But the most important interview I’ve done is with my daughter, Mimi. She’s 7 years old (well, 7-in-a-half!) and the light of my life. We tag team the Harry Potter fandom in our house. We’re reading the books together (again – this time around she helps read and instead of the paperbacks, we downloaded all of the illustrated iPad versions) and try to get a least an hour of book time in a few times per week.
Last week she jumped into bed, eagerly awaiting Chapter 10 in The Order of the Phoenix and I gave her the bad news (honestly – I’m too stressed to read HP now, a series that used to function as a comforting safe space to escape to when the real world was too much to mess with #microaggressionsFTW). I read Rowling’s first post to Mimi. After I finished, Mimi said, “What else?” She meant, what else did Rowling write? Where was the rest of it? I said, “That’s it.” Rightfully, Mimi was angry Natives rated just a few short paragraphs when things like snakes, tournament trophies and horcruxes get fully-realized story arcs. I also explained how some people were mad that Rowling was equating medicine people to mythical fantasy (code for medicine people aren’t real) and was taking stories that didn’t belong to her. Mimi: “Like land?” I could only snap.
Mimi is smart. She gets it without me having to lead her to conclusions. I’ve never done more than present her with (basic, age-appropriate) facts. With those, she’s given testimony at legislative hearings regarding mascots, marched in protests, advocated for survivors of domestic violence and has generally let her heart lead her. I can’t take credit for it; aside from giving her the information and space to process ideas and concepts like racism and sexism on her own, I’ve pretty much let her choose her own adventure.
The other day Mimi asked if maybe Rowling “just doesn’t know” about Native Americans and perhaps it would benefit the author and her legions of fans if she (Mimi) threw down some wakanyeja knowledge (I am constantly telling her the importance of speaking up as a young person – wakanyeja is a word often used for child in Lakota, but it literally translates to spirit being). On one hand, this made me even angrier at Rowling: In one of our conversations about this issue, Mimi equated Rowling to Columbus (the land bit), but where she wouldn’t give Columbus or his supporters any kind of excuse, she loves the world of Harry Potter so much she believes the author deserves a chance at redemption. How dare Rowling do this to my kid (I mean, anyone who has been or works with victims of abuse knows cyclical behavior begins with excusing the abuser #SheDidntMeanIt)! But… On the other hand, I was pumped: As someone who often functions in the realm of digital storytelling, you can imagine my elation to hear Mimi wanted to make a video letter to Rowling.
Remember: “IT TAKES A GREAT DEAL OF COURAGE TO STAND UP TO YOUR ENEMIES, BUT EVEN MORE TO STAND UP TO YOUR FRIENDS.” — Dumbledore (and we’re going to hope JK Rowling is a friend)
The video is 15 minutes long (yikes, I know). And, you guys, this is all ad-libbed. Obviously, we’ve talked about this a few times, but mostly we’re just riffing off each other (and tbh, I nearly cried a few times at the powerful words Mimi spoke). I thought about cutting it down into a digestible 3-minute trailer so more people would watch it, but the uncut, undiluted, stream-of-consciousness discussion that happens is, in a word, magical. It demands to be watched in full.
You can feel Mimi’s anger and frustration at Rowling, witness her obvious passion for her culture (and OMG you can’t imagine how it feels to know she actually retains what her father and I tell her about her heritage!), and recognize the desperation in her voice to simply be heard. Our hope in making this video is that J.K. Rowling will edit/redo her Fantastic Beasts promos and screenwriting. Native people – and fans worldwide – deserve better than what Rowling has offered. Mimi has some truly fantastic ideas on how to incorporate Native characters into magic (historical AND contemporary) and I’m working with some great (and busy) minds to try and recreate Rowling’s HOMINA into something both entertaining and respectful. Yes! It can be done!
