NOTE: This wasn’t an easy post to write. There are layers and layers of oppression here, and I’ve chosen the one I’m most familiar with: How the misrepresentation and misappropriation of Native culture hurts our youth. I’m not condoning or excusing the violence perpetrated by Jaylen, but I also refuse to condemn him as the sole person responsible here. I see a beautiful boy who loved his culture, loved his parents, and loved his peers. And I also see a kid who was hurting in so many ways, a kid society failed miserably, and who, in turn, failed the people he loved in the most devastating way possible. We can do better. Prayers for all the families involved.
It didn’t take long for news outlets to turn real-life tragedy into some spaghetti western hopped up on Shakespeare Friday.
Jaylen Fryberg, a 14-year-old freshman at Marysville-Pilchuch High School in Washington state, shot and injured four students and killed a girl and himself Friday during lunch.
Fryberg was Native American, and a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes active in his people’s culture.
Images of Jaylen used in the media move from his normal teenage wear (you know, the clothes that render him a “thug”), to him in his traditional regalia, to him with the weapons he used to hunt and fish. These aren’t just random photos news outlets are exploiting from the social media accounts of an underage kid (problematic in and of itself). They are purposeful and part of a long history of system racism pervasive in mass media.
Like most stories involving a person of color committing a crime, the news zeroes in on the ethnicity and culture as a sort of explanation for actions. Brown people do bad things! is the message. When white folks commit crimes, they’re painted as mentally disturbed loners, the connotation being they aren’t responsible for their actions. Rarely is the white perpetrator’s religion (Christian-based upbringing) or heritage (Norwegian? English? German? Icelandic?) brought up, because the default is white, no explanation needed.
But put a gun in the hands of a kid of color, and all of a sudden he was being primed to kill since birth, part of a community that relished death and gave rifles as birthday presents.
If you’ve spent any time among Natives in their own communities, you realize quickly that a Native kid living among his people will invariably grow up learning how to feed his family (whether that’s hunting or farming or gathering). This is normal in our Native societies and an important way we pass down cultural teachings.
But that explanation doesn’t rate as news precisely because it doesn’t fit into the narrative of Natives the Western world is primed to accept. The image associated with Native men is that of an aggressive warrior or savage. Redskin. Chief. Indian. Brave. Seminole. Fighting Sioux.
We are mad. We are bloodthirsty. We will stop at nothing to win. We’re told these images of us used by sports teams are honorific. Be proud, we’re told. We’re honoring the only part of you we can accept: The way you looked centuries ago when we defeated you. But, hey, your team wins and gets millions in advertising so let’s just ignore the unrestrained racism on your helmets.
For those of us who have spent years studying the effects of mascots and Native representation in mass media, it’s no coincidence that Jaylen turned to violence when his own football team was the Marysville-Pilchuck Tomahawks, a nickname that came under fire several times over the past couple of decades as school boards across the country became hip to the fact Native-associated mascots are damaging in ways that utterly dehumanize and erase Native youth identities.
While the mascot has won continuous approval from many Tulalip tribal people over the years (although some tribal leaders distanced themselves from Native mascots in 2013), the school does ban face paint and Native regalia from sporting events. Still, various reports reference fans doing the “tomahawk chop” at games.
Tomahawks. Spears. Warbonnets. People say, Oh, these aren’t Indian mascots because they’re just objects. Objects can’t be racist. Really? Because like associating Blacks with eating watermelons and fried chicken has blatantly racist undertones, so too do these objects undeniably link Native Americans with imagery rooted in violence, aggression, and stereotype.
According to a 2005 statement from the American Psychological Association: “The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
I wrote the words below this summer and they are especially poignant now:
The fact of the matter is these words and images – mascots and logos and names like those found on the Washington NFL team – are *harmful.* Like Big Tobacco lobbyists, mascot/name supporters like to say there is no direct link between the Redskins and the vast, plague-like troubles Natives face on a daily basis. “Oh, come on,” they say. “It’s *just* football. The kid who killed himself in Eagle Butte last week didn’t do it because he saw a Redskins football game.”
But like the tar, the arsenic, and the other 4,000-some chemicals wrapped nicely in kid-friendly cigarette packaging, the poison inherent in mascots and racist team names takes root over time. One or two puffs on any given Sunday and you’ll live. But years of exposure to the smoke of systemic, capitalized racism will fester, and, like all cancers, will eventually kill – if not the body, then for sure the spirit.
These aren’t words I write or repost lightly. And nothing – nothing – excuses murder. But a path like the one Jaylen took was written long ago (long before I wrote anything).
One of the most foremost and respected experts on the Indian mascot debate is Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, also a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes. I have no idea if Dr. Fryberg and Jaylen were related (update: related and my sincere condolences). That’s not the point. But I do find it interesting that Jaylen was part of a culture that fought against racism and stereotypes, who went to a school featuring a racist mascot, and who witnesses say was recently dealing with racist comments from peers.
Again: Nothing justifies Jaylen’s actions with the gun, but most of us who have experienced racism can attest to its power in bringing out feelings of worthlessness, anger, frustration, and withdrawl. And, yes, this is despite being what witnesses describe as a “happy” and “popular” kid. Being crowned homecoming prince doesn’t negate centuries of oppression.
Being surrounded by messages of violence, being a part of a society that devalues your culture and heritage (if it recognizes it at all), damages you, especially if you’re a kid. Add that to being an emotionally volatile teenager in the throes of what appears to be a tragic romantic breakup, and you’ve got some intense Shakespearian feelings to contend with that shouldn’t be dismissed easily.
Jaylen was a murderer, but he was also inarguably a victim of a society that surrounds its Native youth in images of savagery and misogyny, a society that trivializes Native culture with mascots and fashion and crap holidays and hyper-sexualized costumes that render us invisible. He was in pain, as many of our Native youth are, a fact that is obvious to anyone reading his social media posts or who have worked with Native youth, as I have for many years.
Vilify Jaylen’s actions, but not Jaylen. Not his culture. Doing so will invariably hurt countless other Native kids watching this horrifying event disintegrate into a racial shitstorm on social media:
“The thing is, is I don’t always just go out an shoot something. It’s not my favorite part about hunting. My favorite part about it is about just being in the woods. Just me my dad an my brother. An even if I’m sitting in the passenger seat sleeping it doesn’t matter. I like to be in the woods an that’s it.”
– Jaylen Fryberg, from Tangled Portrait of a Student Emerges in Washington Shooting