Tag Archives: activism

Kopkind: A Love Story

I spent last week cut off from most of the world in rural, southern Vermont. No cell service, the weakest of Internet connections, and a “courtesy flush” septic system.

It was glorious.

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Sunset on Kopkind

I’m a big fan of mandatory adult timeouts. I try to implement time away from technology – social media, specifically – at least every few months (or when the news cycle or my timelines become too triggering) for self-care purposes.

Last week I had the honor and privilege to experience Kopkind, a timeout with strangers who would become amazing friends. It was set up like how I imagine lots of movie-worthy youth camps are set up: Scheduled learning, shared chore duties, organized fun, fires and games, and reconnection with the Earth. And lots of bugs.

The Kopkind Colony is an educational summer residency program for nonpartisan, independent journalists and community organizers. When he died, in 1994, Andrew Kopkind was eulogized as one of the great journalists of his generation, a man who, in America’s leading magazines, brought high literary style and intimate acquaintance with the dynamic political and cultural life of his time to the service of reportage and analysis. The Kopkind Colony, started by his family, friends and colleagues as a living memorial, is based at Tree Frog Farm in Guilford, Vermont, where Kopkind did much of his writing and where his archives are housed. The project honors Kopkind’s legacy by bringing together young reporters interested in making sense of the world around them and young people engaged in the political life of their communities for seminars, skill-honing sessions and lectures with established writers and political activists. It emphasizes inquiry and exchange on a range of social as well as professional issues, and a broadening of knowledge based on an understanding of history and a sensitivity to the experiences of others. At a time of increasing compartmentalization and the decline of formal mentorship in American journalism, it fosters collaboration–with focused programs designed to create a colloquy between professional and apprentice, young and old, rural and urban, with special attention to racial and gender diversity.     – The Kopkind Mission

There’s a lot to that mission statement. But it’s all of that magic and more. I applied to the fellowship without really knowing much beyond this mission (I wasn’t a little put off by the use of the word “colony,” but totally sold on the idea that journalism can and should mean active participation in the world – more on that later). Someone I know and admire posted a general Facebook post encouraging folks to apply. My unending thanks to this person. You know who you are ❤

Really, I couldn't get enough of the view.
Really, I couldn’t get enough of the view.

The theme this year was “Freedom to Be.” My cohorts – now hunka (chosen family) to me – came from a variety of activism backgrounds: José works tirelessly in Chicago for the rights of day laborers and domestic workers; Aaron is an elementary teacher in all ways that title does no justice to describe the commitment of those who don’t see their role as simply a profession; Tashira is a lawyer and wordsmith who champions the causes of marginalized youth and families; Chuck is a writer and filmmaker who uses the media to give voice to the voiceless and as a mirror to force the privileged few to see that which they are blind to; Anna is a freelancer kicking the shit out of the journalism world with her prose and passion; Joel is a poet of both words and action and his care for the lives and stories of NYC’s youth and families makes lives better; and Renee fights daily to ensure access to quality reproductive health care is available to those who seek it.

Apparently this beetle is an invasive species. But it looks SO pretty!
Apparently this beetle is an invasive species. But it looks SO pretty!

Our mentors in this endeavor were Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, whom I’d need another blog post to describe what their leadership meant to me over the course of a week.

Much of our discussion last week centered on the Black Lives Matter movement, how it relates to us, and why we need to care for each other – not just in a solidarity sense, although that for sure is a must – in order to continue the work we do. Too often, our self care is solitary and framed upon our desires to make the world better. As many of us discovered, however, taking time to breathe, to connect with the land and with each other, makes us more powerful than we’d ever be without these essential elements of movement work.

One of our swimming holes.
One of our swimming holes.

Outside of the amazing bonds we formed, my greatest takeaway was that the work I do to uplift and center indigenous voices is important, valued, and desperately needed, because it is intricately tied to the greater efforts of Justice Work. 

