The week of 9/11 – Native Peoples in the Society of Sorrow and Justice

Plumes of smoke billow from the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan, New York City, after a Boeing 767 hits each tower during the September 11 attacks. Photo: Flickr user Michael Foran

A time for a strong and peaceful heart.

It was the week of 9/11, the day it rained fingers and teeth. A time when millions breathed ashes of the thousands.

Nearly everyone I talked with was weeping or seething, or both. Others were calm, but lacked their usual confidence. No one laughed a joyous or convincing laugh.

These murders by jets and box-cutters were no joking matter.

Colleagues buried themselves in their jobs as tireless workers dug through the rubble and nightmares for someone, anyone to rescue. Friends fretted over the smallest details in the news as investigators and dogs hunted clues in air-pockets, airports, manifests, shadows and trash.

Some of us were simply and profoundly thunderstruck. We watched television and surfed the web, looking for evidence of what the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon and daily life were like before 9/11.

People gave what they could – blood, time, prayers, money. Native Peoples gave over $2 million to the relief effort by week’s end. That’s one dollar for each Native American, collectively the most economically impoverished segment of society. And the money’s still rolling in from Indian country.

Construction workers, including Haudenosaunee and other Indians, sweated at Ground Zero. They operated machinery, cleaned up Wall Street and worked “The Pile” so firefighters could rest and go to funerals.

Ironworkers bring particular expertise to the site of the catastrophe – they know how to keep their balance and how to identify and handle pieces of buildings.

Andy Jacobs, Akwesasne Mohawk, is an ironworker on a job in uptown Manhattan. He has been at Ground Zero for two days. “We recovered a body yesterday. That was the first one for me. It’s beyond words – that’s the way I heard someone say it. I can’t describe it. It’s just that bad,” said Jacobs.

Indian ironworkers helped build the Twin Towers, just as they had worked high steel and other construction jobs on the Empire State Building, the Verazano Narrows Bridge and much of the rest of New York.

“I never thought it would fall,” said Tom Cook, Mohawk, who worked on the foundation of the North Tower in 1968. “My uncle, (the late-Julius Cook) was welding superintendent and the Towers were over 80 percent welded,” he said.

Cook was a connector on projects throughout the northern plains until 1994. On 9/11, he was home in his wife’s Oglala Lakota territory in Nebraska. “I was watching the news about Michael Jordan going back to basketball. Then the news came,” said Cook.

“I knew -- I said, ‘Oh, oh, that heat’s gonna buckle those beams and it’s going to fall.'”

As the Towers were collapsing, 50 employees of the National Museum of the American Indian were evacuating their offices in the Custom House, just five short blocks away.

“Within seconds they couldn’t see three inches, and all that stuff was falling on them, including human body parts,” said NMAI Director W. Richard West, Jr., Cheyenne. “Essentially, there was a mass human cremation, and that is part of the two inches of dust that’s on the ground and on every surface.”

West was in Washington, D.C. He and some 200 other NMAI employees were about to face chaos personally.

The third airplane crashed into the Pentagon with deadly force.

The Capitol, White House and all federal buildings, monuments and museums in the Washington area were emptied. A state of emergency was declared. Telephone lines were jammed and transportation was virtually shut down. West walked home after hearing a retraction of reports of a car-bombing at the State Department, where his wife Mary B. West is Deputy Secretary for oceans & fisheries.

It took many hours for West to learn that most New York staff members were unharmed, and six long days to confirm that all of them were safe. One employee “had the amazing foresight to close the vents before the dust hit the building, so the collections are safe,” he said.

The Custom House is not damaged, “but the spiritual desolation among our staff is almost complete,” said West.

“These foreign people who did this are from countries that say they like Native Americans,” said Jodi Archambault Gillette, Hunkpapa, Oglala & Cheyenne. She directs the Native American Training Institute in Bismarck, North Dakota.

