When a writer is coming from a place of cultural difference, there are always choices to be made about how to finesse the difference even when, as in the matter I’m about to address, I think the distance is not great. It’s easy to write from the outside looking in, because the backstory slides in slicker than goose grease. Writing from the inside looking out is harder. I know this one is borderline.
Photo credit: Steve Russell
Buying a car will always be a big deal to me.
The two material things I wanted when I escaped rural Oklahoma (formerly the Muscogee Creek Nation) were a place to live with lights and plumbing built in and a car that always started. Not to say I had a car that failed to start. I had no car, but I was car-crazy, like most teens of the day, on or off reservations.
All the reservations in Oklahoma save one — the Osage — were made to disappear with Oklahoma statehood in 1907. The Osage had enough oil to buy enough Congresscritters to keep their mineral rights, if not their surface rights, as a collective holding rather than what happened to the rest of us.
In most of Oklahoma, each tribal citizen got a few acres varying on the quality of the land called an allotment. The tribal government maintained land for administrative offices. That land and the allotments were held in trust by the federal government for the tribe and so were legally “Indian country.” All else was declared “surplus land” and opened for white settlement.
Reservations were rural with agricultural economies. There were few big cities in Oklahoma as, come to think of it, there are not all that many today. Most economic activity is centered in Oklahoma City or Tulsa. Both the Cherokee Nation, where I was a citizen, and the Muscogee-Creek Nation, where I was born and raised, abutted on the Tulsa metro area from different sides. The rural people aspired to move to the cities where there was more money and more excitement.
As quickly as Indians were able to get their allotments out of trust status, they sold out to the speculators who were waiting like so many crows on the fence. As a matter of habit, many rural Indians still referred to their former reservation boundaries as “the rez” even though the tribal governments used the legal jargon, “jurisdictional areas.”
Somehow, in Bristow we never developed the habit of saying, “Do you want to ride over to the Sac & Fox jurisdictional area and get some of that deadly coffee at The Rock Café?” It didn’t help break the verbal habit when the state of Oklahoma put up signs on the road about “entering the Sac & Fox Reservation.” Another contributor to the ahistorical “rez” remarks was the rise of the powwow.
The powwow circuit got to be a thing even among tribes like mine that did not powwow. We were sucked in by the dance competitions with cash prizes, the opportunities to sell crafts and artwork, but mostly by the chance to socialize with Indians from all over with different languages and different traditions. It was naturally an opportunity to meet young people of the opposite sex, something that could be a very big deal in some tribes with shrinking populations combined with complicated, clan-based incest rules that severely limited dating opportunities.
Powwow culture became a thing that lived and grew outside of any particular tribe. (Ask an Indian friend for some “snag jokes.”) The powwow circuit spans the nation, or it did when eastern tribes were able to open casinos where they could put up rich prizes for fancy dancing to attract customers.
“Fancy dancing” refers to a style that is ostentatiously non-traditional and so a fancy dance competition can be entered by anybody from any tribal tradition or even from tribes like mine, which did not powwow at all. Of course, there are also competitions involving traditional dances — grass, buffalo, eagle, hoop, gourd — of which there are many but they are limited by geography and the circuit has gone national. Women compete in shawl and jingle dances.
The traditional dance for my people is the stomp dance. I said we didn’t powwow, not that we didn’t dance.
Travel along the powwow circuit was often by vehicles that had one wheel in the boneyard and looked like it, affectionately (when running) known as “rez cars.”
Did you ever notice the brand distribution of rez cars? You know, the ones that stay on the road with bubble gum and baling wire until the day they quit and become parts cars for the community? (Traditions differ on how long you have to wait before it’s not stealing to use a dead car for parts. It’s best to ask around on the particular rez.)
Photo credit: Steve Russell
Foreign cars made few appearances where I lived, in recently stolen Indian country, where there were tribal headquarters buildings for each rez before the Great Theft of 1907 that made Oklahoma.
When foreign cars did show up, they drew a crowd. There were two VWs in town, one bus and one bug. Once in a blue moon, an English roadster would pass through on Route 66. The Mother Road was our main street in Bristow, OK, literally.
Renaults and Simcas were sold in Tulsa, but we seldom saw them.
So my world was divided among Fords and Chevys and MoPar, principally the first two. Most families habitually bought the same brands. I came from a family that would rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy.
