Jaylen Fryberg Is Not Your Indian Savage

NOTE: This wasn’t an easy post to write. There are layers and layers of oppression here, and I’ve chosen the one I’m most familiar with: How the misrepresentation and misappropriation of Native culture hurts our youth. I’m not condoning the violence perpetrated by Jaylen, but I also refuse to condemn him. I see a beautiful boy who loved his culture, loved his parents, and loved his peers. And I also see a kid who was hurting in so many ways, a kid society failed miserably. We can do better. Prayers for all the families involved.

It didn’t take long for news outlets to turn real-life tragedy into some spaghetti western hopped up on Shakespeare Friday.

Jaylen Fryberg, a 14-year-old freshman at Marysville-Pilchuch High School in Washington state, shot and injured four students and killed a girl and himself Friday during lunch.

Fryberg was Native American, and a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes active in his people’s culture.

Images of Jaylen used in the media move from his normal teenage wear (you know, the clothes that render him a “thug”), to him in his traditional regalia, to him with the weapons he used to hunt and fish. These aren’t just random photos news outlets are exploiting from the social media accounts of an underage kid (problematic in and of itself). They are purposeful and part of a long history of system racism pervasive in mass media.

Widely used images depicting Jaylen Fryberg.
Widely used images depicting Jaylen Fryberg.

Like most stories involving a person of color committing a crime, the news zeroes in on the ethnicity and culture as a sort of explanation for actions. Brown people do bad things! is the message. When white folks commit crimes, they’re painted as mentally disturbed loners, the connotation being they aren’t responsible for their actions. Rarely is the white perpetrator’s religion (Christian-based upbringing) or heritage (Norwegian? English? German? Icelandic?) brought up, because the default is white, no explanation needed.

But put a gun in the hands of a kid of color, and all of a sudden he was being primed to kill since birth, part of a community that relished death and gave rifles as birthday presents.

If you’ve spent any time among Natives in their own communities, you realize quickly that a Native kid living among his people will invariably grow up learning how to feed his family (whether that’s hunting or farming or gathering). This is normal in our Native societies and an important way we pass down cultural teachings.

But that explanation doesn’t rate as news precisely because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of Natives the Western world is primed to accept. The image associated with Native men is that of an aggressive warrior or savage. Redskin. Chief. Indian. Brave. Seminole. Fighting Sioux.

We are mad. We are bloodthirsty. We will stop at nothing to win. We’re told these images of us used by sports teams are honorific. Be proud, we’re told. We’re honoring the only part of you we can accept: The way you looked centuries ago when we defeated you. But, hey, your team wins and gets millions in advertising so let’s just ignore the unrestrained racism on your helmets.

For those of us who have spent years studying the effects of mascots and Native representation in mass media, it’s no coincidence that Jaylen turned to violence when his own football team was the Marysville-Pilchuck Tomahawks, a nickname that came under fire several times over the past couple of decades as school boards across the country became hip to the fact Native-associated mascots are damaging in ways that utterly dehumanize and erase Native youth identities.

While the mascot has won continuous approval from many Tulalip tribal people over the years (although some tribal leaders distanced themselves from Native mascots in 2013), the school does ban face paint and Native regalia from sporting events. Still, various reports reference fans doing the “tomahawk chop” at games.

Logo from the Marysville Pilchuck Tomahawk Booster Club http://www.mpboosters.com.
Logo from the Marysville Pilchuck Tomahawk Booster Club http://www.mpboosters.com.
The helmet featured a spear and feather. Photo from http://www.northwesteliteindex.com/2014/08/20/2014-team-preview-marysville-pilchuck-tomahawks/
The helmet featured a spear and feather. Photo from http://www.northwesteliteindex.com/2014/08/20/2014-team-preview-marysville-pilchuck-tomahawks/

Tomahawks. Spears. Warbonnets. People say, Oh, these aren’t Indian mascots because they’re just objects. Objects can’t be racist. Really? Because like associating Blacks with eating watermelons and fried chicken has blatantly racist undertones, so too do these objects undeniably link Native Americans with imagery rooted in violence, aggression, and stereotype.

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that study, after study, after study proves mascots dehumanize Native Americans, and are particularly detrimental to Native youth.

According to a 2005 statement from the American Psychological Association: “The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.

I wrote the words below this summer and they are especially poignant now:

The fact of the matter is these words and images – mascots and logos and names like those found on the Washington NFL team – are *harmful.* Like Big Tobacco lobbyists, mascot/name supporters like to say there is no direct link between the Redskins and the vast, plague-like troubles Natives face on a daily basis. “Oh, come on,” they say. “It’s *just* football. The kid who killed himself in Eagle Butte last week didn’t do it because he saw a Redskins football game.”

