Tag Archives: Indian

Dear J.K. Rowling: Wakanyeja Video Response to History of #MagicinNorthAmerica

When J.K. Rowling’s History of Magic in North America launched last week, many Indigenous fans like me were crushed.

Read my initial response here. Then be sure to check out Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, which has a nice roundup of Indigenous criticisms to Rowling’s phoned-in, bare-minimum, stereotypical depictions of Native wizards.

Since then, I’ve been asked to discuss my views specifically as a fan and Native mother. Check out my interviews with The Humanist, Native America Calling, NowThis and local newspapers.

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!

But first, Rowling needs to listen. Start here:

 

Thanksgiving: The Illegitmate Love Child of History & Legend

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!

Thanksgiving-Clip-Art-Black-And-White
History in (black and) white. This was on the front cover of the problematic packet.

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.

His reply:

“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!)

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

One of the most common questions I receive from readers is how to check their lineage for Native American ancestry.

There are a few companies now that – for a pretty penny – will search your DNA for ethnic markers and give you a sort of roadmap of percentages. I’ve had friends use these companies and haven’t heard anything negative from them, so I imagine the information they provide is legit.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to figure out your genetic heritage. I fully support that.

But I wonder: For those who find they are some percent “Native American” (and let’s not forget we’re talking thousands of unique tribal nations in that vague descriptor), what will they do with that information?

SUPER DUPER UPDATE 7/13/16: My post is a little more, how shall we say, friendly to the idea of DNA tests, but only because I know folks who have done them and swear by what they found. I don’t want to deny them their results. However, many people much – much! – smarter than me have totally ripped ancestry tests to shreds. Because science. For a primer on why DNA testing won’t help you determine what tribe you’re from, you MUST READ the scholar Kim Tallbear‘s tweetorial and the many publications that interviewed her on the subject.

Because being Native American is more than having the genetic marker of a distant relative (royal or not). It’s more than just a box to check for racial demographics on applications and census and data tracking. It’s more than being sovereign/legal/political entities. It’s more than blood quantum and tribal citizenship.

And yet for some people it’s all these things. More than all these things. Race, and particularly Native identity, is a super-complex issue layered in history, modern movements, language, culture, genocide, and so much more.

For me, it’s my relatives – my tiospaye (family) – and the larger Native community I’ve committed my life to. It’s me imbued with the aspects of a spiritual being in the absence of religious belief, although I know many who combine the two with tremendous results.

I was a guest on Native America Calling recently to talk about this very issue of Native identity, especially as the national conversation remains on Rachel Dolezal, the concept of being “transracial” (as opposed to multiracial?), and the ramifications of claiming an identity that isn’t biologically yours to claim.

We covered a lot of ground, and my part is recapped below (I feel like my voice was really muffled – sorry #fasttalkerihaveanxietygivemeabreak). What are your thoughts? How do YOU identify and is that identity different from the one others associate you with? Are those distinctions important?

iNative

My Lakota identity is based on many foundational layers.

Spirituality. This is different from religion, which is often more about loyalty to an institution and its prescribed set of rules, whereas spirituality, I think, is more of a way of life. It’s the difference between belief and being (and I think for many individuals the two can overlap). This has allowed me to explore and fully embrace many aspects of self, including Two Spirit pride and responsibility, motherhood, feminism, and so much more.

Relatives and relations. My identity encompasses my connections and being an active participant “of” rather than “in” my tiospaye (family) and the Oyate (community).

Work. It’s what I do for my people. To actively support and uplift. Pay for this work is nice (and necessary for survival), but better still are the messages from parents and young people I’ve impacted over the years, who remember me and who have taken what I’ve given them and have used it to give back to others.

Reciprocity. Turning to my Lakota culture saved my life as a depressed and suicidal teenager. Today, being Lakota is how I impact the world around me for the better.

