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An all-American hero

Activist-in-training Bruce Two Eagles

by Margaret Williams |

The image I hold of Bruce Two Eagles eases slowly into focus. He gazes straight into the lens, head cocked to one side as if he were on the verge of telling the world exactly what he thinks. (He will, and he does.) He wears big glasses, one eye drooping a bit behind the lens, and his long, black hair contains a spreading dash of gray.

The hair doesn't quite hide the long scar slicing down the side of his neck.

But Two Eagles says he would rather be behind the camera. Armed with an old Brownie, he took his first pictures at age 11. He still remembers the excitement he felt watching his first photo image materialize in the developing tray: a dog.

Much farther down his life's path, Two Eagles shot a series of stark black-and-whites: "How the West Was Lost," featuring a group of hung-over-looking Indians with bottles in their hands, and "The Four Stages of Life" – a baby bottle, a Coke bottle, a beer and an I.V. bag. The award-winning series has been featured in alcohol/substance-abuse posters and programs in Buncombe County and all around the world.

But the Two Eagles known to many Buncombe residents is the one he carefully calls an "activist in training." ("There are other people more active than me, more visible than me, who I'd call 'activists,'" he explains). In 1996, Two Eagles, Don Merzlak, the Native American Intertribal Interest Association and the NAACP joined forces to protest Erwin High School's "warrior" and "squaw" team mascots.

The word squaw is a European bastardization of "otsikwaw," a Mohawk insult referring to the female genitalia, Two Eagles reminds Xpress. "Call the kids whores and vaginas, and be proud of it!" he says, paraphrasing some of the attitudes that cropped up during the Erwin affair.

Two Eagles is a bit in-your-face, and he makes no apologies for it. Yet he also exudes the kind of inner peace you sometimes find in a man with a mission – and a man who's been lower than low.

The cancer in his spine lends a lurch to his step, but his grip is firm. And his voice strikes deep and full like the low notes on a cello. "When I was 15, I was scaring the bullfrogs," jokes Two Eagles. It's an instrument well suited to Walter Cronkitelike voice-overs – if its owner were any good at injecting emotion and inflection into other people's words.

But his eyes still see clearly, his words still bite like an angry young man's: His Ford truck boasts a bumper sticker that reads, "sk‡ oy‡te ayagopa," Lakota for WHITE PEOPLE SUCK.

That's the polite translation.

Two Eagles says he plans to keep displaying the bumper sticker until Erwin and other schools renounce all Indian mascots and all the misused symbols of Native American culture and religion, such as wooden statues and feathered headdresses. White people claim they don't know what "squaw" means and don't mean to use it "that way," says Two Eagles, referring to counterarguments he heard during the Erwin battle. They also say they don't understand the religious significance of many Native American costumes and paraphernalia, he continues. Two Eagles feels his bumper sticker takes a swipe at this type of ignorance – if you read Lakota.

"People have these John Wayne, Hollywood perceptions of Indians, like the notions that we get big government checks, a free education, free housing ... or that we're being honored by being mascots," says Two Eagles.

What if a team like Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" used the pope as a mascot, dancing up and down in his holy robes and sprinkling holy water on the crowd? "The Catholics might not like it," he says.

Or how about this one: What if a school had Little Black Sambo as its mascot, wonders Two Eagles. African-Americans, he figures, wouldn't like that too much; they would immediately protest, and the sambos would be whisked away. "Yet we're supposed to feel honored by [being made] mascots," Two Eagles concludes.

And consider the civil-rights/human-rights rhetoric now commonly employed on behalf of Hispanics, gays and other groups. Native Americans are almost never mentioned, says Two Eagles. "We're the invisible culture ... created by the wars against the Indians." And with a nod to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing anthrax incidents, Two Eagles asserts that the first use of bioterrorism came in the 1800s, when the U.S. government allegedly gave Indians blankets infected with the smallpox virus.

When Columbus set foot in the Americas, says Two Eagles, there were an estimated 20 million Native Americans.

The 1890 U.S. Census, he continues, showed only 250,000.

"That was perhaps the biggest incidence of genocide in the world, with more Indians killed than Jews in the Holocaust of World War II," says Two Eagles.

So sk‡ oy‡te ayagopa. It is at once Two Eagles' outcry and a Native American insider joke.

Angry for a reason

"If Bruce seems angry ... there's a very good reason for it. It's important to realize the enormity of the discrimination that Native Americans have experienced in our culture," remarks fellow activist Monroe Gilmour.

Their lands and homes were seized, their people killed, their children forced to renounce their own language and culture. More recently, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says it can't account for nearly $2 billion in Native American moneys held in trust by the government – and that's just between the 1970s and the late 1990s. Today, Native Americans have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group in the North Carolina schools, and hate crimes against them are also more prevalent than those against other groups, Gilmour reports.

