Family Portraits: Adah Bush

One of my favorite writers has finally published his autobiography — a mere 100 years after his death.

Mark Twain had some radical things to say, including some choice words about a certain upcoming November holiday. “Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — that they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous 12 months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all done by the white man’s side and consequently the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.” I shared the quote with a friend, Adah Bush, who finally agreed to share her story with me. (I’ve been pestering her for years to do a Portrait.) An easygoing woman with a quick laugh, Bush shared her thoughts about Thanksgiving, politics and life on a reservation.

PGN: So where are you from? AB: I was born in Utah on the Uintah and Ouray reservation.

PGN: Family? AB: I was an only child, but I have a half-brother and -sister that I met when I was 16. I knew about them and all that, but they were from a second marriage after a not-so-good divorce from my mother when I was 6. No, wait: He died when I was 6, divorced when I was 2. Death, divorce, so easy to mix up!

PGN: What did the folks do? AB: My father was a police officer and he was killed in the line of duty. My mother did a lot of different things but primarily did administrative work for the tribe. Then she worked for a law office, tracking vital statistics, etc.

PGN: My knowledge of life on a reservation is basically based on “F-Troop” and “Bonanza” re-runs. My understanding is that the reservations provide their own law enforcement not regulated by U.S. government. Is that true? AB: Not really true. We have an internal police force, and a lot of it gets mixed up between the reservations and the many towns in between that are populated by local … um …

PGN: White people? AB: [Laughs.] Yes. Non-Indians. There was/is a lot of animosity and jurisdiction struggles, i.e., if a Ute tribal member was arrested in the town, how was it handled, etc.

PGN: Now I notice you use the term “Indians.” When I used to work with people from the United American Indians of the Delaware Valley, I noticed that white people get offended if you use the term, but not most Native Americans/American Indians. What do you prefer? AB: It’s funny: We tend to use our tribal affiliation. So if someone asks, “What are you?” I’d respond Uintah Ute. Or if you asked someone from a different tribe, they might say Dineh or Navajo. The broader term doesn’t matter as much: We’ve gone through Indian, Native American, American Indian, you name it. On the reservations, most people say Indian, or Indin! When people ask me which to use, I say that it depends on the attitude of the person using the word.

PGN: What was a great memory from childhood? AB: One of our traditions is the Sundance. It’s so lovely and so beautiful. It happens during the summer and we get up really early: I remember it being so cold because it’s in the desert. In our tribe, it’s the men who do the Sundance. They sing to greet the sun as it comes up. You go into a big corral, with dirt on the ground. The men stand up and blow a whistle and people sing and dance. The energy is amazing.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? AB: I was a nerd. One of those little book-reading kids. Whiny and spoiled.

PGN: Only-child syndrome? AB: Yup! For sure. I didn’t like getting teased so I’d get bent out of shape and that would make kids tease me even more. [Laughs.] I was a little brat.

PGN: Do you remember your first book? AB: “Ramona the Pest” and the other Ramona books in the Beverly Cleary series. I loved Ramona. She was a little girl who always tried to do things well and invariably failed, but in the end came through. I loved her: She reminded me of me. I did some silly things too, but I always had good intentions.

PGN: When did you leave the reservation? AB: I left to go to high school in Salt Lake City.

PGN: What’s a misconception about reservation life? AB: Two things: People either think that we live in teepees or that we have these horrible lives. I mean, many of the reservations are impoverished, but it isn’t that bad.

PGN: Is there still a big problem with alcohol? AB: Yes. The life expectancy of a Native American used to be 40 years; now it’s a bit longer, but it’s still a big problem. Our life-expectancy rates are still way below the dominant-culture average. We have a higher proportion of Native Americans in prison, a high rate of diabetes leading to kidney failure, etc. The schools are not always good and the health care on some reservations is also below standard. The reservations with casinos fare better, but the majority of reservations don’t have them. In Utah, the state doesn’t allow gaming, so we don’t have one.

PGN: What’s something great about reservation life? AB: The heart of the people, the soul and the spirituality.

PGN: Where did you go for continuing education? AB: I went to Hunter College in New York City.

PGN: What was your major? AB: I majored in psychology. I could get any minimum-wage job in New York I wanted!

PGN: What do you do currently? AB: I work at a pharmaceutical company here in Philly.

PGN: You went from psychology to pharmaceuticals. What did you want to be when you grew up? AB: I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I think the basic thing that guides me is that I want to leave the world a better place than when I came in. In Utah, I worked in the nonprofit arena. The last job I had before coming to Philadelphia was with an organization doing HIV/AIDS prevention focusing on ethnic communities.

PGN: How did you end up in Philly? AB: My partner got a job here and I came with her. We’ve been here for 11 years.

PGN: When did you first realize that you were “different from the other girls?” AB: In elementary school, I remember thinking that the little boys were cute, but also felt that little girls were pretty cute as well. Later I remember watching movies and thinking how pretty the women were. More than pretty, hot! But I never acted on it. Years later, there was a woman at work who used to flirt with me. I thought it was flattering, then I started thinking, hmm, maybe I ought to try this. And that was the beginning!

