Of Missionaries and Indian Loggers

“You’re ugly.” A small girl, perhaps three years old, tells him as he walks past a rusty swing set.

“Why?” he asks, genuinely curious.

“Your skin is brown.” She responds.

It’s true. Though his mom is light skinned, he could never be mistaken for anything other than Native on the basis of looks. His father’s brown skin out raced his mother’s in the genetic cauldron. He had never thought of my skin as a thing of shame. That brown skin could be “bad” first occurred to him at this church camp.

He tries hard not to laugh. He gets in trouble when he laughs. Authorities, preachers, school principles, those intoxicated by their own insignificant power, hear a challenge in laughter. But it seemed so stupid, the misplaced importance some place on the pigment of skin.

The little girl at bible camp may have been the first Missionary Jack encountered, but she certainly wouldn’t be the last.

A sky hazed with a billion flags of dust, hangs above a land known as the reservation. Jack’s people reside there, leather skinned, like earth baked long enough it begins to crack. Men and women who are not defeated, even after a hundred years of being quarantined in a prisoner-of-war camp.

A long time ago, tasting the Mediterranean mist as he died, a martyr bled. He said everything. He said nothing. His name was Jesus. He looked a little different than he does now.

Somewhere between the shining sea and purple mountains majesty, the dark pigment of this Jesus’s skin was bleached white. His words were attacked with scissors then glued back together sloppily meaning something a little different. Uncle Sam started wearing this Jesus on his arm, pretending Jesus spoke when it was really Sam’s voice.

A few would gather on Sundays, to talk about the man of the Mediterranean. They loved him. He was, after all, their mirror image. They were, after all, the ones who elected Uncle Sam to parrot the mangled words, carrying the effigy on his arm. Often they wanted to share the glory of themselves with the world, sending Sam to exotic places far and wide to share his ventriloquist act. These were Missionaries.

One day, a Missionary came to the reservation, looking for cheap workers and souls to shepherd to salvation. Three Indian men volunteered to go with the Missionary to get food for the people in the Colorado forests.

“Everything I do, I do for the Indian people”

The Missionary said somberly, sitting in the cab of a brand new truck, with hundred dollar bills in his pocket. New checks donated for the Indian cause waiting to be cashed in his mailbox.

The Missionary drove the Indians to the woods, where the Indians trekked with chainsaws in hand. An ocean of Indian sweat felled a semi load of lumber in only two days.

Sometimes groups of Missionaries would arrive. The three Indians would rejoice at their coming, figuring they wouldn’t have to cut down the entire forest by themselves.

But the Missionaries never helped. They just stared, trembling with excitement, titillated at the prospect of telling the Indian race of their lostness. They relished the opportunity to teach others to hate what small minds fear or misunderstand, and to call that hatred a holy love.

A man with a selling smile, chest huffed with his own importance, told the Indians:  “God sent us here today. He wants us to tell you about Jesus.”

One Indian replied: “Perhaps god did send you here today…”

Motioning to the forest, the Indian said: “We’re out here cutting wood for elders and the disabled. Many people on the reservation have no electricity. Without wood to heat their homes, they can’t survive. We’re short on help. It’s just the three of us working. Maybe god sent all your able bodies to pitch in here today.”

The man was no longer smiling. “That’s not what we’re here for. We came out of concern for your souls. If you won’t hear about Jesus, we’re wasting our time”

The three Indians, soaked in sweat and sawdust, and the Missionaries, pristine and curious-eyed, looked each other over. The Indian who spoke replied: “If your Jesus is anything like you, perhaps we don’t care to know him.”

Another Indian muttered just beyond earshot: “I don’t need Jesus. I have Tunkashila.”

The Missionaries left, and the Indians kept working. By the week’s end they had two semi loads of wood felled and split.

In this land between nuclear sea and smog mountain majesty, a puppeteer moves a mouth with his fingers.  He projects his voice to make it look like the ventriloquist dummy himself speaks. “Do so, for god commands you,” a voice will boom.

Sometimes the puppet show comes to the reservation. The three Indians still listen respectfully. Yet when this god hates all the same people the Missionary hates, endorses the same Republican political ticket the Missionary endorses, speaks in slogans of pop psychology, and looks suspiciously like Uncle Sam sloppily plastered over with sayings cut from a bible, the three are not fooled.

They can see the Missionary pulling strings, mouthing words, hoping the crowd falls for his ventriloquist act.

Tom Swift Bird is an Oglala Lakota writer and musician, majoring in information technology at Oglala Lakota College.  

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