Thursday, July 30, 2015

"American Native" Film Probes Indian Reality

"American Native" documentary photo 

Imagine that you have to prove your ethnicity when filling out a census form and myriad other forms posing that question in American society. Do you have an original document showing direct lineage from ancestors who lived in a likely distant area of the world centuries ago?

That’s the seemingly impossible to navigate bureaucratic maze faced by members of the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe, whose quest to prove their ethnic heritage is conveyed in "American Native," a new documentary making the rounds of film festivals and scheduled to open in theaters in September.

"Their history has been written by everybody but themselves," film director Steven Oritt said at a recent screening at the Hoboken International Film Festival, held in Middletown, N.Y.  Oritt and producer Corey Bobker made the independent documentary to help tell that story.

Residents of northern New Jersey and adjacent areas in New York are more likely to recall other names for these long maligned Americans—the Mountain People, “Jackson Whites” and less printable names. This film explores a gritty grassroots effort by marginalized American citizens to reclaim a heritage denied by hostile neighbors, rumors fanned by newspapers, and government officials parroting the self-interested howls of casino moguls.

These backwoods folks were mocked by Donald Trump, long before he heckled fellow candidates for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Belittling the Ramapoughs’ request to be recognized as a  Native American Indian tribe by the federal government, which might potentially gain standing to open a casino closer to New York City than his gambling palaces in Atlantic City, Trump announced on a popular New York radio show—revived in this film—that “I have more Indian blood than they do.”

The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the Ramapoughs’ claim for lack of historical proof of tribal status, such as a treaty with the fledgling US government.

Who gets to decide who is an Indian is an unsettling question raised by this tiny clan of bow and arrow hunters who talk in a distinctive Appalachian mountain tone, alternately polite, reflective, and bluntly defiant.

Many of these families who live in Hillburn, NY, Ringwood and Mahwah, NJ and neighboring towns have photos that trace their roots to previous generations who lived in the once remote mountains along the New Jersey-New York border, hunting, fishing, working in the iron mines created before the American Revolution, working on horse farms and estates of 19th century wealthy New Yorkers, and then at the massive Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Mahwah. Among relatives in the photos are sturdy, young men wearing military uniforms of the world wars.

In scene after scene, the film shows repeated insults from the current crop of mansion owners and government officials upset over the notion of a hardscrabble group of self-styled American Indians insisting on reviving their culture and traditions in what is now prime real estate in suburban New Jersey and upscale Rockland County, NY. 

On camera, local officials and owners of neighboring mansions try to block tribal leaders from building a log longhouse on a scenic tract on the Ramapo River. An academic researcher dismisses the Ramapoughs’ oral history of rustic life in the Ramapo Mountains passed down by generations upon generations and insists that members of the group are actually descendants of freed blacks who lived in New Amsterdam under the colonial Dutch.

In the unkindest cut of all, the head of the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma proclaims in an interview at his tribal casino headquarters that any Indians who stayed behind in New Jersey rather than be pushed west abandoned any claim to tribal status. Asked about his heritage, the Delaware chief cheerfully states that he is one-eighth Indian.

“I know who I am” is the refrain that weaves through this film. In often impassioned dignity, men and women who grew up in these ancient mountains, listening to stories by grandmothers about previous generations who survived previous pressures to leave these forested ridges, speak for themselves.  

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Monday, July 27, 2015

Walking Point: A Step into the Unknown

Vets, family members work with a dancer    (photo: Jan Barry)

I was dubious when the organizer of a veterans arts program emailed seeking volunteers to participate in a dance workshop. On the other hand it sounded like fun, if not for my wobbly old knees that generally command assistance from a cane or walking stick.

To my relief, Roman Baca and fellow dancers with the Exit 12 Dance Company warmly welcomed a gaggle of geriatric Vietnam vets into the dance workshop Sunday, a part of the Warwick Summer Arts Festival, held at Arthur Finnegan American Legion Post 1443 in Greenwood Lake, NY. Also on the program were a Combat Paper art show and a Warrior Writers workshop and reading, which is what drew most of the participants.

