It’s a great time to be a fan of J.K. Rowling’s wizard-based adventures (we’ll forget about Casual Vacancy – I haven’t gotten into the Robert Galbraith novels and won’t anytime soon):
We’ve got not only the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child + the script-book accompaniment being released this weekend, but can also look forward to the beginning of a movie trilogy launching this November with the opening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (based on what can barely be considered more than a short story).
And, of course, there’s all the shenanigans happening over on the Pottermore site with marketing ploys disguised as “backstory.”
It’s the last bit that’s keeping me—once a raging Potterhead—decidedly cool to all things Jo.
To recap: Rowling seems to be channeling Lockhart-like ego and real-world dismissiveness when it comes to Indigenous criticisms of her History of Magic in North America writings released as lead ups to the Fantastic Beasts films. While seemingly a staunch liberal supporter of inclusion and diversity, i.e. gay Dumbledore and Black Hermione, Rowling purposefully bulldozes (read: obliviates) very real spiritual and cultural understandings of the Native people she’s appropriating (read: stealing) aspects of her HOMINA stories from. Like the narcissistic Lockhart who’s well-loved the world over for writing books, Rowling’s global legion of rabid fans have harassed and trolled Native critics who (as many were fans of her magical work themselves) only asked that she try harder (or, you know, try at all) to be more sensitive, more creative, and less Euro-centric in her work based across the pond on Turtle Island. Generally known for engaging fans online, Rowling has simply blocked Natives out of sight and out of mind. Celebrity is as celebrity does, eh, Jo?
All that and I’m just… sad. Normally, I’d be napping in anticipation of tonight’s midnight release party, at which my daughter would join me (her first book release party!), as she is just as much a fan as I am. But this all feels like a party we’re not invited to and wouldn’t even want to attend if we were, because of Rowling’s arrogant and entitled stance against Native participation in her world.
These the only kind of white magics we can believe in:
Save the wizard; kill the Indian.
We’ve been here before:
A white person gets rich off our images of yore.
Our images of now? Ignored.
You’re a culture
That’s the house you’ll be sorted into.
Home of the cursed colonial –
on your door we’ll count coup.
We weren’t here first.
We were here
No wands necessary.
It was your savagery got us into this mess.
You could fix it but there’s no profit in decency.
The true fiction here is that you care.
You don’t. We get that.
Remember: We’ve been here before.
But you’ve been here before, too.
Have the privilege of repeating their errors
over and over and over.
we see you.
And unlike goblins, giants, and house elves,
we’re real AF
comin attcha with 600 years of receipts.
And we’re ready to eat, so make space at the table.
Take your place at our feet, ready to LISSEN J.K. LISSEN
to OUR stories – OUR truths –
these are not myths
for you to play with.
The magic happens when we represent OURSELVES.
We are not part of your empire.
We are not entertained.
Our cafeteria tables are full.
Make no mistake, this is life and death for us.
And we know what real monsters look like.
A good review of what’s wrong with Ilvermorny, the North American school for witches and wizards. Below are the four houses of Ilvermorny, whose images and stories are misrepresented and stolen from many a living Native tribe and tradition.
Here I leave you with interpretations of the actual creatures as presented by Indigenous artists, past and present.
A Horned Serpent in a Barrier Canyon (Utah) Style pictograph.
Wampus Cat by Murv Jacob (Cherokee).
“Pukwudgie Pipe” carved with only traditional tools made by the artist, Jonathan Perry-Aquinnah (Wampanoag).
Doll depicting Thunderbird and stars by Michael McLeod (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians).
But the most important interview I’ve done is with my daughter, Mimi. She’s 7 years old (well, 7-in-a-half!) and the light of my life. We tag team the Harry Potter fandom in our house. We’re reading the books together (again – this time around she helps read and instead of the paperbacks, we downloaded all of the illustrated iPad versions) and try to get a least an hour of book time in a few times per week.
Last week she jumped into bed, eagerly awaiting Chapter 10 in The Order of the Phoenix and I gave her the bad news (honestly – I’m too stressed to read HP now, a series that used to function as a comforting safe space to escape to when the real world was too much to mess with #microaggressionsFTW). I read Rowling’s first post to Mimi. After I finished, Mimi said, “What else?” She meant, what else did Rowling write? Where was the rest of it? I said, “That’s it.” Rightfully, Mimi was angry Natives rated just a few short paragraphs when things like snakes, tournament trophies and horcruxes get fully-realized story arcs. I also explained how some people were mad that Rowling was equating medicine people to mythical fantasy (code for medicine people aren’t real) and was taking stories that didn’t belong to her. Mimi: “Like land?” I could only snap.
Mimi is smart. She gets it without me having to lead her to conclusions. I’ve never done more than present her with (basic, age-appropriate) facts. With those, she’s given testimony at legislative hearings regarding mascots, marched in protests, advocated for survivors of domestic violence and has generally let her heart lead her. I can’t take credit for it; aside from giving her the information and space to process ideas and concepts like racism and sexism on her own, I’ve pretty much let her choose her own adventure.
The other day Mimi asked if maybe Rowling “just doesn’t know” about Native Americans and perhaps it would benefit the author and her legions of fans if she (Mimi) threw down some wakanyeja knowledge (I am constantly telling her the importance of speaking up as a young person – wakanyeja is a word often used for child in Lakota, but it literally translates to spirit being). On one hand, this made me even angrier at Rowling: In one of our conversations about this issue, Mimi equated Rowling to Columbus (the land bit), but where she wouldn’t give Columbus or his supporters any kind of excuse, she loves the world of Harry Potter so much she believes the author deserves a chance at redemption. How dare Rowling do this to my kid (I mean, anyone who has been or works with victims of abuse knows cyclical behavior begins with excusing the abuser #SheDidntMeanIt)! But… On the other hand, I was pumped: As someone who often functions in the realm of digital storytelling, you can imagine my elation to hear Mimi wanted to make a video letter to Rowling.
Remember: “IT TAKES A GREAT DEAL OF COURAGE TO STAND UP TO YOUR ENEMIES, BUT EVEN MORE TO STAND UP TO YOUR FRIENDS.” — Dumbledore (and we’re going to hope JK Rowling is a friend)
The video is 15 minutes long (yikes, I know). And, you guys, this is all ad-libbed. Obviously, we’ve talked about this a few times, but mostly we’re just riffing off each other (and tbh, I nearly cried a few times at the powerful words Mimi spoke). I thought about cutting it down into a digestible 3-minute trailer so more people would watch it, but the uncut, undiluted, stream-of-consciousness discussion that happens is, in a word, magical. It demands to be watched in full.
You can feel Mimi’s anger and frustration at Rowling, witness her obvious passion for her culture (and OMG you can’t imagine how it feels to know she actually retains what her father and I tell her about her heritage!), and recognize the desperation in her voice to simply be heard. Our hope in making this video is that J.K. Rowling will edit/redo her Fantastic Beasts promos and screenwriting. Native people – and fans worldwide – deserve better than what Rowling has offered. Mimi has some truly fantastic ideas on how to incorporate Native characters into magic (historical AND contemporary) and I’m working with some great (and busy) minds to try and recreate Rowling’s HOMINA into something both entertaining and respectful. Yes! It can be done!
Here are some of the problematic passages released March 8:
In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.
The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.
The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic, its potions in particular being of a sophistication beyond much that was known in Europe. The most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe was the absence of a wand.
OK so I pretty much copied and pasted the whole thing. It’s all problematic. Native women much smarter than me have already written the analytical whys and wherefores – please go read their criticism, as I totally agree with everything they say: Dr. Adrienne Keene on Native Appropriations and Dr. Debbie Reese on American Indians in Children’s Literature both give Rowling a piece of their amazing minds (my girl Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, has also been in the Twitter fray). And it being JK Rowling, you can imagine the kind of violent backlash these Indigenous women are receiving from fans who couldn’t care less about Natives or our issues (or our women, obviously).
