Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.

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Color me NOT entertained: Award shows are made for white people & white ideas

Ugh.

UGH!

I can’t… I just CAN’T with Hollywood.

Oscar nominees were announced today and while it’s no big surprise for anyone paying attention that few ethnic minorities are represented, my Mac nearly received a spewed-Earl-Grey shower at my shocked dismay that The Lone Ranger was nominated in not one but TWO categories: Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Visual Effects. Um, apparently you don’t need any kind of a good narrative or storyline to get nominated for an Oscar so long as one of your racist characters has a dead bird on his head.

This is how I feel today.

For a recap on everything #LoneRangerRacism, read my post on dangerous Hollywood imagery, plus check out anything Adrienne K. has ever written on her amazing Native Appropriations blog. 

I don’t think we in the POC activist crowd really expect a whole lot from the entertainment industry in terms of fair representation (I mean, nothing for Fruitville Station???), but when a movie that flopped BIG TIME – a movie that caused a lot of anguish in Indian Country – gets two nods from Hollywood’s most prestigious (and totally overrated) awards show, it really smacks in the face. And all this after my Twitter feed went NUTS the other night after the show How I Met Your Mother took a nosedive into yellowface by channeling their best Katy Perry impersonations and appropriating Asian cultures with stereotypical makeup and costuming – you know, super-similar racist BS The Lone Ranger shoved onto indigenous peoples.

HIMYRacism #fail
HIMYRacism #fail

This is why studios and writing teams NEED marginalized voices on the payroll, to help avoid disasters and also to recognize talent (go watch Fruitville Station – now) that is too often passed over in favor of white faces and white narratives. Look at the photo below: Not ONE person of color won a Golden Globe this year; sure, 12 Years a Slave won best picture, but that award goes to the producer – the money behind the show – not the director or acting team behind it. Golden? Nah. These globes are definitely white. As the Oscars will surely be, too. The following Ebony article said it best:

Is it just me or is it bright in  here?
Is it just me or is it bright in here?

It may be easy for those of us keeping track at home to console ourselves with the “awards are pointless” musings, but there are measurable reasons why this matters to Ejiofor, the seasoned British veteran who’s gone so often under-awarded, or Nyong’o, whose future in Hollywood may very well be contingent on how well this season goes. It would’ve mattered to first-time director Ryan Coogler, as well, if his riveting “Fruitvale Station” had received even one Globe nomination.

In truth, audiences of color will always have an emotional, perhaps even psychic, stake in Hollywood’s awards season. According to a 2011 BET Networks Corporate Research study, Black consumers make 195 million trips to the movies annually. What we see, how we connect to it, and how that connection is acknowledged matters to us. As great as it would be to be able to ignore the import of mainstream validation, we can’t and we shouldn’t. In a year like this, when the front-running films featuring Black actors are based on real people and events, we should feel fully justified in wanting these powerful dramatizations to be revered. Award wins are one way to affirm that we’ve told our stories to someone other than ourselves, to someone who would not have otherwise known them, to someone who may have been loath to acknowledge that they happened.

The only shining light here is that The Lone Ranger is up for several Razzie noms, including Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Johnny Depp – hey, wasn’t he supposed to buy land in Wounded Knee???), and worst director, among others. At least it’s getting some earned recognition here. Hi-ho Silver – GO AWAY!

And at least Canada knows how to rep its First Nations at awards shows.

The Move to Manitou

Sorry for the lapse in posts, dear readers. I’ve been moving up.

Literally.

We’re now mountain home dwellers living in a tiny abode at the base of Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a high place to be, to say the least: We’re at an elevation of about 6300+ feet; and the state just legalized recreational marijuana.

Photo from the New York Times - Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.
Photo from the New York Times – Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.

The move was hard. Very hard, and I was convinced I’d live a terrible existence of unemployment and loneliness here. Thankfully I was wrong. I’m normally quite the extrovert, and while I miss my family and friends dearly, the introverted part of my psyche is thriving here. I love it. I love being in the mountains. The weather is amazing. The people are super-friendly – it’s a tourist town, so I think they have to be, but it’s refreshing to live in an area where pedestrians truly do have the right-of-way. I’m making headway on that novel I neglected in November. I’m spending quality time exploring with my 5-year-old. My husband and I have reunited after nearly 3 months apart.