Defining Native identity

I refuse to define anyone other than myself, and describing Native identity goes beyond what’s possible in a single radio show or essay. Consider:

  • In the U.S. there are 567 federally recognized tribes, each with their own rules of citizenship. Then there are another 400 or 500 tribes that aren’t federally recognized, but also have citizenship requirements.
  • There are people who speak their tribal language, and those whose relatives refused to teach the language based on their own traumatic boarding school experiences.
  • There are quarter-blood (or less) Indians born and raised on the rez immersed in their culture; and there are urban full bloods adopted out as babies who have no connection to their tribe.
  • And let’s not forget the U.S. government’s long history of attempting to rid itself of its Indian problem. Genocide wasn’t just smallpox, or war, or concentration camps, or removing primary food sources like buffalo… Genocide was (and is) destroying records, the sterilization and murder of Native women, and defunding legal obligations like healthcare or education in tribal communities. In this vein, systemic oppression may prevent some people from accessing Native identity, and rewards a person’s proximity to whiteness. Keep in mind it was/is better (in terms of safety and success) to be white, and many Native people chose/choose to pass as white to ensure descendent survival sans hardship.
  • The considerations above don’t even begin to touch upon the issues faced by the thousands of indigenous Turtle Island people north and south of the US border, or my Black/indigenous brothers and sisters.

It’s not up to me to decide who’s Native. Identity, for anyone, is personal. But tribes and families can determine “membership” and I think for many Natives our identities are shaped by sociocultural input from others. Does anyone else have a “What Would Auntie Do?” bracelet? – jk

As one caller said on the radio show: Your relatives know who you are. For me, that’s so so true – on many levels. But for others, say the person who was adopted out of the tribe back in the mid-1900s, that’s a small piece of the puzzle, especially if they are unable to retrace their biological family ties.

When it comes to identity, I think there’s “I’m Native American” and then there’s “I’m Mniconjou Lakota of the Oceti Sakowin.” I think, perhaps moreso than other racial identities, there’s a lot of work that has to go into claiming Native identity before it’s considered legit. For me, there has to be an aspect of doing good work to uplift your people, whether that’s your tiospaye (family) or the Oyate (community). There also must be recognition and understanding of Native issues, and beyond that, doing something about those issues.

The elusive ‘Real Indian’

In discussing Rachel Dolezal, the national conversation centers on her claim to Black identity, what she calls “the Black experience” (as if being Black, or any race, can be packaged into a singular experience). I am in full support of these discussions.

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

Um. Okay.

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

“The lack of questioning of that born-in-a-tipi story, however, points to the need for children’s books and media that accurately portray our lives in the past and the present so that people don’t put forth stories like the one Dolezar did, and so that that those who hear that kind of thing question such stories.

“Dolezal’s story about living in a tipi is plausible but not probable. The power of stereotyping is in her story, and in those who accepted it, too. That is not ok. Look at the images of Native people you are giving to children in your home, in your school, and in your library. Do some weeding. Make some better choices. Contribute to a more educated citizenry.”

Native identity is often based on visual stereotypes by outsiders, and even within our own Native circles we’re held to standards of stoicism, oneness with nature, brown skin (not “too” dark or too white, though), long hair, casinos, headdresses, turquoise bling, yadda yadda.

When someone walks in sporting these cultural cues (say, Iron Eyes Cody aka the Crying Environmentalist Indian or Ward Churchill) it’s easy to dupe the masses because no one fact checks a stereotype.

The point here is two-fold: First, everyone and their mother (Native and non-Native alike) wants to give input on who or what a Native person is – who they can and can’t be, whether that identity is a stereotype of government policy (blood quantum), academia (anthropological history), Hollywood (wild West), sports (mascots), or fashion (cultural appropriation) AND WE WILL BE HONORED, DAMMIT!

And second:

For many of us, we’ve fought tooth and nail to hold onto our Native identity in the face of oppression. So woe unto the person who gains some kind of notoriety after claiming to be Native without also providing indisputable tangible proof. Just ask Ellie Reynolds, a conservative lapdog who was outed as a non-member with no lineage by the Oglala Sioux tribal government back in May after using her “Oglala Sioux Native American” background as a platform to speak in support of the use of Indian mascots. Or ask Elizabeth Warren. Or Andrea Smith (after reading that link, make sure to read this one AND this one).

Box-checking & multiracial research

The Pew Research Center recently published a study showing half of all US adults claiming a multiracial identity say they are mixed white and American Indian.

OK, number-wise, that’s huge. Of an estimated 17 million adults who are multiracial, 50 percent (8.5 million people, folks) are claiming – to some extent – to be Native.

In contrast, Black and American Indian adults make up 12 percent of the multiracial population; white and Black ancestry make up 11 percent.