For me the representation issue boils down to this: The mass media narrative around Natives is intensely problematic; if we’re mentioned at all, it’s within a stereotypical or fantastical sense, and very rarely goes beyond 1 or 2-D. Many consumers of this media have no idea we still exist as contemporary, multi-dimensional individuals, which makes these fantastical/fictional perpetrations very much a part of the problem in that NO ONE knows or cares to know any of the very real issues our communities face. Who cares about the epidemic levels of Native youth suicide when OMG JK ROWLING IS WRITING ABOUT MAGICAL INDIAN SKINWALKERS!!!
We’re marginalized in real life and we’re marginalized in media. To have a powerhouse like Rowling (though any non-Native author really) profit off our continued erasure and harmful representations is something I am totally not here for. The argument that it’s “fiction” is worthless to me. If we (as consumers) had diverse representation of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problematic, because consumers would have other representations to base opinions off of. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide.
And I write this knowing full well I’m also a fan of the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which I’ve written about here. However, unlike Rowling, Meyer’s Native fantasies were expressed at the outset of the series, not as an afterthought (so I had a trigger warning of sorts: bullshit ahead! Not so with the Harry Potter universe).
Beyond this, I’m writing because as a fan, I’m so… hurt and disillusioned to discover a world I escape to so often and with people I love like my young daughter is now an unsafe space that takes the very real cultural histories, practices, and belief systems of a hyper-marginalized group of people and casts them into the realm of myth and fantasy. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m disillusioned with a fictional world based on magic? As someone who carefully curates the pop culture I promote and allow my child to consume, I can’t in good faith continue to support one of my favorite storytellers. If I want to read a misrepresentation of Native people, I’ll just pick up the nearest K-12 history book.
While I (used to) look forward to reading the series with my daughter at night, I’m not eager to witness the disappointment I’m sure she’ll feel when I tell her the author of Harry Potter has decided Natives don’t deserve dignity or respect and that the values of Native people can be torn apart and packaged as a fictional commodity for profit. And you might think: Well, you can still read Harry Potter and be a fan of that series and boycott FBAWTFT. To that I say, no, I can’t separate the Rowling who wrote the problematic Native prose from the Rowling who wrote HP1-7. It’s like making room for The Wizard of Oz‘s L. Frank Baum, who wrote in support of Native genocide, supporting President Abraham Lincoln (and other ethically questionable leaders), or being OK with American history textbooks because everything except the little bits about Natives and other marginalized groups is accurate.
When heroes disappoint, the letdown is very real heartache. Yep. It’s just a book. Got that. But a large chunk of my life has been utterly devoted to the story and characters and I simply can’t help the betrayal I feel. Coming off of her awesome pro “Hermoine as a Black woman” storyline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was sure Rowling would embrace creativity and leave her white-washed, European-centric version of Native culture out of the canon. Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native.
As a lover of pop culture, I often have to check my Lakota feminist lenses at the door, or else spend the whole TV show or movie being angry and dissatisfied (I’m thinking of “The Revenant,” right now as a for instance). Sometimes I’m able to get past the ignorance and marginalization. But… Rowling could have done this so much better. SO MUCH BETTER. I’m not willing to give Rowling a pass here.
Like a broken pipeline spilling sickness across the prairie, South Dakota lawmakers often pump out hateful legislation that marginalizes our most vulnerable citizens, including transgender youth.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently vetoed [sidenote: and the state legislature failed to override said veto today] a proposed bill that would have banned youth from using public school bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms that didn’t correspond with their “biological sex.” While we applaud the veto, this, unfortunately, will not be the final word from those encouraging discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in South Dakota and the rest of Indian Country.
As members of the Očéti Šakówiŋ whose treaty lands are directly impacted by South Dakota law, we write this letter not only to condemn this kind of legislation, but more importantly to call fellow Natives to action to prevent this kind of colonial vitriol from further polluting tribal ways and governance.
Let’s start the conversation by discussing how we—the Očéti Šakówiŋ—remove ourselves from hateful and bigoted sentiments like those we see play out in mainstream politics. Too often, we see tribal leaders in South Dakota take similar stands.
We experience homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny not only by white settler culture, but also sometimes by our own Indigenous people. We see Indigenous Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives attempt escape with suicide and self-harm, as well as fleeing reservation communities into perceivably more welcoming urban settings. This relocation disrupts sacred kinship relations with not just our people, but also our lands.
Recently, some Oglala elders came forward to dictate tribal tradition by saying same-sex marriage violates “natural law.” We don’t know what “natural law” means in an Očéti Šakówiŋ context, and homophobic attitudes like these must be addressed, if only to acknowledge and move past the intergenerational pain and trauma inherent within these statements.
We write this statement to honor all of our elders and ancestors. Some were viciously abused inside colonial institutions that were anti-woman, anti-child, and homophobic. Boarding schools, designed to kill our cultures, were filled with sexual abuse and torture. The system of individual land allotment tore our ancestors apart, denigrating extended family systems and collective landholding. Government-led Christian missions and Indian agencies further obliterated our spiritual and cultural identities with laws about how to marry and when, and with whom to have sex. Government-aided churches tried to force us to accept their rigid, unforgiving notions of love and relationships.
We write this statement to honor all generations. Even today, dominant colonial indoctrinations tell us to fear sexual differences and express that fear through violent control—from both the pulpit and the capitol—of our most vulnerable relatives. Sometimes Natives ourselves practice similar tactics of control and marginalization around sexuality. When we do, we are complicit in ongoing sexual violence against Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives, the ground for which was prepared in boarding schools, religious indoctrination, and other assimilation programs.
The irony is clear: By defining marriage as between only a man and a woman and by saying our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives go against “natural law,” we perpetuate genocide against ourselves.
Intolerant and puritanical pronouncements such as those made by the Council of Lakota Elders only serve to further harm and divide our already dislocated peoples; therefore, we encourage tribal leaders to break from colonial limitations of love and family and discuss how to move forward. We must reevaluate how we relate to each other as tiwahe, tióšpaye and oyáte – together, not separate. Let’s shake the bonds of colonialism and instead reinforce or perhaps reinvent bonds of kinship and communal responsibility.
We write this statement as a reminder that the foundations for this change were set long ago. Lakota elders Robert Chasing Hawk and Joseph Marshall III recently told Native Sun News that “marriage”—as we know it today: between two people as a state institution—never existed historically in Lakota society. The sacred ceremonies given to our ancestors by Ptesáŋwiŋ—White Buffalo Calf Woman—never included marriage. Our views on romance respected individuals’ sexuality and were far more advanced when compared to today’s conservative Western standards.
Imagine if every time one of our youth, women, or Two Spirit relatives’ bodies were trespassed or their rights violated, we reacted like we did to stop Keystone XL pipeline. Our medicine societies prayed for the protection of the land and water. Tribal councils issued declarations of war. And it worked, the pipeline was halted, for now at least.
We must be careful to recognize ongoing colonial harms and remedy them in culturally-appropriate ways when we have the power to do so. In this case, too, it is possible to fight for more just and healthy relations, this time among humans. Our own tribal histories provide the path.
After all, we are all related, not just some of us. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.
Signed by Očéti Šakówiŋ Two Spirits, LGBTQ+, and supporters:
12/8/2015: His ride toward the next great journey came today. Asníkiya él wówaȟwá. May his family find peace.
I created this video tribute to the Coyote of our time. I hope you all are as inspired by his words as I am.
12/4/2015: I write this as I learn John Trudell is, in fact, alive.
It seems social media (and I include myself therein) greatly exaggerated reports of his death and all that. One last good story to tell, eh? “Hey, suckers, remember that time I dressed up like a ghost and you all started eulogizing? That was a good one.”
