By Dillon Turman
It was the eve of November when I was asked to travel to Washington D.C. to showcase my knowledge and respects for mytribe as a Cherokee Nation representative at the 2014 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Associations’ first ever tribal youth conference. Though I have been to Washington D.C. many times before, this was the first time that I truly felt as if I were going purposefully.
I had nearly a month to prepare for my trip. As with everything that I do, I delayed my packing and planning up to the very last minute. Therefore, when it came time to wake up at five in the morning and catch my flight, let’s just say that I was a bit…underprepared. I did it though. I managed to make it to the airport with a mean cowlick atop my head and a stomach full of butterflies. I have never been keen on flying – something about the lack of control and undeniable wrongfulness of it all. “If God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings.” I told myself. But I was prepared. For some reason, long ago, I designated a playlist on my iPod that consisted of god awful Britney Spears songs and lackluster Glee renditions of my most favorite Michael Jackson songs. I convinced myself that surely God would never allow me to die listening to bad tasting music; isn’t it funny the random rationalizations we allow ourselves to believe? Especially how they pale in comparison to an event as catastrophic as a plane crash. Nevertheless my baggage was checked and, finally, so were my thoughts.
Upon arriving at my gate, I stumbled across a mini-store where I then bought a bottle of water that I knew I would never drink and a couple of packs of Dramamine. Finally, as I found my seat, I also met who I would consider to be my mentor by the end of this trip. Melissa was an intelligent person whom I admire indefinitely. Her world views and positions on things as we began to delve further into getting to know each other seemed as if she was a natural born leader. She helped rid me of any nerves or feelings of anxiousness that I had left before the flight and even during.
After arriving in Washington D.C., a feeling flushed through me like a rush of adrenaline – I was home. Not because I was in Washington D.C., but because I was once again surrounded by the many different aspects and economic boom a large metropolitan area has to offer.
As Melissa and I made our way from the airport to the place we knew the conference would be held, we encountered a wind that could cut you like a knife and cabby’s that were so self-entitled they would literally degrade you for tipping anything less than ten dollars.
All obstacles aside, we finally made it to our hotel, checked-in, got settled in our rooms and regrouped downstairs in the lobby of the hotel. This is where I met my fellow representative Josh -- a down-to-earth kid to say the least who let the music from the hotel lobby, and pretty much wherever we went, drive the rhythm of his body language. It was after each of us shared a bit more about ourselves with each other and found an extremely deep common interest in food, we decided to venture out to a local restaurant and, I personally decided that I definitely could not have asked for a better group to spend an entire week with.
Waking up the next morning, I was a bit jet-lagged and naturally tired. I scuffled around like a restful, grumpy child on their first day of school, rummaged through my bags and slapped a semi-presentable outfit together. I recalled the night before during dinner Melissa mentioned we need to re-group in the morning for breakfast and to register for the conference so, with my now signature cow-lick I did just that. As the group was altogether and we were all equally as tired and all noticeably not morning friendly, we made our way to the registration booths. One by one, we were taken care of. Before me, Kaylayla, Port Gable S’Klallam Tribal Youth Representative of Kingston, Washington and Regina, Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board Representative of South Dakota, then came my turn. I registered for the conference, but little did I know I also registered for both a life-changing experience and a cultural epiphany.
Since there were little to no sessions that day, Melissa, Josh and I all made our way to the downstairs atrium in order to retrieve breakfast. Where Josh and I both took the initiative to question Melissa about our heritage and Cherokee history. She was a buff at this ‘sort of stuff’. She eloquently maneuvered through history and time and the struggle our people had faced from dissemination to removal, to death to sacrifice, disease and famine to name a few. And I just sat back and ingested every last bit of it to cure my ignorance.
As we wrapped up breakfast, we all decided to venture over to the United States Holocaust Museum. In my mind, a seemingly perfect allusion to the acts of discrimination and hate the Native American and indigenous people faced in their past. As I walked through the museum, I found myself over-stimulated and digressing more than I usually did. It was a lot to take in. It was a lot to accept. I had learned about World War II and anti-Semitism so many times before, but this experience was truly as if I were a ghost, walking in the shadows of all the innocent lives and people that died so many years ago.
An exhibit that stuck out to me particularly was the exhibit that laid nothing but shoes of every size, every shape and every color out on display. Melissa mentioned a great point that there was no exemption during this genocide. And as I began to see all the shoes ranging from burlap material to Italian Venetian design and custom made, I began to affirmatively grasp that you died -- regardless of class. Before, it was easy for me to accept privilege and acknowledge that life has little to no struggle. Before, I created a bubble of ignorance around me that barely even let the light in, but this museum burst that bubble and allowed me to see and relate the pain and suffering these people faced to the struggles of my ancestors. That ‘sort of stuff’ that I mentioned earlier, became something so powerful and uplifting that I am nearly brought to tears each time I am questioned or have the opportunity to learn about the struggles, and genocide the many cultures that have shaped this world have faced.
On day three of my stay, I was self-actualized and ready to go. I wanted to learn, I wanted share my knowledge and help others be a part of the bigger picture and fuller circle of knowing. I attended several conferences, met so many talented and spiritual people in touch with their culture that inspired me. But I quickly learned that thou shall not be too eager or confident, because others may mistake it for arrogance. I was chastised for expressing my views, and ultimately felt like I did not have a place or say in any matter regarding Native American’s. You see, I grew up in a Caucasian household, with an Anglo-American belief system wired within me and passed down from over four generations on both my mother and father’s sides. In hindsight, I could see why a table full of strictly raised Native American’s would be offended when I asked if any of them were also from any of the “Five Civilized Tribes”, but on the same token, I was confused as to why I wasn’t being accepted like the others were.
Upon leaving my mid-day conference, my highly euphoric feeling quickly became a feeling of deflation and remorse. I caught one of the attendees who was in the conference room with me just before she left for her lunch break and rooted my apologies with sincerity and respect. She informed me that, it was indeed because I used the word “civilized” and also told me that she thought of me as a “douche bag asshole” afterwards. The misunderstanding was indefinitely adjusted, and we grew very fondly of each other, but for the remainder of my day I could not shake the biggest question I consider to have encountered at this event: Why am I being treated differently?
This question would grow to haunt me during the rest of my stint in Washington, D.C. and still haunts me to this day. I have recited the facts, researched each issue after issue and consulted with many to receive their opinion. But I believe the most effective insight I have thus far is just this – we are all different. We all face many issues in life. But if there is one thing that I learned from this conference, from the Holocaust museum, from my internal analysis it is that these people, from many different tribes and walks of life are one person. They carry the weight of their ancestors and the pain and suffering they went through, they stick together regardless of tribe or background and they assemble in unity and welcome onlookers while doing so. I was not mistreated, I was not chastised, I was not ostracized. I was an outsider that didn’t fit because I have yet to share or learn of the experiences and struggles that these people and their people faced and with this realization, I became happy and lively once again because it gave me hope. Hope that out of all of the sickness, disease, hurt, pain and suffering in the world there will still be a compassion amongst brotherhoods, people and communities no matter if they are two miles apart or two thousand miles – benevolence is present and it is willing to truly defeat the adversities life has to offer.