But like the tar, the arsenic, and the other 4,000-some chemicals wrapped nicely in kid-friendly cigarette packaging, the poison inherent in mascots and racist team names takes root over time. One or two puffs on any given Sunday and you’ll live. But years of exposure to the smoke of systemic, capitalized racism will fester, and, like all cancers, will eventually kill – if not the body, then for sure the spirit.

These aren’t words I write or repost lightly. And nothing – nothing – excuses murder. But a path like the one Jaylen took was written long ago (long before I wrote anything).

One of the most foremost and respected experts on the Indian mascot debate is Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, also a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes. I have no idea if Dr. Fryberg and Jaylen were related. That’s not the point. But I do find it interesting that Jaylen was part of a culture that fought against racism and stereotypes, who went to a school featuring a racist mascot, and who witnesses say was recently dealing with racist comments from peers.

Again: Nothing justifies Jaylen’s actions with the gun, but most of us who have experienced racism can attest to its power in bringing out feelings of worthlessness, anger, frustration, and withdrawl. And, yes, this is despite being what witnesses describe as a “happy” and “popular” kid. Being crowned homecoming prince doesn’t negate centuries of oppression.

Being surrounded by messages of violence, being a part of a society that devalues your culture and heritage (if it recognizes it at all), damages you, especially if you’re a kid. Add that to being an emotionally volatile teenager in the throes of what appears to be a devastating romantic breakup, and you’ve got some intense Shakespearian feelings to contend with that shouldn’t be dismissed easily.

Jaylen was a murderer, but he was also inarguably a victim of a society that surrounds its Native youth in images of savagery and misogyny, a society that trivializes Native culture with mascots and fashion and crap holidays and hyper-sexualized costumes that render us invisible. He was in pain, as many of our Native youth are, a fact that is obvious to anyone reading his social media posts or who have worked with Native youth, as I have for many years.

Vilify Jaylen’s actions, but not Jaylen. Not his culture. Doing so will invariably hurt countless other Native kids watching this horrifying event disintegrate into a racial shitstorm on social media:

One of many racist tweets churned out by the trolls after the story broke.
One of many racist tweets churned out by the trolls after the story broke.
Here's another that stung. Though I understand the anger and wholeheartedly agree their are stark and disturbing differences between media play for this incident compared to how the media covers Black crime, it upsets and angers me that even in death the kid's culture is being erased. Jaylen was NOT white, and that makes all the difference.
Here’s another that stung. Though I understand the anger and wholeheartedly agree their are stark and disturbing differences between media play for this incident compared to how the media covers Black crime, it upsets and angers me that even in death the kid’s culture is being erased. Jaylen was NOT white, and that makes all the difference.

“The thing is, is I don’t always just go out an shoot something. It’s not my favorite part about hunting. My favorite part about it is about just being in the woods. Just me my dad an my brother. An even if I’m sitting in the passenger seat sleeping it doesn’t matter. I like to be in the woods an that’s it.”

- Jaylen Fryberg, from Tangled Portrait of a Student Emerges in Washington Shooting

“1492.0” A Poem to #AbolishColumbusDay

UPDATE: My latest article over at Everyday Feminism: “4 Ways To Celebrate Columbus Day (Without Celebrating Columbus Day)

TW: Explicit images and words depicting slavery, brutality, and other atrocities.

To hear me perform in ironic pentameter, click here

1492.0

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

An explorer sailed for Asia true

But lost, got he, this Italian chap

Unsure East from West – who needs a map?

 

So upon an island Columbus’ ships did land

Land filled with many a child, woman, and man

Despite the Taino Arawak people, Columbus did proclaim

“’Tis the Indies! (Or whatever. I declare it for Spain.)”

 

The explorer could do no wrong

His wit was short as his sword was long

He demanded gold from the people there

When he got some – then none – he did despair

 

So he murdered and pillaged and raped with abandon

All of which he journaled and recorded from his cabin 

And to the royals of Spain he did report

“To bodies, not gold, we shall resort.”

 

For Columbus had found – yes, discover he did

A new use for the savages, on whose mortal parts the wealthy bid

Money for slaves – his voyages he could salvage 

And salvage his name (cuz dehumanizing Natives grants modern passage)

 

Instead of “Lost Explorer” he could be credited

With discovering America (history edited)

Nevermind the people already here

Most would be dead in a few hundred years

 

Now this lost explorer, this terrorist bloke

Makes our country look the biggest joke

As the masses cry “Hero!” and celebrate his deeds

Indigenous people continue to bleed

 

Assault, rape, human trafficking, and death

Columbus squeezed ‘til we breathed our last breath

And today – his legacy – our women still struggle for air

We go missing and murdered and… nobody cares

 

And our kids – Oh, our kids! – have lies shoved down their throats

Their history books filled with mythic discovery boats

“Columbus Day” we recognize every October

Fabrications and falsehoods repeated over and over

 

And yet

And YET

The stage has been set

By learneds and activists all covered in sweat 

 

Fighting to educate our lawmakers and kids

“Better school curriculums!” we say, “Whitewashed histories we forbid!”

