The Okanogan Valley, where I live, took a deep, collective breath yesterday and probably exhaled with a sigh. It was our first day of smoke-free air in weeks, a classic summer day, high in the 80s, blue sky, gentle breeze. Besides that, it was the day after the Omak Stampede, which informally serves as the apex of summer hilarity around here. After Stampede, we get back to business. The return to school, work, harvest, and the county fair are coming at us all too soon. The smoke was forecast to return, too.
Stampede is a mixed bag of community celebration with a professional rodeo and controversial horse race at its heart. There’s so much more—from art shows to the colorful and exotic Indian encampment, from swilling suds in a totally unglamorous beer garden to singing hymns at the Sunday morning cowboy worship service, from tubing the lazy Okanogan River to partaking of dizzying carnival rides. It’s too much for some of the citizenry, who leave town to escape the dust, crowds and craziness.
I agreed this year to volunteer for a few hours at a voter registration booth in the Indian encampment. I told a friend what I’d be doing, and she made a comment that shocked me. I know she thought she was saying something funny. What I heard was racist. I gasped and mildly chastised her.
Later, I regretted my response because I’m pretty sure she thought—if she thought about it all—that I was objecting on the basis of political correctness. I’d failed to tell her how I felt. I felt sad—sad because her comment reflected an unfair stereotype of Native Americans, sad because those stereotypes negate possibilities for compassion and connection, sad because I didn’t want to be in a position of judging or thinking less of a friend whom I admire.
Today the haze has returned to our valley, smoke from the myriad fires in British Columbia and in our own Pasayten Wilderness to the north. A different kind of haze lies all across our country after the events in Charleston, Virginia—yet another episode in our confused desperation over our national legacy of racism. It’s a dense, smoky cloud that strangles us as we struggle to find ways to clear the air.
Yes, it matters what the President and all our leaders say from their bully pulpits. More important to me, however, is what I say. And what you say. I might have said to my friend, “Your comment was painful for me to hear. Could we talk about it so that I can understand how you truly feel?” I’ll try to remember that next time. And there will be a next time—probably not with this friend, but comments and attitudes are out there all around me. To work our way out of the blinding haze of racism—and all aspects of discrimination—will require each of us addressing it, one by one by one.