Despite this trickster dancing away from a digital demise and living another day, it must be noted Lekšila is indeed sick, and so a part of me feels good knowing I joined in with hundreds – thousands – tonight who wóčekiye kága – sent up prayer – smoke and song in honor of one of the greatest warriors of our time.
Tonight, I feel blessed to be able to say I interacted with Trudell twice this year – once for a story that ran in Native Peoples magazine and then again a short time later to hear him speak in Colorado Springs. Within those two meetings I touched upon a small but powerful aspect of what I think draws people to Trudell: His obvious passion for life and the worlds around him rang true in his every word and action, without apology.
I wrote the following immediately after hearing him speak in Colorado. I thought about publishing it, but it felt incomplete and it’s been gathering dust in my hard drive since April.
Maybe it was always meant to be shared now.
April 10, 2015: John Trudell (Santee Dakota) begins a recent talk in Colorado Springs by informing the audience he‘s crazy.
He says it with a swagger and smile, because for him, it’s something to be proud of, another identifier in the 69-year-old’s long list of credentials: Poet, author, musician, activist, actor – and crazy.
Not the mental illness kind of crazy. The witkó kind of crazy. He’s not making an ableist dig.
Trudell defines crazy as “not feeling powerless.” Being crazy, he says, doesn’t make him feel powerful, necessarily, but his kind of crazy – the ability to think for himself beyond the “normal” narrative shoved down our throats by the They and Them 2 Percent – has protected him throughout his life.
I can relate to this – and, really, haven’t we all felt crazy – as in too different to belong – at some point in our lives? And we’ve associated this crazy disconnect with negative feelings: “If only I were lighter skinned/thinner/blonder – NORMAL – I’d be more accepted.” To reclaim crazy as a positive identifier is a kind of power.
In my older years, as my brain has developed into more of Me (what Trudell refers to as moremes), I’ve accepted my crazy. My not-normal. Myself. I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Damn. I’m totally attracted to what I see in the mirror, stretch marks and flab and muscles and all of it.” I embrace the fat. Embrace the undyed dark and graying hair. Embrace my face without (a ton of) makeup (I LOVE EYEBROW FILLER AND ACNE COVERUP, OKAY?! #sorrynotsorry). My body is strong. I’m alcohol and drug-free (caffeine is GOD, though). I’m smart as hell and dangerous with a pen and paper. My good friends are amazing and think I am, too. I’m a great mother.
Oh, I’ve got problems – and who doesn’t? Trudell touched on this, too, and I loved this line of thought: “We’re programmed not to like ourselves. Start liking yourself and you get back your power… You gotta like yourself, you know? Maybe you don’t like some of the stuff you do – and I’ve done some pretty fucked up stuff… You can’t question who you are. If someone says they don’t like me, that’s their problem. As soon as I start to question myself, if I begin not to like me, I become my own problem.”
Let’s pause here for a second. No one, not even Trudell, is saying he’s perfect. Dude was part of a movement that both helped and hurt a lot of people back in its heyday. He’s known his fair share of joy, happiness, pain, and loss. Maybe he could have been a better son, husband or father. Probably all that – I don’t know. But I think he’s more than balanced the scales over the course of his life. For myself, I’m still learning how to live with the sins of my past and mistakes of the present, but I hope to one day judge those against my impacts on this world and those around me, and that others can see the humanity in all of it. Right now, as I think of all the times Trudell’s words centered me, inspired me, and lifted me, all I see is a human trying to grasp and share the meaning of being.
He had so many obvious gems like the quote above in between his rapid-fire, free-flow speaking that sometimes left the audience a bit lost, like, what exactly does he mean when he says, “The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free,” because ‘illusion’ and ‘reality’ by definition are, you know, opposite words.
But then, as he kept running with the flow of thought, he’d eventually say something that would make everything he said before click, like, “They tell you to get an education, that you’ll live a happier, more productive life with a better job, but to get that education they tie you down with student loans you’ll never break free from.” And I’m like, YES! The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free [and you have to work for it in order to obtain it]; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free [because you’ll never obtain it].
And suddenly, you’re in on the joke with the Trickster himself.
While I’ve done phone interviews with Trudell in the past, this was my first experience with him live. And while the delivery of his words and concepts was new to me, hearing the content was like coming back home, comforting and familiar. Everything he presented has at some point been published, as poetry, as song, as interview, as documentary, as Internet meme. But like any real truth of the world, it needed to be said. In this, Trudell truly is an Indigenous prophet for our age.
The people cry out / Tears of anger / Tears of sorrow /Flowing / Giving birth to resistance / Young ones / To remember struggle
For the people cry out / Tears of happiness / Tears of joy / Washingthe pain / Cleaning the spirit / Givingstrength
The generations / Remembering the past / To rebuild the future / For weeping is / Another way of laughing /And resisting and / Outlasting theenemy
I think those who have heard him speak, read his poems, or listened to his music would agree. For instance, the idea of a mined mind, part of the title from a book of poetry published in 2008 (from which the poem above comes), drew several nods of approval and determination from the audience. “We are made up of the metals, minerals, liquids of the earth. We’re shapes of the earth,” he says. “If we respected our intelligence, we would generate power… If we understand who we are as human beings, we can use that understanding to generate coherency and clarity.”
The theme of humanity stayed with him through the evening, in the content of his words and in the energy of his being. The man just kept moving. I was able to shoot some video, in addition to what I thought were some good pictures of a smiling man normally presented to the world with a stoic gaze. His energy meant a lot of my photos turned out like this:
And yet I think that’s the best photo I took all night, as it captures everything about him I took with me: An essence of an imperfect someone simply trying to think and be. Two things to which we should all aspire.
“How we think changes the dynamic. This is our access – this is the only real power we have, the ability to think,” Trudell says. “And one of the great things about our intelligence, it’s about a decision we make. When we make the decision to use our intelligence as clearly and coherent as we possibly can and we make that decision, and act upon it, then it starts to change, because that’s reality.”
12/8/2015: Ikíčize waún k’un hé waná henála (Once I was the warrior, but now all that is past). — Sitting Bull’s Song
CW: More rant than anything useful. Hope y’all had a great day. If you celebrate the holiday, I hope you can reclaim it as something meaningful AND educational AND historically accurate. If you don’t celebrate or you don’t care – whatevs. Hope you had a fab day, too. And remember: BUY NATIVE if you partake in those kind of consumerist shenanigans. Check out Beyond Buckskin, Resonate Art, NDNcraft (among many others) for a nice list of awesome, Native-made gifts folks like yours truly would LOVE to receive any time of year 😉
My second grader came home the other day with the annual reminder that some teachers really can’t get beyond the myths and legends of curricula past: The dreaded Thanksgiving activity packet (copyright 2005, btw – like, someone in 2005 thought this packet was a good idea – yikes). Teachers have to – just have to! – continue authenticating something that never happened, at least not the way they’re teaching it. This whole Indian/white BFF storyline really needs to stop. Like, it’s just ridiculous the things they’re teaching kids!
The stench of the Thanksgiving Myth permeates far beyond the classroom, however. Recently, a freelance reporter in the UK reached out to ask the following questions for his story that posted yesterday on The Culture Trip site:
Is there any sort of consensus amongst Native People’s about Thanksgiving?
I have read that some Native People are offended by Thanksgiving, and that for the Wampanoag people it is a day of mourning. Is this a fair assessment of the general opinion?
If people could be better informed about one aspect of Thanksgiving or Native culture, what would you like them to know and why?
I get asked various forms of these questions all the time, year after year. Generally, I’m pretty laid back about the whole thing: Yeah, I like the day off. I love food (of course, this is just a general comment I say daily). Yes, I’m thankful (again, daily commentary). No, I don’t believe in the BFF fairy tale. No, I don’t believe elementary kids are being taught accurate history. Yes, I believe they should be taught history as accurately and as age-appropriately as possible.