We march and we protest and we write up proposals 

“Abolish Columbus Day – to the waste disposal!”

 

And while ridding the world of this monstrous wrongdoing

We find ourselves growing and evolving and pursuing

New heights to our knowledge, better ways to progress

Inclusion is possible with these grievances redressed

 

We ask all to consider – no – really, think bigger

So big a boom sounds in your brain’s pulled trigger

Let’s honor our nation’s first people, we say

Join us in celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day 

 

 

Major shade thrown at Washington DC NFL team; The Daily Show, South Park weigh in on racist name & indefensible positions

Did you catch The Daily Show tonight (the link takes you to tonight’s clip)? Or how about South Park yesterday (or its teaser earlier this week)? A few months ago, John Oliver did a nice piece using the National Congress of American Indians #ProudToBe video.

When parody TV takes notice (well, let’s be honest: When popular white folks take notice…) it’s downhill from there. It’s nice to have allies, but what was so great about tonight’s Daily Show segment was it used real, live, honest-to-goodness Native people on the show. #concept

Dan Snyder and his racists R**skins are going down. Just a matter of time.

IMG_6776.PNG

Native Peoples Magazine: 6 Native artists empowering urban landscapes

As more and more Natives move to cities, artists urge merging identities and reject the ‘urban’ label

- Native Peoples Magazine, July/August 2014

Native Peoples Magazine
Art by Native Peoples Magazine: (Top, L-R) Louie Gong, Thosh Collins, Lynda Teller Pete; (Bottom, L-R) Dyani White Hawk, Debra Yepa-Peppan, & Brent Learned

[Alternate Intro]

Settling in Denver in 1986 was a practical move for Lynda Teller Pete (Diné). She had graduated from college two years earlier with a degree in criminal justice and knew returning home to Newcomb, N.M., on the Navajo Nation would offer her few employment opportunities to use it.

“Helping Native people was always in the forefront,” says Pete, 54, of her employment history. After nearly two decades working to help Denver’s Native population in social services and government agencies, Pete picked up the loom she had earlier set aside and began weaving full time two years ago. It was a skill she began learning from her mother and other family at the age of 6.

“I grew up in a little community where you didn’t see a lot of outsiders,” she says. “I was very influenced by a fourth grade teacher who came from Maine. When he showed us on a map how far he traveled to get to us, I thought he came from around the world.

“I got a very big education, not from the curriculum, but from the stories he brought into class,” Pete continued. “There was a whole world out there. And I thought, ‘How many of us [Navajo] are out there?’ To this day our people can’t be out ‘there’ without us helping one another.”

Artists like Pete, who teaches Navajo weaving at workshops across the country, help pave the metaphorical roads from reservations to urban centers where Native populations are growing exponentially. Although generally associated with a rural lifestyle, last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing 78 percent of all identified American Indian/Alaska Natives were living off reservation. That’s a jump from 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.

Assimilation policies, including government boarding schools and relocation programs of the early-to-mid 1900s, encouraged – and often forced – Natives to adopt American culture, language, and lifestyle, and leave reservations for big city hubs like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Denver. These policies continue to have a profound impact on Native identity.

The six artists profiled for Native Peoples Magazine, including Pete, represent the innovative ways art can help heal or enhance Native identity, whether on the reservation or off. In fact, the artists profiled here dismissed the idea of the reservation/urban Native binary, saying more than anything it acts as a divisive wedge among Natives. Indigenous people, they say, have always adapted and evolved, and art has always played a role in keeping traditions and culture strong through the generations.

“Art reflects current situations, in addition to being able to capture the past,” says Minneapolis-based artist Dyani White Hawk, some of whose paintings use a transitional moccasin motif to explore what makes something traditional.

“Natives were always trading and using the influence of other cultures – look at the jingle dress,” White Hawk says. “We have a strong history, but it’s always changing and always dynamic depending on the perspective it’s coming from. Our ‘real’ traditions are the teachings that come with it, the beliefs and world knowledge.”

 


 

My thoughts… 

Photo I took of Frank Waln in Boulder, Colo. Look for his profile in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of Native Peoples Magazine.

Feeling pretty blessed to participate in some of the interviews and conversations I’ve had lately. Native America: We have heroes alive and well and kicking the shit out of stereotypes and bad news TODAY in all our communities. They are creating photos, music, jewelry, and laws, and hashtags. Support them. Encourage them.