Our informal, pick up dance troupe also included a 60-ish mother of an Iraq War vet, a 40-ish mother who served with a US Army field hospital in a long-forgotten war in Somalia, and a 30-ish female festooned with tattoos commemorating service as a combat medic in Iraq.

Shuffling into the formation for dance warm up exercises felt like walking point on patrol into unknown territory. Even more so than usual, I had to concentrate on every step, trying to anticipate potential hidden dangers. At my age, losing balance and falling is an always lurking menace—as happened recently to a fellow vet laid up from injuries from a misstep in his own home. 

Baca, a professional dancer who served in the Marines in Iraq, and his dance crew guided us through warm up moves that brought back memories of a suddenly imposed PT drill one humid morning in Vietnam, amid sleepy air crews grumbling about being subjected to jumping jacks, push ups and other strenuous exercises last encountered in basic training.

In this case, however, we were advised not to do any movement that felt uncomfortable. The idea, Baca explained, was to tell memorable personal stories in creative movements.

“They take away your identity in the military,” he said. The idea that came to him, which is the core of the dance company he created after military service, is to reclaim affirmation of yourself and address troubling experiences in creative ways.

A fun way of doing this, he demonstrated, is conveying your first name with arm and hand and body gestures—and then sharing this with a circle of other folks, each adding a creative twist or flair. And then speeding up the action of repeating everyone’s name/moves to make a flowing set of movements.

Creative juices flowing, we were assigned in groups of three to tell a memorable story in our life through dance movements. For me and others with knee or ankle issues, this meant thinking about making moves that were expressive without being disastrous. It was a real life exercise in thinking on your feet.

Later in the afternoon, after the writing workshop and reading to the assembled audience, we presented our dance movement renderings. Writhing arms, legs and bodies conveyed the best we could pent-up emotions from war and uneasy peace.  

It was an exciting melding of writers, artists and dancers addressing hard-to-express events. It was an adventure that, for me, pushed some previously accepted limits, with no injuries. I’d like to do it again.

Since forming the dance company in 2007, Baca and fellow dancers have performed and done workshops with vets and family members in New York City and around the country. As he told a San Francisco journalist earlier this year: “Like many returning veterans, Baca found that the re-entry period to normal civilian life was ‘incredibly difficult. After six months, my girlfriend, who is now my wife (Lisa Fitzgerald, who is also a dancer with Exit 12), sat me down and said, 'You’re not OK. You’re angry, depressed, anxious.’

“She wanted to help me and said, 'If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?’ ‘I said, 'I’ve always wanted to start a dance company.’ So we gave it a shot.”

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Dave Curry, RIP

Dave Curry    (photo:

There was a memorial service in Chicago today for Dave Curry, a long-time leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I learned of his death and memorial service in an email this morning. I’m sorry to say I didn’t know Dave well, living and working as I have mostly on the East Coast, but his life exemplified what remarkable, life-long civic activists grew from this dissident group of ticked off war veterans.

“Few people at the University of Missouri-St. Louis knew that respected criminology professor David Curry had been sentenced to 34 years in prison on federal drug charges. Or that, years later, he had been granted a rare presidential pardon,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted in its obituary on Curry’s death in April, at age 66, of congestive heart disease. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and hepatitis C, two other maladies that have afflicted many Vietnam vets.

The arc of his life was like a movie plot, former academic colleagues stated in a tribute on the American Society of Criminology website. Growing up in an impoverished coal-mining family, “Dave never finished the twelfth grade, but his test scores were so high that he was admitted to a community college and then the University of Southern Mississippi without a high school diploma, earning a B.S. in Sociology (with a minor in Mathematics)  in 1969,” noted former collegiate colleagues Bob Bursik and Jim Lynch. “Since he was supported at USM by an Army ROTC scholarship, he was obligated to serve a tour of duty.  He was sent to Vietnam as an intelligence officer and eventually was promoted to captain. 