Like a broken pipeline spilling sickness across the prairie, South Dakota lawmakers often pump out hateful legislation that marginalizes our most vulnerable citizens, including transgender youth.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard recently vetoed [sidenote: and the state legislature failed to override said veto today] a proposed bill that would have banned youth from using public school bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms that didn’t correspond with their “biological sex.” While we applaud the veto, this, unfortunately, will not be the final word from those encouraging discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in South Dakota and the rest of Indian Country.
As members of the Očéti Šakówiŋ whose treaty lands are directly impacted by South Dakota law, we write this letter not only to condemn this kind of legislation, but more importantly to call fellow Natives to action to prevent this kind of colonial vitriol from further polluting tribal ways and governance.
Let’s start the conversation by discussing how we—the Očéti Šakówiŋ—remove ourselves from hateful and bigoted sentiments like those we see play out in mainstream politics. Too often, we see tribal leaders in South Dakota take similar stands.
We experience homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny not only by white settler culture, but also sometimes by our own Indigenous people. We see Indigenous Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives attempt escape with suicide and self-harm, as well as fleeing reservation communities into perceivably more welcoming urban settings. This relocation disrupts sacred kinship relations with not just our people, but also our lands.
Recently, some Oglala elders came forward to dictate tribal tradition by saying same-sex marriage violates “natural law.” We don’t know what “natural law” means in an Očéti Šakówiŋ context, and homophobic attitudes like these must be addressed, if only to acknowledge and move past the intergenerational pain and trauma inherent within these statements.
We write this statement to honor all of our elders and ancestors. Some were viciously abused inside colonial institutions that were anti-woman, anti-child, and homophobic. Boarding schools, designed to kill our cultures, were filled with sexual abuse and torture. The system of individual land allotment tore our ancestors apart, denigrating extended family systems and collective landholding. Government-led Christian missions and Indian agencies further obliterated our spiritual and cultural identities with laws about how to marry and when, and with whom to have sex. Government-aided churches tried to force us to accept their rigid, unforgiving notions of love and relationships.
We write this statement to honor all generations. Even today, dominant colonial indoctrinations tell us to fear sexual differences and express that fear through violent control—from both the pulpit and the capitol—of our most vulnerable relatives. Sometimes Natives ourselves practice similar tactics of control and marginalization around sexuality. When we do, we are complicit in ongoing sexual violence against Two Spirit and LGBTQ+ relatives, the ground for which was prepared in boarding schools, religious indoctrination, and other assimilation programs.
The irony is clear: By defining marriage as between only a man and a woman and by saying our Two Spirit and LGTBQ+ relatives go against “natural law,” we perpetuate genocide against ourselves.
Intolerant and puritanical pronouncements such as those made by the Council of Lakota Elders only serve to further harm and divide our already dislocated peoples; therefore, we encourage tribal leaders to break from colonial limitations of love and family and discuss how to move forward. We must reevaluate how we relate to each other as tiwahe, tióšpaye and oyáte – together, not separate. Let’s shake the bonds of colonialism and instead reinforce or perhaps reinvent bonds of kinship and communal responsibility.
We write this statement as a reminder that the foundations for this change were set long ago. Lakota elders Robert Chasing Hawk and Joseph Marshall III recently told Native Sun News that “marriage”—as we know it today: between two people as a state institution—never existed historically in Lakota society. The sacred ceremonies given to our ancestors by Ptesáŋwiŋ—White Buffalo Calf Woman—never included marriage. Our views on romance respected individuals’ sexuality and were far more advanced when compared to today’s conservative Western standards.
Imagine if every time one of our youth, women, or Two Spirit relatives’ bodies were trespassed or their rights violated, we reacted like we did to stop Keystone XL pipeline. Our medicine societies prayed for the protection of the land and water. Tribal councils issued declarations of war. And it worked, the pipeline was halted, for now at least.
We must be careful to recognize ongoing colonial harms and remedy them in culturally-appropriate ways when we have the power to do so. In this case, too, it is possible to fight for more just and healthy relations, this time among humans. Our own tribal histories provide the path.
After all, we are all related, not just some of us. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ.