Recently – and over the past few months – I’ve had the honor and privilege to speak to Natives living in Minneapolis, Pine Ridge, Orange County (CA), Phoenix, Bernalillo, Chicago, NYC, Seattle… The list goes on, thanks primarily to the amazing stories I get to write for Native Peoples Magazine and other publications. Every single one of these people are in some way bettering their communities and the people within through art, law, activism, rapping, cultural preservation, volunteering, health/wellness, and even simple parenting or mentoring (wait – what’s so simple about that???).

These individuals: Thosh Collins, Debra Yepa-Pappan, Frank Waln (with a profile coming in the next NPM issue) and others embody the true spirit of what it means to be a thriving indigenous person. Someone who embraces modernity and traditionalism. Someone who understands there is no “two worlds” or there is no “urban” or “reservation.” We struggle but also succeed regardless of location or adjective or blood quantum applied to us by Western narratives.

Collins, a photographer living in Tempe, Ariz., said the binaries we place on ourselves as Native people – reservation vs urban or traditional vs modern, educated vs uneducated, full vs everyone else – only further divide us as a people that really can’t be separated from one or the other. Our traditions have ALWAYS been adaptive and evolving. I’ve said this before, but the whole point of the oral culture was to ensure adaptation and evolution. The Lakota language, for example, is tough to learn because each word and sentence you utter will be different as the time of day changes or whether you’re speaking to your grandmother or your child or a stranger, and what kind of body movements and emotion go into it. The structure is different because you always speak with deference to the subject and everything flows around it. And like water flowing over stones in a river that is always changing, so, too, does the language (and “language is culture is language” – not my quote – I’ll edit post once I remember who said it – I think it was a White Hat…?). It’s about context, not about stagnation. Being Native is to be an ever-moving aspect of Nature.

Photo I took of Scatter Their Own, an alter-Native rock duo out of Pine Ridge helping both the music scene and Native youth through their advocacy and tunes.

Case-in-point: We are indigenous to this land, Collins said, and so to say one of us is urban or one of us is rural and to put value on one or the other is to deny our inherent sovereignty and claim to Turtle Island. When I walk out my door in Colorado Springs, I don’t (shouldn’t) see *just* a military/evangelical mecca/touristy city, but a sacred space of healing waters and mountain scapes with a history AND current importance unique to the Native perspective and experience. While I honor and respect and miss the family on my reservation in central South Dakota (and elsewhere), I don’t need to be on a reservation to live a Lakota existence. You may be reading this and thinking, “Duh,” but having light skin and having attended eight different mostly white-filled K-12 schools, I had a huge identity crisis growing up that somehow I was never going to be “Native enough.” And, yes, there are people — too many of them Native, but a lot of them rich white men who own film studios or sports teams — who will never see me as “enough,” but the point isn’t about them. It’s about me. How I live. What moves me to action or to prayer. About my daughter who will carry with her what I’m able to pass down.

There is something powerful in recognizing just how much control we have over our own identities, surely, but there must also be recognition to the power OTHERS have in shaping that identity… Why appropriation and mascots and media representation have such a significant impact on how our younger people will identify as Native. Because without the voices of people like Warren Montoya, Louie Gong, Brent Learned, and others throughout Turtle Island, we lose sight of ourselves through the fog of mainstream (read: culturally insensitive) entertainment, sports, fashion, and politics. Listen to these voices, support their endeavors, follow them on social media. Our identities – the identities of our children – depend on their messages being spread.

The Mascot Files: “You have an Indian before you.”

‘Redskin’ is a dictionary-defined slur. So I don’t know where the debate is.

- Simon Moya-Smith

Like anything Fox News puts out there, this clip of last night’s Kelly File is hard to watch (for the well-informed progressive-types, that is). The segment looked at a recent letter signed by 50 US Senators asking the NFL higher-ups to endorse a Washington Redskins name change (a reminder that Natives have been pushing for this same thing for decades, including the National Congress of American Indians). Simon Moya-Smith, whom Kelly’s producers brought on the show after CNN published his spot-on op-ed, does a fantastic job holding his own against three non-Native bigots interested only in sensationalism and the bottom line. If you’re looking for a great example of whitesplaining Native issues and concerns, this video is for you.

Ben Shapiro is the definition of patronizing condescension when he says in the clip that Native Americans have more to worry about than mascots. The Redskins name, he says, “… is about 100 on the list of issues facing Native American communities today.” Two things: (1) Please, tell me more about what I need to concern myself with, Mr. Shapiro. And (2) It’s dangerous – DANGEROUS – to bypass the solid, proven links between mascots and the disparities in health, education, and employment Native Americans face.

