Category Archives: Politicking

Engagingly engaged.

Honest Injuns*: Policing Native Identity in the Wake of Rachel Dolezal

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?

iNative

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.

But no one outside of Native thinkers bats an eye at her assertion that she was born in a tipi and her family hunted with bows and arrows. In fact, Dolezal’s parents, who swore up and down that Dolezal is Caucasian without a hint of Black, noted that, in fact, one or two great-grandparents were Native.

Um. Okay.

Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo) addressed this on her (fabulously educational) blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature:

“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!

And second:

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).

From MPR News: In “Family Portrait,” Maggie Thompson deals with the highly problematic matter of “blood quantum,” a method by which tribes, and the federal government, determine “how Indian” a person is, and what benefits they can access.

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.).

You’re Native? Back it up.

Blogger tequilasovereign (Joanne Barker, Lenape) wrote about this very subject of indigenous identity back in April. From “13 Observations in 3 Parts: Anti-Racist Feminist Allies and the Politics of Indigeneity,” Barker asserts:

  • 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

Honest Injun is a stand-in for "actual" and "authentic."
Honest Injun is a stand-in for “actual” and “authentic.”

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.

“1492.0” A Poem to #AbolishColumbusDay

UPDATE: Columbus Day falls across the country; Indigenous Peoples Day FTW!

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

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

To hear me perform in ironic pentameter, click here

1492.0

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

An explorer sailed for Asia true

But lost, got he, this Italian chap

Unsure East from West – who needs a map?

 

So upon an island Columbus’ ships did land

Land filled with many a child, woman, and man

Despite the Taino Arawak people, Columbus did proclaim

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

 

The explorer could do no wrong

His wit was short as his sword was long

He demanded gold from the people there

When he got some – then none – he did despair

 

So he murdered and pillaged and raped with abandon

All of which he journaled and recorded from his cabin 

And to the royals of Spain he did report

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

 

For Columbus had found – yes, discover he did

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

Money for slaves – his voyages he could salvage 

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

 

Instead of “Lost Explorer” he could be credited

With discovering America (history edited)

Nevermind the people already here

Most would be dead in a few hundred years

 

Now this lost explorer, this terrorist bloke

Makes our country look the biggest joke

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

Indigenous people continue to bleed

 

Assault, rape, human trafficking, and death

Columbus squeezed ‘til we breathed our last breath

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

We go missing and murdered and… nobody cares

 

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

Their history books filled with mythic discovery boats

“Columbus Day” we recognize every October

Fabrications and falsehoods repeated over and over

 

And yet

And YET

The stage has been set

By learneds and activists all covered in sweat 

 

Fighting to educate our lawmakers and kids

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

We march and we protest and we write up proposals 

“Abolish Columbus Day – to the waste disposal!”

 


IMG_6835

And while ridding the world of this monstrous wrongdoing

We find ourselves growing and evolving and pursuing

New heights to our knowledge, better ways to progress

Inclusion is possible with these grievances redressed

 

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

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

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

Join us in celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day 

 

 

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

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

ICTMN op-ed screen shot

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.

An Indigenous Mother’s Perspective on Pledging

My kindergartener loves school. Just loves it. She comes home everyday with a song on her lips and happiness in her heart for all her friends, her awesome teacher, and the billions of pieces of artwork she hangs throughout the house. Her latest lyrical lay is the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by My Country ‘Tis of Thee. She knows every single word of both songs, and her lisp makes them sound extra patriotic, because she fights so hard to get the “s” out clearly. Bless her.

My Daughter's (Taught) Patriotism
Proud that my daughter’s flag design incorporates rainbow pride and love and dreamy stars. #MimiforPresident2043

Before I get into the politics of parenting and pledging, a few things. First, I’m of the mindset that my kid should have the independence and the freedom to choose what she does and doesn’t like, while at the same time having and showing respect for the values of others. For example, I’m not a religious person, but I’m all for her going to Catholic church with her grandparents if she chooses to and with the understanding that she also is exposed to other types of faith (she has a slew of Muslim friends, and we practice Lakota spirituality at home; and in this my most <sarcasm>favorite</sarcasm> of holiday seasons, we attend Jewish events open to the public — one of my greatest fears is raising an ignorant child, and so I try everyday to empower her with all sorts of knowledge). Likewise, I’m all about her singing songs she enjoys, so long as she can grasp their meaning. She came home singing Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater a few weeks back and we had a great discussion about what exactly his wife was doing in a pumpkin shell and that maybe that wasn’t the best place to put someone you love. She totally got it. “No one’s gonna put ME in a pumpkin shell.” Or a corner, Baby.