This “young freelance writer” (in his own self-description) seemed to be at least marginally better informed than others, but was still in this pan-Indian mindset and definitely leading with his questions. So here’s how I responded to these questions:
Is there any sort of consensus amongst Native People’s about Thanksgiving? First of all, I’d like to make it clear that there is no “one” Native American opinion – on anything. Like any group of people, total consensus is a goal oft-sought but rarely (if ever) achieved – people are complex creatures capable of holding differing opinions, perspectives and values from one another, and Native people are no different. We represent more than 567 unique, federally recognized tribal nations – hundreds more tribes aren’t recognized by the federal government. Each tribe has it’s own set of rules and laws, and traditions and cultural priorities. To say Native people, in all that phrase encompasses, agree fully on anything so mythologized as Thanksgiving, is kind of a joke. Some of us celebrate the holiday alongside millions of other Americans, some of us actively protest it as an annual reminder of genocide, and still many more are apathetic about the whole thing. Some of us even change our minds one year over the other.
I have read that some Native People are offended by Thanksgiving, and that for the Wampanoag people it is a day of mourning. Is this a fair assessment of the general opinion? I am not Wampanoag, so I can’t say how the people of that tribal nation feel about Thanksgiving; however, an annual “National Day of Mourning” occurs among many of the tribal people of Massachusetts on Thanksgiving, though the details of their event vary widely from year to year (fun fact: The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe only recently – as in 2015 – received an actual land base for the tribe — can you imagine?! The people “celebrated” by millions of Americans didn’t even have a sovereign home until 2015??? I never want to be “celebrated” like that!). I highly recommend speaking with leaders from the Wampanoag tribe. As I mentioned in the first question, some Natives are indeed “offended” by Thanksgiving, in the same way farting can “offend” someone’s sense of smell. I think the word “offended” or the phrase “taking offense” downplays what holidays like Thanksgiving represent for some Native people. The people who protest Thanksgiving aren’t doing so because they’re offended; they’re doing so because Thanksgiving is a nice way to sweep the genocide of millions under the rug. That’s pretty racist, if you ask me (and I haven’t even mentioned the millions of school children who dress in redface and war-hoop for school celebrations). In celebrating a mythological account of “The First Thanksgiving,” not only are Americans blindly accepting a whitewashed version of events, but they’re also ignoring the very real history that the “thanks” given by colonizers was that their diseases (among other unfair causes of death) were killing off Indians by the thousands. Essentially, “Let’s give thanks to a god who clears the way of savages for our colonies to thrive.” Hey – pass the gravy, will ya?
If people could be better informed about one aspect of Thanksgiving or Native culture, what would you like them to know and why? I’d like them to know we’re a thriving people with a variety of issues and campaigns we care about, which vary tribe to tribe. If Americans and mainstream media stopped relying on surface-level (mis)representations of Native people (feathers, leathers and stereotypes), they might be able to look away from the past and instead focus on their Indigenous neighbors and coworkers who could use allies in their modern-day efforts to fight Big Oil, reclaim land, revitalize language, prevent youth suicide, strengthen tribal infrastructures and sovereignty, and so much more. Move away from myths and recognize the very real impacts Indigenous people from across the continent had – and continue to have – on the development and success of the America you live in today.
“Thank you so much for your very thorough response. I hope that you forgive the ignorance of my questions, and I take your point on all of them. Talking of offence, I hope that you did not take any from my questions. But as a British person I was, until two weeks ago completely unaware of even the ‘let’s sit around and eat turkey’ story told in schools. I hope that I can do you justice in the article, I will be doing a lot more research before it is published. Having read your response, the first thing I am going to do is email my editor and ask for an extension on the word count.”
Haha – I love that last part #storyteller #gotlotstosay
We went through a few emails discussing what to cut, etc. He wanted to leave out the bit on farting, but I was like, “if you use anything from me, use the fart bit.” He cut out the third question from his article, although he used most of my wording for his own conclusion.
It’s not the strongest piece of writing, but I like that he reached out to a few folks for their opinion (and, as I said, we all sort of had our own thought processes). And as I told him, if learning about eating turkey as a national holiday raised your eyebrows, consider the stupidity of taking away our President’s time to officially “pardon” a turkey from being cooked and eaten. And how abhorrent that action is when you consider Natives have been asking outgoing presidents to pardon our political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, for decades. Obama will have time for a turkey but not some man who’s been behind bars since the 70s. Sad.
Here are some good places to start when re-learning American history as it relates to Pilgrim/Indian plot development:
Finally, if this piece triggered your interest, I suggest you read another interview I had recently – this one conducted by a 10-year-old in NYC who writes for an organization called IndyKids! My interview is here. This little lady and I had a GREAT initial phone conversation (of course, I typed my responses to her, as well), wherein I asked her what came to mind when she pictured Native Americans. Her immediate answer was to describe objects displayed at National Museum of the American Indian (based in NYC). Pretty telling that a seemingly educated, with-it kid from NYC has no context for Natives except those she sees in museums o__0 (TEACHERS! DO BETTER!)
I spent last week cut off from most of the world in rural, southern Vermont. No cell service, the weakest of Internet connections, and a “courtesy flush” septic system.
It was glorious.
I’m a big fan of mandatory adult timeouts. I try to implement time away from technology – social media, specifically – at least every few months (or when the news cycle or my timelines become too triggering) for self-care purposes.
Last week I had the honor and privilege to experience Kopkind, a timeout with strangers who would become amazing friends. It was set up like how I imagine lots of movie-worthy youth camps are set up: Scheduled learning, shared chore duties, organized fun, fires and games, and reconnection with the Earth. And lots of bugs.
The Kopkind Colony is an educational summer residency program for nonpartisan, independent journalists and community organizers. When he died, in 1994, Andrew Kopkind was eulogized as one of the great journalists of his generation, a man who, in America’s leading magazines, brought high literary style and intimate acquaintance with the dynamic political and cultural life of his time to the service of reportage and analysis. The Kopkind Colony, started by his family, friends and colleagues as a living memorial, is based at Tree Frog Farm in Guilford, Vermont, where Kopkind did much of his writing and where his archives are housed. The project honors Kopkind’s legacy by bringing together young reporters interested in making sense of the world around them and young people engaged in the political life of their communities for seminars, skill-honing sessions and lectures with established writers and political activists. It emphasizes inquiry and exchange on a range of social as well as professional issues, and a broadening of knowledge based on an understanding of history and a sensitivity to the experiences of others. At a time of increasing compartmentalization and the decline of formal mentorship in American journalism, it fosters collaboration–with focused programs designed to create a colloquy between professional and apprentice, young and old, rural and urban, with special attention to racial and gender diversity. – The Kopkind Mission
There’s a lot to that mission statement. But it’s all of that magic and more. I applied to the fellowship without really knowing much beyond this mission (I wasn’t a little put off by the use of the word “colony,” but totally sold on the idea that journalism can and should mean active participation in the world – more on that later). Someone I know and admire posted a general Facebook post encouraging folks to apply. My unending thanks to this person. You know who you are ❤
The theme this year was “Freedom to Be.” My cohorts – now hunka (chosen family) to me – came from a variety of activism backgrounds: José works tirelessly in Chicago for the rights of day laborers and domestic workers; Aaron is an elementary teacher in all ways that title does no justice to describe the commitment of those who don’t see their role as simply a profession; Tashira is a lawyer and wordsmith who champions the causes of marginalized youth and families; Chuck is a writer and filmmaker who uses the media to give voice to the voiceless and as a mirror to force the privileged few to see that which they are blind to; Anna is a freelancer kicking the shit out of the journalism world with her prose and passion; Joel is a poet of both words and action and his care for the lives and stories of NYC’s youth and families makes lives better; and Renee fights daily to ensure access to quality reproductive health care is available to those who seek it.