The fact of the matter is these words and images – mascots and logos and names like those found on the Washington NFL team – are *harmful.* Like Big Tobacco lobbyists, mascot/name supporters like to say there is no direct link between the Redskins and the vast, plague-like troubles Natives face on a daily basis. “Oh, come on,” they say. “It’s *just* football. The kid who killed himself in Eagle Butte last week didn’t do it because he saw a Redskins football game.”

But like the tar, the arsenic, and the other 4,000-some chemicals wrapped nicely in kid-friendly cigarette packaging, the poison inherent in mascots and racist team names takes root over time. One or two puffs on any given Sunday and you’ll live. But years of exposure to the smoke of systemic, capitalized racism will fester, and, like all cancers, will eventually kill – if not the body, then for sure the spirit.

With each game, with each Faux News-like broadcast, and with each successive PR stunt from the Dan Snyder Is Clueless Factory, mascots and team names like the Redskins reinforce to Natives and non-Natives alike that ours isn’t a cause people care about. That football rates higher than Native people. We are only as good as a game-winning touchdown. We wipe our tears with your jerseys, and thank you for the honor. “Here we are now,” the crowd screams. “Entertain us.”

Native youth especially measure their worth based on how others view them. So, yeah, that Redskins game – the one where the opposing team’s fans held high the bloody head of a plastic Indian – may very well have fed into the fears of a Native kid who thought he was worthless. That’s why I, personally, advocate to end the use of racialized mascots and names, which are classic dehumanization tactics used in genocidal campaigns to show one demographic is *less* (read more here). This isn’t just some Angry Indian, butt-hurt, anti-sport, layman’s POV. This is Psychology 101.

From the American Psychological Association:

APA’s position is based on a growing body of social science literature that shows the harmful effects of racial stereotyping and inaccurate racial portrayals, including the particularly harmful effects of American Indian sports mascots on the social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people.

From Philip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect“:

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows.

Native appropriation and dehumanization – these physically, emotionally, and sexually violent images – makes our decent into the abyss easier for the masses to swallow: “Oh, they’re just Redskins. Just Siouxper Drunks. Just Halloween costumes, fashion accessories, and characters for actors to play. And just a token Indian to run over when we put him on an editorial news show.”

Redskins violence
Check out the t-shirts: Siouxper Offensive
This Victoria Secret model isn’t Native American. If she were, she’d be four times more likely to be assaulted or raped in her lifetime. Let’s perpetuate the “Sexy Indian Maiden” stereotype some more…

Another issue brought up in Kelly’s circus act was the idea that polls and surveys prove Native Americans and the public at large are totally fine with the Redskins team name. Polls? Surveys? “I think it’s really interesting,” Simon says to Kelly in the clip when she asks him about those ‘Polls’ (show me the money!). “It’s like, what Indians? You have an Indian before you.” Sadly, we are not enough, individually. But I digress. These polls are NEVER done on a reservation or in areas of mass Native concentrations. Not many living in those areas have the resources or infrastructure to take surveys like these in the first place. Beyond this, Native Americans make up about 2 percent of the total US population — let’s talk about how much the other 98 percent knows (or, better yet, cares) about our culture and history? <– Those are the people taking these polls and surveys, which we all know can be skewed toward whatever end you’re reaching for (that’s studied in Journalism Ethics 101, btw).

Finally, I want to talk about Simon’s assertion of the term ‘redskin’ being a dictionary-defined racial slur. It is. Like other derogatory terms, it’s hurtful and goes right back into the whole dehumanizing discussions above. Not so long ago, the ‘red skin’ of my ancestors was worth a big bounty. In the clip Simon points out, “Racial slurs toward Native Americans haven’t been rubbed out… People think it’s OK to denigrate Native Americans because it’s ‘their tradition.’ What about our tradition?”

Skins and scalps of Indians worth $200

Kelly demands Simon play the dictionary and asks, “What does it mean to denigrate? Just to say the word? Because let’s take the N-word for example. If it’s uttered by certain people, it’s considered grossly offensive. If it’s uttered by certain people – rappers, for example – it’s not considered offensive. So the Washington Redskins – that name was born at a time that it wasn’t found offensive, and most of the fans don’t find it offensive, most of the nation doesn’t find it offensive. Now, today, you tell me some – some portion of folks do find it offensive. So what makes a name truly derogatory or not?”

Truly derogatory? You mean, if you’re not personally offended by it, then it’s not really offensive? Lot’s of 101s going around today, and this is White Privilege rearing it’s ugly, blonde head. I’m not going to touch the N-word comment. Too many mascot protesters overuse and misuse the “double-standard” concept in their debates and completely throw our fellow minorities under the racism bus in order to prove a point (I admit to being one of these people until shown the error of my ways about a year ago). Yes, there are many people, Natives included, who do not find the term redskin offensive. But there are, in fact, Natives offended by the term, despite its origins, modern intents, and celebrity mouthpieces. The fact that a major non-Native entity supported by a vast majority of non-Native people approves of a term many Natives – Simon and me included – are personally offended by is racism.