With the Pledge, things get a bit trickier. Ironically, the most patriotic places in America are powwows and under-funded and overcrowded public schools. Just this week the board of the Sioux Falls School District voted to make the Pledge of Allegiance a mandatory, daily occurrence in elementary and middle schools, but not in high schools. There’s more to it than that – you can read the story here. “What we did on Tuesday night was to expand a policy that required the Pledge of Allegiance at the elementary schools to include middle schools and to make it mandatory. We also have given high schools, in policy, instructions to either have the Pledge or presentation of the colors or something patriotic at any high school assembly,” Sioux Falls School District board member Kent Alberty said in a follow up story (noted below). Underlined emphasis is mine.

But it’s not so much the when and where that’s discomforting, but the fact that the board needed to vote on it at all. It rubs the wrong way to force my kid to be a sheep every morning. Oh yeah, and now with all the hullaballoo a local state senator is trying to make the Pledge a requirement throughout all of South Dakota’s public schools. Add that to the “Trying Too Hard To Get Reelected” pile.

What’s interesting to me is how these patriots (publicly elected school board members and state senators) completely overlook constitutional rights (yet another example that our state needs to put more funding into education, especially for things like government, civics, and social studies, and spend less time passing resolutions allowing public school Bible studies and laws that allow armed school sentinels). Lest we all forget (because, apparently, lots of public officials in South Dakota have) the First Amendment guarantees the right of anyone (read: any age/grade) to not participate in the saluting of the US flag (including recitation of the Pledge). Let’s go back to the 1940s – 1943, specifically – when the US Supreme Court heard West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority.

OK now let me say this, because everyone and their dog is going to say I hate veterans because I don’t Pledge to the flag (“You ungrateful, terrible mother! Those veterans fought for your right to bitch on a blog!” <— Yeah, and for whatever reason my taxes support wars I don’t, and fail to support the returned homeless/disabled/struggling vets I do): Nationalism and patriotism are great if they make you a better person – a better person to your family, neighbors, your land, and yourself. Go you! In general, I think people who join the military as a means of protecting and serving are swell — they deserve recognition, surely. I mean, my Facebook feed went NUTS last Monday – yay for one day a year we dedicate a status to veterans… Seriously, folks. I have lots of love for military veterans, past and present, US and indigenous and even those from other countries. In fact, there are plenty of veterans in my immediate family circle (many of whom were drafted), all of whom sacrificed much for their country (during and after conflicts) and should be honored.

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But paying tribute to those individuals who fought and bled and maybe even died in uniform is a totally different beast than what I’m talking about here, which is forcing children – my child – into ritualized and mindless recitation of concepts they are simply too young and inexperienced to comprehend. Really, people – my kid is just learning to spell and read. Heck, she didn’t even get through her whole name on that Pledge book she made. What exactly do you expect her to take away from lines like “and to the Republic, for which it stands” or deeply contextual words like “indivisible?” Let’s not even get started on the non-traditional but super-controversial “under God” edit of the 1950s. And before one more person says, “Well, the school isn’t really forcing anyone to say the Pledge… Your daughter doesn’t have to stand or sing…,” lemme just ask how confident YOU were at 5 or 6 or 15 to go against the grain of what EVERYONE was doing in your class???

For me – and for a lot of marginalized people – the flag and its pledge represent colonialism, capitalism, and privilege (among other things); quite simply, the message of patriotism is, “We are better.” So what does that say about me? What does that say about the thousands of families in Sioux Falls who aren’t American citizens? As the descendent of American holocaust survivors (read: indigenous people), and as a member of a sovereign nation that continues to struggle for survival in the Land of Plenty, I’m not sold on US patriotism and its faux idealism — “…with liberty and justice for all…”??? *gag* Give me a break. Tell me what reciting the Pledge has done for women’s equality (let’s talk about rape in the military, shall we?), justice reform, gay couples, Native kids in foster care, or young Black people carrying Skittles or asking for help?

The Sioux Falls school board said high schools didn’t need to recite the Pledge because of scheduling conflicts, but I’d wager it also has something to do with the fact there are more people capable and willing to use their brains and voices to protest shady American policy and practices by not standing for (or standing but not reciting) the Pledge of Allegiance. To make little kids do it without them realizing the implications or the bloody history (/current events) inherent in US patriotism is wrong.