Our mentors in this endeavor were Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, whom I’d need another blog post to describe what their leadership meant to me over the course of a week.
Much of our discussion last week centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, how it relates to us, and why we need to care for each other – not just in a solidarity sense, although that for sure is a must – in order to continue the work we do. Too often, our self care is solitary and framed upon our desires to make the world better. As many of us discovered, however, taking time to breathe, to connect with the land and with each other, makes us more powerful than we’d ever be without these essential elements of movement work.
Outside of the amazing bonds we formed, my greatest takeaway was that the work I do to uplift and center indigenous voices is important, valued, and desperately needed, because it is intricately tied to the greater efforts of Justice Work.
I vividly recall the discussion one of my favorite mentors held in which she described how she was not a registered voter, because she didn’t want her public voting record to be used against her as she reported on legislative affairs. She also didn’t serve on boards or volunteer. She still doesn’t do much by way of social media likes and shares. I should add here that this mentor in no way decreed her ways be adopted by the masses, but her words impacted me greatly. Also, this was more than 10 years ago.
But as I developed my reporting skills, I held firm this concept. Then, in 2008, I began working within the social services and education spectrums, and it became clear to me that this way of thinking was apathetic in the most harmful of ways. My disengagement from community involvement was an affront to very real cultural values of my Lakota people, and worked to silence the same people I was hoping to represent fairly and accurately. It took many years, but I began asking myself, “Why should I be fair to racists, or homophobics, or transphobics, or misogynists, or ableists, or white saviors, or anti-choicers, or any other person who lives to oppress others?” Hate isn’t a “viewpoint” to give equal news space to, and as a journalist I find the best good I can do is write about ways to end oppression or stories that bring hope, voice, and justice to indigenous endeavors.
I shared all these things and more with those at Kopkind. My work and writing and passions received verbal praise, sure, but more than this were the snaps, head nods, and hugs, physical kudos that reverberated through my being. And I was validated. I will be ever-thankful and humbled by this generosity.
To commemorate the week, I was commissioned to create a video testimonial of the Kopkind retreat and its impact. It’s not meant to be a marketing product (it’s nearly 20 minutes long), but something to encapsulate what we we all felt and will bring with us as we move forward with our work and lives.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers is how to check their lineage for Native American ancestry.
There are a few companies now that – for a pretty penny – will search your DNA for ethnic markers and give you a sort of roadmap of percentages. I’ve had friends use these companies and haven’t heard anything negative from them, so I imagine the information they provide is legit.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to figure out your genetic heritage. I fully support that.
But I wonder: For those who find they are some percent “Native American” (and let’s not forget we’re talking thousands of unique tribal nations in that vague descriptor), what will they do with that information?
SUPER DUPER UPDATE 7/13/16: My post is a little more, how shall we say, friendly to the idea of DNA tests, but only because I know folks who have done them and swear by what they found. I don’t want to deny them their results. However, many people much – much! – smarter than me have totally ripped ancestry tests to shreds. Because science. For a primer on why DNA testing won’t help you determine what tribe you’re from, you MUST READ the scholar Kim Tallbear‘s tweetorial and the many publications that interviewed her on the subject.
Because being Native American is more than having the genetic marker of a distant relative (royal or not). It’s more than just a box to check for racial demographics on applications and census and data tracking. It’s more than being sovereign/legal/political entities. It’s more than blood quantum and tribal citizenship.
And yet for some people it’s all these things. More than all these things. Race, and particularly Native identity, is a super-complex issue layered in history, modern movements, language, culture, genocide, and so much more.
For me, it’s my relatives – my tiospaye (family) – and the larger Native community I’ve committed my life to. It’s me imbued with the aspects of a spiritual being in the absence of religious belief, although I know many who combine the two with tremendous results.
I was a guest on Native America Calling recently to talk about this very issue of Native identity, especially as the national conversation remains on Rachel Dolezal, the concept of being “transracial” (as opposed to multiracial?), and the ramifications of claiming an identity that isn’t biologically yours to claim.
We covered a lot of ground, and my part is recapped below (I feel like my voice was really muffled – sorry #fasttalkerihaveanxietygivemeabreak). What are your thoughts? How do YOU identify and is that identity different from the one others associate you with? Are those distinctions important?
My Lakota identity is based on many foundational layers.
Spirituality. This is different from religion, which is often more about loyalty to an institution and its prescribed set of rules, whereas spirituality, I think, is more of a way of life. It’s the difference between belief and being (and I think for many individuals the two can overlap). This has allowed me to explore and fully embrace many aspects of self, including Two Spirit pride and responsibility, motherhood, feminism, and so much more.
Relatives and relations. My identity encompasses my connections and being an active participant “of” rather than “in” my tiospaye (family) and the Oyate (community).
Work. It’s what I do for my people. To actively support and uplift. Pay for this work is nice (and necessary for survival), but better still are the messages from parents and young people I’ve impacted over the years, who remember me and who have taken what I’ve given them and have used it to give back to others.
Reciprocity. Turning to my Lakota culture saved my life as a depressed and suicidal teenager. Today, being Lakota is how I impact the world around me for the better.
Defining Native identity
I refuse to define anyone other than myself, and describing Native identity goes beyond what’s possible in a single radio show or essay. Consider:
In the U.S. there are 567 federally recognized tribes, each with their own rules of citizenship. Then there are another 400 or 500 tribes that aren’t federally recognized, but also have citizenship requirements.
There are people who speak their tribal language, and those whose relatives refused to teach the language based on their own traumatic boarding school experiences.
There are quarter-blood (or less) Indians born and raised on the rez immersed in their culture; and there are urban full bloods adopted out as babies who have no connection to their tribe.
And let’s not forget the U.S. government’s long history of attempting to rid itself of its Indian problem. Genocide wasn’t just smallpox, or war, or concentration camps, or removing primary food sources like buffalo… Genocide was (and is) destroying records, the sterilization and murder of Native women, and defunding legal obligations like healthcare or education in tribal communities. In this vein, systemic oppression may prevent some people from accessing Native identity, and rewards a person’s proximity to whiteness. Keep in mind it was/is better (in terms of safety and success) to be white, and many Native people chose/choose to pass as white to ensure descendent survival sans hardship.
The considerations above don’t even begin to touch upon the issues faced by the thousands of indigenous Turtle Island people north and south of the US border, or my Black/indigenous brothers and sisters.
It’s not up to me to decide who’s Native. Identity, for anyone, is personal. But tribes and families can determine “membership” and I think for many Natives our identities are shaped by sociocultural input from others. Does anyone else have a “What Would Auntie Do?” bracelet? – jk
As one caller said on the radio show: Your relatives know who you are. For me, that’s so so true – on many levels. But for others, say the person who was adopted out of the tribe back in the mid-1900s, that’s a small piece of the puzzle, especially if they are unable to retrace their biological family ties.
When it comes to identity, I think there’s “I’m Native American” and then there’s “I’m Mniconjou Lakota of the Oceti Sakowin.” I think, perhaps moreso than other racial identities, there’s a lot of work that has to go into claiming Native identity before it’s considered legit. For me, there has to be an aspect of doing good work to uplift your people, whether that’s your tiospaye (family) or the Oyate (community). There also must be recognition and understanding of Native issues, and beyond that, doing something about those issues.
The elusive ‘Real Indian’
In discussing Rachel Dolezal, the national conversation centers on her claim to Black identity, what she calls “the Black experience” (as if being Black, or any race, can be packaged into a singular experience). I am in full support of these discussions.
“The lack of questioning of that born-in-a-tipi story, however, points to the need for children’s books and media that accurately portray our lives in the past and the present so that people don’t put forth stories like the one Dolezar did, and so that that those who hear that kind of thing question such stories.