The best thing to happen in the clip comes right after the slur discussion when sportscaster Jim Gray jumps in and says, “If you were naming a team today, Megyn, you could guarantee one thing: They would not name the new Washington baseball team the Redskins.” And she agrees, which totally goes back to the White Privilege comment: If a tree falls in the woods, it only makes a sound if a white person hears it.

Still: Point to Simon!

This will continue to be “debated” for years to come, but I promise you Natives will be victorious on this issue. We have to be. The self-esteem and morale of generations of young people – like my daughter – depend on it. I’ll leave you with this piece from “Psychology Today” and the Science of Small Talk:

In the end, these data pose a problem for claims that these mascots are honorific and likely to enhance the self-esteem of Native Americans. Even when that is (or has recently become) the motivation behind a team name, such good intent is not sufficient to bring about good outcomes. As the authors of the paper described above explain, “American Indian mascots do not have negative consequences because their content or meaning is inherently negative. Rather… [the mascots] remind American Indians of the limited ways in which others see them.”

 

Scatter Their Own – Native Peoples – May/June 2014

I’ve been following the music of Scatter Their Own for about a year now. It’s deeply personal and message-laced rock and blues – “alter-Native,” they call it – straight out of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The creatively cool couple fronting the band – Scotti and Juliana Clifford – spent some time with me a couple months ago to discuss the amazing ride they’re having to the top. The profile is featured in the latest (May/June) issue of Native Peoples Magazine. Check it out, then go buy their new album on iTunes!

Home page of the Native Peoples website.
Home page of the Native Peoples website.

 

 

Celebrate Valentine’s Day; Support #MMIW & Stop Violence Against Indigenous Women

Celebrate Valentine’s Day; Support #MMIW & Stop Violence Against Indigenous Women

Courtesy photo used with permission from the February 14th Women's Memorial March committee (showing the movement marching through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, 2005).
Courtesy photo used with permission from the February 14th Women’s Memorial March committee (showing the movement marching through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, 2005).

I wrote another column encouraging folks to pay attention to the ongoing violence against indigenous women. One of the things I dread most are the conversations I have with my 5-year-old daughter about keeping herself safe from unwanted attention. She is a beautiful Lakota/Anishinaabe child, and unfortunately that means she is bombarded on all fronts by the very real possibility of physical, emotional, and spiritual violence. I don’t know that any parent relishes the idea of going over “worst case scenarios” with their child, but as a survivor of childhood and adolescent abuse, I am even more sensitive to the dangers of having an uninformed child, so we talk daily about ways to keep herself safe.

There are a lot of great resources available to help parents word these discussions, but the point here is that we HAVE to keep this discussion in the forefront throughout our daughters’ lives. Too many indigenous women suffer from violence and too many of our issues suffer from exploitation, so much so that we fade easily into the shadows where no one can see us. Do yourself and our indigenous daughters a favor and support the work of groups like the February 14th (First Nations) Women’s Memorial March and the Turtle Island solidarity events fighting to keep our women, their protection, their survival, and their successes in the forefront. Wopila tanka; anpetu cante wasté.

Exposing the cold truth: National attention for sustainable & sovereign energies

Indian Country Today Media Network ran my op-ed piece today to spread the word about the propane crisis affecting thousands of tribal citizens like my elderly grandmother. Please check it out, share, and consider donating to one of the sustainable (and indigenous) projects listed in the piece. Mad props goes to Sustainable Digest for originally posting a version of this column on their blog last week.

ICTMN op-ed screen shot

Life or death: Sustainable heating options for tribal homes are necessities, not luxuries

Life or death: Sustainable heating options for tribal homes are necessities, not luxuries

Here’s a link to a blog I wrote for Sustainable Dakota. The death of Debbie Dogskin in Standing Rock hit hard, especially when I think about my tiospaye and the daily struggle to survive in harsh weather conditions back home in Cheyenne River. It could be any elder, any child, anyone who we find next frozen to death in their own home if we don’t take action NOW to build sustainable tribal homes and communities.

Raising an urban Native kid in a white bubble

I fancy my husband and I as purposeful parents. In addition to the basic necessities (you know, tons of books), we try hard to ensure our child has well-rounded access to her traditional Lakota/Ojibwe cultures, feminist teachings, and spirituality. She picks herself up when she falls, has clear concepts of right and wrong, and – especially because she is an only child – is encouraged to grow her creativity and independence as much as possible utilizing a combination of modern technology, craft projects, and the outdoors. Her teenage self may throw shade my way for using her so often in my blogs, but I think most people who know her would agree my 5-year-old is a well-adjusted child.

