New Mexico (Travelog entry 25)

We drive through some Indian reservations. Five hundred years ago, the Americas were incredibly diverse, populated by hundreds or even thousands of distinct tribes with distinct cultures. At least twenty distinct language families could be found in California alone — compare three language families native to Europe (Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, and Basque) or four native to Africa (Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoi-San; a fifth language family came to Madagascar from Austronesia only a couple of thousand years ago, while the American Indians have been in America at least six times as long).

The amazing diversity of the American Indian languages is a powerful drug for a linguist like me. I toked Lakota in college, and snorted Nahuatl in graduate school, and have been mainlining Navajo and Miwok more recently. The four are unrelated and fascinatingly different from European languages and from each other. If you are not linguistically inclined you can still get a tiny glimpse of the diversity if you study early drawings and paintings by anthropologists which show wildly different costumes and ritual gear from one tribe to the next.

Just in the area which is now New Mexico (Norway without Svalbard has about the same area, but New Mexico is nearly square), there were Uto-Aztecan farmers in thatched huts, Zuñi pueblo-dwellers with multi-story apartments, Athabaskan hunters living in log hogans, nomadic Yuman foragers, and many more, speaking languages as different from each other as English is from Japanese.

The Indians have gotten a pretty raw deal through US history, and Americans don’t like to talk about it. The sixth President, John Quincy Adams, wrung his hands over the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, whom we are exterminating with such perfidious cruelty,” as the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, was vigorously stepping up the extermination. Taking a cue from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., some other country ought to set up a Museum of the American Holocaust, perhaps Bolivia. And the US should consider taking the genocidal Jackson off the twenty dollar bill.

After five hundred years of unfavorable treaties, diseases, alcohol, relocations, war, murder, and other insults, many Indians live on reservations on mostly unproductive land out west (some of the tribes living there having been driven there from their lusher homelands in the east). These reservations have struggled mightily with poverty, boredom, and alcoholism.

In the seventies and eighties, however, courts ruled that state laws regulating gambling don’t apply to reservations, and several Indian tribes began to set up gaming halls and then casinos and attendant hotels and restaurants (a secret to a successful casino is to ensure that nobody ever has to leave, not as long as they have some money left).

Over the last twenty years this trend has accelerated and now over two hundred tribes have their own casinos. Many tribes have lifted themselves out of poverty in this way, and some have become quite rich. The Seminoles of Florida have become so adept at the business that they purchased the whole Hard Rock Cafe franchise in 2007 (founded in London in 1971, the chain now consists of 175 hotels, restaurants, and casinos in 53 countries).

Some reservations that I remember from twenty years ago as being littered with dusty trailer homes and broken-down cars now sport huge new buildings with blinking neon lights and big well-lit parking lots. These operations employ lots of people and provide them with incomes to support a middle class lifestyle.

Casino hotels are reasonably priced, since they focus on making their money through gaming and so the more people around the better. That’s good because we’re pretty far from any cities and need a place to bunk down. However, when we try to check in, it turns out that there is a big poker tournament going on and we have some trouble finding a room.

It’s getting late and we have driven a long way across dark desert when we finally find a place with a vacancy. The casino hotel looks clean and new. From the hotel lobby we can see into the casino, where young Indian ladies in decollete uniforms stand ready at blackjack tables — but the only customers are bored-looking Indians sitting at long rows of low-denomination slot machines, laconically cranking the handles and staring dully at the spinning cylinders and flashing lights. I thought the casinos brought in money from outside but here I only see Indians playing. Maybe it is just a slow night because the usual customers from Albuquerque are all at the poker tournament on the reservation we left behind us. The sold-out casinos certainly looked much livelier.

Anyway we are delighted just to have a room since it is past midnight and we are tired of driving, so I start the check-in process and give the clerk my credit card and ID. While he is processing it I ask him where the bar is because we are ready for a few drinks before we turn in. He tells me that this is a dry reservation and in fact, before I can get the key, I have to sign an agreement that I will not bring any alcohol onto the reservation. The penalty is immediate eviction from the reservation, without refund, and banishment for a year!

I have no idea how far it is to the next vacant room so I just go ahead and sign. We go out to the car to get our stuff. We always have a cooler full of beer on ice in the trunk, and when we’re at a motel that isn’t near a bar, we usually down a six-pack after checking in and before falling asleep. Egon doesn’t see any reason to diverge from this tradition, but I am wondering if we could skip the beer just this one night. I’m aware of the devastation that alcohol has wrought on a lot of tribes and I have worked with American Indians as a linguist, so I am eager to be respectful of the laws of the reservation.

Egon is a creature of habit and isn’t so easily dissuaded. He finds it hilarious that the penalty is to be banished from the reservation for a year, since he knows neither of us is likely to come back to this particular reservation within a year, if ever. He mocks me for not wanting to bring beer into the room. He points out that the beer is already on the reservation anyway so the rules are already broken, and in fact drinking it would make it go away, which would be better.

This is hard logic to argue with, especially since the beer we have in the cooler is Hoegaarden, a particularly delicious Belgian beer that I was delighted to stumble across back in Texas. I’m the paranoid type and so I start worrying that casino security will see us arguing in the parking lot and that some stone axe wielding guards will come over and demand to see what we have in the cooler. So I reluctantly let Egon convince me.

Carrying the cooler into the hotel would be far too conspicuous so I stuff the six bottles of Hoegaarden into my luggage and we carry it in through the back entrance so as not to go past the desk clerk, in case he is psychic and reads my terrified mind.

Inside the room, we try to open the bottles quietly, like a couple of teenagers sneaking a beer in an upstairs bedroom unbeknownst to mom downstairs in the kitchen. The beer sure does taste good after the long drive. Then, with a devilish grin, Egon whips out some little airplane-sized bottles of Jack Daniels. We’ve been drinking whiskey all across Texas (bourbon and rye, not scotch, so whiskey, not whisky, if one is inclined to partake in meaningless orthographic conceits), but this is the first time he’s turned up with these little shooters. Now we really look like alcoholics. I’m imagining angry Indians bursting through the door and I jump a little every time I hear somebody walking down the hall. Egon finds it hilarious and mocks me for carefully stashing the empties and bottle caps in a plastic bag in order not to leave behind any evidence.

The next morning I try to restore my Karmic balance by buying some tchotchkes in the gift shop. I talk a little with some of the staff about their language. From what I gather, the language of the tribe doesn’t seem to be related to the nearby Zuñi or Uto-Aztecan or Athabaskan languages, but their scientific knowledge of the relation of their language to others is pretty weak, and they give me impressionistic observations, for example that they use lots of Spanish words. I could go on about the language but this isn’t the place for it.

We escape with our empties into the desert and deposit them at the first gas station off the reservation.

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