“Dolezal’s story about living in a tipi is plausible but not probable. The power of stereotyping is in her story, and in those who accepted it, too. That is not ok. Look at the images of Native people you are giving to children in your home, in your school, and in your library. Do some weeding. Make some better choices. Contribute to a more educated citizenry.”
Native identity is often based on visual stereotypes by outsiders, and even within our own Native circles we’re held to standards of stoicism, oneness with nature, brown skin (not “too” dark or too white, though), long hair, casinos, headdresses, turquoise bling, yadda yadda.
When someone walks in sporting these cultural cues (say, Iron Eyes Cody aka the Crying Environmentalist Indian or Ward Churchill) it’s easy to dupe the masses because no one fact checks a stereotype.
The point here is two-fold: First, everyone and their mother (Native and non-Native alike) wants to give input on who or what a Native person is – who they can and can’t be, whether that identity is a stereotype of government policy (blood quantum), academia (anthropological history), Hollywood (wild West), sports (mascots), or fashion (cultural appropriation) AND WE WILL BE HONORED, DAMMIT!
For many of us, we’ve fought tooth and nail to hold onto our Native identity in the face of oppression. So woe unto the person who gains some kind of notoriety after claiming to be Native without also providing indisputable tangible proof. Just ask Ellie Reynolds, a conservative lapdog who was outed as a non-member with no lineage by the Oglala Sioux tribal government back in May after using her “Oglala Sioux Native American” background as a platform to speak in support of the use of Indian mascots. Or ask Elizabeth Warren. Or Andrea Smith (after reading that link, make sure to read this one AND this one).
Box-checking & multiracial research
The Pew Research Center recently published a study showing half of all US adults claiming a multiracial identity say they are mixed white and American Indian.
OK, number-wise, that’s huge. Of an estimated 17 million adults who are multiracial, 50 percent (8.5 million people, folks) are claiming – to some extent – to be Native.
In contrast, Black and American Indian adults make up 12 percent of the multiracial population; white and Black ancestry make up 11 percent.
I mean… Natives must have been getting it on with EVERYBODY for this to even remotely make sense, because of the total US population, about 2.6 million people identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone, according to 2013 Census estimates.
Though there are obvious holes in the study (how do organizations like the US Census Bureau verify Native identity? Because as Natives we are held to standards of proof – called blood quantum – no other race is subjected to), Pew tried to breakdown the impact of a multiracial identity.
For example, the study found that 61 percent of those claiming white-Native ancestry say they have a lot in common with whites, compared to just 22 percent who say that they have a lot in common with other Natives. Eighty-one percent say they feel closer to their white relatives than their Native relatives, and 88 percent said strangers see them as white.
For me, these numbers are super-telling. The folks leaning toward their white selves are undoubtedly box checkers. These are the folks who spout their the family fairytale of NDN royalty as bona fides (“my great-great grandmother was an Indian princess!”) without having to experience any oppression, without having to do any kind of work within Native communities. These people are harmful.
Being Native is more than just a box to check.
Being Native is about more than race.
It’s a legal and political designation because we are inherently sovereign entities with our own systems of governing in place, with land and citizenship designations and treaties.
More than that, however, is that when we check that box, we take on sociocultural obligations and responsibilities.
Why it’s not OK to lay claim without proof
Like any country, Native tribes have the authority to establish citizenship requirements (this is one of those “for better or worse” type deals, and can cause a lot of pain and heartache among legit Native identities). I’m told I have Irish and French ancestry, but I can’t (and don’t) go around claiming citizenship of those countries, nor do I identify with the citizenry.
Regarding citizenship, Native nations are not all-inclusive communities (invasions, genocide, and colonization have really turned us off to open immigration, I think); there is no naturalization ceremony available to those who would like to join our societies.
While membership requirements vary from tribe to tribe, many nations employ some kind of blood quantum measurement tool to determine an individual’s degree of Indian blood. Considering the sheer number of multiracial folks out there, things start to get really complex here. For example, let’s say XYZ Tribe grants matrilineal citizenship only (as some tribes do). A female XYZ tribal member has a son, who is granted citizenship, but if that son grows into an adult who marries a non-tribal member, their offspring cannot claim citizenship with XYZ Tribe (although they can prove lineage).
Let’s be clear here, though. Measuring blood quantum is a tool of colonization and not at all a traditional aspect of Native identity. The US government is legally obligated – through “exchange” of land and resources – to provide benefits in the form of healthcare, education, and housing (among other things) to federally recognized tribes.
It was the federal government that said, “Whoa whoa whoa. If we’re going to give up the worst land, the worst commodity food, the worst healthcare facilities to Indians, we need y’all to pedigree yourselves through documented blood quantum. We can’t oppress just anybody.”
Convenient, then, that the federal government can determine which tribes to federally recognize, and that blood quantum does nothing but ensure an eventual bleed-out of the Native race.
A quick point about race: Yes, race is a social construct. It should have no bearing on how we interact with one another as humans. And yet race totally impacts everyone who isn’t white, whether we know it or not. Here’s a video one of my favorite white people, Melissa Fabello (she’s an editor with Everyday Feminism, which I write for), breaking it down for folks who claim they don’t see race.
The thing to keep in mind is that race is a major factor in determining who holds the power in our society. As I mentioned earlier, being white or being perceived as white (even if you swear up and down – as Dolezal does – to be living a POC existence) gives you great power and privilege (like, you can rest easy knowing you’re a million times less likely to be shot and killed by police more likely to achieve higher education/gainful employment, and have access to better healthcare). As someone who often passes as white, I can attest to this.
The harm in playing Indian
Natives attack ethnic fraud with fervor for legitimate reasons.
For one thing (as evidenced by those multiracial numbers), it happens a lot – like, all the time. The media frenzy that surrounds someone claiming a false Black identity is nonexistent when (even the same) someone claims to be Native without legitimate documentation to back it up. Unless our cultural bi-products are making someone a ton money, Native Americans and our issues take a backseat to everyone else. At least part of this is due – ironically – to the fact that we have such a small voice, population-wise, to demand fair coverage. Where all the multiracial peeps at???
Pretendians cause harm in that their shenanigans will eventually take the focus off important Native issues. Instead of discussing cultural appropriation, violence against women, environmental sustainability, or youth suicides (or a host of other real concerns), the conversation gets caught up in fake tans, wigs, information ownership, money, and other sensationally meaningless dribble.
In addition, ethnic frauds take away opportunities from legit Native people. That academic post? That job? That conference keynote? That college entrance slot? Someone who deserved it more – in a fair and equitable sense – didn’t get it because of someone like Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, and Andrea Smith. And the thing is, all these folks could have done super-powerful ally work just being their awesome white selves.
Remember that power and privilege? There’s a good reason for things like affirmative action and demographic tracking to ensure equitable opportunity for everyone, not just the privileged few. Bootstraps are only good if you can afford boots, and useful only if someone else isn’t stepping on them (MLK Jr.).
If you say you are Indigenous, you should be able to identify who your nation/tribe/band is (Cherokee, Tlingit, etc.) and who your family/clan is (by name). This identifies you within a set of relationships but also within a set of responsibilities to/within the nation/tribe/band you claim. These responsibilities are political, ceremonial, and social.
If you cannot identify your nation/group/tribe/band, then you should have a transparent explanation (adoption, for instance).
Because of the histories of misrepresentation of Indigeneity in territorial dispossession and violence, there are deep ethical responsibilities in identifying oneself as Indigenous.
I couldn’t agree more.
When someone says they wish to be Native or they really feel a kinship to Natives because they’re super-spiritual and nature-focused and whatnot, this is how I interpret these statements: Stereotypes blind people – and these same people who love to love Natives refuse to do any work to actively dismantle the systems of oppression that keep our kids and relatives on the bottom of every single health, wealth, and education statistic.