But this kind of purposeful parenting is hard and actually pretty tough to keep up on top of all of life’s other stuff (jobs, writing, and Harry Potter marathons, among other things). My husband and I are constantly being tested. Two things happened recently highlighting a need to do better – do more – as parents: (1) My kid came home last Friday and started pointing out every Black person she saw as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and (2) more and more, she’s been describing the English language as “normal,” as in, “Mom, stop counting in Lakota and say it the normal way.” #crickets

Speechless

The concept of race didn’t hit me until I was in preschool or kindergarten. Before that, I was raised around my Native extended family – my tiospaye. Lots of cousins and aunts running around my house, or me running around theirs. My normal.

I was definitely the lightest of the familial bunch. With my paternal Irish/French heritage, my dark hair and eyes made my light skin appear translucent. I have clear memories of being teased for my wasicu pigment, and I envied people like my older sister, who to me had/has the most beautiful look to her (inside and out!). So when we’d take baths as young children together, and she would rub her knees raw “to take the brown off,” I was confused. Surely it was worse to be light-skinned – at least in our family circle. She is five years older than I am, and so was exposed to the cruel, systemically racist town that is Rapid City long before I was. The odd turnabout was that my light skin became “the norm” when I entered school.

Despite blending in with the locals, I was still very much set apart. When I was in first grade that god-awful White Savior flick Dances With Wolves came out and EVERYONE at Canyon Lake Elementary School thought they were part Native. “Tatanka means buffalo – I know an Indian word so I’m Indian!” was a popular phrase on the playground. While I looked white, my name (spelled Taté and pronounced tah-tay), personality (quiet, publicly inexpressive), and background (Eagle Butte represent!) were definitely “other” and so even though the noble savage was en vogue, I was an outcast. Looking back on it now, I see quite clearly how the Hollywood appropriation of Native imagery/culture victimized me. Light skin or not, as someone who bucked the stereotype, I was rendered nonexistent.

Really? You don’t look like an Indian… #StoryOfMyLife

 With my own daughter now, I’m super-sensitive to the messages she receives from entertainment media and her peers, and I make a point to talk to her often about race and fairness and the inequalities around her. And thanks to her extended relatives, she’s exposed to her father’s traditional Ojibwe heritage through her grandma in Ponema, Minn., and to my mom and sister’s multi-cultural families (from Eagle Butte to Omaha).

Powwow Girl

Still, it’s a struggle to ensure the cultural lessons the family shares with my kiddo aren’t suffocated by the messaging she gets from outside sources, like school. In Sioux Falls, all of my daughter’s education – from daycare to Montessori to kindergarten – exposed her to peers who spoke different languages, dressed in different clothing, and had a range of beautiful skin tones. Sioux Falls isn’t perfect, but it’s a town that tries because it’s forced to with the proximity of reservations, immigration and refugee placement agencies, and an expansive medical community.

Now we live in Manitou Springs – a beautiful, quaint community to be sure, but there’s nothing to force ideas or behavior beyond status quo. It’s a tourist destination, so while it must be open to a diverse crowd, it attracts people with money. It’s housing has inflated “tourism town” costs, so low-income families have few choices beyond living in urban Colorado Springs (which has its share of #smh moments). And it’s a small town, so while it depends on the money of strangers to survive, it still has that drawling “we have a certain way of doing things around here” vibe to it. Oh, yeah – the demographics are roughly 95 percent white.

The point is: Grow up surrounded by diversity and you find that difference is normal and expected and even valued; but grow up in a bubble where everyone looks, prays, and behaves alike, and difference is wearing a scarlet D on your chest. What parent wants the latter for their child?

Here, there are no kids of color in my daughter’s classroom, and apparently the class agreed Friday they “all had white skin” – Mimi said this as she exposed the lovely olive-colored flesh of her arm for me while we walked home and talked about her day. I don’t know if the “we’re all the same” message was teacher-sanctioned, but I do know they watched a movie about MLK and talked about segregation as an abstract concept: “White people wanted white kids to go to one school, and Black kids to go to a different school,” was what my kid was able to tell me she had learned.

I could easily leave it alone. I could say, “At least they’re teaching – something – about Martin Luther King.” Lord knows I don’t remember any civic lessons about him as a kid. But that’s the easy way out. In my humble, tax-paying opinion, schools should be teaching MLK and civil rights lessons daily, maybe along with that pledge they’re so fond of. When just one or two days a year are set aside for Martin Luther King or Native American Day, you begin recognizing every other day as a celebration of White Privilege (“I can speak the language I want, dress how I want, go to school where I want, get a job more easily, make more money, smoke a bowl without risk of serving life in prison if I’m caught, stand my ground, not get pulled over in Arizona, walk down a dark street with a hoodie on and live to tell the tale, knock on doors and ask for help without being shot, and generally have far fewer things to worry about than POC”).