“What they, and a lot of non-Indians here, probably don’t understand is that this happened to us, too,” said Gillette. “We are part of it and, if it’s war, then we’ll be the first ones to be part of that. There probably were some Indians in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon,” she said, “because Indians are all over this society.”

At this writing, it is not known whether any Native people were hurt or worse at the World Trade Center. No Indians are listed among the injured, missing or dead at the Pentagon.

Gillette is right about Indians being everywhere. Thousands of Native people in the Washington area were evacuated, along with all federal workers, from the Hill and at least 50 agencies. Many other Native people, like my daughter and I, are not federal workers, but live in Washington. We had a decision to make.

When the plane hit the Pentagon, across the river from us, we could see the smoke from our windows. What if another flying bomb hit Capitol Hill? The District was immediately locked down and, if we left, we might not be able to return when we wanted. We had television, radio, flashlights, batteries and bottled water. So we stayed put.

I continued dialing my son and his wife in Brooklyn, across the river from the Towers, but there was no getting through, and then our phones went dead. Duke Ray Harjo works with computers and Sarah Stevenson is a lawyer. When tragedy struck, he was at home and she was in the subway on her way to the Empire State Building, which was being evacuated as she arrived. After some anxious hours, they were reunited and he got through to me by e-mail that afternoon.

Once the fourth plane fell to earth in Pennsylvania and armed people were in charge of the streets of Washington, it seemed that we were in the safest place in the country. That was the kind of day 9-11 was. My daughter rode her bicycle to work that afternoon, kept very busy and tried to avoid disaster news, which was all but impossible, with bomb threats and sirens and barricades and the constant drone of the helicopter patrols.

When President George W. Bush was at Ground Zero on Sept. 14, I was on the phone with my son. A born New Yorker, he loved the Towers. “I’m only 28 and I’ve outlived them,” he said quietly. Then, four teams of fighter jets roared over the tip of Manhattan and Brooklyn and we could not hear each other. It was a reminder of how very close the danger was, close enough for their local fire station to be missing 11 firefighters.

I am mindful of another danger for a lot of Indians. We fit the profile du jour – dark hair and “exotic.”

In the first days after the Oklahoma City building bombing in 1995, most people I talked to in the state railed against the “damn A-rabs” and the “Arab terrorists.” Indian people were taunted and called “A-rabs.” That talk stopped when the perpetrators turned out to be Beavis and Skinhead – but they were not commonly called “white terrorists” – and Indians went back to being discriminated against for being Indian.

“We can’t keep treating Arabs like stupid people in towels and blankets,” said author and historian Vine Deloria, Jr., Standing Rock Sioux. “You can only push people so far.”

Deloria, who also is an ex-Marine, said: “It was predictable. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. We treat them like dirt."

“Religion is dangerous.”

President Bush, who grew into his job as the 9/11 week ended, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had perfect pitch all week, both urged people to not blame all Arab Americans or Muslims for the actions of the few. The president spelled it out carefully, saying the war is against terrorism, not Islam.

But someone forgot to clue in the wing-nuts.

Baptist ministers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson teamed up on CBN’s “700 Club” against the pagans and anti-Christians. But they also blamed federal courts, civil rights groups, secularists, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians for making God mad and “allow(ing) the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve,” said Falwell.

Ann Coulter – who likes to be identified as a constitutional lawyer – wrote something for the National Review Online that reads like a rallying call for a lynch mob: “We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now."

“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” wrote Coulter.

In assessing the 9/11 week, Tom Cook said, “I hurt for all the innocent people who are dead and in pain, and for the ramifications of this for the innocent people in the Middle East and America. It’s reminiscent of the fear, terror and assault on Indian people, especially at places like Wounded Knee. It’s the same idea – can’t tell them apart, so kill them all.”

Cook said he was “doing what the time calls for -- going into a sweat lodge to make prayers for peace.”

The week of 9/11, a time for a strong and peaceful heart.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect and recover sacred places and over one million acres of lands. Guest Curator and Editor of the award-winning exhibition (2014-2021) and book (2014), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, she has been awarded a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor.

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