I mean… Natives must have been getting it on with EVERYBODY for this to even remotely make sense, because of the total US population, about 2.6 million people identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone, according to 2013 Census estimates.

Though there are obvious holes in the study (how do organizations like the US Census Bureau verify Native identity? Because as Natives we are held to standards of proof – called blood quantum – no other race is subjected to), Pew tried to breakdown the impact of a multiracial identity.

For example, the study found that 61 percent of those claiming white-Native ancestry say they have a lot in common with whites, compared to just 22 percent who say that they have a lot in common with other Natives. Eighty-one percent say they feel closer to their white relatives than their Native relatives, and 88 percent said strangers see them as white.

For me, these numbers are super-telling. The folks leaning toward their white selves are undoubtedly box checkers. These are the folks who spout their the family fairytale of NDN royalty as bona fides (“my great-great grandmother was an Indian princess!”) without having to experience any oppression, without having to do any kind of work within Native communities. These people are harmful.

Being Native is more than just a box to check.

Being Native is about more than race.

It’s a legal and political designation because we are inherently sovereign entities with our own systems of governing in place, with land and citizenship designations and treaties.

More than that, however, is that when we check that box, we take on sociocultural obligations and responsibilities.

Why it’s not OK to lay claim without proof

Like any country, Native tribes have the authority to establish citizenship requirements (this is one of those “for better or worse” type deals, and can cause a lot of pain and heartache among legit Native identities). I’m told I have Irish and French ancestry, but I can’t (and don’t) go around claiming citizenship of those countries, nor do I identify with the citizenry.

Regarding citizenship, Native nations are not all-inclusive communities (invasions, genocide, and colonization have really turned us off to open immigration, I think); there is no naturalization ceremony available to those who would like to join our societies.

While membership requirements vary from tribe to tribe, many nations employ some kind of blood quantum measurement tool to determine an individual’s degree of Indian blood. Considering the sheer number of multiracial folks out there, things start to get really complex here. For example, let’s say XYZ Tribe grants matrilineal citizenship only (as some tribes do). A female XYZ tribal member has a son, who is granted citizenship, but if that son grows into an adult who marries a non-tribal member, their offspring cannot claim citizenship with XYZ Tribe (although they can prove lineage).

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

Let’s be clear here, though. Measuring blood quantum is a tool of colonization and not at all a traditional aspect of Native identity. The US government is legally obligated – through “exchange” of land and resources – to provide benefits in the form of healthcare, education, and housing (among other things) to federally recognized tribes.

It was the federal government that said, “Whoa whoa whoa. If we’re going to give up the worst land, the worst commodity food, the worst healthcare facilities to Indians, we need y’all to pedigree yourselves through documented blood quantum. We can’t oppress just anybody.”

Convenient, then, that the federal government can determine which tribes to federally recognize, and that blood quantum does nothing but ensure an eventual bleed-out of the Native race.

A quick point about race: Yes, race is a social construct. It should have no bearing on how we interact with one another as humans. And yet race totally impacts everyone who isn’t white, whether we know it or not. Here’s a video one of my favorite white people, Melissa Fabello (she’s an editor with Everyday Feminism, which I write for), breaking it down for folks who claim they don’t see race.

The thing to keep in mind is that race is a major factor in determining who holds the power in our society. As I mentioned earlier, being white or being perceived as white (even if you swear up and down – as Dolezal does – to be living a POC existence) gives you great power and privilege (like, you can rest easy knowing you’re a million times less likely to be shot and killed by police more likely to achieve higher education/gainful employment, and have access to better healthcare). As someone who often passes as white, I can attest to this.

The harm in playing Indian

Natives attack ethnic fraud with fervor for legitimate reasons.

For one thing (as evidenced by those multiracial numbers), it happens a lot – like, all the time. The media frenzy that surrounds someone claiming a false Black identity is nonexistent when (even the same) someone claims to be Native without legitimate documentation to back it up. Unless our cultural bi-products are making someone a ton money, Native Americans and our issues take a backseat to everyone else. At least part of this is due – ironically – to the fact that we have such a small voice, population-wise, to demand fair coverage. Where all the multiracial peeps at???

Pretendians cause harm in that their shenanigans will eventually take the focus off important Native issues. Instead of discussing cultural appropriation, violence against women, environmental sustainability, or youth suicides (or a host of other real concerns), the conversation gets caught up in fake tans, wigs, information ownership, money, and other sensationally meaningless dribble.

