October 17, 2004
As is often the case when history strikes, I had no clue of what was happening when it was happening. I didn't see the bared fangs, the cocked guns, the inflamed egos and the politically correct self-righteous indignation. Or, it's more accurate to say I saw it but didn't realize the import until it was almost over.
Now I realize how Addie Bourland felt at her sewing machine shop across the street from Fly's Boarding House in Tombstone. Now I get the confusion on Division Street in Northfield, and the conflicting accounts at Coffeyville and the Little Big Horn. I also get why no one can agree on who won the presidential debates.
It was Friday night, closing in on 9 p.m. and we were in the banquet room high atop the Riviera Hotel & Casino, in the Penthouse, with spectacular views of all the high rise hotels on the Strip. There must have been 800 of us seated at big, round banquet tables with a long dais running the length of the room on the north wall. Paul Hutton looked beatific at the podium, making necessary announcements and glib side remarks. He was guiding the evening with an even keel, his 17 years of experience and his quick wit making him a calming and delightful master of ceremonies.
After diner, Paul and the outgoing president, Iris Engstrand, walked to the east end of the room where they turned on a second microphone and began to hand out plaques and awards. One of the winners was Eric V. Meeks who won the Bolton-Kinnaird Award for the best article on Borderlands history. Iris read the title of the article, "The Tonohono O’odham, Wage Labor, and Resistant Adaptation, 1900-1930" and as might be expected she tripped over the pronunciation of Tonohono O’odham ( a tribe in central Arizona who used to be called the Pima but since that was a derisive title, meaning "bean eaters" put on them by their enemies, they changed their name to their current handle which is pronounced Tone-oh-ode-ham).
Another category went to Pekka Hamalainen for the piece "The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures." He wasn't in attendance and Iris quipped that at least he wasn't there to hear her mangle his name.
Bill Kurtis, of CBS and Cold Case fame, was the keynote speaker and he was introduced with some fanfare, by Paul, who extolled Kurtis's 30 plus years of broadcasting experience. Bill got up and began regaling us with stories of his stellar career (he is credited with breaking the Agent Orange story, thus saving many lives). However, it became rather obvious that he had no prepared remarks, and unlike our editor, RG, Bill was just riffing out the windows ("Over there," he said pointing at the Hilton out the window, "I was on the 17th floor doing an interview with Mohammed Ali and he said to me, 'If I jumped from here, then would they believe me?' and then I knew how serious he was and how deeply he cared about being a Muslim."). Unfortunately Bill looked out the west window (ironic, no?) and saw something that reminded him of doing a story on a sex club (The Paradisio?), which elicited this remark, or close to it: "So we’re doing this story on this sex club and this waitress comes up to me in her birthday suit, and says to me, 'Mr. Kurtis, I’d really like to get into graduate school,' and I said, 'Honey, you can graduate right now if you want to!'" And I’m hearing this and I'm thinking to myself, "Bill, I never graduated from college but is that really an appropriate remark to make to a room full of female Phds?”
I noticed several people get up but I thought they were going to the bathroom. Of a sudden, Bill gets a startled look and gazes over our heads to the back of the room and says, "It looks like some people got past security," and we all turned, and witnessed a glum looking group of people filing in and lining up against the back wall. Bill made a quip about the dessert buffet afterwards and I thought it must be people from another conference crashing our party and anxious to get at the dessert trays.
Bill finished his remarks and Paul Hutton put a nice cap on the remarks and evening and we all got up to leave. Suddenly, a discombobulated voice comes over the PA, "We protest the sexist remarks made by the speaker and also the insensitive mispronunciation of indigenous people's names." There was more, but we couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Groups of people milled about and it was like being at a rock fight on a playground, I was looking around to see where and why it was happening. I finally saw a woman who had apparently commandeered the awards microphone. She finished and got down. A knot of mostly women were behind us cheering her on.
We looked at each other and several said, "What just happened?" No one could figure it out. Kathy in her direct way, walked over to the knot of women and said, "What exactly are you upset about?"
They reiterated their position that Bill Kurtis had made totally sexist and inappropriate comments about women and that there was a lack of sensitivity about pronouncing Native American names. Most people left, but many, like ourselves began to try and figure out what just happened. We compared notes, but the more we drank the less we knew.
Meanwhile, Thom Ross, the artist comes over and starts riffing on the seriousness of the scene and the charges: “Okay, you want sexist remarks, how about this? John Wilkes Booth got his man. The guy who got Garfield got his man, the guy who got McKinnley got his man, Lee Harvery Oswald got his man, John Hinckley got his man, but Squeaky Fromm and that other woman they missed. She couldn’t even hit Gerald Ford! They’re 0 for 2.” Several people, including Kathy looked at him quizzically, “What is your point Thom?” Thom shrugged. “It may be a sexist comment, but men are better shots.”
I was suddenly very glad that Thom wasn’t the keynote speaker. Hey, no matter how bad it is, it can always be worse, eh?
Now here’s the kicker to the evening. The person they thought was Native American—Pekka Hamalainen—is actually Swedish. Ooops.
“There will be a rain dance Friday night, weather permitting.”
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