POV

Native New Yorkers

Maybe the idea of playing Bingo with Native Americans only excited me because it sounded more like an oxymoron than reality

Story and photos by - Caterina Clerici - caterina.clerici@gmail.com
Photo © Caterina Bingo

Photo © Caterina Bingo

“O-74, O-74. Am I going too fast?”
No reply.
“I-20. I-20.”
I had never played Bingo in my life. Up until a chilly Friday night in mid-November, in me the word “Bingo” had only evoked out-of-body experiences of neon-lit grandmothers and lazy, if not melancholically beautiful, suburban Saturday afternoons. Or at least, those were the false memories I wanted to associate with it.

But then, something happened: the American Indian Community House Bingo Night. Boom. As soon as I found out about it, I knew I had to get over my upper-middle-class self, beyond any recondite dreams to one day found an exclusive Bingo-virgins-only club, and go—for the sake of personal fulfillment as well as of Knowledge, of course.
“OK, folks, let me remind you: this round we’re doing a letter X pattern. Letter X. Two diagonals, crossing in the middle.”

Maybe the idea of playing Bingo with Native Americans only excited me because it sounded more like an oxymoron than reality. Maybe it did because, no matter how big the chunks of my life going by in this country are, I will never stop feeling like a foreigner—and as “a Western European young woman who self-identifies as a Western European young woman,” my Native American imprinting was inevitably, and forever, filtered by Walt Disney.

Or maybe because—lastly—my extensive but inattentive readings about American Indian reservations, combined with the skeptical and ADD-driven lifestyle behind most of the coolness in this city, numbed any natural predisposition to believe I could one day meet several Indian Americans in an Indian American-owned setting in New York City. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have considered that any more likely than finally seeing one of those fucking sewer alligators.
“Could we get two more cards please?”

***

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Photo © Caterina Bingo

As I landed on the Midtown doorstep of the American Indian Community House, however—which, by the way, is as insipid as the stretch of 29th Street it’s on, between 6th and 7th Ave.—the tourist in me was proven wrong, and I had to quickly convert the bag of preconceptions I was carrying into a healthy dose of post-colonial guilt: there are more than 110,000 estimated Native Americans in New York City and no, they ain’t all dressed up in feathers and animal skins. They may actually be the closest you can get to a true New Yorker. And, by the way, they also celebrate the Native American Heritage Month—in November.

Oblivious of upcoming turkey-themed parties and never-ending debates on the meaning of that first banquet, “the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” as was listed on a leaflet, “Join in paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans.”

Me: “Do you have any water?”
Kevin, deputy director of the Indian American Community House, while setting up the Bingo: “No. Sorry. … We have Diet though.”
The (predictably) neon-lit open space was filled with the sense of unconsummated yet guilty exhaustion, typical of a living room that wakes up to the morning after an unsuccessful party—although the party here hadn’t yet started.

Right after the entrance, half a dozen bare tables were welcoming about the same number of people, sitting mostly by themselves and waiting for the night to begin. From the walls, several Geronimos were looking down at them, painfully glorious in their colorful paint outfits or riding horses across gelatin silver prints.

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Kevin from American Indian Community House photo © Caterina Bingo

In the back, hot dogs and chili bowls were getting ready to be served as snacks during the next two hours of slow-motion shenanigans, while the irony of life was choosing a schizophrenic playlist filled of equally nostalgic tunes such as “No Scrubs” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.

It was then that I met Reggie: “Matinecock Tribal Nation, Long Island. Medicine / Chief, Turkey Clan,” the business card recited. He was the first high profile Native American I had ever met—as well as my first Bingo mate and the only person wearing feathered earrings that night.

***

Apparently, before there was Barcade [or Union Pool] there was Massasoit. Massasoit was the Sachem (leader) of the Wampanoag people and the Great Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, a confederation of Native American tribes that lived in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the beginning of the 17th century.

Massasoit was the one who prevented the failure of the Plymouth colony and the nearly unavoidable starvation of the pilgrims in their earliest American days. His personal and political alliance with some of the colonial leaders ensured that the Wampanoag remained neutral during the Pequot War of 1636 and enjoyed almost forty years of peace.

