I can still see the resplendent genuine Sioux war bonnet in the window of Fitch’s Trading Post down on Third Street in Harrisburg, Pa. Even though it has been almost 70 years, I can envision just about everything in that place: the drums, tomahawks, peace pipes, and lots of turquoise jewelry. I could not afford anything in that store (certainly not the bonnet — and what would I have done with it?), but the library downtown had a shelf of books on Indians (what they were called then), and I read as many as I could and pored over Edward Curtis’s historic photographs with a passion.
Who knows where our interests come from? Along with a preoccupation with animals and nature, I was focused on Native American history and culture. Why would a 10-year-old boy have such a fixation? I really don’t know. But I can put things in a bit of context: Native Americans were intimately associated with the natural world, as I wished to be. But more than that: they were a conquered and vanquished culture (cultures, actually) and had suffered grievous genocidal treatment.
My people had suffered similar treatment. World War II ended the year I was born. The Holocaust was not old news. Every day, in the yeshiva I attended, I was reminded that the Jewish people had persevered in the face of a monstrous plan to eradicate them, a recent development in centuries of hatred, and that prejudice was still ongoing.
I remember one day, while I was collecting payment on my paper route, a customer peeled off a few bills and told me for some reason that Jews always peeled their money towards themselves, not away: “That’s one way to tell a Jew.” The single biggest fact of my young life was to comprehend this hatred and to know that I, Dennis Minsky, who meant no living thing any harm, was the object of it, and, without the luck of time and place, I might have been murdered for the fact of being Jewish. That’s the way to tell a Jew.
Little more than a decade later, I left Harrisburg and ended up in Provincetown. In that preceding decade, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll had usurped my attention completely from Native American studies and diminished somewhat my involvement in natural history and even some of my cultural identification. I was adrift in many ways, trying to forge an identity and a self that included the old me but absorbed some of the exciting newness around me.
One immense feature of that newness was Provincetown’s vibrant Portuguese culture. I had never experienced anything like it: the food, the language, the intimacy and easy familiarity people had with each other, their nicknames, association with place, and, especially, their connection to the natural world through fishing. The Portuguese I met were friendly and outgoing, full of Mediterranean good will and the joy of life. Here was a people that had not known oppression, who expressed their cultural identity not in defiance of anything but in the sheer joy of what it was. There was no shadow hovering over them (although the future was already threatening some of the foundations of their culture, especially from changes in the fishing industry). What fun it was to be introduced to this new culture, whether at Cookie’s Tap or out on MacMillan Wharf.
So it has been all these years. Yet I have always been wary of celebrating ethnic specialness when ethnic divisions are tearing our world apart. Is the first step to dehumanizing another person — even to the point that you would take his or her life — the celebration of your own culture? Must it be so? America is a melting pot to some extent, but many ingredients refuse to blend. While we celebrate the Jamaicans and Bulgarians in our town, this country’s history regarding African Americans and Native Americans is a source of shame.
Now, we have front and center the horror of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. But it is not the only one. And the “us-and-them” dynamic goes beyond ethnic differences to politics and lifestyles: a right-wing commenter on social media said, “It may be time for good people to do bad things.”
Stop. I want to get out of this maelstrom. I want to celebrate each culture but find the commonality in all of them. I hope it is possible.