Although there are few Native American children at Erwin, the Indian-mascot issue there has much broader implications, he argues. "It's a four-year course in racism if you have an Indian mascot. Our kids are being taught it's OK, especially if the minority [represented] is so small or poor, it can't fight," says Gilmour.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights publicly urged all schools to renounce Indian mascots. And the North Carolina Commission on Indian Affairs has made the same recommendation, asking the state's public schools to accomplish this by 2003. North Carolina has more registered Native Americans than any other state east of the Mississippi – about 80,000 – and almost a quarter of them are school-age children, according to Gilmour.

Meanwhile, he continues, the U.S. Justice Department is considering whether Indian mascots create a hostile learning environment for Native Americans.

"If you step back and look at the bigger picture [beyond Erwin High], and look at Bruce's and others' efforts, [they're] no different from any other [activist] seeking social justice and civil rights. In that light, we can show support for what he's doing, because it's for the benefit of all our children," Gilmour proclaims.

What Two Eagles, Merzlak and other Native American activists are doing, says Gilmour, represents "the best in the American spirit of perseverance and civil justice."

A man with a mission

But something more than anger seems to lie behind Two Eagles' evident outrage – a sense of mission, and a certain kind of peace. His grandmother, says Two Eagles, had that same kind of peacefulness – perhaps, he reflects, the result of the dozen or so heart attacks she endured.

For his own part, Two Eagles figures he has died at least three times, having suffered heart attacks, glandular lymphoma (the big scar on the neck), and more cancer. In addition to these early skirmishes with death, there have been other struggles – alcoholism, divorce, Vietnam. "After I lost everything, I realized I have everything in my life I need – not everything I want, but everything I need," says Two Eagles.

By his own account, this man of many lives has been "Biltmore Forest rich" and broker than broke. He's been married, divorced, has two daughters and four granddaughters – the eldest a budding athlete whose adventures bring laughter to his voice, pride to his heart. As a teenager in the 1960s, Two Eagles organized a high-school strike to protest the firing of a black teacher "before such things were fashionable." About 30 years ago, Two Eagles was one of the first certified paramedics in Massachusetts; he was also a medic in Vietnam. This multitalented man, who invented a smoke-alarm device for the deaf, has also raced stock cars – an all-American sort of sport, these days. Two Eagles advocates, nationwide, for reforming the way the BIA manages Indian monies.

And he has been a drunk and a drug addict.

"One day, I decided I didn't want to live the way I was living. I had reached my bottom," says Two Eagles. Then he half-jokes: "I had PMS. I had hit bottom – physically, mentally, spiritually."

The substance-abuse photo series hints at those dark times – transmuting his experiences, through the crucible of art, into something more. Two Eagles has been very active in helping establish alcohol/substance-abuse programs for Native Americans.

But his interest in the problem also transcends the personal, being yet another reflection of his passionate engagement with his people and his culture. A 1991-93 study, the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, found that Native Americans were almost twice as likely as whites to report alcohol dependence and were more than twice as likely as any other ethnic group to require drug-abuse treatment.

For Two Eagles, the Erwin case represented a big step out from behind the camera. The case gained national attention – and as the school board hemmed and hawed about possible solutions, and protesters were harassed and insulted for their efforts, the nearby Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians played neutral, for the most part, Two Eagles recalls.

In the thick of the battle, a local newspaper reported that he had a criminal record (he doesn't). And because Two Eagles has never lived on a reservation, his legitimacy as an Indian was questioned, too – though his lineage is a kind of all-American blend of Cree, Chippewa, Ojibwa and French. Still, while he was growing up in a small Massachusetts town, Two Eagles was Indian enough that "there were girls I couldn't date, because their families wouldn't let me in their house," he recalls. And even today, you can still find signs in upstate New York that say "no dogs, no Indians," Two Eagles notes.

A subtler form of racism is visible when white people who have just met Two Eagles seem to feel compelled to recount their own lineage, announcing some distant, full-blooded Indian ancestor. "They think they're identifying with [me and other Native Americans], but what they're really doing is identifying themselves as prejudiced ... like people who are quick to say things like, 'Some of my best friends are black [or] gay' [when they meet] African-Americans or gays," says Two Eagles.

Yet through it all, he holds onto a dream. "Maybe one day, when I'm long gone and my granddaughter has children, there won't be any more shame to [being] an Indian," says Two Eagles. He persists, too, in believing that racism is taught. "If children were never told there's a difference [between people], they would grow up still possessing that sense of innocence and compassion for others."

Inspired by these visions, Two Eagles fights the good fight, offering this advice to budding activists everywhere: "Every step that you take makes a path. If you make a good path, people will follow. Just make sure you make a good path."

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©2001 Mountain Xpress
Asheville, NC
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