Signed by Očéti Šakówiŋ Two Spirits, LGBTQ+, and supporters:
One of the most common questions I receive from readers is how to check their lineage for Native American ancestry.
There are a few companies now that – for a pretty penny – will search your DNA for ethnic markers and give you a sort of roadmap of percentages. I’ve had friends use these companies and haven’t heard anything negative from them, so I imagine the information they provide is legit.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to figure out your genetic heritage. I fully support that.
But I wonder: For those who find they are some percent “Native American” (and let’s not forget we’re talking thousands of unique tribal nations in that vague descriptor), what will they do with that information?
SUPER DUPER UPDATE 7/13/16: My post is a little more, how shall we say, friendly to the idea of DNA tests, but only because I know folks who have done them and swear by what they found. I don’t want to deny them their results. However, many people much – much! – smarter than me have totally ripped ancestry tests to shreds. Because science. For a primer on why DNA testing won’t help you determine what tribe you’re from, you MUST READ the scholar Kim Tallbear‘s tweetorial and the many publications that interviewed her on the subject.
Because being Native American is more than having the genetic marker of a distant relative (royal or not). It’s more than just a box to check for racial demographics on applications and census and data tracking. It’s more than being sovereign/legal/political entities. It’s more than blood quantum and tribal citizenship.
And yet for some people it’s all these things. More than all these things. Race, and particularly Native identity, is a super-complex issue layered in history, modern movements, language, culture, genocide, and so much more.
For me, it’s my relatives – my tiospaye (family) – and the larger Native community I’ve committed my life to. It’s me imbued with the aspects of a spiritual being in the absence of religious belief, although I know many who combine the two with tremendous results.
I was a guest on Native America Calling recently to talk about this very issue of Native identity, especially as the national conversation remains on Rachel Dolezal, the concept of being “transracial” (as opposed to multiracial?), and the ramifications of claiming an identity that isn’t biologically yours to claim.
We covered a lot of ground, and my part is recapped below (I feel like my voice was really muffled – sorry #fasttalkerihaveanxietygivemeabreak). What are your thoughts? How do YOU identify and is that identity different from the one others associate you with? Are those distinctions important?
My Lakota identity is based on many foundational layers.
Spirituality. This is different from religion, which is often more about loyalty to an institution and its prescribed set of rules, whereas spirituality, I think, is more of a way of life. It’s the difference between belief and being (and I think for many individuals the two can overlap). This has allowed me to explore and fully embrace many aspects of self, including Two Spirit pride and responsibility, motherhood, feminism, and so much more.
Relatives and relations. My identity encompasses my connections and being an active participant “of” rather than “in” my tiospaye (family) and the Oyate (community).
Work. It’s what I do for my people. To actively support and uplift. Pay for this work is nice (and necessary for survival), but better still are the messages from parents and young people I’ve impacted over the years, who remember me and who have taken what I’ve given them and have used it to give back to others.
Reciprocity. Turning to my Lakota culture saved my life as a depressed and suicidal teenager. Today, being Lakota is how I impact the world around me for the better.
Defining Native identity
I refuse to define anyone other than myself, and describing Native identity goes beyond what’s possible in a single radio show or essay. Consider:
In the U.S. there are 567 federally recognized tribes, each with their own rules of citizenship. Then there are another 400 or 500 tribes that aren’t federally recognized, but also have citizenship requirements.
There are people who speak their tribal language, and those whose relatives refused to teach the language based on their own traumatic boarding school experiences.
There are quarter-blood (or less) Indians born and raised on the rez immersed in their culture; and there are urban full bloods adopted out as babies who have no connection to their tribe.
And let’s not forget the U.S. government’s long history of attempting to rid itself of its Indian problem. Genocide wasn’t just smallpox, or war, or concentration camps, or removing primary food sources like buffalo… Genocide was (and is) destroying records, the sterilization and murder of Native women, and defunding legal obligations like healthcare or education in tribal communities. In this vein, systemic oppression may prevent some people from accessing Native identity, and rewards a person’s proximity to whiteness. Keep in mind it was/is better (in terms of safety and success) to be white, and many Native people chose/choose to pass as white to ensure descendent survival sans hardship.