Yes, our cultures are beautiful, but living the “Native experience,” whatever that means, comes with a heavy dose of trauma-infused DNA #justthefacts Even if you lived the perfect childhood with absolutely no traumatic experiences, just knowing US history as it relates to Native people – and current events – should be enough of a catalyst for you to want to bring about positive change for your people #responsibility
You love Natives and Native culture? Tell me: What were the last three bills you called on your local or state government officials to support or oppose regarding Native issues? Oh, you donate clothes to your church and they’re shipped to some random reservation? Tell me again how your stinky old shoes stopped a kid from committing suicide.
I’m not a fan of Aaron Huey, the (talented if purposefully misguided) photographer who took this image of a pile of wasted and molding clothes donations on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. However, it’s a good visualization of the kind of disconnect existing between white saviors and the good they think they’re doing (when they’re really not doing anything).
For those folks who insist they’re Native somewhere in their bloodline: Okay. Fine. But you best prepare for major side eye action when you can’t name a Native issue you actively support and advocate for, or say you haven’t looked into your tribal history, language, or culture, or all that can be said about your Native heritage is you’re just really proud.
Being descended from Native Americans and claiming Native identity are two different things. The latter comes with not a little baggage and a host of responsibilities to others.
I know lots of white folks who identify as white who think or know they have Native heritage in their background, but because they aren’t connected to the culture, they don’t claim that identity. I find these folks are often our greatest allies in advocacy work, since they can attest to the importance of keeping traditions and cultures alive within families and respected beyond entertainment stereotypes.
Before claiming Indian, I suggest taking a strong look inward to decide whether that identity is based on a need to uplift the community or a need to uplift yourself. The latter is a fundamental aspect of Western civilization; the former works actively against oppressive systems.
* About the title: “Honest Injun”
I was searching for a synonym for “authentic” when I came across this suggestion on Thesaurus.com
I don’t have the heart to check the listing for “casino” or “alcoholic.” I have written to Thesaurus.com to demand they remove the insulting and racist term from their site. No response yet.
Again: NO ONE BATS AND EYE when it comes to pervasive and harmful Native stereotypes.
Why education MUST incorporate Indigenous values, history, and contemporary social studies. Also: Indigenous teachers wanted.
I received a comment today on my latest Everyday Feminism article that totally triggered me. I generally don’t take comments quite so personally, but… I’m human. The only response I can come up with right now is, “You should not be teaching Native kids, because it’s obvious you have nothing but disdain for our people. Leave now before you do any more damage.”
Here is the message, which I’ve broken down into its many thoughtless components (read the complete text at the end). This is what happens when I free-write in the #angerzone
“Hi, I am a teacher on a reservation in Wyoming and I had a few comments about your article.”
“First off, it was really good. I don’t agree with everything your wrote, but I do for the most part.”
Translation: Actually, the white parts of me couldn’t comprehend why he included these statements. He liked it, he didn’t, but kinda…? *shrugs*
“I want to share with you what a ‘white teacher’ on a reservation sees.”
Nuh-uh. No. Didn’t ask.
“You mentioned in your article that only 51% of students graduate. Did you know that since 2001 (no child left behind law) the ONLY ethnic group not to gain was Native Americans?”
Did you really just use NCLB as an educational barometer? Because for anyone paying attention NCLB was crap legislation that did absolutely nothing but to further marginalize already marginalized kids. This law rewarded schools for high test scores and defunded schools with the lowest scores – pure capitalist economics, not education. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, especially in areas with large populations of impoverished kids, kids with disabilities, and kids of color.
Native kids improved microscopically during NCLB’s reign, but not necessarily because of its policies (I attribute gains to the proliferation of social media and Native people distributing their community news to global audiences and advocating for change).
Regardless of Native student NCLB achievement, this sums up the NCLB nicely: “The standards and practices [of NCLB] are not sound for the teaching of Indian children. Our children see and order their world very differently from most other children, and, as a result, demonstrate their knowledge in deepening and unique ways. The current push to meet the academic standards set out in the No Child Left Behind law rejects the need to provide culturally competent instructions.” Sound familiar?
Get outta here tryna school me on this stuff. You must not know ’bout me.
“The students on the Reservation have no desire to make changes and parents for the most part (not all) don’t push change. A teacher can teach to the best of their ability, but if families don’t encourage it or support it– you get a school where kids are just pushed through because it is ‘bad’ to retain and we want to keep students in school.”
Translation: It’s not MY fault. Even though I fully admit to teaching at a school “… where kids are just pushed through…” using BS education policies like NCLB, it’s not MY fault! I do the thing that teaches the kids (which I will lump all together as failures) and it’s on them to figure out how to overcome hundreds of years of genocide and contemporary systemic oppression. Because BOOTSTRAPS!
Look, buddy: You’re talking to a former middle school teacher whose students were 99% Native in an urban area. I get that teaching can be frustrating, that it seems these kids are failing just to spite you (I promise you they’re not). But in all this the keyword you should wrap your mind around is “kids.” They’re just kids, man, and you’re talking like that genocide and systemic oppression mentioned earlier is the easiest thing in the world to overcome. #CheckYourPrivilege #GetOffTheBoot
And the bit about parents not pushing for change? Well, I mean, with teachers like you welcoming them with understanding and open arms, what have they to fear, amiright? Your empathy looks a lot like judgement – I bet those kids and parents see right through you, and all the other wannabe white saviors looking down their noses at them.
“The average age when someone dies on this reservation is 42 years old. Most die from diabetes, suicide and alcohol. I am sure this statistic isn’t new to you. This information has been around for years—why hasn’t the tribes tried to change this?”
OK don’t throw out stats to a journalist (especially one with a social work background) – we love data and love backing it up (#AllTheLinks!). I don’t know what rez you’re teaching on, but Wyoming Natives living on reservations have an average life span of 51-53 years. STILL SUPER LOW, I get your point, but 42 is, like, fifth-world conditions. Americans can live with third-world conditions, but not fifth-world.
To be clear, Natives aren’t inserting themselves into these statistics of death and disease by choice. There are NO resources and the ones in place are so underfunded they can barely keep a roof over their heads.
I want to talk about suicide here for a second, because, again, your assumption seems to be that Natives can just get over all this genocide and oppression stuff (or that those things are at least as simple as making quick, decisive changes). Quick answer: We can’t (and they’re not).
My teenage cousin was recently admitted to a mental health facility for suicidal ideations. Like most of the teens I’ve worked with as a teacher or as the coordinator for a juvenile justice reform program, my cousin is a good kid. He’s one heckuva baller and he’s surrounded by a caring, loving family. But he’s also (say it with me) just a kid. And unfortunately for him, he’s a Native kid, which means in addition to dealing with the normal teenage angst stuff other teens deal with, he’s also living in an isolated area filled with gang violence, drugs, and NO RESOURCES. That mental health facility I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it’s located across the state in an urban area – far away from his family and community.
THAT’S what I’m talking about when I say systemic oppression (here’s a piece on that topic specifically for teachers). Systemic oppression in this scenario is the refusal (despite LEGAL TREATY OBLIGATIONS!!) to appropriately fund programs to address issues like mental health and violence. Thankfully, my cousin has a support system with the ability to travel to be with him… But what about the hundreds of other Native kids who don’t because of epidemically high unemployment rates, the family has no vehicle, or the parents have to work out of town??? There are too many obstacles to list and tribes HAVE made attempts (are making attempts) to do what they can with the resources (and capacity) available. This is why resume-padding programs like Teach For America are tolerated on reservations, because (despite a massive disconnect between non-Native teachers who leave after the two-year classroom commitment and their Native students/families) there aren’t many other options.