“Upon his return, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi, where he was awarded an M.A. in Sociology in 1973.  In addition, greatly disillusioned by what he had experienced in Southeast Asia, he served as the Mississippi state coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Upon completion of his degree, he enrolled in the doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1973 (when and where we first met him), graduating with his Ph.D. in 1976.

“His odyssey becomes even stranger at this point. He accepted a tenure track position in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of South Alabama, achieving the rank of Associate Professor and serving regularly as an expert witness for the local NAACP- affiliated law firm and the Southern Poverty Law Center.  He also intensified his work with the VVAW.  These activities did not sit well with the Alabama political power brokers and they assigned a Special Agent from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation to go undercover with the VVAW in an effort to take Dave down.”

One drug sting later, Dave Curry was convicted of cocaine distribution and sentenced to 34 years in prison. That’s the kind of heat VVAW and other social activists faced in the 1960s and 70s. But Dave had a lot of supporters, who got him out of jail, back into academic work, and convinced President Bill Clinton to issue a pardon in 2000.

“Upon his release, Dave accepted a position at West Virginia University (1989) and then joined the CCJ faculty at UMSL in 1994,” Bursik and Lynch noted. “At that point he already had garnered international acclaim for his work in military sociology and his studies of street gang activities, which later expanded into a focus on youth violence in general. Not only did he continue to be a prolific researcher but he was highly devoted to his teaching responsibilities and in 2004 received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Service. He also served on the national boards of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America (winning its Advocacy Award in 2001).  He retired in 2011 for health reasons and moved to Mobile, Alabama.”

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Day after Holidays

Spring near Ground Zero, NYC (photo: Jan Barry)

Holidays, like anniversaries of certain dates, can be hard on survivors. So can the day after. Not to mention, subsequent days. Memorial Day, celebrated with solemn ceremonies and happy festivities yesterday, is not just a springtime holiday for war veterans. Buddies who died didn’t all expire on the last Monday in May. But our culture has decreed that all those depth charge explosions of grief from wartime losses be expressed on the designated day.

But grief is unruly. It has its own timeline. Sometimes, the hardest time is the day after the official social rituals.

War Holiday

The day after Memorial Day 2014
A Marine vet I know
Tried to kill himself—
This is what he said
To a group of fellow vets:
“The day after Memorial Day,
I tried to kill myself—
Woke up in the hospital
Being resuscitated…
I’ve had 17 friends commit suicide—
I’ve lost more friends to suicide
Than in combat…”

Where’s the wall
With those names on it?
Didn’t they get the memo:
Happy Memorial Day

--Jan Barry


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fading from History: Vietnam Peace Campaign

Rep. Barbara Lee speaking to peace marchers   (photo: Jan Barry)

“It was the power of your protests that ended the Vietnam War!” Congresswoman Barbara Lee shouted out to a history-making group of graying peace activists who marched past the south lawn of the White House and trooped across the Mall to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC on Saturday.

But her enthusiastic shout out was undercut by the indifference and bewilderment of swarms of tourists who stared at the spectacle of Washington police politely shepherding through the streets a motley crew of largely geriatric hippies, many of them unfashionably outfitted in faded denim, protest tee-shirts and 60’s peace signs.

As we marched along routes that were once lined by hostile riot-control cops whenever the peace movement came to town, I recalled so many previous attempts to convey a message of patriotic dissent—to president after president—against our government destroying a distant small nation and our own troops in a coldly blind fury, and viciously directed at home against anyone daring to seek discussion of peaceful alternatives.

Vets for Peace march in Washington, DC 1967

Few of those hundreds of thousands of peace marchers—many of them military veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, plus civilians of every sort, preachers, teachers, students, parents, businessmen, housewives, families with young children, joined by members of Congress—who courageously challenged the government’s war policies in those previous times were there Saturday. This peace march was more like a civil war battle reenactment half a century later by a few hardy survivors.     