The considerations above don’t even begin to touch upon the issues faced by the thousands of indigenous Turtle Island people north and south of the US border, or my Black/indigenous brothers and sisters.
It’s not up to me to decide who’s Native. Identity, for anyone, is personal. But tribes and families can determine “membership” and I think for many Natives our identities are shaped by sociocultural input from others. Does anyone else have a “What Would Auntie Do?” bracelet? – jk
As one caller said on the radio show: Your relatives know who you are. For me, that’s so so true – on many levels. But for others, say the person who was adopted out of the tribe back in the mid-1900s, that’s a small piece of the puzzle, especially if they are unable to retrace their biological family ties.
When it comes to identity, I think there’s “I’m Native American” and then there’s “I’m Mniconjou Lakota of the Oceti Sakowin.” I think, perhaps moreso than other racial identities, there’s a lot of work that has to go into claiming Native identity before it’s considered legit. For me, there has to be an aspect of doing good work to uplift your people, whether that’s your tiospaye (family) or the Oyate (community). There also must be recognition and understanding of Native issues, and beyond that, doing something about those issues.
The elusive ‘Real Indian’
In discussing Rachel Dolezal, the national conversation centers on her claim to Black identity, what she calls “the Black experience” (as if being Black, or any race, can be packaged into a singular experience). I am in full support of these discussions.
“The lack of questioning of that born-in-a-tipi story, however, points to the need for children’s books and media that accurately portray our lives in the past and the present so that people don’t put forth stories like the one Dolezar did, and so that that those who hear that kind of thing question such stories.
“Dolezal’s story about living in a tipi is plausible but not probable. The power of stereotyping is in her story, and in those who accepted it, too. That is not ok. Look at the images of Native people you are giving to children in your home, in your school, and in your library. Do some weeding. Make some better choices. Contribute to a more educated citizenry.”
Native identity is often based on visual stereotypes by outsiders, and even within our own Native circles we’re held to standards of stoicism, oneness with nature, brown skin (not “too” dark or too white, though), long hair, casinos, headdresses, turquoise bling, yadda yadda.
When someone walks in sporting these cultural cues (say, Iron Eyes Cody aka the Crying Environmentalist Indian or Ward Churchill) it’s easy to dupe the masses because no one fact checks a stereotype.
The point here is two-fold: First, everyone and their mother (Native and non-Native alike) wants to give input on who or what a Native person is – who they can and can’t be, whether that identity is a stereotype of government policy (blood quantum), academia (anthropological history), Hollywood (wild West), sports (mascots), or fashion (cultural appropriation) AND WE WILL BE HONORED, DAMMIT!
For many of us, we’ve fought tooth and nail to hold onto our Native identity in the face of oppression. So woe unto the person who gains some kind of notoriety after claiming to be Native without also providing indisputable tangible proof. Just ask Ellie Reynolds, a conservative lapdog who was outed as a non-member with no lineage by the Oglala Sioux tribal government back in May after using her “Oglala Sioux Native American” background as a platform to speak in support of the use of Indian mascots. Or ask Elizabeth Warren. Or Andrea Smith (after reading that link, make sure to read this one AND this one).
Box-checking & multiracial research
The Pew Research Center recently published a study showing half of all US adults claiming a multiracial identity say they are mixed white and American Indian.
OK, number-wise, that’s huge. Of an estimated 17 million adults who are multiracial, 50 percent (8.5 million people, folks) are claiming – to some extent – to be Native.
In contrast, Black and American Indian adults make up 12 percent of the multiracial population; white and Black ancestry make up 11 percent.
I mean… Natives must have been getting it on with EVERYBODY for this to even remotely make sense, because of the total US population, about 2.6 million people identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone, according to 2013 Census estimates.
