TEXT OF COMMENTARY
KAI RYSSDAL: Those low, low prices at Wal-Mart are really nothing new. Bargain hunting goes back to ancient Rome, you know. But sometimes it’s not how much you pay but where you find things. Commentator Mary Annette Pember says for Native Americans, the town dump has historically been a key part of the economy.
Mary Annette Pember: I recently learned about the Freegan movement. Freegans are a group of socially conscious folks who engage in something they call “waste reclamation.” They are the ultimate recyclers, righteously enjoying the luxury of choice as they dig through dumpsters and landfills.
Native Americans have been employing waste reclamation for centuries. We call it “going to the dump because we’re too poor not to.” For many people on the reservation, the dump has been a store with infinite variety and a drive-in movie theater all rolled into one.
During my career as a native journalist covering Indian country, I have found that the dump looms large for many native folks. The economic necessity to reclaim waste and scrounge for entertainment seems to be intertribal. An Iowa friend remembers the dump as “the Indian furniture store” for his mobile family. At each new home, his dad would announce “We need some furniture kids, let’s go to the dump.” In my Ojibwe mother’s day, the dump was even a date destination. She recalls the time she wore her famous silk stockings with her beau to shoot rats at the dump. In retrospect, she noted she was a bit overdressed.
My Ojibwe colleague reports that his brother could never resist carrying home old radios from the dump and plugging them in. At best, nothing happened; at worst, they sparked and blew all the fuses in the house, causing his Dad to yell, “You guys are no good!”
Native people are born to “making do” with what life offers us. We go to the dump when we need to. We go with humor and a genuine spirit of discovery. In true Indian form, we laugh in the face of such forces that seek to grind our spirits down. Recalling the importance of landfills in our lives, we soar high above the dump, so high that it doesn’t really touch us.
RYSSDAL: Mary Annette Pember is a freelance print journalist. Her work focuses primarily on Native American people and their issues. She is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa tribe in Wisconsin.
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