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:
12/8/2015: His ride toward the next great journey came today. Asníkiya él wówaȟwá. May his family find peace.
I created this video tribute to the Coyote of our time. I hope you all are as inspired by his words as I am.
12/4/2015: I write this as I learn John Trudell is, in fact, alive.
It seems social media (and I include myself therein) greatly exaggerated reports of his death and all that. One last good story to tell, eh? “Hey, suckers, remember that time I dressed up like a ghost and you all started eulogizing? That was a good one.”
Despite this trickster dancing away from a digital demise and living another day, it must be noted Lekšila is indeed sick, and so a part of me feels good knowing I joined in with hundreds – thousands – tonight who wóčekiye kága – sent up prayer – smoke and song in honor of one of the greatest warriors of our time.
Tonight, I feel blessed to be able to say I interacted with Trudell twice this year – once for a story that ran in Native Peoples magazine and then again a short time later to hear him speak in Colorado Springs. Within those two meetings I touched upon a small but powerful aspect of what I think draws people to Trudell: His obvious passion for life and the worlds around him rang true in his every word and action, without apology.
I wrote the following immediately after hearing him speak in Colorado. I thought about publishing it, but it felt incomplete and it’s been gathering dust in my hard drive since April.
Maybe it was always meant to be shared now.
April 10, 2015: John Trudell (Santee Dakota) begins a recent talk in Colorado Springs by informing the audience he‘s crazy.
He says it with a swagger and smile, because for him, it’s something to be proud of, another identifier in the 69-year-old’s long list of credentials: Poet, author, musician, activist, actor – and crazy.
Not the mental illness kind of crazy. The witkó kind of crazy. He’s not making an ableist dig.
Trudell defines crazy as “not feeling powerless.” Being crazy, he says, doesn’t make him feel powerful, necessarily, but his kind of crazy – the ability to think for himself beyond the “normal” narrative shoved down our throats by the They and Them 2 Percent – has protected him throughout his life.
I can relate to this – and, really, haven’t we all felt crazy – as in too different to belong – at some point in our lives? And we’ve associated this crazy disconnect with negative feelings: “If only I were lighter skinned/thinner/blonder – NORMAL – I’d be more accepted.” To reclaim crazy as a positive identifier is a kind of power.
In my older years, as my brain has developed into more of Me (what Trudell refers to as moremes), I’ve accepted my crazy. My not-normal. Myself. I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Damn. I’m totally attracted to what I see in the mirror, stretch marks and flab and muscles and all of it.” I embrace the fat. Embrace the undyed dark and graying hair. Embrace my face without (a ton of) makeup (I LOVE EYEBROW FILLER AND ACNE COVERUP, OKAY?! #sorrynotsorry). My body is strong. I’m alcohol and drug-free (caffeine is GOD, though). I’m smart as hell and dangerous with a pen and paper. My good friends are amazing and think I am, too. I’m a great mother.
Oh, I’ve got problems – and who doesn’t? Trudell touched on this, too, and I loved this line of thought: “We’re programmed not to like ourselves. Start liking yourself and you get back your power… You gotta like yourself, you know? Maybe you don’t like some of the stuff you do – and I’ve done some pretty fucked up stuff… You can’t question who you are. If someone says they don’t like me, that’s their problem. As soon as I start to question myself, if I begin not to like me, I become my own problem.”
Let’s pause here for a second. No one, not even Trudell, is saying he’s perfect. Dude was part of a movement that both helped and hurt a lot of people back in its heyday. He’s known his fair share of joy, happiness, pain, and loss. Maybe he could have been a better son, husband or father. Probably all that – I don’t know. But I think he’s more than balanced the scales over the course of his life. For myself, I’m still learning how to live with the sins of my past and mistakes of the present, but I hope to one day judge those against my impacts on this world and those around me, and that others can see the humanity in all of it. Right now, as I think of all the times Trudell’s words centered me, inspired me, and lifted me, all I see is a human trying to grasp and share the meaning of being.
He had so many obvious gems like the quote above in between his rapid-fire, free-flow speaking that sometimes left the audience a bit lost, like, what exactly does he mean when he says, “The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free,” because ‘illusion’ and ‘reality’ by definition are, you know, opposite words.
But then, as he kept running with the flow of thought, he’d eventually say something that would make everything he said before click, like, “They tell you to get an education, that you’ll live a happier, more productive life with a better job, but to get that education they tie you down with student loans you’ll never break free from.” And I’m like, YES! The illusion of freedom is that it isn’t free [and you have to work for it in order to obtain it]; the reality of freedom is that it isn’t free [because you’ll never obtain it].