Though there are obvious holes in the study (how do organizations like the US Census Bureau verify Native identity? Because as Natives we are held to standards of proof – called blood quantum – no other race is subjected to), Pew tried to breakdown the impact of a multiracial identity.
For example, the study found that 61 percent of those claiming white-Native ancestry say they have a lot in common with whites, compared to just 22 percent who say that they have a lot in common with other Natives. Eighty-one percent say they feel closer to their white relatives than their Native relatives, and 88 percent said strangers see them as white.
For me, these numbers are super-telling. The folks leaning toward their white selves are undoubtedly box checkers. These are the folks who spout their the family fairytale of NDN royalty as bona fides (“my great-great grandmother was an Indian princess!”) without having to experience any oppression, without having to do any kind of work within Native communities. These people are harmful.
Being Native is more than just a box to check.
Being Native is about more than race.
It’s a legal and political designation because we are inherently sovereign entities with our own systems of governing in place, with land and citizenship designations and treaties.
More than that, however, is that when we check that box, we take on sociocultural obligations and responsibilities.
Why it’s not OK to lay claim without proof
Like any country, Native tribes have the authority to establish citizenship requirements (this is one of those “for better or worse” type deals, and can cause a lot of pain and heartache among legit Native identities). I’m told I have Irish and French ancestry, but I can’t (and don’t) go around claiming citizenship of those countries, nor do I identify with the citizenry.
Regarding citizenship, Native nations are not all-inclusive communities (invasions, genocide, and colonization have really turned us off to open immigration, I think); there is no naturalization ceremony available to those who would like to join our societies.
While membership requirements vary from tribe to tribe, many nations employ some kind of blood quantum measurement tool to determine an individual’s degree of Indian blood. Considering the sheer number of multiracial folks out there, things start to get really complex here. For example, let’s say XYZ Tribe grants matrilineal citizenship only (as some tribes do). A female XYZ tribal member has a son, who is granted citizenship, but if that son grows into an adult who marries a non-tribal member, their offspring cannot claim citizenship with XYZ Tribe (although they can prove lineage).
Let’s be clear here, though. Measuring blood quantum is a tool of colonization and not at all a traditional aspect of Native identity. The US government is legally obligated – through “exchange” of land and resources – to provide benefits in the form of healthcare, education, and housing (among other things) to federally recognized tribes.
It was the federal government that said, “Whoa whoa whoa. If we’re going to give up the worst land, the worst commodity food, the worst healthcare facilities to Indians, we need y’all to pedigree yourselves through documented blood quantum. We can’t oppress just anybody.”
Convenient, then, that the federal government can determine which tribes to federally recognize, and that blood quantum does nothing but ensure an eventual bleed-out of the Native race.
A quick point about race: Yes, race is a social construct. It should have no bearing on how we interact with one another as humans. And yet race totally impacts everyone who isn’t white, whether we know it or not. Here’s a video one of my favorite white people, Melissa Fabello (she’s an editor with Everyday Feminism, which I write for), breaking it down for folks who claim they don’t see race.
The thing to keep in mind is that race is a major factor in determining who holds the power in our society. As I mentioned earlier, being white or being perceived as white (even if you swear up and down – as Dolezal does – to be living a POC existence) gives you great power and privilege (like, you can rest easy knowing you’re a million times less likely to be shot and killed by police more likely to achieve higher education/gainful employment, and have access to better healthcare). As someone who often passes as white, I can attest to this.
The harm in playing Indian
Natives attack ethnic fraud with fervor for legitimate reasons.
For one thing (as evidenced by those multiracial numbers), it happens a lot – like, all the time. The media frenzy that surrounds someone claiming a false Black identity is nonexistent when (even the same) someone claims to be Native without legitimate documentation to back it up. Unless our cultural bi-products are making someone a ton money, Native Americans and our issues take a backseat to everyone else. At least part of this is due – ironically – to the fact that we have such a small voice, population-wise, to demand fair coverage. Where all the multiracial peeps at???