In many ways, it was a last hurrah for age-challenged peace activists commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of the US war in Vietnam in 1975 and the 50th anniversary of the first major peace march against Washington’s escalating war in Vietnam in the spring of 1965. In the front row of Saturday’s memory laden event was 84-year-old Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official who spirited a secret, internal, damning account of the military campaign to the news media, and several fellow octogenarians.

“The curtain is going down on our generation of activists,” former SDS sparkplug Tom Hayden, age 75, told a gathering of several hundred fellow 60’s peaceniks earlier in the day at a conference at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, titled “Vietnam: The Power of Protest.”  

“Like the Vietnam veterans,” he continued, “we are dying every day.” It was an apt comment to a crowd that included a dwindling number of surviving members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace in Vietnam and other groups of dissenting soldiers from back in the day of a raging war that sucked young men right out of high school and college classes and into combat in Vietnam.

Addressing the reunion of Social Security pensioners who were once young, hearty peace campaigners challenging the military might of the United States government, Hayden aired another sobering observation:

“There’s an effort to punish us in retrospect by eliminating us from history,” he said. A major sign of this attempt to rewrite history is President Obama’s 2012 proclamation that the US role in the Vietnam War is to be celebrated by the nation for 13 years. The official website for this war celebration, created at the Pentagon, left out the peace movement. 

Another sign is that no one representing the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president attended the Vietnam peace movement commemoration to congratulate these compatriots of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Nobel Peace Prize-winning stance in the 1960s. Not even Secretary of State John Kerry, once a leader of Vietnam Vets Against the War, appeared to deliver greetings from the administration, so busily conducting secret negotiations tangled in endless wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

And so the little band of peace activist elders was greeted by Julian Bond, long retired from government, who was elected to Congress as a civil rights leader and Vietnam peace activist long before Obama sought public office and sought to fashion an historical mantle as a peace-seeking candidate for president.

“It is fitting that we should have come to this place,” Bond told the peace march participants gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “Dr. King believed that civil rights and peace were inexorably linked.”

The burial of this vital part of American history was abetted by the mainstream news media, which provided no coverage of the Vietnam peace campaign commemorative gathering. Imagine if Obama and the news media had ignored the 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington at which King gave a rousing speech, now lost to history.

And so actor Danny Glover read a passage from King’s peace in Vietnam speech, a portion about how the war was destroying the fabric of American life for so many people. Danny Glover’s voice was nearly drowned out by a Marine helicopter buzzing overhead, as it circled yet again to do a series of practice takeoffs and landings on the White House lawn.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vietnam War Commemoration

In a case of historical overkill, the United States Government is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War—not just this month, but for 13 years.

Fifty years ago, in March 1965, the big news across America was that the Marines had landed in Vietnam. For many in the news media, the landing of two Marine battalions at Da Nang was the beginning of the US war in Vietnam. A better way to put it is that in 1965 Uncle Sam’s secret war in Southeast Asia emerged out of the shadows.

In an attempt to provide some historical perspective, the Obama Administration began commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war in Vietnam on Memorial Day 2012. This means that the Pentagon’s official history now says that the war started in 1962.

Having arrived in Vietnam in December 1962 to report to an Army aviation unit that flew Special Forces teams on secret missions, I’m curious to know exactly when the war started. In any case, by the time I arrived, the US government had implemented a memo circulated at the Pentagon in January 1962 that proposed developing a “suitable cover story” for our escalating military operations in Vietnam, in the words of Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric.

That cover story, maintained for years, was that US military units were not engaged in combat but were “advisors” to the South Vietnamese military.

These official twists of semantics are still being used in Iraq and Afghanistan as cover stories for secretive combat missions by US forces. Indeed, much of what the US government did after getting militarily involved in Southeast Asia in the 1940s is still taking place as secretive, official policies.

Despite the fancy proclamation signed by President Obama in 2012, the cover up of the falsehoods of the Vietnam War and disastrous aftermath continues.