I entered journalism with the idea that I could do a better job than most at presenting indigenous stories fairly and accurately (or, you know, at all). My training while a participant of the Freedom Forum‘s now retired American Indian Journalism Institute, as well as with the student projects of UNITY: Journalists for Diversity and the Native American Journalists Association always always always focused on ethics, that we as journalists should do everything we could to remove ourselves from the human equation in order to avoid any semblance of biased behaviors or perspectives.

I vividly recall the discussion one of my favorite mentors held in which she described how she was not a registered voter, because she didn’t want her public voting record to be used against her as she reported on legislative affairs. She also didn’t serve on boards or volunteer. She still doesn’t do much by way of social media likes and shares. I should add here that this mentor in no way decreed her ways be adopted by the masses, but her words impacted me greatly. Also, this was more than 10 years ago.

But as I developed my reporting skills, I held firm this concept. Then, in 2008, I began working within the social services and education spectrums, and it became clear to me that this way of thinking was apathetic in the most harmful of ways. My disengagement from community involvement was an affront to very real cultural values of my Lakota people, and worked to silence the same people I was hoping to represent fairly and accurately. It took many years, but I began asking myself, “Why should I be fair to racists, or homophobics, or transphobics, or misogynists, or ableists, or white saviors, or anti-choicers, or any other person who lives to oppress others?” Hate isn’t a “viewpoint” to give equal news space to, and as a journalist I find the best good I can do is write about ways to end oppression or stories that bring hope, voice, and justice to indigenous endeavors.

I shared all these things and more with those at Kopkind. My work and writing and passions received verbal praise, sure, but more than this were the snaps, head nods, and hugs, physical kudos that reverberated through my being. And I was validated. I will be ever-thankful and humbled by this generosity.

To commemorate the week, I was commissioned to create a video testimonial of the Kopkind retreat and its impact. It’s not meant to be a marketing product (it’s nearly 20 minutes long), but something to encapsulate what we we all felt and will bring with us as we move forward with our work and lives.

 


 

Kopkind1

 

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

My Image is Not For Sale

I am a modern Lakota winyan.

No accent.

No paint.

No feathers.

I’m like no Indian you’ve ever seen.

Because I am not a mascot. Or a blockbuster archetype.

Someone dressed like a gothic taxidermist

Is trying to sell me my own culture.

“Your values and beliefs are for sale!” he proclaims in redface.

“So is your land. I’ll buy it for you [if you see my movie].”

Good trade?

Spending $5 million

On land worth $14,000

To sell a movie made for $250 million.

I’m no good at math.

But that seems

Excessive. Over the top. Not enough.

And I feel funny 😐

#greatwhitesaviorcomplex

The worst part?

Our people are so starved for attention,

That we’ll take it in whatever form it comes in.

When Racism knocks on your door,

It’ll be riding a pinto, wearing a bird, and wrapped in a Comanche flag.

But that’s OK.

Because Racism makes it RAIN.

Yes: $5 million is a lot of money the Oglalas need.

Yes: Johnny Depp is a great actor and it’s OK to be a fan.

Yes: Depp was adopted into the Comanche tribe.

Yes: Tonto is a fictional character.

But…

If the goal was to show the world a

Positive image of Native Americans,

Why not choose a Native actor for a Native role?

Why use Sattler’s weirdly mystical [false] depiction for historical reference?

And why – WHY?!? – Tonto?

So a new generation can play Cowboys & Indians. Stereotypes sell.

Why put $5 million into the pockets of a

Greedy old white man?

Why not give the $5 million directly to the tribe?

Why not consult with the people you’re hoping to impact

Before rushing out and doing what YOU think is best for them?

Who knows what’s best, anyway?

And that’s what this is really all about.

Natives don’t have control.

Of anything.

We’ve been on our backs for so long

That being on our knees and

Taking scraps from Hollywood, and Anheuser-Busch, and Congress

Seems like an improvement.

Get over it, Taté. It’s just a movie.