Beware the Idiots of February

I get the idea that there are some subjects you don’t burden young minds with, but I don’t believe in coddling. And I don’t believe in sugarcoating to make a concept easier to digest. “No,” I told Mimi. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did so much more for the world. Did you know white people would KILL Black people in some places just for being Black? White people would hang Black people from trees, would hurt Black women and Black kids, and never be punished for it. Martin Luther King helped stop that by teaching us that people shouldn’t live in FEAR of each other.”

We talked about her uncle, who is Black, and her cousins – my niece and nephews – who are Black/Native, and how without people like MLK to fight against injustice and racism, her family would live in fear – be hated – for the color of their skin. And how Native Americans – like her and me and her dad – were also persecuted and treated unfairly, and that MLK’s message of love and fairness and justice and resistance also helped people like us, helped all people who looked or acted different by fighting for laws like the Civil Rights Act.

Cousins
Cousins

Now, my kid is 5. I don’t know that I really grasped the enormity that is MLK’s legacy until college and later, so I’m pretty sure my kid won’t be marching or protesting anything except my cooking any time soon. But she’s also not stupid. And she’s aware of the world and notes injustice around her. Like when we walked into the Manitou Springs Public Library the other day, she wondered aloud: “How do people in those wheely chairs get books?” because she nearly tripped down the narrow staircase to the kids’ section. Sure enough, the building’s got the age to warrant a “historic” label, and there is no handicap accessibility. Granted, the whole town rests on one incline or another, and as an able-bodied person I’m dying after walking “up” a few blocks, but you’d think a public library would lead the effort in ADA standards.

This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam's Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. "Why do they think we look like that," her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.
This doll haunted Mimi for weeks. It was being sold at our local Sam’s Club in Sioux Falls a couple years ago, and she walked down the aisle every time to check if it was still there. “Why do they think we look like that,” her 3-year-old self would ask. Why indeed.

Despite the conditioning I’ve given her in diversity advocacy and activism, despite living and breathing Native culture as much as we know how, it’s still very hard to teach our child about people like MLK or Sitting Bull in a way her 5-year-old mind can relate to. Living where we do and living a relatively privileged lifestyle (by privileged I mean not homeless, well fed, access to solid transportation, pursuing goals, educated — nevermind that we currently live in a one-bedroom where I sleep on the couch because we don’t have a bed, and I’m unemployed), her dad and I have to be very purposeful in these lessons.

We must seek out and identify the culture and heritage, as well as the injustice and unfairness, because we live in a community bubble that has no room for being Indian, unless it’s in a historical or economical/tourist context. When she starts identifying as white “like the other kids in class,” it’s time to reassess how we parent. Why? Because today it’s “I look/dress/talk white,” and tomorrow it’s co-opting white privilege in all its “I’m better than you” glory. I fell into this trap in middle and high school, as I think a lot of urban Native youth do, and had a huge identity crisis that didn’t resolve itself until after I began to rediscover my traditional ways as an adult. Today I am closer to my heritage than ever before, and while my teenage woes helped lead to that, I refuse to believe taking a backseat in my child’s diversity/cultural education will benefit her. Just because none of her friends are learning Lakota, doesn’t mean we’re going to stop teaching it. And just because she wants to cut her hair to match the style of the other kids doesn’t mean she’ll get more than a trim.

Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.
Grumpy Cat hates your stupid song. Go away with your objectification and fantasies.

We talked a lot about Trayvon Martin last year, and we had the pleasure of recently watching Fruitvale Station, but the media doesn’t cover things like domestic violence, voter suppression or youth suicide on reservations, so it’s hard to put a face on indigenous issues that will undoubtedly impact my daughter as a Lakota/Ojibwe woman someday. We point out mascots or appropriation when we see it (so, like, every day), and we talk about why some people might be hurt by those images, but at the end of the night she’s well loved and taken care of with few things to worry about, and her father and I worked hard to make it so. It’s definitely a catch-22: We want to give her the (reasonable) best life has to offer, but in doing so run the risk of her equating the English language with “normal” and being frustrated when we require her to keep her sacred hair long.

So MLK Day has come and gone, but we will continue to honor Dr. King and his legacy daily, just as we honor the legacy of her relatives – through purposeful cultural survival and sovereignty. I might have to start quizzing her every now and then to keep it in the forefront, but when I ask her next time why Dr. King is important, she won’t give some soft story about separate schools or drinking fountains. She’ll be able to express how it relates to her, and how she can relate to – and better – the world around her. That might mean she’s just picking up the trash while we hike, or sending up prayers with sage, or noting the accessibility of public spaces, but at least she’s getting out of the bubble.