Give Us Commerce
By Dennis Domrzalski
DECEMBER 7, 1998: They invoke the names and spirits of the great Indian warriors and prophets--Pontiac, Tecumseh, Manuelito, Popé, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Black Elk--and they speak with conviction, inspiration and determination to regain those things that Indians of the past fought for with their war clubs and lives: Indian pride. Indian independence. Indian prosperity. Indian life.
But there is a difference between now and then. These are warriors for a new age. They will not fight with anger or knives. They will not thunder across the northern plains in the height of summer in a desperate attempt to stem an unstoppable flood of human intruders and to save a way of life.
These warriors for a new age don't talk of weapons and fighting. They talk of the one thing they believe; that more than anything in late 20th century America can lead the Indian people to a new prosperity and to their place as an honored and valued race among the Earth's peoples. And although it might seem like a new concept to those with a Hollywood view of Indians, it is what America's natives did with relish and expertise before they were decimated.
These warriors for a new age will engage in commerce.
That's at least the way that three men--Fidel Moreno, Tom Talache Jr. and Eddie Castillo--see their mission as North American Indians. The three are members of the relatively new, Albuquerque-based American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico.
The three and others of the 42-member American Indian Chamber of Commerce meet every second Monday in Albuquerque to discuss their plans and to shape an economic future for Native Americans. Moreno, 38, is Yaqui and Huichol; Talache, 30, is Nambe; Castillo, 40, is Taos.
The three speak with a mix of pragmatism, spiritualism and enthusiasm bordering on a holy cause when they talk about the need for Indians to enter into a new age of commerce and about the project they believe will revitalize Albuquerque's Downtown and turn this city into the nation's center of Indian Commerce: a $20 to $30 million American Indian Embassy, Trade Center and Galleria.
The project they propose is huge: a vast American Indian center with a 4,500-seat theater, museums, office and gallery space for Indian artists and business people, and shops and restaurants. It is to be a place where Indian people can come together to broaden and develop their economic and artistic initiatives for regional, national and international markets.
But the true purpose of the project is about what Moreno, Talache and Castillo have spoken fervently about during a more than three-hour-long interview. It is, says a summary of the proposed project, "so that honor and dignity will be restored to the American Indians."
The embassy, says the summary, "will harness the strength and significance of our American Indian people and will finally gather our combined strength through a federated effort to give voice to our history and emphasize the many contributions that our people have given to the world. We intend through this project to bring honor and dignity to our people, (and to) create a positive reflection due our ancestors, ourselves as the caretakers of this time and our future generations."
Moreno can barely contain himself as he talks about the project and the need for Indians to engage in commerce. Afterall, he says, that's what Indians used to do anyway.
"People keep pigeon-holing us. Either we are artists and craftsmen or we're dancers and performers," Moreno said. "And yet there is this whole aspect of who we are at the core--of who we are as a people--that is very seldom seen and appreciated. And that is that historically, many if not all of the native cultures of North America, Central America and South America ... have understood that commerce, trade and the exchange of goods and services was vital to the lifeline and sustainability of individuals, families, communities and nations.
"And the reason people are blind to that is that when the Europeans first came over here, they could not see beyond the teepees or the adobe dwellings. They couldn't see the elaborate, sophisticated system" of ceremony and economics the Indians had developed.
And it was elaborate. New Mexico and the Southwest was the center of three long Indian trading routes over which goods were exchanged from South America to Alaska, Moreno said.
"Here you have three trade routes that Native people sustained themselves on. They always understood that peace was better for business than war," Moreno said.
The Embassy-Galleria is the joint idea of Talache and Moreno. Talache said he got the idea for the embassy during a vision he had in 1990.
"This is a collective effort to create a federation of all our tribes in North America; however, we are not going to limit access or invitation to just other indigenous people," Talache said. "I am hoping that this project will represent the very positive elements of our people and show the beauty of our culture so that ourselves as Indian people will have a connection to our past. I don't want this to be a pulpit for negativity or finger-pointing and blame. I want to reflect on the very positive elements of our history."
Those positive elements will be reflections on the fact that Indians have been here anywhere from 12,000 to 32,000 years, and that, with the exception of the past 500 years when others tried to exterminate them, Indian history has been positive, Talache said.
"I don't want the 500-year snag in our history--the little blip that has happened--to be viewed as negative. I want this to be an opportunity that we can say, 'OK. This happened. But let's move beyond it.'"
Talache said the proposed embassy would also be the fulfillment of a vision of Black Elk, an Oglala/Lakota Sioux holy man who lived from 1863 to 1950, who said that "the Indian peoples would one day unite the many hoops (many nations) into one great hoop; that the people of the world would go through very bad times, times of war, famine and natural disasters; a black road. Then they shall be awakened. We as Indian peoples will be enlightened, and we will work to bring a very good time to the whole earth."
Castillo, an artist, believes in that prophecy and believes that it is time for Indian people to take responsibility for themselves and to be role models to the world.
"It is time for us to take responsibility for our people in the creation of these embassies and these products," Castillo said. "It is an example of the New Age Warriors, or taking of the role where our elders left off. We want to take this into a new age and help our people. I think what we would like is the acknowledgment that we exist--and not as (we have) been profiled in the past, whether it is as drunken Indians or uneducated or welfare Indians.
"We all share the same vision, and that is to keep ourselves sustained because we are here for a purpose and that purpose is to take care of the land and the world. I think ideally what we want to do is to be counted as part of humanity instead of being put aside as something that is non-existent."
Why should Albuquerque be the site of an American Indian Embassy, Trade Center and Galleria?
"Because we know that Albuquerque is a major gateway for tourists," Moreno said. "They go up to Santa Fe or Taos, or they go down south. So we thought if people are flying through there or are flying here and coming to here, if there was this monumental, incredible space where one could come and get education, entertainment, food, art and real interaction, it would be great."
There's another reason.
The Albuquerque area is home to 25,000 to 30,000 Indians, and it makes sense that the center for Indian commerce and art should be here, Moreno said.
Moreno and Talache are enthusiastic about their project. They hope it could be financed in part by Indian tribes and in part by conventional means. They would like to see it built in an area just behind the Sunshine Building Downtown. They say they have entered into preliminary talks with city officials about the idea.
But those talks are very preliminary, said Pat Bryan of the Downtown Action Team.
"It is a tremendously exciting project in concept, but the devil is in the details," Bryan said. "You have to take it from conception to production and reality, and the challenge we gave them is to find out if there are real sponsors."
Bryan said he has not yet approached the city about the idea "because it is not real enough" right now.
If the embassy/trade center isn't quite real enough right now, one thing is certain in Moreno's mind about American Indian commerce: It can be a responsible aspect of business that goes beyond increasing productivity figures.
"We are looking long-term at education, technology, culture and tradition as fundamental cornerstones to community development," Moreno said. "We are learning how to apply technology so that it will serve business, political and social needs. To that end we are looking at it not just as a way to increase productivity. We realize that we are in a finite environment in terms of resources and that there has to be a strong, pragmatic and fundamental respect and appreciation for those resources that are not renewable."
Castillo believes that the time has been set for the re-emergence of Indians.
"I do believe in destiny," Castillo said. "I do believe that the spirit world is behind this effort."
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