I vote. I pay taxes. I volunteer. I see the flag flown at public buildings, which includes every single public classroom in Sioux Falls. And I stand for the flag (and other nation’s flags) out of respect, not of blind agreement. My values and beliefs (read: taxes) deserve respect, too.

No, I don’t say the Pledge. I don’t sing any song to a flag, unless it’s the Lakota National Anthem. (‘Cause you feel that song. It’s not some tune that rhymes that can be regurgitated by the masses – you have to earn it.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m protesting; I’m just exercising my constitutionally protected right not to conform to herd mentality, and I’m also educating my daughter as she grows and learns and develops her own unique perspective.

That said, my daughter and I discuss US/Native history all the time (Halloween – and now Thanksgiving, sports mascots, and fashion alone give us plenty to talk about). It wasn’t so long ago, I tell her, that patriotism meant stealing and killing the land because gold was found in the sacred Paha Sapa (we haven’t touched on WMDs and Middle East policy yet). It meant being rewarded for procuring the ‘red skins’ of savages, taking kids from their tiospaye, cutting our hair, and banning our language and religion. Because my baby is a soft-hearted soul, she sympathizes with the person who was forced to move away from their home or the people they loved. At 5, she’s more morally sound than a lot of politicians and knows it’s not OK to kill people for land or for money. She knows our hair and Lakota language and Takunsila are important enough to fight for, even though she hates getting her hair braided and is still learning her Lakota (and Ojibwe!) ways.

And so we talk about how she can listen to her teacher and respect the flags of every nation by standing. She doesn’t have to do more than that if she doesn’t want to. And when she said, “Mom. Is it OK if I do want to?” Though my heart broke a little, I said, “Of course,” because I don’t ever want her to think she has no say in what she does or does not do.

Then we smudged. Because there’s got to be balance in the world 🙂

11/20/13 An update: Reports came out today that board members of the Sioux Falls School District have received harassing messages (and even some threats) from über patriotic folks angry that (a) the schools are only *just now* being required to say the Pledge of Allegiance and (b) the high schools aren’t mandated to pledge. Interesting that the most harmful reactions here are coming from Pledge supporters (because freedom from tyranny, right?); you know, kinda like how “pro-life” politicians are all about cutting assistance programs helping folks – especially children – survive… Yeah. Interesting.

And then I got a robo-call tonight from the district’s board president (omg they call ALL.THE.TIME.) with a phone survey because “there have been inaccurate media reports yadda yadda… And we want to know if you think the high schools should be included with the elementary and middle schools in the recently updated policies to say the Pledge as a daily requirement. Press 1 for Yes or 2 for No.” I paraphrased – not a direct quote, but it angers me they didn’t do something like this – get more public input, do surveys or round tables, or, you know, read a Constitutional Law book – before voting on any Pledge requirement last week.

I pressed 2. #shocking

Dear ND Voters – Thank you. Love, Me

Let’s get this out of the way: I have never claimed North Dakota. I graduated from Bismarck High School in 2001, and my dad’s family still lives on the ranch-type property they bought back in the summer of 1997. But that’s it. Aside from family, I have no connections or feelings for that state just north of South Dakota. Thanks to some rough-and-tumble times during my volatile teen years, I dread driving through the state for any reason. You couldn’t pay me enough to live there.

With THAT said, I am all smiles today. North Dakota voters – those amazing oil-stained dontcha knows (I write that in a loving, Fargo-style accent) – effectively ended a terrible and racist legacy in yesterday’s state primary: The Fighting Sioux nickname and logo at the University of North Dakota. At least, those of us who have struggled and opposed the nickname for years (me) or decades (many brave others) hope this is the end of that hurtful era.

From the Associated Press:

Voters in Tuesday’s North Dakota primary were asked whether to uphold or reject the Legislature’s repeal of a state law requiring the school to use the nickname. The vote sends the matter back to the state’s Board of Higher Education, which is expected to re-retire the nickname and American Indian head logo that seven years ago was deemed hostile and abusive by the NCAA.

That the issue became a political one (who ever heard of a college nickname being placed on a ballot, honestly??) is irrelevant now. The demeaning moniker is on its way out (ding dong!) – FINALLY! I get kinda choked up every time I think about it :*) I can’t tell you how often I have spoken to students, teachers, friends, family, and the general public about the need to retire mascots like the Fighting Sioux. I wrote last semester’s ethics final on the subject (posted for your enjoyment below). I even wrote my first editorial in high school opposing the nickname; I’ll never forget the backlash. How dare I be offended by a stereotypical image and its historically and culturally inaccurate pejorative?!? I mean, really, Taté – you should be proud, because every time a hockey puck hits its mark, a Native gets her wings (or some other “honorary” dismissal of MY feelings).