It feels like home.

My daughter loves her new home, too.
My daughter loves her new home, too.

I think part of that has to do with the culture and heritage of the area. The similarities between Manitou Springs and the Black Hills area of South Dakota – a state that will always be home to me – are striking: Extremely spiritual destinations for local and surrounding indigenous people, but a landscape and history marred by advertising billboards and a sort of local poverty that depends wholly on white tourism dollars.

The narrative of Manitou Springs is quite beautiful – at least the little I’ve heard and have been able to dig up. Geographically, it’s a space hugged on every side by the mountains, and a creek winds and gurgles its way through town. But the area’s most heralded features are the natural mineral springs that bubble up year round from a deep underground system of cavernous aquifers.

From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area.
From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area. People flock to these with water bottles and buckets to imbibe the health benefits of the springs.

As the ancient water erodes the surrounding limestone, carbonic acid is created which gives Manitou’s springs their special effervescence. This natural carbonation forces the water back to surface through cracks in the rocks, where it absorbs high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate (soda) and other healthy minerals.”

– From the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce site

Tribal people – the Utes and Cheyenne, in particular, although the Osage, Apaches, and many others – have used the space for several thousands of years, according to their histories. The cliff-dwelling Anasazi also had a stake in the area (there are abandoned cliff dwellings just above the springs that are highlighted every sunset for me, since I live on the opposite ridge). The place was so powerful – so spiritual – that though many tribal nations warred with each other, the springs were considered neutral territory. Like the sacred Paha Sapa, indigenous people made the pilgrimage to the springs year after year for healing and prayer.

I don’t know what names tribal people called this place, and I can’t really find the etymological history of the word “Manitou” (or at least one that makes sense for the region – Google tells me the definition is Algonquian in nature, meaning it came from way out east) but the locals here tell me it’s a “Native American”  word for “spirit.” The vagueness of this makes me laugh – that’s like when people talk about someone “from Africa” and you ask what country and you get a blank look in return. #canyounarrowthatdownforme

Google "define:Manitou"
Google “define:Manitou”

It should come as no shock that colonizers would later exploit the area for financial gain; in the late 1800s/early 1900s, the town became a sort of Deadwood-esque destination, but instead of gold diggers (of which there were many here, I’m sure), tuberculosis patients flocked to the springs in search of a cure. Today, historic buildings line the main drag filled with shops selling made-in-China dreamcatchers and stoner art (seriously, there’s a store called Crystal Wizard Gift Shop). To be fair, there are lots of nom-nommy local restaurants and a pretty cool arcade area, but when you live here it’s hard not to feel frustrated that it’s easier to buy useless trinkets at “The Quacker Gift Shop” than, say, a gallon of milk.

Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can't tell - 60-degree day in January!).
Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can’t tell – 60-degree day in January!).

As an indigenous activist, the thing to get used to here will be the weird New Age mystical-ness that always rides the coattails of all things Native spirituality. I’m sure these people mean well (and it seems they propel a lot of the natural tourism that takes place here) but in appropriating our indigenous cultures they completely and utterly dilute our spirituality into something that whitewashes the conversation (and our super-important modern-day issues) and can be damaging and harmful. I haven’t seen it be much of an issue (yet – the Native population here is ultra-low compared to the urban areas of South Dakota), but I cringe – and chuckle – inside every time someone asks if they can touch my hair, where I powwow, and whether I can teach them how to make a sweat lodge (true story!) – and I generally pass as white in South Dakota, so it’s new for me to be the token Indian. I plan to join the local Indian center, so hopefully I can get in on some homegrown Native advocacy and activism. Living here now, I feel blessed knowing I come from a place Native people are driven to protect sacred sites, like Pe’Sla and Bear Butte.

Despite – and perhaps because of – the tourism, the place has a good vibe, and my 5-year-old’s elementary school is across the street from where we live. I’m seriously considering selling the two storage sheds full of stuff that won’t fit in our small one-bedroom apartment just so we can settle down here. There are homes for sale within our budget, but they’re all old and super-inflated, price-wise. Plus, I never want to move again based on how much I hated the last move.

I do love it here. More to come.