The one exception was the Corvette. Every year, the local Chevy dealer got the loan of a Corvette during an open house to introduce the new models. Free popcorn and peanuts and Coca-Cola and a Corvette up close and personal. The whole town would show up but, after the open house, the Corvette would go back on a truck and head off down the Mother Road. Nobody in Bristow ever bought one.
My first car was naturally a Ford. My second, a Plymouth. Then I discovered foreign cars and pretty much swore off Detroit Iron for years. Nobody who took Consumer Reports seriously — and I do to this day — could do otherwise. To buy American was sort of like piling your money in the front yard and setting it on fire. I drove one VW after another. I never had a mechanical problem with a VW and the gas mileage was great for the times.
There was a gas station across the street from my last USAF assignment on the edge of San Antonio, where the guy would refuse to put gas in anything made in Germany, Italy, or Japan. I would occasionally be driving English roadsters I car sat while the owners were on assignment, and it was clear his animus did not extend to foreign cars generally. He would sell you gas, but you had to pump your own back in the days when nobody pumped their own if the Axis built your car. That was my first notice of car buying as a political act. I understood his feelings and did not criticize them.
My closest friendships are from the military and from the civil rights movement, for similar reasons. Facing danger together leads to bonding. The movement project that took up the most space in my life was the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, although they were UFWOC when I first saddled up for the fight. The times I was lucky enough to be with César Chávez personally, I had no doubt the honorific attached to Gandhi fit Chávez. In English, “great soul.” I quickly learned that most of Chávez’s funding came from the United Auto Workers, the fiercely independent union that had seceded from the stodgy AFL-CIO.
I began to seek out Detroit Iron again, and suffered the predictable consequences. Detroit’s Big Three made junk, except for a brief time in the mid-sixties when Chrysler extended their warranty past the industry standard to 5 years/50,000 miles. In spite of making better cars during that time, they still lost their ass on the project and it soon ended.
It was only when the average car price hit five figures that American cars got competitive on quality, Ford being first out of the chute. GM was spotty. Buick was the first GM marque to spike in Consumer Reports ratings. Pontiac never did produce quality to match their sexy designs. But Pontiacs were hot rods and Buicks were for your grandfather.
I’m the grandfather now, and I finally bought my first Buick, having come close twice in the past but gotten offers I could not refuse on a Cadillac from the GM Family Plan. No, I could not afford the normal price of a Caddy and yes, I married into a GM family. My late father-in-law worked on the line at GM. When my wife and I got together, she was driving a Corvette. I was driving a Ford Explorer. Both bright red in color, proving we had something in common.
Even with the deep discounts, all things are not possible. The discounts are not evenly distributed among all GM cars. We never could get a deal on a Saturn, and the only way to get a Corvette was wait for the model change and buy the old one. I was barely able to consider a Cadillac ELR by adding together the $15,000 discount and the federal tax credit for an electric vehicle. I could have it if I considered a car more important than my grandkids, but that day will never come.
Still, the fantasy was entertaining for a couple of hours. Car fantasies do not dominate my thoughts like they did when I was a teenager, but there is an alternate universe where I am driving a Tesla.
Rez cars have changed since “the computer” became known as a necessary car part. Cars that die in the electronic sense are harder to resurrect, but I have to admit that these modern cars make good-looking corpses. Primer paint is what it is, but my grandkids don’t use as much of it as I did. Their cars seem to either run or not. I was used to automotive zombies, cars that were dead and didn’t know it.
There was the time my three-on-the-tree transmission linkage broke and I managed to install a floor shifter backwards, making my car hard to steal because first gear was in fact reverse. There was the radio added on by a previous owner that would periodically catch fire but I could not figure out the bird’s nest of wires he left for me. There was the Oldsmobile for which I could not manage to get four old tires of the same size and I could not afford new tires even when the mismatch caused both a racket and a wobble.
There was the semester in law school when my battery died and I had to show up early every day to park on the hill that allowed me to bump-start it. I would not buy a car battery in a semester when I could not afford textbooks. That Ford would have been at home on any rez. When I graduated and got a car loan based on my law degree, that car got donated to the United Farm Workers. While I meant well with the donation, I was as shocked as anybody when they decided to drive it to California…and it arrived.
I won’t claim I don’t enjoy being able to buy cars new since I graduated. Given my life experiences, though, buying a car will always be a big deal.
This post was previously published on www.medium.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
Photo credit: Steve Russell