So, cheers to North Dakotans, who broke state elections primary turnout records to vote overwhelmingly in favor of chucking the nickname and logo overboard into the dirty annals of America, filed right next to Custer, land theft, broken treaties, reservations, boarding schools, and Wounded Knee, among other atrocities.

Onward to Washington’s hateful football team name.

My ethics final, in case you were interested 🙂

USD Masters of Public Administration

Administrative Ethics Final Spring 2012

In which I argue Indian mascots are America’s new-age gas chambers.

NOTE: I CUT TWO BORING INTRO PAGES. YOU’RE WELCOME.

The Fighting Sioux nickname, alongside its logo, an Indian head in profile, has generated both alumni foundation dollars and major athletic and community controversy. Those who study ethics, such as Philip Zimbardo, as well proponents of ethical justice, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., would argue against the use of Indian mascots, which not only dehumanize Native American people, but also contribute to their continued unjust treatment.

MASCOTS, A HISTORY

Beginning in the 1960s, colleges across the country began dumping Indian mascots: in 1969, Dartmouth College swaps “Indians” for “Big Green;” in 1972, Stanford University changes from “Indians” to “Cardinals;” and in 1978, Syracuse University drops its “Saltine Warrior” (Rosenstein, 2008). Dozens of institutions followed suit; some, like the University of Iowa, refused to play teams with Indian mascots, making it difficult for schools with offensive names to play regular season games (Rosenstein, 2008). Then, in 2005, the NCAA “banned the use of American Indian mascots by sports teams during its postseason tournaments, but will not prohibit them otherwise… Nicknames or mascots deemed ‘hostile or abusive’ would not be allowed on team uniforms or other clothing” (ESPN, 2005). While many of the 19 schools targeted by the NCAA ruling complied, UND held out:

North Dakota challenged the NCAA edict in court. In a settlement, the school agreed to begin retiring its nickname if it could not obtain consent to continue its use from North Dakota’s Standing Rock and Spirit Lake Sioux tribes by Nov. 30, 2010.

Spirit Lake tribal members endorsed the name. But the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal council, which opposed the nickname, has declined to support it or to allow its tribal members to vote.

The law forcing the school to use the name and logo was approved in March [2011], despite opposition from university officials and Grand Forks legislators…

The law was repealed during a special legislative session last November, with many former supporters switching sides and saying it had not accomplished its purpose of influencing the NCAA.

Supporters of the nickname, including some members of the Standing Rock Sioux, said they turned in petitions with more than 17,000 signatures…in support of the law. (CBS News, 2012)

Then, on April 4, 2012, the North Dakota State Supreme Court ruled voters should decide whether to keep the UND nickname before the courts judge whether the 2011 pro-nickname law violates the state constitution (WDAZ Television 8, 2012). Until then, UND’s president, Robert Kelley, said the school and its athletic teams will continue to use the nickname and logo – and comply with NCAA sanctions – until June 12, when North Dakotans have the opportunity to vote to keep the nickname (Kelley, 2012).

THE BANALITY OF EVIL

But the issue here is not a legal one, nor is it a question of tradition or honor. The use of Indian mascots and nicknames is an ethical issue – a question of whether Indians are people to be respected or whether it is acceptable to dehumanize an entire culture. In 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) “called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images and personalities,” because it found this brand of racial stereotyping to have harmful effects on the “social identity development and self-esteem of American Indian young people” (APA, 2005). Even more harmful is the effect stereotyping and dehumanization have on the ability of seemingly normal citizens to commit evil and horrendous acts against those seen as mere “things,” according to psychologist and researcher Philip Zimbardo (2008):

Dehumanization is the central construct in our understanding of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ Dehumanization occurs whenever some human beings consider other human beings to be excluded from the moral order of being a human person. The objects of this psychological process lose their human status in the eyes of their dehumanizers. By identifying certain individuals or groups as being outside the sphere of humanity, dehumanizing agents suspend the morality that might typically govern reasoned actions toward their fellows. (p. 307)

Zimbardo (2008) explains how dehumanizing can trigger an ability in ‘good’ people to commit atrocious acts, i.e. the Jewish Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dehumanization allows people to redefine harmful behavior as honorable, minimizes personal responsibility, maximizes apathy, and “reconstruct(s) our perception of victims as deserving their punishment” (p. 311).