And suddenly, you’re in on the joke with the Trickster himself.
While I’ve done phone interviews with Trudell in the past, this was my first experience with him live. And while the delivery of his words and concepts was new to me, hearing the content was like coming back home, comforting and familiar. Everything he presented has at some point been published, as poetry, as song, as interview, as documentary, as Internet meme. But like any real truth of the world, it needed to be said. In this, Trudell truly is an Indigenous prophet for our age.
The people cry out / Tears of anger / Tears of sorrow /Flowing / Giving birth to resistance / Young ones / To remember struggle
For the people cry out / Tears of happiness / Tears of joy / Washingthe pain / Cleaning the spirit / Givingstrength
The generations / Remembering the past / To rebuild the future / For weeping is / Another way of laughing /And resisting and / Outlasting theenemy
I think those who have heard him speak, read his poems, or listened to his music would agree. For instance, the idea of a mined mind, part of the title from a book of poetry published in 2008 (from which the poem above comes), drew several nods of approval and determination from the audience. “We are made up of the metals, minerals, liquids of the earth. We’re shapes of the earth,” he says. “If we respected our intelligence, we would generate power… If we understand who we are as human beings, we can use that understanding to generate coherency and clarity.”
The theme of humanity stayed with him through the evening, in the content of his words and in the energy of his being. The man just kept moving. I was able to shoot some video, in addition to what I thought were some good pictures of a smiling man normally presented to the world with a stoic gaze. His energy meant a lot of my photos turned out like this:
And yet I think that’s the best photo I took all night, as it captures everything about him I took with me: An essence of an imperfect someone simply trying to think and be. Two things to which we should all aspire.
“How we think changes the dynamic. This is our access – this is the only real power we have, the ability to think,” Trudell says. “And one of the great things about our intelligence, it’s about a decision we make. When we make the decision to use our intelligence as clearly and coherent as we possibly can and we make that decision, and act upon it, then it starts to change, because that’s reality.”
12/8/2015: Ikíčize waún k’un hé waná henála (Once I was the warrior, but now all that is past). — Sitting Bull’s Song
CW: More rant than anything useful. Hope y’all had a great day. If you celebrate the holiday, I hope you can reclaim it as something meaningful AND educational AND historically accurate. If you don’t celebrate or you don’t care – whatevs. Hope you had a fab day, too. And remember: BUY NATIVE if you partake in those kind of consumerist shenanigans. Check out Beyond Buckskin, Resonate Art, NDNcraft (among many others) for a nice list of awesome, Native-made gifts folks like yours truly would LOVE to receive any time of year 😉
My second grader came home the other day with the annual reminder that some teachers really can’t get beyond the myths and legends of curricula past: The dreaded Thanksgiving activity packet (copyright 2005, btw – like, someone in 2005 thought this packet was a good idea – yikes). Teachers have to – just have to! – continue authenticating something that never happened, at least not the way they’re teaching it. This whole Indian/white BFF storyline really needs to stop. Like, it’s just ridiculous the things they’re teaching kids!
The stench of the Thanksgiving Myth permeates far beyond the classroom, however. Recently, a freelance reporter in the UK reached out to ask the following questions for his story that posted yesterday on The Culture Trip site:
Is there any sort of consensus amongst Native People’s about Thanksgiving?
I have read that some Native People are offended by Thanksgiving, and that for the Wampanoag people it is a day of mourning. Is this a fair assessment of the general opinion?
If people could be better informed about one aspect of Thanksgiving or Native culture, what would you like them to know and why?
I get asked various forms of these questions all the time, year after year. Generally, I’m pretty laid back about the whole thing: Yeah, I like the day off. I love food (of course, this is just a general comment I say daily). Yes, I’m thankful (again, daily commentary). No, I don’t believe in the BFF fairy tale. No, I don’t believe elementary kids are being taught accurate history. Yes, I believe they should be taught history as accurately and as age-appropriately as possible.
This “young freelance writer” (in his own self-description) seemed to be at least marginally better informed than others, but was still in this pan-Indian mindset and definitely leading with his questions. So here’s how I responded to these questions:
Is there any sort of consensus amongst Native People’s about Thanksgiving? First of all, I’d like to make it clear that there is no “one” Native American opinion – on anything. Like any group of people, total consensus is a goal oft-sought but rarely (if ever) achieved – people are complex creatures capable of holding differing opinions, perspectives and values from one another, and Native people are no different. We represent more than 567 unique, federally recognized tribal nations – hundreds more tribes aren’t recognized by the federal government. Each tribe has it’s own set of rules and laws, and traditions and cultural priorities. To say Native people, in all that phrase encompasses, agree fully on anything so mythologized as Thanksgiving, is kind of a joke. Some of us celebrate the holiday alongside millions of other Americans, some of us actively protest it as an annual reminder of genocide, and still many more are apathetic about the whole thing. Some of us even change our minds one year over the other.
