in order to add it to his portfolio. The painting itself was astonishingly beautiful, with intricate details in every aspect of the design. He recalled the legend of Geronimo, the historical Apache leader and focus of his painting. The focus was of Apache people, their heritage, pride, and current identity, similarly to all of the other artwork in the cafe. He explained each aspect of the remarkably realistic painting, and told us how all of his work related to some historical Apache event. His next painting, he confided, would be about the movement of guns into the tribe when Fort Apache, and the building adjacent to the cafe, was used as a storage unit for the white American colonizers’ rifles. After he and his paintings were photographed, we asked him when he started painting. “In jail,” he responded. When telling us about his past struggles with alcoholism, it was clear that art, along with his family, were what saved him from relapse. Twelve years sober, he has never taken a painting class, but sells each of his Apache-pride paintings for hundreds of dollars apiece. Until this trip, and specifically before meeting him, I had never fully understood the power of visual art as a force of personal change and liberation. On the walls surrounding the cafe, visual arts from students in the reservation hung for sale, bringing in revenue for kids exploring their passions. In the afternoon, high school kids came to the cafe for an after school entrepreneurial program – many of whom were artists Some planned to go to art school to continue their education and change their lives. In our academically focused East Coast prep school setting, traditional college is the only way to pursue a realistic career. On the reservation, however, art is a route through which many advance their lives, financially and personally.
While spending time with the high schoolers at the Arrowhead Cafe, we happened to meet a 17-year-old boy. From the moment we first encountered him while making crepes in the cafe’s kitchen, it was clear that there was something special about him. To begin with, he was the one to strike up a conversation with us, rather than the other way around. Although our position as volunteers for Johns Hopkins gave us the unspoken responsibility of reaching out to the students and trying to make them comfortable, it was this boy who ended up taking on this role for us. What really struck me about our first interaction with him was the fact that in spite of all the pain and injustice inflicted on his tribe by white invaders, he treated us – three white girls inserting ourselves into an Apache-run group for Apache kids – with tremendous kindness.
However, it wasn’t until a bit later when we found out just how extraordinary he is. At one point while having his photo taken, he mentioned to Ed that he designs and sells T-shirts, after which Ed offered to drive him the few miles to his house in order to buy a shirt. During the short car ride, we were all laughing, talking about nothing of great importance. But after he showed us his shirts, which we all ended up purchasing, he began to open up about more serious matters. The shirts themselves, which are decorated with images of a cactus that looks like a rose, along with the word ko’ (Apache for fire), embody his pride in his tribe and commitment to keeping its spirit alive. All of this became clear as we stood in his yard, talking to him for at least half an hour, with Maggie and me occasionally leaving for a few minutes at a time to play with his four year old sister.
It would be impossible to capture everything he said to us in this blog post, or anywhere other than that place in that moment. Never in my life have I encountered a teenager with so much wisdom and heart. He opened up to us about the tragedies which transpire on the reservation and his own struggle to overcome depression. He also shared his sadness about the declining value in which his generation holds Apache traditions. At one point, he cleared a space in the dirt and compared it to the Apache mind before the beginning of colonization. And then, he kicked in the pebbles and rocks to represent the confusion brought on by the arrival of European invaders. It is his goal to restore at least some of the former clarity, although doing this is easier said than done.
One of the last things that he said to us circled back to the shirts he designed and the importance of ko’ – fire. He said that when you look into a fire you made with wood you gathered yourself, you can hear it talking to you, and you can talk back to it. This piece of wisdom seemed to exemplify the Apache connection to the land and its spiritual power, as well as his amazing sense of nature, spirit, and self. As I reflect on everything he said, I am realizing that there is so much wisdom left for me to draw from his words, so much I have only just begun to comprehend.
Today was incredibly impactful for all three of us but we still are processing a lot of what the day meant for us. We are sure much more insight on this day in particular will come later.