Pretendians cause harm in that their shenanigans will eventually take the focus off important Native issues. Instead of discussing cultural appropriation, violence against women, environmental sustainability, or youth suicides (or a host of other real concerns), the conversation gets caught up in fake tans, wigs, information ownership, money, and other sensationally meaningless dribble.
In addition, ethnic frauds take away opportunities from legit Native people. That academic post? That job? That conference keynote? That college entrance slot? Someone who deserved it more – in a fair and equitable sense – didn’t get it because of someone like Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, and Andrea Smith. And the thing is, all these folks could have done super-powerful ally work just being their awesome white selves.
Remember that power and privilege? There’s a good reason for things like affirmative action and demographic tracking to ensure equitable opportunity for everyone, not just the privileged few. Bootstraps are only good if you can afford boots, and useful only if someone else isn’t stepping on them (MLK Jr.).
If you say you are Indigenous, you should be able to identify who your nation/tribe/band is (Cherokee, Tlingit, etc.) and who your family/clan is (by name). This identifies you within a set of relationships but also within a set of responsibilities to/within the nation/tribe/band you claim. These responsibilities are political, ceremonial, and social.
If you cannot identify your nation/group/tribe/band, then you should have a transparent explanation (adoption, for instance).
Because of the histories of misrepresentation of Indigeneity in territorial dispossession and violence, there are deep ethical responsibilities in identifying oneself as Indigenous.
I couldn’t agree more.
When someone says they wish to be Native or they really feel a kinship to Natives because they’re super-spiritual and nature-focused and whatnot, this is how I interpret these statements: Stereotypes blind people – and these same people who love to love Natives refuse to do any work to actively dismantle the systems of oppression that keep our kids and relatives on the bottom of every single health, wealth, and education statistic.
Yes, our cultures are beautiful, but living the “Native experience,” whatever that means, comes with a heavy dose of trauma-infused DNA #justthefacts Even if you lived the perfect childhood with absolutely no traumatic experiences, just knowing US history as it relates to Native people – and current events – should be enough of a catalyst for you to want to bring about positive change for your people #responsibility
You love Natives and Native culture? Tell me: What were the last three bills you called on your local or state government officials to support or oppose regarding Native issues? Oh, you donate clothes to your church and they’re shipped to some random reservation? Tell me again how your stinky old shoes stopped a kid from committing suicide.
I’m not a fan of Aaron Huey, the (talented if purposefully misguided) photographer who took this image of a pile of wasted and molding clothes donations on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. However, it’s a good visualization of the kind of disconnect existing between white saviors and the good they think they’re doing (when they’re really not doing anything).
For those folks who insist they’re Native somewhere in their bloodline: Okay. Fine. But you best prepare for major side eye action when you can’t name a Native issue you actively support and advocate for, or say you haven’t looked into your tribal history, language, or culture, or all that can be said about your Native heritage is you’re just really proud.
Being descended from Native Americans and claiming Native identity are two different things. The latter comes with not a little baggage and a host of responsibilities to others.
I know lots of white folks who identify as white who think or know they have Native heritage in their background, but because they aren’t connected to the culture, they don’t claim that identity. I find these folks are often our greatest allies in advocacy work, since they can attest to the importance of keeping traditions and cultures alive within families and respected beyond entertainment stereotypes.
Before claiming Indian, I suggest taking a strong look inward to decide whether that identity is based on a need to uplift the community or a need to uplift yourself. The latter is a fundamental aspect of Western civilization; the former works actively against oppressive systems.
* About the title: “Honest Injun”
I was searching for a synonym for “authentic” when I came across this suggestion on Thesaurus.com
I don’t have the heart to check the listing for “casino” or “alcoholic.” I have written to Thesaurus.com to demand they remove the insulting and racist term from their site. No response yet.
Again: NO ONE BATS AND EYE when it comes to pervasive and harmful Native stereotypes.
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.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know that study, after study, after study proves mascots dehumanize Native Americans, and are particularly detrimental to Native youth.