Obama’s proclamation of the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War states that “In recognition of a chapter in our Nation’s history that must never be forgotten, let us renew our sacred commitment to those who answered our country’s call in Vietnam…” by staging “a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced.”

How cruel these words must sound to the ghosts of tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who died of suicide, drug overdoses, cancer and other illnesses likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals used in the war; who ended up homeless, imprisoned, beset by post-traumatic stress disorder and other disorienting illnesses that for decades the United States government denied acknowledgement of or treatment for.

For a great many Vietnam veterans, their treatment at home by government agencies was worse than what they endured in the war zones. But that is not what the Obama Administration is calling attention to in this 13-year-long public relations campaign to tidy up the horrendous history of the Vietnam War.

Across the country, veterans (military and civilian) of the Vietnam peace movement are organizing teach-ins and other educational actions to challenge the Pentagon’s multi-million dollar propaganda campaign, which Obama inexplicably endorsed. Apparently, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate president never read what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about the disasters of the Vietnam War being visited upon Americans at home.

“The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war,” King said in a widely quoted sermon in April 1967. “Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population.

“We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem,” King continued. “So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room.”

Perhaps by the time this Vietnam War-camouflage campaign winds up in 2025, the next president or two will have learned something about how to truly honor real work for peace and justice in Vietnam, at home and around the world. 

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bookends: The War at Home

Citing a new book about the Iraq War by a harshly critical war veteran, President Obama says Americans need to think more clearly about the costs of sending troops into our Middle Eastern wars.

“Over vacation, I read a book of short stories by Phil Klay called Redeployment," Obama said Sunday on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS program. “And it's a quick but powerful and for me painful set of stories about the experience of ordinary soldiers in Iraq. And I think it's a reminder, particularly important for a commander in chief, that the antiseptic plans and decisions and strategies and the opining of pundits that take place in Washington, you know, is very different from war and conflict as it's experienced by people on the ground.

“And part of the reason that I am deliberate about decision making when it comes to foreign policy, and part of the reason that I do think it's important to aim before you shoot is because I've met enough young men in Walter Reed [Military Medical Center] and talked to enough families who have lost loved ones to remember that there are costs to the decisions we make,” Obama continued. “Sometimes we have to make them, but they are real and they are serious. ... If we're going to deploy folks to war, it better be for a darn good reason. We better have a very clear objective that is worthy of the sacrifices that these folks make.”

As noted in a Politico commentary on Obama’s comments: “The president’s praise for the book comes months after he ordered several hundred American ‘advisers’ back to Iraq, although not in a combat role — and months into a public debate over how to best fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Phil Klay’s book was previously lauded by jaundiced war correspondents and literary critics. “’Redeployment’ is military for ‘return,’ and Klay’s fiction peels back every pretty falsehood and self-delusion in the encounter between veterans and the people for whom they supposedly fought,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker.

A few days before Obama’s shout out, the author drew a standing-room-only crowd for a discussion about his book, which won a 2014 National Book Award, with students and faculty at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Klay said he wrote this work to explore dilemmas that 12 characters in the short stories faced during deployment in the war and after coming home. “The beauty of fiction,” he said, “is that you can bring someone into the head of someone else as they try to choose what to do.” 

He credited readers of his early drafts—at NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop and at Hunter College’s MFA program—for prodding him to clearly state what he felt should be drawn from various experiences he was part of or learned from others.

In response to questions from the audience, Klay said he didn’t come home from Iraq traumatized but rather uncertain what he felt. “One of the problems coming back is you were part of this massive global thing that you didn’t yet know what you felt about it,” he said. “Writing the book helped me get a better perspective on it.” 

To illustrate his point about the complexity of the war for many veterans, he told a story about another vet speaking at an event, who said “he used to be proud of being a Marine in Iraq. Now he felt the war was an evil thing. So what did that make him?” Klay said. “That guy felt he had to bear the weight of an enormous thing.”

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