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Litefoot is Gary Davis. And Gary Davis is a man with a mission. That mission is to inspire people to get up off the couch and take action.
At the last Mt. Hood Cherokee meeting, our new friend Gary Davis stopped by to share a few words. An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, Davis spoke about his interesting life story, but the story paled when he drove home a message at the end of his talk, about hope, tenacity, longevity, purpose, action, and faith.
He grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma but fell in love with a woman who lived in Seattle. She turned out to be smart and capable, as well as beautiful, and Davis knew that there was something for him in the Pacific Northwest. It helped that he’s a huge Steve Largent (Seahawks) fan. He’s lived in Seattle with his beautiful family (they all came to the meeting too!) since 1997.
Davis took the stage name of Litefoot and began rapping for his friends on the reservation as a teenager. His first rap album was produced in 1992. His music touched a nerve for some and resounded for others, bringing up painful or powerful topics from an Indian’s perspective, in contemporary music. He reached even more people with his first movie in 1995 when he was The Indian in the Cupboard. He added television roles to his movie roles. And all the while he kept making music.
Back in the early days, Davis said, he knew what he wanted to do and he had a meeting with Chief Wilma Mankiller and told her about it. “I knew Oklahoma was not the rap or hip hop capital of the world. What I wanted to do was bring a message to the people. People were hanging their heads. Other people recognize what we have to be proud about that we don’t even realize.” The Chief could have reacted in any number of ways to a young punk making modern music, and she chose to ask him to sing at a function for her. “But there’s one thing,” Mankiller said to him, “I want you to speak.” Davis said he thought he was nobody and had nothing to say, but he did as she asked.
It wasn’t that there was nothing on his mind, but more like too much on his mind. “Things have gone on for so long that people can’t even find a beginning point in order to find something to say. I prayed for the right words and 15 minutes later I stopped talking and people started clapping.” He knew speaking was for him. The high only lasted until the end of a show when a girl met him and demanded, “What did those Pilgrims do to you?” Davis said he thought to himself, “Brother, you have a long way to go. You have people with privilege who don’t even know they’re privileged.”
Since then he rapped in Kodiak, Alaska all the way across the continent to North Dakota and Maine. He was invited to perform in Rome. In 2005, he and his wife Carmen Davis started the Reach the Rez tour, to bring a positive voice to native people. To “get out ahead of drugs and suicide” he told us, “not once something has already taken place.”
Davis is every bit as active as he says people should be. I mean, he walks the talk. His message resonates with me personally. I can get a little uneasy among my Cherokee brothers and sisters, and I begin to feel like an outsider when I don’t find people who think about our heritage the way I do. So many Indians are about spirituality and artistic expression to connect to their indigenous heritage or to send a message. But that mooshy stuff simply doesn’t really resonate with me. I totally get that there is a power in activism through radiating your positive energy into the world. I totally believe that people’s lives are changed through creating or experiencing artwork. But…uhh…it makes no sense at all to me. Listening to Davis made me feel like I belonged again. Here is another one of us, and this man is about practicality and action. I am that kind of Indian.
He told us that someone once gave him a critical message: “No one cares.” We can moan about how poorly our ancestors were treated, or about how hard it is to get ahead now, and how racism and how cultural appropriation weakens our power, but it will not get us anywhere. People have too much going on in their lives to give us their effort and attention, and there are competing stories of need. “I care, because I am one of you,” Davis said. “But in general, people just don’t care.”
The answer is to become your own change. Do something. Volunteer, help build a home, help get legislation passed so that kids have access to better education. “I’m willing to think outside the box. It may not be the most comfortable for me, but I do what has to be done, in order to make it happen. People sometimes only see you for how they see themselves. They’ll say ‘We’ve tried that and it didn’t work.’ or ‘Nobody has done that.’ But don’t let their words limit you.”
“If it doesn’t speak to you; if it doesn’t resonate with you like you’re on fire, then get out of there! What is it that you’ve been born for? I love education, but it’s not the be-all end-all for everybody. What’s your thing? We need to know our own value. We need to know how brilliant we are.
“So many of us, so many Indians, have important things to do and we need to get out of our own way. Sometimes people live their lives as though on accident. Ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’ If it is just about checking the box, it’s not the right reason. We are who we’ve been waiting for. There’s nobody coming, man. It’s up to us. We’re good enough to do this. We’re capable enough.
“We weren’t still supposed to be here in 2017. We were supposed to shrivel up and go away and die. Most of America doesn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning and see that we are still here. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Are we gonna sit here and talk about what they don’t do for hundreds and hundreds more years, or are we gonna do something?
“You can make excuses, or make a way. Just start. Take a step.”
Litefoot is working on his 12th album, scheduled to be released June 27th on the birthday of Warrior Kai McAlpin. This sweet little Cherokee tyke was sick with cancer on the day Davis spoke to us, and died three days later. It allowed us to hear Davis say “Kai is…” and we thought of Kai that day, alive and loved in Oklahoma.
Oh! We had such an exciting burst of drama yesterday on such an unlikely city streetcorner. My daughter, my partner, and myself were just crossing Hawthorne to head over to The Bagdad for a bite to eat when the woman on the cover of USA Today caught my eye. “That looks like Aduei,” I said to the others. “IT IS, MOMMA!” shrieked my girl, who has been babysat by Aduei, who simply adores children. I scrutinized the photo, which of course was a “fold” article, meaning all information was out of sight and requiring 75 cents to read. But the Aduei I know is even more beautiful than the lovely young woman I saw. “Naw, it’s not her. Let’s go eat.”
I graduated last spring with Aduei Riak, whom I knew through our mutual anthropology classes at Brandeis. She is the kindest, gentlest, most generous, intelligent soul. Very tall and slender, so that her clothes always seemed specially designed to make her look regal, though to speak with her was a reminder that she is happy to be welcomed into any group and is filled with great love for anyone she can extend herself to.
I am awed in her presence, due to her extraordinary journey in life and the challenges she has overcome in order to become as full a human being as she is. She rarely talks about her past, and I don’t ask. I don’t want to ask her to relive the horrors of being separated from her family in Sudan as a child, walking hundreds of miles with other starving children, swimming across a river hoping not to be one of the children eaten by a crocodile, and drinking their own urine because of the lack of water, to end the journey growing up in a refugee camp, where conditions were not much better but at least there were grownups around.
After we ate, the photo again caught my eye, and I had not been looking for it. No one had change, so my girl and I waited by the paper stand while my partner ran into a nearby store to get some quarters to solve the mystery. Finally my daughter popped in three quarters and we had it! It is, indeed, my beautiful friend Aduei.
Hopefully the link works.
If only we could all have the strength and inner beauty that this woman has. She never, never stops being grateful for the help she has had. She does not lose sight of how people had to work together to provide her with opportunities, and she takes those opportunities with tremendous grace and humbleness, and then takes them to their limits so that the accomplishment becomes all her own. Her extraordinary efforts are the greatest “thank you” a person could give.
How often do I find myself genuinely grateful for all the loads of help I’ve had? Aduei can be my inspiration today.