According to a 2005 statement from the American Psychological Association: “The use of American Indian mascots as symbols in schools and university athletic programs is particularly troubling because schools are places of learning. These mascots are teaching stereotypical, misleading and too often, insulting images of American Indians. These negative lessons are not just affecting American Indian students; they are sending the wrong message to all students.”
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.”
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
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.
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).
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 never feel so oppressed as a Native American woman than on days meant for mass-scale celebration. Holidays, in particular, are cesspools teeming with the ignorant, the misguided, and the bigots. All those well-intentioned people wanting to “honor” my culture by giving crappy plastic toys to “poor” reservation children (without offering genuine solutions or acknowledging generational PTSD of events like the Wounded Knee Massacre or the hanging of the Dakota 38), or dressing their kids up in paper headdresses to showcase a totally false dramatization of the First Welfare Line. I’m thinking specifically of Christmas and Thanksgiving here, but even holidays like Independence Day and, of course, Columbus Day make me feel like less of person because I can’t fully partake in the shenanigans. “Yay! Most of my ancestors were completely WIPED OUT by colonialism! Pass the explosives!”
Or pass the candy. Today – Halloween – is the one day each year the nation’s indigenous populations double or triple in number thanks to feather-heavy and over-sexualized (or hyper-masculine) costumes. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, then you know I’ve used the past several weeks to post and re-post anything and everything anti-ethnic costuming. Redface, Blackface, and everything in between: It’s not cool, people. Stop.
This isn’t about being PC. It’s about respecting POC, our cultures and heritage, our struggles and our successes. There’s really no “right” or respectful way to pull off these kinds of costumes, folks. Your good intentions mean absolutely nothing to my 5-year-old daughter, who is bombarded with the message that hers is a culture of sexy woodland sprites. They mean nothing to this lovely lady, either.
What did these strong, beautiful young Lakota girls, and other youth like them ever do to deserve your concept of honor? They are the next generation of Native people still trying to survive. Their ancestors were purposefully and systematically wiped out physically and spiritually for hundreds of years. And today? Have you seen our rates of alcoholism/youth suicide/poverty/diabetes/domestic violence/rape/etc.? Let’s add your objectifying gaze and wardrobe to the pile.
To be clear: Your crappy imported strip of polyester fringe does not honor my Lakota ancestors. Show honor by supporting our causes, or pick up a book (this is what I’m reading now – FAB!), watch a documentary, listen to our young people, or visit our communities and buy goods made and sold by Natives. Otherwise, STFU. Honor doesn’t come with you appropriating our image for the sake of entertainment. You know what that does for us? It sets us back decades in the eyes of the world. Because how can we be human beings if we’re constantly subjected to the whims of those seeking to be amused?
We are not your fashion accessory, your mascot, or your white-washed history lesson on sharing. Respect us by respecting our boundaries. Native-themed Halloween costumes cross the line. Appropriators beware: You’ll be called out, shamed, and seen as racist.
Still have questions? Here is a great resource to help you figure out whether you should rethink your costume. Remember, Native Americans are living, breathing people. Vampires are not. Dressing up as a sexy nurse or cop may offend some nurses (and, you know, women in general), but since professions and careers (and monsters) don’t actually count as a demographic race category, your argument that the Halloween Police are going to ruin it for EVERYONE will not be added to the discussion. Being asked not to be racist doesn’t mean you can’t have fun dressed as a vampire. Or Harry Potter (my costume the last 8 or 9 years).
Have fun, be safe, and be respectful. Check the mirror and check your privilege before heading out to trick or treat.