PGN: What’s the LGBT culture like in the Native-American world? AB: Traditionally, homosexuality was not something that was frowned upon. LGBT people had a role in the tribe. The path that you were on was respected, as were you. As long as you followed the rules of society and the tribe, you were fine. The advent of Christianity with its notion that homosexuality was bad or a sin slowly influenced the attitudes of the people.

PGN: Was that the whole two-spirit thing before Catholicism became an influence? AB: Yes, the two-spirit concept refers to a person whose body simultaneously houses a masculine spirit and a feminine spirit. In some tribes, male-bodied two-spirits held specific active roles such as healers or conveyors of oral traditions and songs.

PGN: I know that you volunteer for the QFest each year. Where did you get your love for film? AB: When I was a child, we had one movie theater and they changed the movies on Sundays and Wednesdays. My mother loved the arts — movies, theater, all of it. We would go to the theater twice a week when they changed the films, not even knowing what the film was going to be. Some of my earliest memories are of watching movies with my mother. I loved it.

PGN: Where do you think you got the desire to help people? AB: My mother. Volunteering was very important to her. Even as a single mother, she would take me along to do work in the community. She’d pack up crayons and toys and I’d sit there quietly during meetings. So I’d hear people who were impassioned about making a difference. My grandmother was also into volunteering, so it was just expected in the family. It was part of life to give back.

PGN: Are both your parents from the same tribe? AB: Uh-huh, full-blooded Indian here.

PGN: When I worked with people from the United American Indians of the Delaware Valley, there was a lot of tension about how much Indian made you Indian, especially with a lot of white people wanting to join ceremonial events because they were 1/25 Lenape on their mother’s grandmother’s great-uncle’s side. Does it bother you when people claim ancestry? AB: It actually fills me with pride. I always just tell people, come help us. If you think you’re part Indian, join us and do something to help the reservations. Write your representatives, saying that you think the treatment of Indians is deplorable and horrible and all that other ucky stuff. Try to get your Congressman to do something to help. When I went to undergraduate school in New York, my mom lived with me for a little while. People knew we were Native American and came up to us all the time, especially African Americans who would tell us that they were part Native American. I later learned that when many slaves escaped, they were taken in by Indian tribes, so it made sense.

PGN: Switching to politics, you are a part of the Liberty City Democratic Club. What is your title? AB: I’m the female-identified co-chair.

PGN: Very PC. AB: Yes, one of the things I like about Liberty City is that they make it their mission to have parity on the board. It’s in the by-laws that we have representation from various segments of the LGBT community, ethnically and as far as gender identification is concerned.

PGN: So, after the last election, what do we do next? AB: There’s an interesting article circulating that the Democrats didn’t lose in this last election, that they instead used their political power to make the world a better place, passing health care despite the consequences. They didn’t put a political agenda ahead of the people. So, in fact, we the people won. I think that’s a great way to look at it. And Obama has done a lot for the LGBT community. He’s made a record number of openly gay administration appointments in much faster time than Bill Clinton: 150 appointments in less than two years with no fanfare. He’s appointed more openly gay people to policymaking posts both inside and outside the White House than Clinton and Bush combined. But for me personally, I’m gearing up for the next election.

PGN: So other than films and politics, what are some of your interests? AB: I’m into fashion, I love shopping. Anyone who knows me will tell you [sings] “I enjoy being a girl.” I also do some traditional Native-American dancing, but I mostly love ballroom dancing. My partner and I dance together. She likes salsa but I love the tango. Oh my God, it’s so erotic.

PGN: Who clutches the rose in their teeth? AB: That’s me! But I’m notorious for doing a backwards lead. I’ll spin myself. I can’t help it: I love to twirl.

PGN: What do you think about Sarah Palin’s daughter being on “Dancing with the Stars”? AB: I look at it this way: She brings another audience to the program, which brings more exposure to ballroom dancing. It’s exciting to see so many people get into it. Whoever thought it would become cool to dance the quickstep, the foxtrot or the rhumba?

PGN: Any pets? AB: Micki the monster kitty. Her full name is Michaela Bush.

PGN: With Thanksgiving coming up, what are your thoughts? AB: I’m always torn. I love turkey. Any time I get to eat turkey and apple pie and ice cream, it’s a good thing. Loading carbs with all the stuffing and mashed potatoes. Yum. It’s hard to find anything wrong with that, but of course the flip side is the fact that Thanksgiving wasn’t really a celebration between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, it was more of a celebration that the settlers killed more Indians than were killed by the Indians. So it’s always a strange time for me.

PGN: And even for those who want to think about it as a celebration at the time, the blitzkrieg that came afterward — massacres, small pox, alcohol, typhoid fever, etc. — would be enough to kill off your appetite. AB: Yeah, I look back and think about the history. Native Americans could have totally annihilated the settlers when they came. But instead they welcomed the new people with open arms and, in a sense, got knifed in the back for their trust in their fellow man.

PGN: Not in a sense — it was pretty literal. AB: Yeah, sometimes I get depressed and wonder what I can do to help. But then I realize that I might not be able to have an impact globally, but I can have an impact locally in small ways with my interactions with other people and work that I try to do. And I’m still hopeful about our future!

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to [email protected].