In addition, ethnic frauds take away opportunities from legit Native people. That academic post? That job? That conference keynote? That college entrance slot? Someone who deserved it more – in a fair and equitable sense – didn’t get it because of someone like Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, Rachel Dolezal, and Andrea Smith. And the thing is, all these folks could have done super-powerful ally work just being their awesome white selves.

Remember that power and privilege? There’s a good reason for things like affirmative action and demographic tracking to ensure equitable opportunity for everyone, not just the privileged few. Bootstraps are only good if you can afford boots, and useful only if someone else isn’t stepping on them (MLK Jr.).

You’re Native? Back it up.

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

  • If you say you are Indigenous, you should be able to identify who your nation/tribe/band is (Cherokee, Tlingit, etc.) and who your family/clan is (by name). This identifies you within a set of relationships but also within a set of responsibilities to/within the nation/tribe/band you claim. These responsibilities are political, ceremonial, and social.

  • If you cannot identify your nation/group/tribe/band, then you should have a transparent explanation (adoption, for instance).

  • Because of the histories of misrepresentation of Indigeneity in territorial dispossession and violence, there are deep ethical responsibilities in identifying oneself as Indigenous.

I couldn’t agree more.

When someone says they wish to be Native or they really feel a kinship to Natives because they’re super-spiritual and nature-focused and whatnot, this is how I interpret these statements: Stereotypes blind people – and these same people who love to love Natives refuse to do any work to actively dismantle the systems of oppression that keep our kids and relatives on the bottom of every single health, wealth, and education statistic.

Yes, our cultures are beautiful, but living the “Native experience,” whatever that means, comes with a heavy dose of trauma-infused DNA #justthefacts Even if you lived the perfect childhood with absolutely no traumatic experiences, just knowing US history as it relates to Native people – and current events – should be enough of a catalyst for you to want to bring about positive change for your people #responsibility

You love Natives and Native culture? Tell me: What were the last three bills you called on your local or state government officials to support or oppose regarding Native issues? Oh, you donate clothes to your church and they’re shipped to some random reservation? Tell me again how your stinky old shoes stopped a kid from committing suicide.

I’m not a fan of Aaron Huey, the (talented if purposefully misguided) photographer who took this image of a pile of wasted and molding clothes donations on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. However, it’s a good visualization of the kind of disconnect existing between white saviors and the good they think they’re doing (when they’re really not doing anything).

For those folks who insist they’re Native somewhere in their bloodline: Okay. Fine. But you best prepare for major side eye action when you can’t name a Native issue you actively support and advocate for, or say you haven’t looked into your tribal history, language, or culture, or all that can be said about your Native heritage is you’re just really proud.

Being descended from Native Americans and claiming Native identity are two different things. The latter comes with not a little baggage and a host of responsibilities to others.

I know lots of white folks who identify as white who think or know they have Native heritage in their background, but because they aren’t connected to the culture, they don’t claim that identity. I find these folks are often our greatest allies in advocacy work, since they can attest to the importance of keeping traditions and cultures alive within families and respected beyond entertainment stereotypes.

Before claiming Indian, I suggest taking a strong look inward to decide whether that identity is based on a need to uplift the community or a need to uplift yourself. The latter is a fundamental aspect of Western civilization; the former works actively against oppressive systems.


* About the title: “Honest Injun”

I was searching for a synonym for “authentic” when I came across this suggestion on Thesaurus.com

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

I don’t have the heart to check the listing for “casino” or “alcoholic.” I have written to Thesaurus.com to demand they remove the insulting and racist term from their site. No response yet.

Again: NO ONE BATS AND EYE when it comes to pervasive and harmful Native stereotypes.

“1492.0” A Poem to #AbolishColumbusDay

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

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

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

To hear me perform in ironic pentameter, click here

1492.0

In fourteen hundred ninety-two

An explorer sailed for Asia true

But lost, got he, this Italian chap

Unsure East from West – who needs a map?