Follow up: Exactly .345 seconds after I published this blog, someone shared THIS on Facebook and I fell in love. #truth
To the little girl it seemed her father loved alcohol more than he loved anything in the world. He warmed the bottle with his hands and lips, and in return it warmed his soul, comforting him and expelling his demons like nothing else could. He would pour “Just two fingers. Just TWO fingers!” of Wild Turkey — over and over again. The girl learned early to make herself scarce when the cheap whiskey started to flow, or risk a puffy eye or a sore back if he caught her 12 fingers and an hour into the bottle. When the sour, sweaty stench of him and his drink began to suffocate the room, she would take off. The girl ran to friends’ houses and played Barbies, or she sat in the downtown parks and alleys to watch the cars and people pass her by. Six-year-old minds have great survival instincts.
It was at this age a friend introduced the girl to the public library. The friend had visited by chance with her mother to use the library restroom and took the girl with her later in the day to explore the new site. It was late for six-year-olds to be out on their own, but in Rapid City the library stayed open until 10, and so the girl took her time walking the quiet isles to acquaint herself with this calm place. At a tall shelf in the children’s section she removed a shiny hardback the title of which should couldn’t later recall and opened it to the middle. As if to kiss the tiny black letters the girl lowered her head to the pages, closed her eyes, and breathed deep. A blanket of fragrant, musty knowledge wrapped around her tightly, and she never wanted to leave.
Eventually, the girl convinced the librarian – Dorothy, like the book – that she lived just a few blocks away and could make it home just fine in the dark. “My dad just got a job here and works late and he waits for me outside with an ice cream cone!” she told Dorothy on her fourth straight evening at the library. The girl was tall for six, an inward child, though conversational when engaged, and smart as a whip. While she perhaps didn’t fully convince the gray-haired woman of her living situation, Dorothy and her co-librarians never questioned her.
And so the Rapid City Public Library became the girl’s sanctuary, and she poured lovingly over the choose-your-own-adventure books like her father lovingly poured his Wild Turkey, and she became addicted to the bright, glossy photographs in the pages of magazines like National Geographic, which helped her escape a world dulled by Dad’s addiction to bottom-shelf whiskey. It became her place, filling her with a warmth no bottle possessed.
She haunted a particular corner of the library near the reference section; it had soft, slightly wrinkled leather armchairs and the people who sat around her seemed smart and taken care of. They’d smile at her like adults do with kids they think are cute non-troublemakers and be on their way once the tax code they’d been looking for presented itself. The girl remained, night after night. For it was here she felt safest, here in her brown leather chair, its arms like the arms of a father who didn’t drink Wild Turkey. The chair and the good-smelling books held her up, showing her the world.
… … … … … … …
I wrote the above piece as part of a writing exercise this past weekend at the Oak Lake Tribal Writers’ Society annual retreat. It was my first rodeo with this group of indigenous storytellers, and many good people were met and friended. We did a lot of writing over the course of the two days I spent at Oak Lake, but I was happiest with how this piece pretty much wrote itself. It is fiction, though based on many a true story. Our workshop leader, Jim Northrup, told us to free-write for five minutes describing a favorite place – any place visited or not, past or present or future. When I was a kid, the library was a wonderful friend to me.
Multicolored riddles and joke’s on us
Ha! What Justice?
When racist sinners
Always the winners
Courtrooms of oppression
Living rooms with entertainment obsessions
Make us guilty on sight
For not being white
It’s too bright in here
Put a hoodie on dear
And the world will go dark
When Zimmerman’s shot hits its mark
Tonight, all hearts are bleeding
Those with hearts all needing
To see our loss, our rage
Be noticed, take a grand stage
For change, for hope
For movement, to cope
To heal, rise above
Hang haters with Love
Fight harder for the future
Our kids no longer butchered
So my daughter can walk at night
No worry, no fright
Because we’re strengthened, we’re heartened
By the sacrifice of Trayvon Martin
Couldn’t adequately put my feelings to words last night. As a mother, person of color, a former delinquent myself, and someone who works daily with juvenile offenders – many who do FAR worse than wear hoodies or flip off cameras – this whole thing scares the ish out of me. BUT, it also makes me want to work harder for justice reform. And as I was praying recently in memory of RieLee Lovell, all I keep thinking now is: Let’s keep our kids alive, folks. Let’s give them a world worth living in.