The Nation's Pulse

Cowboys and Turkeys

What do we mean by "Native Americans," "Hispanics," and other officially sanctioned terms?

By 11.27.06

Send to Kindle

TAMPA -- Tony Hillerman's mystery novels take place in the wild and beautiful American Southwest and authentically portray the local Indian tribes. They're worth anyone's time to read.

Hillerman's stories are compelling, his series characters sympathetic and complex. His treatment of themes and character and local people make him more than a genre writer. He's a first-rate craftsman who expertly tells part of the Great American Story.

The accurate and sympathetic way he portrays Navahos and other tribes has earned him the respect and appreciation of Indians, including Indian tribal officials. As a result he's often invited to be a guest at tribal and inter-tribal gatherings.

In his very readable 2001 memoir, Seldom Disappointed, Tony describes an evening when he found himself at a large inter-tribal meeting shortly after the language nags decided that American Indians should henceforth be called Native Americans. He was curious about what his friends, regular walking around Indians who'd never been to Washington and had never felt compelled to join an indignation group, thought of this label. So he just came out and asked.

The boys kicked the question around the room for a while, coming to the consensus that as most Americans were born in America, and were therefore native Americans themselves, it made little sense to apply this name to American Indians. It was a category that didn't categorize.

Most in the room said they preferred to be called by their tribal affiliation, i.e., they thought of themselves as Navahos, Apaches, Kiowas, Arapahos, Zunis, etc. One guy -- can't remember which tribe because I'm paraphrasing this from memory -- summed it up by saying, " I don't mind being called an Indian because Christopher Columbus went looking for India and got lost. I'm just glad he wasn't looking for Turkey."

Me too. How much fun would it have been as a youngster to have played cowboys and Turkeys? And somehow those great cavalry movies of the 1950s would have lost a little if they had to rely on such stirring lines as, " Look, Lieutenant! Coming over the ridge. A whole s---load of Turkeys!"

The Duke would have gagged.

All of this, of course, brings us to Mel Martinez.

OUR MEL, A CUBAN-AMERICAN and a freshman U. S. Senator from Florida, will soon be the Republican National Committee's Vice President for Making Hispanics Vote for Republicans. (Very possibly a no gracias job.)

The problem is already obvious. Hispanic is as big of a horsepucky word as Native American is. It's a category that categorizes very little beyond language background and some tenuous connection, no matter how dated, with Spain. The Census Bureau came up with the category and the word during Tricky Dick's administration in order to, well, in order to do the busybody stuff that they do (most of which we could do without -- budget cutters make a note).

How many citizens of Mexico or Peru think of themselves as Hispanics rather than Mexicans or Peruvians? And Americans from these parts, if not yet comfortable with just plain " American," prefer the name of their former country and the hyphen to Hispanic, a word invented by document-stampers and hijacked by political casuists.

The word Hispanic doesn't describe much, the differences among and between these folks far outweighing the similarities. It does parse a tendency to vote Democratic, perhaps because so many are recent arrivals and still on fairly low rungs of the economic ladder. Some studies show that a majority of Americans with Spanish last names continue to vote Democratic even as they become economically successful. As these folks are a growing portion of the electorate, Republicans need to earn their votes, but no more than the votes of anyone else. Republicans would be better off fashioning policies that appeal to all conservative, family-oriented Americans, as people of Spanish background tend to be, rather than pandering with all sorts of special treatment to folks whose names end in a vowel.

Exhibit A in this foolishness is W's and the Republican Party's refusal to do anything about the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico, a problem Americans have made it clear they want something done about. This abject failure has two causes -- W's eagerness to please his corporate and chamber of commerce chums who want cheap labor, and fear that Latino voters will stiff Republicans at the polls if Spanish-speaking immigrants are prevented from coming to El Norte or, God forbid, if they are sent back home after they get here.

The Senate, with considerable help from Martinez, coughed up a hairball of an immigration bill last year that would have made it even easier for those who've entered the U.S. illegally to stay here for the duration. It would have done nothing to improve border security and would not have obliged anyone to return home. Fortunately, the House declined to go along with the gag, and the bad bill died at the end of the last Congress.

THE LATE BUT NOT LAMENTED Senate bill was in many ways a politician's dream. That is it was a complex proposal that would have given the impression a problem was being addressed when in fact nothing would have been done at all. The bill would have set up a Rube Goldberg system of dealing with the (use your preferred number) million illegal immigrants already in the country. Most by paying a small fine and some back taxes could just stay. But the bill did not provide for the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to find, keep track of, and collect fines and taxes from the millions of new American residents it would have created. The immigration system is already drowning trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep up with people here on tourist and student visas and the people applying to enter the country legally as residents.

An almost comical aspect of the bill was that it stratified the way illegals would have been treated based on how long they have been in the country. The bill's authors must be under the mistaken impression that illegals have their hands date-stamped when they sneak across the border.

Illegal immigration is a serious problem that Americans want a serious answer to. Borders are an absolute requirement of sovereignty. They're not a hate crime. The government of the United States needs to decide who enters the country and under what circumstances, not employers who want cheap labor or cheeky demonstrators from other countries who seem the think the U.S. Constitution confers rights on them and that American citizens have obligations toward them. (We have enough people with an exaggerated sense of entitlement born here, thank you very much. We don't need to import more -- or just allow more to come here when the mood strikes them.)

It will be more difficult now with Democrats ascendant in Congress, as they have no more stomach for dealing with the immigration problem than do Republicans. But if Republicans want to ever be the majority party again they'll have to get serious about this one. If they continue with the opera buffa approach they've used in the past, it will be Martinez and the Republicans who are the turkeys.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.