I have read that some Native People are offended by Thanksgiving, and that for the Wampanoag people it is a day of mourning. Is this a fair assessment of the general opinion? I am not Wampanoag, so I can’t say how the people of that tribal nation feel about Thanksgiving; however, an annual “National Day of Mourning” occurs among many of the tribal people of Massachusetts on Thanksgiving, though the details of their event vary widely from year to year (fun fact: The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe only recently – as in 2015 – received an actual land base for the tribe — can you imagine?! The people “celebrated” by millions of Americans didn’t even have a sovereign home until 2015??? I never want to be “celebrated” like that!). I highly recommend speaking with leaders from the Wampanoag tribe. As I mentioned in the first question, some Natives are indeed “offended” by Thanksgiving, in the same way farting can “offend” someone’s sense of smell. I think the word “offended” or the phrase “taking offense” downplays what holidays like Thanksgiving represent for some Native people. The people who protest Thanksgiving aren’t doing so because they’re offended; they’re doing so because Thanksgiving is a nice way to sweep the genocide of millions under the rug. That’s pretty racist, if you ask me (and I haven’t even mentioned the millions of school children who dress in redface and war-hoop for school celebrations). In celebrating a mythological account of “The First Thanksgiving,” not only are Americans blindly accepting a whitewashed version of events, but they’re also ignoring the very real history that the “thanks” given by colonizers was that their diseases (among other unfair causes of death) were killing off Indians by the thousands. Essentially, “Let’s give thanks to a god who clears the way of savages for our colonies to thrive.” Hey – pass the gravy, will ya?
If people could be better informed about one aspect of Thanksgiving or Native culture, what would you like them to know and why? I’d like them to know we’re a thriving people with a variety of issues and campaigns we care about, which vary tribe to tribe. If Americans and mainstream media stopped relying on surface-level (mis)representations of Native people (feathers, leathers and stereotypes), they might be able to look away from the past and instead focus on their Indigenous neighbors and coworkers who could use allies in their modern-day efforts to fight Big Oil, reclaim land, revitalize language, prevent youth suicide, strengthen tribal infrastructures and sovereignty, and so much more. Move away from myths and recognize the very real impacts Indigenous people from across the continent had – and continue to have – on the development and success of the America you live in today.
“Thank you so much for your very thorough response. I hope that you forgive the ignorance of my questions, and I take your point on all of them. Talking of offence, I hope that you did not take any from my questions. But as a British person I was, until two weeks ago completely unaware of even the ‘let’s sit around and eat turkey’ story told in schools. I hope that I can do you justice in the article, I will be doing a lot more research before it is published. Having read your response, the first thing I am going to do is email my editor and ask for an extension on the word count.”
Haha – I love that last part #storyteller #gotlotstosay
We went through a few emails discussing what to cut, etc. He wanted to leave out the bit on farting, but I was like, “if you use anything from me, use the fart bit.” He cut out the third question from his article, although he used most of my wording for his own conclusion.
It’s not the strongest piece of writing, but I like that he reached out to a few folks for their opinion (and, as I said, we all sort of had our own thought processes). And as I told him, if learning about eating turkey as a national holiday raised your eyebrows, consider the stupidity of taking away our President’s time to officially “pardon” a turkey from being cooked and eaten. And how abhorrent that action is when you consider Natives have been asking outgoing presidents to pardon our political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, for decades. Obama will have time for a turkey but not some man who’s been behind bars since the 70s. Sad.
Here are some good places to start when re-learning American history as it relates to Pilgrim/Indian plot development:
Finally, if this piece triggered your interest, I suggest you read another interview I had recently – this one conducted by a 10-year-old in NYC who writes for an organization called IndyKids! My interview is here. This little lady and I had a GREAT initial phone conversation (of course, I typed my responses to her, as well), wherein I asked her what came to mind when she pictured Native Americans. Her immediate answer was to describe objects displayed at National Museum of the American Indian (based in NYC). Pretty telling that a seemingly educated, with-it kid from NYC has no context for Natives except those she sees in museums o__0 (TEACHERS! DO BETTER!)
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.
How many of you have been in the presence of someone using an (illogical and ludicrous) argument supporting racist #IndianMascots?
This mascot honors Native Americans.
You’re messing with tradition!
Well I’m Native and I approve of this mascot.
