He is a little man, dressed all in black, shivering on a wet and cold street corner. It is 37 degrees and raining hard, puddles of blackened half-melted snow marking the vestigial remains of winter. His sparse wiry facial hair and vaguely Asiatic features mark him as an American Indian. Native American. Indigenous. First Nations, as the Canadians about sixty miles to the north say. He stands at the busy intersection, clutching a hand-written cardboard sign with letters scrawled in black Sharpie announcing his plight: “Homeless, God Bless.”
I roll to a stop at the traffic light, and eye him from my warm driver’s seat. I am not often moved to charity by complete strangers, but on impulse I plunge my hand into my pocket and pull out a crumpled five-dollar bill. I roll down my window and wave him over. I hand it to him from my open window and say “Be well, brother.” He looks at me carefully, scrutinizing my face. His Indian radar spots Indigenous genes reflected in my phenotype and he grins. It’s my eyes. I have my grandfather’s eyes. Seneca-Cayuga eyes. Keepers of the western door. As the light changes he begins shuffling away and says to me, “Thank you. God bless you, brother.”
This man is my brother. We are genetic kin. I drive away blinded by hot tears welling in my eyes. Tears for the five hundred years of white subjugation and genocide of my brothers and sisters. Tears for the brothers shivering in the cold numbness of a winter rain in a sad white man’s town that has seen better days.
Spokane is surrounded by Indian reservations. The Spokane River once held an abundance of salmon that supported thousands of people. Elk once filled the valleys, feeding on lush prairie grasses. The Spokane, Colville, and Coeur d’Alene people call this valley home. Not far away to the southwest are the Yakama. To the east over a mountain pass lie the lands of the Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people of the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The Nez Perce reservation lies to the southeast in Idaho. The Lower Kootenay and Tobacco Plains First Nations are just over the border in British Columbia. He could be from any of these communities, from one of a hundred different clans. His family probably waits somewhere, wondering what has become of him in the city.
On this cold rainy day in late winter this man who is my brother stands shivering in the rain on a Spokane corner looking for a handout, far from family and home. I know he’ll probably use the money to buy booze. Maybe a bottle of cheap wine. But that’s okay. If wine is what warms him on this bitter winter day, then let me help warm him. 500 years of cumulative bullshit won’t be solved by a five-dollar bill and a sympathetic blessing. But maybe it will help kill the pain for one more day.