Tales of a wandering lesbian


I think Salem has one of the strangest, and perhaps ugliest, perhaps prettiest Capitol buildings ever.  The outside is strange, the inside is strange.   It’s just strange.  And totally Oregon.

I’m sitting in the House chambers right now, where the floor is covered in carpet adorned with images of the White Pine, Oregon’s state tree, and the wall behind the podium is covered in a mural showing the state’s organizational meeting – the first “Wolf Meeting” at Champoeg.  When they recarpeted the building, people bought sections of the old stuff to hang on their walls.  But it’s the doornobs I love.

I’m here for one of my favorite events:  Tribal Government Day.  It’s one of the big three food days that happen at the Capitol.  The other two are chicken day (poultry lobby) and beef day (beef lobby).  As a state worker, you become plugged in to what is going on in “the building,” especially when it involves free stuff.  And when it comes to free stuff, Tribal Day is the pinnacle.

Here’s how it works:  the tribes and confederated tribes of Oregon come to the Capitol for the day.  They set up information booths and give away things.  Info pamphlets, pencils, brightly colored shopping bags emblazoned with tribe insignia, playing cards, etc.  Most of these booths have upright displays, whether it’s poster board with pictures of tribe members walking, and hand-lettered captions like, “exercise!”  Or an enlargement of an 1855 unratified treaty.  The tribes may be sovereign, but they’re not missing out on the commercialism that plagues the nation as a whole.

At the same time, the Casinos set up spectacular food displays, usually including ice or butter sculptures, and great trees of chocolate-covered fruit kebobs.  White-jacketed catering staff replace plates of melon, while ice cream scoopers work the line of hungry state employees, doling out tastes of the huckleberry/hazelnut ice cream that Umpqua  dairy makes exclusively for the casinos.

The food is great, but my favorite part has always been the performance in the house chambers.  With the entire legislature seated in the chambers, and the galleries packed with visitors, the morning session is opened with the drumming and chanting of tribe members.   Seated around a large drum, beautiful people bless the proceedings.  I cry every time.  With the legislators sitting at their desks, their seats of power, little American flags standing sentinel over their day’s agendas, the tribes bless the chamber, bless the state, and bless the working relationship of those who make the decisions for the state.

The tribes and confederations are recognized as sovereigns.  They have the right to govern their lands – the ones covered by treaties – for the most part, and to protect the health and welfare of their people.  (I know this is a super-simplified statement.)  Once a year the tribal leaders are invited to stand at the head of the legislature, symbolic equals.

In years past I’ve heard the governor and the senate president speak eloquently about the tribes and the relationship between the Oregon government and the Tribal Councils.  I’ve seen beautiful performances by high-school students proud of their heritage.  I’ve heard tribal elders speak about the tragedy of high-school drop-out rates.  I’ve watched as people queue up to get their free bag and pack of cards, and wait for an hour to walk past the butter sculpture.

It used to be called Tribal Information Day.  Now it’s Tribal Government Day.  I wonder if next it will be called Casino Food Day.

This year is an off-year.  The legislature isn’t in session.  I’ve never been here for Tribal Day in an off-session year.  I came for breakfast, walked through the smaller than ever information area, and came into the House chamber to sit and think about the years when I’ve been inspired by the spirit of cooperation demonstrated here.

The truth is, I’m here for the food, and the speeches, and the performances.  I’m here to feel hope that all peoples can come together and work toward the good of all members of all societies.  I’m here to feel a little better, knowing cultures as beautiful as those on display today aren’t completely erased.  But I don’t know how to do more than watch.  How do I talk with a woman about tribal health centers?  How do I start a conversation about unratified treaties?  How do I acknowledge my privileged guilt without letting it hobble me?  There are no pretty speeches to distract me this year from this question.

Now I’m off to listen to this year’s performance, and to seek out  my other favorite part of Tribal Day.  It’s a tad cliché.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.  It’s the fry bread.  If you keep your eyes open, there’s usually a spot in the corner of a table of casino food where authentic fry bread hides.  Sometimes it’s paired with fresh marionberry preserves.  This isn’t from the casino.  It’s from members of the tribes.  It’s made by families and shared lovingly.  If it’s an extra lucky year, someone will have brought smoked salmon.  The real deal.  Caught in our rivers and smoked by hand.  You have to look carefully, or it’ll slip by.  A mess of fish and bread out of character from the polish of the ice sculpture.  But for those who know, it makes the hour-long line worth every second.

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May 14, 2010   1 Comment