In the case of Indian mascots, the context behind the offensive nicknames and logos is at issue. Many schools adopted Indian mascots and nicknames during the early part of the 20th century, “a time when American Indian people had little political power, rights, and were not very respected as a result of the United States enforcement of federal Indian policies” (LaRocque, McDonald, Ferraro, & Abe, 2012). Along with this are the inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans throughout United States history; according to Chaney, Burke and Burkely (2012):

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding AI [American Indian] mascots is that, because AIs may be largely defined by (and socially represented in terms of) mascot stereotypes, AI people have ceased to be perceived as real. From the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage––terms that imply AI people are less than human. Thus, it could be argued that AIs have existed as mascots for the 500+ year history of this country, and one consequence of AI sports mascots is that they keep AI people allegorically fixed as a kind of ‘cultural souvenir’ preserved in the American identity. (p. 43)

NOTE FROM ME: Not in the essay, since this was more my opinion than anything else, but I argue the use of Indian mascots exacerbates the issues plaguing Indian Country today (including, but unfortunately not limited to, extreme poverty, youth suicide, diabetes, unemployment…) by making the American public complacent and indifferent to those “Indian-only” problems. Mascots further divide Us and Them, because we Natives are nothing more than ticket sales and sports jerseys. Who cares about the Indians when there are REAL issues to deal with. Dehumanizing Natives through mascot imagery has been the most effective modern means of annihilating the few of us remaining.

AND JUSTICE FOR ALL

Thankfully, this ethical dilemma is easily resolved by doing away with Indian mascots, logos and nicknames altogether, not just among high school and college athletics, but in professional sports, as well. This would not only bring an end to the hurtful and demeaning practices of mascot stereotyping, but also offer Native American people a sense of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., classified racist and stereotypical acts against minorities as unjust: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust,” (King, 1963). King goes to explain how a moral and ethical citizen has the obligation of confronting injustice and demanding redress.

Therefore, while Indian mascots may generate hoots and hollers at athletic events, and perhaps even have been in use for decades, the continued use of these inaccurate depictions of Native Americans is both hurtful and harmful not just to tribal people, but to the society in which they live. For any nation that can take one segment of its society and turn it into a caricature of itself for the purposes of entertainment and capitalism has sunken into Zimbardo’s world of evil. Yet just as King’s message of justice and morality swept across the nation, so too can the knowledge that Indian mascots, logos, and nicknames are wrong and should be brushed away in the dustbin of history.

References

American Psychological Association. (2005). Summary of the APA resolution recommending retirement of American Indian mascots. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/indian-mascots.aspx

CBS News. (2012). UND to keep contentious Fighting Sioux nickname. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-400_162-57373510/und-to-keep-contentious-fighting-sioux-nickname/

Chaney, J., Burke, A., & Burkley, E. Do American Indian mascots = American Indian people? Examining implicit bias towards American Indian people and American Indian mascots. Retrieved April 27, 2012 from http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%2018/18(1)_Chaney_AI_Mascots_People_new.pdf

ESPN. (2005). NCAA American Indian mascot ban will begin Feb. 1. Retrieved from http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa/news/story?id=2125735

Kelley, R. (2012). Statement from the UND president Robert Kelley for the campus community. Retrieved from http://nickname.und.edu/logo/

King, M.L. Jr. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail. Retrieved April 28, 2012, from http://abacus.bates.edu/admin/offices/dos/mlk/letter.html

LaRocque, A., McDonald, J.D., Ferraro, F.R., & Abe, S. Indian sports
 mascots: Affective
difference
between American Indian and
non‐Indian college
students. Retrieved April 30, 2012 from http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/affective-difference.pdf

Rosenstein, J. (2008). Banned mascots: American Indian mascot & nickname changes. Retrieved from http://jayrosenstein.com/pages/honormascots.html

WDAZ Television 8. (2012). ND supreme court won’t block Fighting Sioux election. Retrieved from http://www.wdaz.com/event/article/id/13007/

Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House Publishing Group.

Jeff Barth for Congress

If you’re going to run (walk) for Congress, you might as well have a little fun along the way.

Jeff Barth, a Democratic challenger to She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Noemed, released one of the best low-budget autobiographical shorts I’ve ever seen.

