Here's a story. I was here 25 years ago to do a couple of stories about people from the neighborhood; one of them was supposed to be Navajo or Zuni. I was doing a book for the denomination of which I am a part, the Christian Reformed Church, and part of the contract dictated that I travel here, to New Mexico, and tell an authentic Indian story.
I contacted the man I was told was the patriarch of the place at the time--a man named Rev. Rolf Veenstra, a man who gave himself to the mission that he served here, a mission that was, at the time, already 75 years old.
Veenstra told me he wouldn't set me up with some local Indian because whenever church bureacrats came down to New Mexico, he said, they always wanted to meet some Tonto to feed their own PR urges--or whatever. "The future of the Native American," he told me, "isn't on reservations. The future of Native America is elsewhere."
I understood that assertion, although not as well as he did. I didn't argue--he knew better than I could have. Instead, I found a Native woman in Chicago, at a CRC Inidian mission. She was from Arizona, I remember, but her story was wonderful. I wonder where she is today--or her children, who played beside her when I did the interview. In retrospect, I think Veenstra was right in chasing me away.
But that declaration of his stays with me, a quarter century later. I've asked Red Lake Ojibwas, some Lummis from northwest Washington, Lakotas from Rosebud, and a Navajo from Arizona that question--is the future of Native people truly off-reservation? Today, they all say the same thing: Native people must have reservations--reservations are home.
But should they leave, as Veenstra declared? The answers to that question are mixed, more by predilection than tribe.
I don't claim to know that answer--and this white guy certainly wouldn't try to answer for Natives. But I think he was wrong for being that vehement because I think the answer is more nuanced. What's happened since the late 70s is a nativistic resurgence, a renaissance of traditional values, a return--or at least an attempt--to find at least something of "the old ways." A Lummi leader told me that he believed in just five years, Lummi kids would be speaking the old language today.
Here, at the mission school where my church has been for more than 100 years, the Navajo Nation's Education Committee will get a tour of the brand new facilities today. One part of the tour will be a showcase of the Code Talkers Center in the Middle School. While they're there, those bureaucrats will hear little Navajo kids speaking Navajo--they're learning it here, a place where the Navajo language was once thought to be a token of a way of life that had to be abandoned by way of a theory that went like this: Native people had to learn to get along in the real world--which was, of course, white.
I saw his grave yesterday--Rev. Rolf Veenstra. He was a wonderful pastor, a leader, a man given to love and compassion. The stone calls him a Saint. I don't know if he would have chosen that word himself, but it was clear even then--25 years ago--that people respected him as a tower of faith and grace.
I think he was a saint, quite frankly, but the whole story is proof that even our best isn't always all right.