“Yes, many tribes aren’t funded as much as they should be…,”
Let’s just stop right there. That’s a HUGE reason. See above. Or reread my post, which discusses this problem at length.
“…but there are so many programs out on the reservation that aren’t being used. The natives who do go off to the reservation to try to get a college degree are called ‘apples’ and not real Indians because they ‘abandoned the way.’”
Where are you getting your information from? What programs, specifically, are you referring to? Because no one program is going to solve all our problems. Heck, white folk have a shit-ton of problems, too. I mean, there’s a reason whites use social services like food stamps more than any other ethnicity. The difference is that there are more opportunities for white folks to access needed resources.
Lots of people I love and admire live on the rez and are flourishing in so many more ways than economically or academically (two things I wish weren’t so important to my perception of personal success — #colonized #workingonit). Their success is in sustainability, or justice reform, or cultural teachings/learnings. I also love and admire just as many Natives who, like me, live in an urban area. People stay on or leave reservations for vast and varying reasons beyond your narrow scope of comprehension.
So, congratulations. You’ve managed to reduce a complex system of culture and values down to tired tropes, “Natives who seek/have college degrees are called apples!” I cringe to think how you might break down a subject like social studies for your fourth graders *shudders*
I’ve never been called an apple. I have a couple degrees, and haven’t lived on my reservation since I was a tiny tot. Apple is a slur sometimes used within Native circles to describe someone who is or claims to be Native but operates under a colonized set of values and behaviors (so, red on the outside, white on the inside — see? Tired.). You, sir, should not be using that term. Ever.
“The other thing that bothers me is the state of the reservation. O.k. so the houses aren’t the greatest and best built–but there is no pride out there. The amount of litter and animals without owners is sad. You look a lot younger than me, but I remember this commercial when I was a kid. It was a native american sitting on his horse in war regalia. Trash was on the ground and a tear was in his eye. Yes, it was “stereotypical” of what a Native looks like, but it really hit me hard that the Natives loved the land and we destroyed it. But that isn’t what I see on the reservation.”
I may puke. So many things are wrong with this paragraph, I don’t know where to begin. The houses aren’t great? I’m sorry, the pre-fab, single-wide trailers aren’t glorious enough for you? Didn’t we just talk about how underfunded reservation programs – like housing – are? Pay attention and #staywoke: THIS IS PURPOSEFUL OPPRESSION! My elderly, disabled and diseased relatives pay ungodly propane prices to heat their uninsulated and debilitated trailers every winter – people are DYING and you want them to pick up trash?
And that crying Indian you reference? Yeah. Iron Eyes Cody (as he called himself) wasn’t even Native. Your whole concept of the stereotypical one-with-nature Native isn’t even based on a real Native. Read up on cultural appropriation while you’re researching accountability (you wrote “…we [whites] destroyed it.” Don’t you then have at least a partial responsibility – beyond bitching about lazy Native kids and parents – to fix it?).
Don’t hate. Reparate!
PS: SO MANY PEOPLE litter and play host to dirty towns and cities. This is not a reservation problem, but a world problem.
“I hope that I haven’t offended you, please keep up the good fight trying to teach ‘whites’ about Native Americans, but please also be an influence in your own culture and try to help the tribes gain back their pride.”
This whole comment thread has been a study in Us/Them mentality, but you really crossed the line here. You obviously know nothing about me, my background, influences, or impact. Ask the hundreds of Native kids I’ve taught, mentored, and hugged throughout my life how much of an influence I’ve been. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve put a lot of sweat, blood, and tears into every community I’ve lived in as an adult.
Believe me, there are SO MANY Native heroes out there, people worth admiring and looking up to. Just because YOU don’t see them from your ivory perch doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The fact we’re still here, still fighting for a myriad of causes proves we’ve got pride coming out our ears.
Indigenous pride and compassion and competence built this continent. That pride CONTINUES to hold up our communities both on and off the reservation. Ours is just not the colonized pride of useless, green lawns and collections of porcelain figurines you expect Natives to have in their cookie-cutter houses.
Our dream is not American.
“It is very sad as a teacher to ask a 4th grader what he wants to do when he grows up, to hear the response of ‘I don’t know.’ Any other child would have had an answer and some of those kids I teach see no future.”
Any other ch-…? C’mon! Again with the us/them? You must be a new teacher who’s never had any interactions with kids anywhere. Or people. In general. Because I’ve had the privilege of living in communities of varying shapes, sizes, and demographics and have never come across anyone – young or old – who really knows what they want to do or be in life. They might throw out something they think people want to hear, but they don’t really know. I don’t even know what I want to be and I’m 32!
A better line of questioning might be, “Tell me about yourself, kiddo. What do you like to learn in school versus when you’re not in school?” Because, as you’ve stated before, thinking as far ahead as adulthood isn’t a privilege a lot of young Native people have these days, thanks to a lack of opportunities, resources, and, you know, lifespan.
And considering this brief interaction you and I have had, I imagine the problem lies with YOU, your approach, and your obvious expectations of whitewashed success. If I’m a fourth grader in your class (#prayforme), I won’t give you much, either, because you obviously don’t care and can’t relate to anything I’m going through.
This concludes the comment. Now that it’s finally done with, I can take a step back and try to assume good intent. So (and I’m talking directly to the teacher here), let’s pretend you haven’t completely checked out of doing your job to educate the future of our world and that you really do care – more than just trolling the websites of writers you kinda/maybe agree/disagree with.
Here’s the best advice I can give to you: Do something about the problems you’re complaining about. Call and demand action (even something as simple as visiting a reservation — which you’ll see in that link lots of Wyoming lawmakers don’t bother with) from your legislators highlighting the needs your white gaze falls upon. Support tribal sovereignty and vote in Native lawmakers (last year’s election cycle had quite a few). There are SO MANY ways for you to be an active and effective ally!
Message Hi, I am a teacher on a reservation in Wyoming and I had a few comments about your article. First off, it was really good. I don’t agree with everything your wrote, but I do for the most part. I want to share with you what a “white teacher” on a reservation sees. You mentioned in your article that only 51% of students graduate. Did you know that since 2001 (no child left behind law) the ONLY ethnic group not to gain was Native Americans? The students on the Reservation have no desire to make changes and parents for the most part (not all) don’t push change. A teacher can teach to the best of their ability, but if families don’t encourage it or support it– you get a school where kids are just pushed through because it is “bad” to retain and we want to keep students in school. The average age when someone dies on this reservation is 42 years old. Most die from diabetes, suicide and alcohol. I am sure this statistic isn’t new to you. This information has been around for years—why hasn’t the tribes tried to change this? Yes, many tribes aren’t funded as much as they should be, but there are so many programs out on the reservation that aren’t being used. The natives who do go off to the reservation to try to get a college degree are called “apples” and not real Indians because they “abandoned the way.” The other thing that bothers me is the state of the reservation. O.k. so the houses aren’t the greatest and best built–but there is no pride out there. The amount of litter and animals without owners is sad. You look a lot younger than me, but I remember this commercial when I was a kid. It was a native american sitting on his horse in war regalia. Trash was on the ground and a tear was in his eye. Yes, it was “stereotypical” of what a Native looks like, but it really hit me hard that the Natives loved the land and we destroyed it. But that isn’t what I see on the reservation. I hope that I haven’t offended you, please keep up the good fight trying to teach “whites” about Native Americans, but please also be an influence in your own culture and try to help the tribes gain back their pride. It is very sad as a teacher to ask a 4th grader what he wants to do when he grows up, to hear the response of “I don’t know.” Any other child would have had an answer and some of those kids I teach see no future.
Check out this awesome blog, Ad Astra Comix (@adastracomics), which is featuring #IndigenousComixMonth through April. Fantastic First Peoples stories!
By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota
Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.
Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them. Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation) To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles) More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History…