Shot in West Wing-style backstepping, Barth’s epic 5-minute campaign video features tongue-in-cheek hillbilly fiddling, whimsical props, and a bowl full of jelly. You see Noem (or was that a mannequin?), a rubber chicken (hilar!), a big gun (that scares aforementioned chicken right outta the shrubbery), a horse’s ass (which don’t get nothin’ done in Washington), and a checkmate (the most threatening visual of them all).

Barth, a 60-year-old retiree and current Minnehaha County Commissioner, gives viewers a nice compilation of fun, useless facts of a life well lived. I mean, his kids even have straight teeth, for goodness’ sake. He assails D.C. politics with sound bite zingers – if you want backed-up facts, you gotta watch his other videos (the guy isn’t a-feared of the camera). He’s going for the gut, and he’s got gut to spare (though, not as much as this guy, ICYMI). Speaking as someone who also has tummy tubs to spare, I have to give it up to Barth for walking as long as he did, in what was probably our unseasonably warm South Dakota late-Spring, all while doing long-ass dialogue scenes (in the highest altitude possible offered East River). I’d be doubled-over every 30 seconds, AIM-style bandana catching the sweat off my brow, and sucking on my NPR water bottle.

I absolutely love the video. It’s got The Demographic (18-34 + cool old folks) written all over it. It also has Barth written all over it, too. He’s a fun guy. An honest guy. He’s someone you gotta be on your toes around, because he’ll throw weird pop-culture shit or some random-but-important fact at you when you least expect it. Back in my reporter days (2006-2008), I covered Minnehaha County for the Argus Leader. I got to know Barth as he was campaigning the first time around for his commission seat. He immediately distinguished himself as a politician ready to go on the line in the name of transparency for his constituents. He was willing to talk at any hour and would spend 30, sometimes 40 minutes on the phone with me just to discuss the one item on the commission agenda I didn’t understand. He’d often talk about chess (I played in middle/high school #nerdalert!). He’d talk about current news items and county items that would soon become news. He was fair-mined, well spoken, and super-competent.

Now he’s our state’s only Democratic primary candidate willing to embrace the LGBT community with open arms of support. Other distinguishing traits (apart from a fantastic sense of humor): He doesn’t have young kiddos at home to take care of, he isn’t seeking a college degree, he doesn’t have hair to style, and I’m willing to bet he has a stellar attendance record for all the non-profit boards, commission meetings, and chess clubs he’s committed to serving. His priorities are focused on South Dakotans and progressive politics. Period.

Was he the first South Dakota politician on YouTube, as he claimed during a live broadcast on SDPB? I dunno. He was featured on others’ channels during his 2006 county commission campaign, but in my brief Googling I couldn’t find any other Barth YouTube channels. Doesn’t phase me, though I’m not sure why he brought that up in the first place. But if Al Gore could create the Internet, then Barth can have a GD YouTube channel before anyone else. (Psst: He has a gun.)

Vote Jeff Barth in the June 5th Primary. You won’t be sorry.

UPDATE 5/28/12 – Here’s more info on how this campaign ad ‘hit the right stride.’ Also, looks like even though those YouTube vids from 2006 didn’t have Barth’s name on them, they appear to belong to him. LEGIT! #winning

Guest column

Little late in (re)posting this guest column I wrote for The Team Roe Times‘ latest issue (pub May 15, 2012). Read on. Then support a woman’s right to be and feel safe in her own skin, whether that’s making her own reproductive choices, or living without fear of domestic abuse/sexual violence. By this point, Noem and other House Republicans passed a weak ghost of the VAWA accepted in the Senate.

Representative Noem’s Latest Insult to Women    

When it comes to violence, Native American women are the most vulnerable group; nearly half of all Native women are subject to rape, physical vio- lence, or stalking by a domestic partner at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Add political assault to that list.

Congresswoman Kristi Noem’s recent comments regarding the Violence Against Women’s Act was like a verbal gut-punch to Native women in South Dakota and across the nation.

Here’s the background: In April, the U.S. Senate reauthorized an expanded version of VAWA, which included new language allowing tribes to prosecute non-Native attackers.

That’s a pretty big deal considering the U.S. Department of Justice estimates 70% of the perpetrators of violence against Native women are non-Native. As it is, tribal councils have no authority to prosecute non-Native individu- als on domestic assault charges, even if the perpetrators live on reservation land.

Coupled with the Senate bill’s other protections for LGBT and immigrant survivors of domestic abuse, Rep. Noem dismissed these important provisions as nothing more than a vote-fishing scheme by Democrats. “Unfortunately, in Congress there are some who’d like to make this a political play,” Noem said. “They’d like to make a cheap shot and try to politicize it in an election year.”