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Reggie photo © Caterina Bingo

Right after his death though, Massasoit’s son Wamsutta succeeded him, only to die shortly after—murdered at the hands of the English, some say. What many say is that Wamsutta’s death was one of the main events that triggered King Philip’s war, the bloodiest war in American History (indeed, with more lives lost than during the American Civil War.)

Massasoit’s statue still stands in Plymouth, Massachusetts, overlooking the rock where the pilgrims were said to have landed and founded their first colony in 1620. The main reason why we should care about his legacy, though, is that a very physical part of what he passed down to posterity was sitting across my table in Manhattan last Friday.

“Massasoit’s sister’s name was Mary-Mary,” distractedly explained Reggie under his breath, the red Bingo marker hovering over the three cards as he tried to keep up with the game.
“She married Evans Waters. They had nine kids.”
“B-7. B-7.”
“Then those kids had thirteen kids. Of those thirteen, two became chiefs…”
“Bingo! Oh no, B-7, sorry! Got the wrong one.” A shameful cry in the distance.
“Chief John Standing Waters’s sister, Hannah Jane, had three kids. The one named Clarence married a Dutch. Then they had three kids, and one was my mom.”

***

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Kevin from American Indian Community House photo © Caterina Bingo

Reggie is now the Sagamore (chief) of the Turkey Clan of the Matinecock Tribal Nation from Long Island. Each tribe has clans, and members of a clan have such close blood relations that they have to marry outside of it as a rule–otherwise they would be marrying their cousins.

He said his clan has less than a hundred members, but more than twenty—and I’m not quite sure whether it was because my efforts to understand the rules of Bingo by osmosis had drained all my energies, or because the combination of neon lights, the smell of beef and the reassuring rattling sound of the Bingo machine rolling and mixing the numbers had just got me addicted to this alternative dimension, but I gave him that.

“This is not a good card, I can already tell you,” he said at some point, one-and-a-half hours into the fun and after several unlucky cards.
“I sure need something stronger than this soda to get over the Bingo night!”
Seeking approval, he looked at his cousin who was sitting next to him and nervously chewing one hot dog after the other. Out of the fifteen people who had, by then, gathered around the room and seemed to be actually sharing a common experience, she was the one who had best succeeded at avoiding any human interaction, busy peaking at the cards of players around her in case they missed the decisive number she didn’t seem to have.

While Reggie gave up in front of a complicated letter T pattern though, her devotion was eventually rewarded with a dream-catcher and a wooden sculpture in the shape of a Native American doll.

***

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Soon after stepping into the American Indian Community House, I realized there were several paradoxes clouding my night. I was sitting at a Bingo table with the survivors of an indigenous population that, after having lost innumerable lives to colonial wars and conquests, had witnessed just as many bodies and minds disappear to addictions of all kinds—gambling first and foremost. I was surrounded by “prevent and delay diabetes” campaign posters and calendars filled with weekly yoga and fitness events, and yet just as much by chips and sodas. The small community seemed to be coming together in rather silent, individual bubbles that were not looking at each other in the eye –and I don’t think the sense of alienation was only a result of an infinite time spent staring at the numbers on my card.

Ultimately, a sense of uneasiness pervaded me when I realized how easy it is—at least for a non-American like me—to forget “the rich Native American ancestry and traditions,” their history of losses and their present, especially, which they live integrated or just invisible to a culture that doesn’t leave many acknowledged traces of them, exception made for Spaghetti Westerns, Cleveland baseball players and cheap American Spirit cigarettes. And who even knew November wasn’t just Thanksgiving month?

“Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?”
“Yes and no,” said Reggie. “We celebrate our own harvest festival, Nowatequa, in the second week of October.”
He paused, and started shaking his head, glancing at me while mainly checking if he had any N-70s on his card.
“The first and the second Thanksgivings, you know, with the pilgrims, were correct. But after that, with the Massacre of the Pequot and all of that… But that’s a different story.”
Reggie and I couldn’t finish the conversation because we needed to buy ourselves another card. The next round was for a fifty-dollar cash prize, but I obviously never got a Bingo.

Photo © Caterina Bingo

Photo © Caterina Bingo

One Response to “Native New Yorkers”

  1. Ancestry says:

    Thank you for this article. Not only did it answer some of my questions about Native history, but also it turns out that Kevin in this article is a relative.