I’ve been at this for more than a decade, and many other amazing women for far longer than that (check out my heroes Dr. Adrienne Keene, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, Suzan Shown Harjo, Amanda Blackhorse, among many others). Those of us in this battle know well the depth of fanaticism sports franchises and their supporters will travel to in defense of their precious team names and logos.
So while I’m aware a bazillion people disagree with me, I go forth with the following premise, for the sake of brevity: I’m going to assume good intent from readers. I’m also going to assume you understand the basics of racism and cultural appropriation, that you’re against these things, and hope you agree things that marginalize and dehumanize an entire race of people are wrong.
This is where the bulk of my non-activist friends reside when it comes to sports teams that use Native American-themed names and/or imagery: They know seeing a Washington or Cleveland jersey worn on game day makes them feel yucky inside, but when confronting a supporter, they lack the ability to explain their anti-mascot views effectively and succinctly.
How many of you have struggled to find the words to argue against these poor excuses for racism?
Well here’s a handy guide (produced by yours truly for Everyday Feminism) to help counter some of the most common statements from pro-mascoters:
*A note about the Irish and oppression bit within the article, which many readers are using to derail the conversation: I apologize. I assumed readers would understand what I meant when I wrote “… the Irish… never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government.” Because, I really do get what you’re trying to say when you write, “But the Irish HAVE experienced oppression and colonial-based genocide!”
Trust me. I get it. Your comment about historical Irish oppression is true. Immediate members of my family are Irish (I am part-Irish) and grew up dirt poor in major East Coast cities. They experienced lots of poverty-based oppression, and my statements in no way erases the struggle for any immigrant, refugee, or impoverished person. I studied the Sinn Fein movement during my undergrad and often compared it with those tactics used during the Wounded Knee occupation.
But the key part of my statement from the article is “… at the hands of the US government.” That distinction is huge because no federal laws ever oppressed the Irish specifically. I thought it was a clear statement, but obviously it wasn’t and the uproar has detracted from the main point about racist Indian mascots.
Were they oppressed in similarly horrific ways on their own soil of Ireland by colonial British rule? Oh yes indeed. They have an indigenous history very similar to Natives. But NOT here in the US.
The Irish received immediate citizenship; Natives weren’t even considered legal people until we were granted citizenship in 1924 (although many states, like my home state of South Dakota, didn’t enact citizenship until the 1960s).
Unlike Natives, the Irish could vote, hold jobs, take office, and feel fairly safe in dominant culture, because no systemic oppression targeted them as a race (no federal laws barred them from these things – ever). The “Irish Need Not Apply” job ads were cruel, but not a federal employment policy.
Native still experience this kind of systemic oppression. We are still suppressed as voters, still at the bottom of every negative statistic. The Irish – considered by the US Census Bureau (a federal agency) as white people in America – are doing just fine, in terms of race.
The Irish’s proximity to whiteness has been a huge factor in their (continued) success in the US. This is what we call privilege, something Natives have never known, in any capacity, in colonized America.
So I return to my original statement “…at the hands of the US government.” The Irish never experienced colonial-based destruction on US soil, by the US government. The Irish have been powerful presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators, clergy and more. Natives have not. There is no comparison here, folks. If we want to start a movement to change the Notre Dame mascot, I am HERE FOR THIS, but do not make the claim that the Irish face the same or even similar racism and systemic oppression experienced by Natives.
So when we talk about Indian mascots (the original issue, remember?), the dehumanization is based on systemic oppression in the US at the hands of the federal government. To compare the Fighting Irish (a school founded and the mascot approved by many Irish Catholics) to an Indian mascot isn’t logical because the Irish have “never experienced oppression or genocidal policies at the hands of the US government” (original quote).
I hope this helps clarify the statement, and I apologize for not being clear within the article.
The Great Plains Writers’ Conference, in cooperation with South Dakota State University’s American Indian Studies Program and American Indian Education and Cultural Center, sponsors an annual award – The Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer – to encourage tribal writers in the early phases of their writing lives and to honor those of extraordinary merit and promise.
Blogger’s Note: As described above, I won the inaugural award back in 2013. You can read the winning submission here. This is a great opportunity for Great Plains indigenous writers to not only to get published and share your work, but also to attend a great conference of other (indigenous) writers. I got to meet the son of Vine Deloria, Jr., Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Craig Howe, who founded CAIRNS. It was an amazing experience and truly inspirational.
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.”
When parody TV takes notice (well, let’s be honest: When popular white folks take notice…) it’s downhill from there. It’s nice to have allies, but what was so great about tonight’s Daily Show segment was it used real, live, honest-to-goodness Native people on the show. #concept
Dan Snyder and his racists R**skins are going down. Just a matter of time.