Outsiders tell us what we need.

How much we need.

What we can have.

Where we can have it.

Our images are not our own. They belong to those with money.

And I want to scream, “THESE IMAGES YOU CREATE HURT ME!”

You may not know it, but they hurt you, too.

Ours is

A Halloween heritage.

A logo legacy.

Slot machine sovereignty.

Tonto traditions.

Ancestry for the price of admission.

Native AmeriCAN?

Or Native AmeriCANT?

Marginalize me some more.

It’s Johnny Depp, for gootness sakes.

And the world goes on.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

I’ve been feeling very frustrated lately over this whole Tonto business, and during a time in my life I’m frustrated in general. (Final semester of grad school, people. No pressure, or anything.) Many folks – more than I’d like to admit – have told me my feelings on this issue are stupid (ironic, eh? Because, you know, Tonto means stupid, right?). There are real issues to concern myself with. It’s just a movie. Tonto is fiction. I liked that Twilight stuff, so why am I being such a hypocrite with Johnny Depp?! I LOVE Johnny! We share the same first name!

What’s more, he goes and tells someone he’s going to buy some land in South Dakota. And now I’m REALLY the bad guy. Because Depp’s not just buying land. He’s mother-effing GIVING IT BACK to the tribe. And I’m like, yeah, that’s super-awesome… He’s dropping millions on 80-omg-that-is-the-most-overpriced-land-EVER acres some crotchety old bigot is selling because 40 years ago a destructive protest made it famous.

A lot of media hype went up about this land being for sale. The land Depp is considering sits adjacent to the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) site. It’s not the massacre site itself. Aside from its history with the Wounded Knee Occupation (1973), there’s really nothing particularly worthwhile about this property. Before Dawes laws chopped up the reservation, these 80 acres were part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Don’t get me wrong. Land reclamation is HUGE and a very important factor in what makes us sovereign to begin with. South Dakota tribes have pushed to buy back significant properties (Pe’Sla in the Black Hills, for instance). If anything, the federal government should create a national memorial (tribally run, of course) out of Wounded Knee, as they did with Little Bighorn. But that’s another post for another day.

Depp is offering Indian Country, especially those of us in South Dakota – the poorest communities in the entire nation (cue violins) – a wonderful gift. Is it a peace offering for that terribly offensive movie? Maybe, but I’m willing to let that go. A gift is a gift. But it’s like the generic body wash set your Christmas visitors get you (“Oh, I love the smell of strawberry passion!”); if you know anything about me, you’d know NOT to get me body wash. And there’s the rub: Johnny knows nothing about Indian Country, so much so that he based his whole Tonto look off of a painting whose creator acknowledged was NOT historically accurate. Like, at all. If Depp got to know his newly adopted brothers and sisters of the Plains, he’d realize there’s a TON that could be done with $5 million. Scholarship endowments, capital-building projects, infrastructure development…

So, yes, thank you for this gesture, Mr. Depp. But, please, look into how you can really help us. Pump some funding into programs trying to dig us out of crippling poverty and unemployment; advertise and promote ventures trying to get traditional foods back into our diets; talk to the dozens of kids who contemplate suicide every day; visit our underfunded schools and hospitals. Don’t want to get too deep too fast? That’s OK. Produce a Native-led film project. Start an arts program. Protest Big Oil with us. Be #idlenomore

… [T]he motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

– Marlon Brando, 1973

My closing thoughts are this: Everyone has their own opinion, and that’s fine. This is mine. Depp will do whatever he wants – obviously. This is NOT an issue worth dividing ourselves over. Debates and disagreements are fun, sometimes, but let’s keep what’s important – our children, families, and tribes – in the forefront. Pick something to be passionate about, and work hard to make things right. I may not support your cause, but I will support you. Let’s not tear each other down for having opinions.

For myself, I will always push for fair and accurate media representations of – and demand justice for – marginalized people. My feet vote, my wallet votes, and I use my voice when I have something to say.