Noem’s statement – and the flaccid counter-bill House Republicans want to pass – will leave a lasting mark on Native women and families if left untended.

I am Mniconjou Lakota from Cheyenne River. I have seen first-hand how prevalent domestic violence and sexual assault are on reservations. I have worked with Native mothers who say they teach their daughters how not to be raped. Got that? The lesson isn’t finding someone who loves and respects you, but rather avoiding a drunken partner or dodging attacks.

It utterly flabbergasts me how an elected official like Noem can claim to represent Native women and families, yet turn her back on the remedy intended to heal one of Indian Country’s most troubling sores.

Tell Rep. Noem to end this harmful attack against Native women and other at-risk populations. Noem can be reached by calling (202) 225-2801.

– Taté Walker

Stop Violence against ALL women
h/t to “The Voice Box” blog, where I picked up the photo.

Wrongs in Whiteclay

Alcohol has been a volatile subject in Indian Country since explorers and settlers and sneaky land-stealing government officials introduced it during expansionist efforts of yore. Recently, the Oglalas of Pine Ridge, S.D., one of the nation’s poorest areas and a dry (alcohol-free) reservation, filed a lawsuit against major breweries and alcohol distributers for abuses suffered primarily at the hands of establishments operated in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

A brief, if incomplete history:

There have been theories and proof the indigenous peoples of North America enjoyed mind-altering substances (peyote, anyone?), although those studies show the substances were utilized as spiritual tools, and generally came from the natural world.

For most of Western society, alcohol in its various forms has been enjoyed through the ages, giving those populations unique, evolutionary advantages in absorbing the effects and processing the sugars and yeasts and hops and whatnot (#notabeerconnoisseur). Native people, by comparison, were only very recently introduced to Western spirits, and it’s never enjoyed a positive place in our histories.

In the past, alcohol meant tricking Natives into signing over land rights and creating dependency. Today, it means much of the same, except that dependency has yielded to family destruction and death; studies show 1 in 10 Native American deaths are alcohol-related.

What’s Whiteclay got to do with it?

You need to put Whiteclay into perspective. It’s a town with a population size equal to the average age of Justin Beiber’s fanbase. Don’t let its small size fool you, though: Whiteclay sells about $5 million worth of alcohol annually. How is it possible for the towns four or five businesses to sell hundreds of cans of beer each week? The answer is its proximity to the Pine Ridge reservation (and by “proximity” I mean less than a stone’s throw away; someone can blindfold you, spin you, and send you toward Whiteclay, and you’re gonna have no problem pinning the tail on that donkey) whose largest town is within walking distance of Whiteclay. Since the reservation does not allow alcohol within its borders, people who want to imbibe must get their drink on elsewhere, and Whiteclay = easy access. Let me be clear: the town of Whiteclay exists solely to sell alcohol to the people of Pine Ridge.

That’s not free-market economics, folks; that’s predatory and abusive practices. Businesses in a whiter world are punished for less. Alcohol companies are targeting Pine Ridge – there’s no other way to say it.

And yet sadly many are saying it in other ways:

  • This is the Indian’s fault.
  • No one is pouring the beer down his throat.
  • I was an alcoholic for X years and I stopped on my own without blaming the beer companies.
  • They should focus on 12-step and recovery programs, not lawsuits.
  • If it’s not Whiteclay, those Indians will go somewhere else. We don’t want them here.

I’ve seen and heard other comments, but these seem to be the thoughts on most people’s minds. They are legitimate statements, for the most part, if you’re comparing Pine Ridge and its inhabitants to any other town or population (and if you’re a racist bigot, but that’s another post).

Disparities, Disenfranchisement, Disease – Oh my!

And there’s the rub. Indian people and reservations are unlike any other place on Earth. We are not simply a racial box to be checked on the Census sheet; we are socio-political, sovereign entities, and our relationship with the US government is akin to being an unwanted ward of the state. We are very recently conquered nations that have been allowed to continue a separate but equal way of life while enjoying the comforts and progress of Western civilization. Our numbers once reached into the tens of millions; Native Americans now account for less than 1% of the total US population, while our spiritual leaders and fluent language speakers account for much less than that. The efforts to bring our tribes to near-extinction are emblazoned in our hearts – all Natives are genetically wired for historical PTSD.

