Image by Angel Chavez. CC0/Public domain.

In late January of 2007 I spent a couple of weeks camping in the Wallowa Lake State Park. It’s in the Wallowa valley, in Eastern Oregon. It had been part of the Nez Perce nation, declared legally theirs in a treaty signed in 1855. Twenty years later gold was found on their land. That meant many interlopers arriving. Friction resulted. During a disturbance, a white settler was killed. The end of that, was the Nez Perce were hunted down, with their tribal lands being diminshed. The result was they were kicked out of the Wallowa Valley, and furthermore it was legally written that no Nez Perce could come back to valley, and it was made illegal for a Nez Perce to own property in the valley.

Entering the town of Wallowa, I passed a Confederate Battle Flag, displayed on a garage door. It was hard to miss. There was a bend in the road as you neared it. If you drove straight, you’d run right into it. I was not shocked to see the flag. It had been there for years. It was clearly a message to warn others just who was welcome in the valley.

My destination was Enterprise, Oregon. There, on February 5, I went to the courthouse, where I applied for a new passport. The clerk asked me if I wanted the expedited service, that would cost $60. I refused it. I wouldn’t need the passport for a couple of months. That would usually be more than plenty of time. Ah, the rub? I was not aware that a new wrinkle had been added to US passports. An edict had made them neccessary to travel to Canada or Mexico. I also did not know that no funding for extra clerks was provided to deal with the deluge of passport applications that would ensue.

On March 15, I was in San Francisco. It occured to me there that my new passport had not arrived. I would need it to fly to Europe on March 22. Luckily for me, in San Francisco, there was a regional office for the government passport service. They are not in all major cities. I went there. When I arrived I walked into the main room, and there I saw a sea of brown faces. All the people there to see about their passport. I took a number and sat down.

After and hour or so, a group of three white people entered the room. It was two parents and a child, who looked like he was twelve. The group was wearing tennis clothes. The man explained to the clerk that the son would be flying to Europe with his school class in a few days. They wanted to get his passport. The man did not tell them to take a number. He asked when the passport had been applied for. After getting the answer, he replied that there was no way the kid could get a passport that soon. That was not a good enough answer for the man. He said, “I’m sure you’re wrong. Could you ask your supervisor?” The boy with them looked like he wanted to crawl under a rock. The wife looked like she expected the clerk to do what he had been asked, and make snappy. The clerk replied that the supervisor would give them the same answer. That was still not good enough for the man. After much back and forth between the man and clerk, and the appearance of a supervisor, the man was given the passport for the kid. I am sure no one in the room was surprised.

When it came to my turn, I was told my passport was on the way to Seattle, but there was no way to get it within a week. I walked out the door.

Back home in Portland, I considered my options. I would be flying to Europe on the 22nd, where I would be there for a few weeks, and while there show film programs in a dozen of so venues. The tour had been arranged months before. I had made my living since I was in my early twenties showing films to people. I had made my first trip to Europe to show films in 1995.

I thought about the wealthy white people cajoling out their son’s passport in the SF passport office. It occured to me in a flash, that I would have emulate them. I would have to think like a wealthy white person. Believe me, it was the first time in my life I ever had that thought — for one thing, I have never been considered wealthy. I grew up on a farm in the small town of Yacolt, Washington. In my life making a lot of money was never a goal.

Eventually I had an idea. I called my US Senator, Gordon Smith. Talking to one of his staff, I was told “We have people working on that issue.” She took my name, which has one good thing about it: there just aren’t many Nybacks in the USA, making it easy to find in searches. The name had been longer in Finland, but was shortened to Nyback at Ellis Island when my grandfather Jacob arrived in 1905. The aide to Gordon Smith told me that I could expect a call back within two hours.

True to her word, the call came in. I was told I could pick up my passport at the regional office in Seattle the next day. I drove there in the morning, and walked away with my new passport. I also walked out with a clearer understanding of the country where I was born. Yes, white entitlement exists. Anyone who doesn’t understand that is misinformed.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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