A train ride with a token Indian

Talk About Race — By Gyasi Ross on January 4, 2010 at 08:59

We learn to be aware of the things of which you all are probably aware. While we can not be certain that you ARE thinking a certain thing, still based upon past experience, we’re pretty sure that you are.

We check you out at as you’re checking us out. Thing is, we’ve seen your “tells” before (we’ve been seeing them all of our lives)—but you haven’t seen ours. We learn to read the eyes, when your eyes move down toward the ground and then a pregnant pause. That means that you want to ask you a question but you just don’t have the balls to ask.

“Look. Just ask.”

“No. It’s not a big deal.” Silence. He looks down to the subway floor like a little kid when he’s in trouble. “You’re just the first Indian that I met.” Silence again, still looking down. “I just didn’t picture Indians with facial hair. Do Indians have facial hair?”

I knew it. I’m laughing inside. “Well, I’m Native. I have facial hair.” I’m talking slow to him, like he’s a little kid and I’m instructing him.

Still, I didn’t want to be too much of a jerk—they seemed like nice people. Plus, I think his girlfriend liked me—she kept giving me the eye. Plus, Quizzo sounded fun. No need to burn this bridge, I guess. Instead, a bit of sarcastic education. “Ergo, one might conclude that Natives can, indeed, grow facial hair.”

The funny thing is, in my Double Consciousness, I do not picture myself with facial hair either. I don’t think most Natives do. We picture ourselves as tall, dark and virile men—as extras from Dances With Wolves. We are acutely aware of the pop culture image of Natives that lingers in peoples’ psyches. In fact, we subscribe to it just as much—if not moreso—than your average white liberal New Yorker who never met a Native before.

See, we started talking at Canal Street where his girlfriend asked about my earrings. “They’re abalone shell.” I barely made this train. I just purchased some fake Louis Vuitton purses for Christmas presents and was happy to be on the warm train. Initially, I thought that his girlfriend was checking me out, but then she grabbed her boyfriend’s hand and looked at me in the eye.

“Honey, I love his earrings.”

“Thank you.”

Her boyfriend chimed in, “You’re a bigger man than I am. I could never get away with wearing those. They look good on you though.”

I was not unused to people starting conversations with me. There aren’t a lot of Natives in the City. We had an interesting conversation. They were native New Yorkers, born and raised in Manhattan. Lawyers. Silver spoons. They were fascinated to meet a Native New Yorker, raised a million miles from the City. Interested in what would bring someone from reservation/rural landscapes to, according to them, “the ugliest city in the world.”

“Have you ever been to a reservation?” Neither of them had.

They invited me to Quizzo with them at a local pub. “Great drink specials!” This, of course, led me to look at them with a suspicious eye. Once again, you learn to anticipate what people are thinking being the “only” Native that most people know. There’s a certain pattern to the questions. A trajectory, a direction. I thought that they were making reference to Natives’ perceived predisposition to an alcohol addiction.

But I realized that I was just being overly sensitive, and that they were being nice. What can I say? I’m a freakin’ liberal—look for stupid stuff at which to get offended.

Anyway, as my stop neared, that’s when—I can pinpoint the exact moment—that the boyfriend noticed my slight beard.

Then the infamous “facial hair” discussion happened.

Now, riding on this Number 2 Train going uptown, I know I just killed this man’s romance about Natives. The first Native that he met SHOULD NOT be wearing Adidas and a New York Yankees hat. He’s blown away by the fact that I have an underdeveloped goatee and wavy hair. He’s disappointed that I left my breechcloth and warclub at home that day.

I guess in a way, I am disappointed too. I mean, yeah, he’s developed a simplistic image of Natives since he was a little kid; he probably championed the “Indian Club” at his expensive Manhattan private school based upon that image. Still, the image that he cultivated really isn’t that far off from many other peoples’ images—they either see the casino-rich Indian who gets a fat monthly check, or the broke-down, drunk Indian guzzling Nighttrain.

Comparatively speaking, I guess, his Noble Savage fantasy is pretty innocuous.

As I got ready to exit the train, I put both his email address, as well as his girlfriend’s in my Blackberry. I also asked if they were on Facebook.

Innocuous or not, at some point little kid fantasies must end.

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Author: Gyasi Ross (4 Articles)

Gyasi Ross

Gyasi “Fancy Skin” Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, “Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice.”

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