Sometimes, knowledge (and experience) of this trauma drives Natives to seek stronger, better lives. This happens in many forms, both on and off the reservation. Good on them! More often than not, however, this trauma repeats itself in a cyclical fashion. The disparities faced by Natives across all areas means the potential for continued trauma is greater than for non-Natives. It’s just so pervasive. Unemployment, poverty, education, disease, and other areas are so affected by trauma that each compounds upon the other to create suffocating conditions. To put it another way: Most people deal with poverty, and that’s it. Or just disease. Or a lack of educational opportunities. Sometimes people will deal with a combination of one or two issues, but they still have direct access to infrastructure, resources, and political ears. Natives deal with three or four or five issues at a time. It’s not just diabetes, but depression and alcoholism and a dropping out of school. It’s hard enough to dig your way out of one issue; try digging your way out of five. To make things worse (yeah, gets worse), Natives often live in geographic isolation, making access to resources difficult, if not impossible. Then, there’s political limbo – local and state officials and authorities are often reluctant to assist Natives as we’re under federal jurisdiction. A common refrain from state representatives here in South Dakota is “Why would we put money into Native programs when they can get the money from the Feds?” (BTW – there’s not a lot of – if any! – federal money funneled into social, academic, or employment programs, so the above excuse is BS.) Don’t get me started on fighting crime – money from Washington is often shoved in the direction of the tribal police force; that’s not bad per se, but what happens after the arrest? Take into account also that on the Pine Ridge reservation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, 50-some tribal officers patrol the borders — down from over 100 officers in years past. To say there is a lack of resources would be the understatement of the century.

And there’s no holistic approach to overcoming all these issues Natives face. There might be a 12-step program, but the nearest therapist to help you deal with depression and suicidal thoughts (suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth) is a three-hour drive away and you don’t have a car because you’re unemployed – no one is hiring in your small town (90 percent unemployment rate in the nation’s poorest county, Ziebach, which houses my reservation, Cheyenne River). And, statistically speaking, you probably also have diabetes or some other disease, which probably means your outlook isn’t at 100 percent and that you are also dealing with the underfunded, bureaucratic behemoth that is Indian Health Service. So while non-Native people may experience all of these issues on the surface, Native health issues (specifically addiction, disease and mental health) are compounded and often treated as separate, stigmatized problems that need “dealing with” versus total healing. A brilliant medicine man recently spoke at the Sioux Falls Diversity Conference here in Sioux Falls talking about holistic Native health care. Donald Warne, MD, MPH, called it the “Indian Health Trifecta” in which the patient is experiencing the three major health issues faced by Native Americans: diabetes, depression, and alcoholism. Because of the way the US health system operates, these three issues are never treated wholly or in conjunction with the others. What happens is the person never truly heals, and because of the compounding nature of these three boomerang-type issues, the individual is, in a word, screwed.

Not the Same Thing; Not the Same Ballpark; Heck – Not Even the Same Sport!

Saying, “Oh, it’s the Natives who have to stop – no one’s forcing them to drink,” is an overly simplistic and presumptionary stance to take. Because, really, they are being forced to drink. The news reports and lawsuit describe how people pay for their alcohol with their bodies, with SNAP (food stamps), with… anything. Alcoholism is a disease and you can’t hold people suffering acutely from any disease accountable for actions taken when they’re under the influence. You hold the people who sell the beer accountable, because they’re selling to people already intoxicated, or knowing full well they can’t afford it, or abusing/raping women, and they’re selling knowing full and well the majority of people purchasing the alcohol are heading back into a DRY reservation (dry as in prohibition – no alcohol allowed). This is what we call PREDATORY! Think about it: Our country went through similar issues in the 80s and 90s when health advocates began blaming cigarette manufactures for cancer-related deaths, accusing them of targeting and advertising to at-risk populations, like teenagers – who couldn’t even legally purchase cigarettes in the first place. If our communities can summon the energy to ban smoking in public spaces, surely we can band together to figure this out…?

What’s Left?

Beyond all of this – and I’ve only grazed the surface of all the issues that should be taken into consideration – what else is there to do? Where do you go if your back is perpetually against the wall? Desperation makes heroes or idiots of us all and at this point, what does Pine Ridge have to lose here? Children are dying – being brought into this world with brains befuddled by fetal alcohol syndrome. Men and women and families are drowning in alcoholism and its pervasive effects. Something needs to be done. Is this the best way? I don’t know. But it’s action, and action is needed. To those who mock or bemoan this particular action I say, “YOU do something, then.” Because chances are, you’ve done nothing.

I applaud the tribe for trying.