 

So upon an island Columbus’ ships did land

Land filled with many a child, woman, and man

Despite the Taino Arawak people, Columbus did proclaim

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

 

The explorer could do no wrong

His wit was short as his sword was long

He demanded gold from the people there

When he got some – then none – he did despair

 

So he murdered and pillaged and raped with abandon

All of which he journaled and recorded from his cabin 

And to the royals of Spain he did report

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

 

For Columbus had found – yes, discover he did

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

Money for slaves – his voyages he could salvage 

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

 

Instead of “Lost Explorer” he could be credited

With discovering America (history edited)

Nevermind the people already here

Most would be dead in a few hundred years

 

Now this lost explorer, this terrorist bloke

Makes our country look the biggest joke

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

Indigenous people continue to bleed

 

Assault, rape, human trafficking, and death

Columbus squeezed ‘til we breathed our last breath

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

We go missing and murdered and… nobody cares

 

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

Their history books filled with mythic discovery boats

“Columbus Day” we recognize every October

Fabrications and falsehoods repeated over and over

 

And yet

And YET

The stage has been set

By learneds and activists all covered in sweat 

 

Fighting to educate our lawmakers and kids

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

We march and we protest and we write up proposals 

“Abolish Columbus Day – to the waste disposal!”

 


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And while ridding the world of this monstrous wrongdoing

We find ourselves growing and evolving and pursuing

New heights to our knowledge, better ways to progress

Inclusion is possible with these grievances redressed

 

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

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

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

Join us in celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day 

 

 

Halloween: Your Racism is Showing

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.

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 3.24.30 PM

Just. 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.

asia black bull

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.

"Courtesy of Hampshire College, this checklist will help you to determine whether your Halloween costume is racist or not."
“Courtesy of Hampshire College, this checklist will help you to determine whether your Halloween costume is racist or not.”

Follow up: Exactly .345 seconds after I published this blog, someone shared THIS on Facebook and I fell in love. #truth

On Why Hollywood’s Images of Natives are Dangerous

Producers of the Al Jazeera English show, The Stream, reached out last week to ask if I’d provide some commentary on today’s episode regarding Hollywood DEPPictions of Native Americans (that’s my pun!). It’s a neat, interactive show, and they had some good questions. However, I was given a 30-second window to comment, plus tweeting. For a topic this complicated (and controversial, especially among fellow Natives), I felt a little strangled for time. So in addition to my video on The Stream, I also wrote up this piece. By no means am I dropping anything here someone much smarter and more qualified than me hasn’t already discussed in detail. For more in-depth analysis, check out Native Appropriations and Reel Injun, just to point you in the direction of quality critiques.

@AJStream asked: “…[U]sing Tonto as an example… How do stereotypes affect the perceptions and treatment of Native Americans? And to what degree are racist depictions in mainstream media holding back progress within Native American communities?”

Following is the answer I’d have liked to have given:

Hollywood’s go-to design of a Native American character is this: The stoic Indian of bygone yesteryears, with his bow and arrow, feathers and paint, and a HUGE chip on his shoulder (and now a bird on his head – the new acronym is SMBH, shaking my bird head). The character is generally under-developed, very surface-y in his motivations, and never the title role. The character is usually male, as well. Outside of the newest Disney-generated Native bird-wearing archetype, I’m thinking of movies like Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and The New World, among others. Then, if you’re showcasing the rare female lead character, say, someone like Pocahontas or Sacajawea, you get the over-sexualized woodland sprite communing with nature and navigation alike. In both cases, Hollywood presents us with under-developed, historically and culturally inaccurate characters depicted as noble savages fraught with need for a great white savior.

Now, critics of this line of thinking will often say, “It’s just a movie. It’s fiction. There are LOTS of fictional characters out there absolutely no one believes is how a real person acts.” Yeah, OK, but those characters are generally white, male, and heterosexual. The Privileged, if you will, because there are so many incarnations of them in media that it’s OBVIOUS there is no one mold for them. Hollywood tells us a white male can be anything he wants to be – today, yesterday, or even in the future. But a Native American male wears face paint, leathers, feathers (with or without the body of a bird – yeah, I have a big problem with avian appropriation, too), has a caring and protective white friend, and exists between the years 1492 and the late 1800s.

Therein lies a big chunk of the problem: We have no modern representations of ourselves on the silver screen. This is a big reason I supported Twilight, and I get a lot of flack for that. (Side note #1: Chaske Spencer, aka Sam Uley of the Twilight Saga, was featured on The Stream show and he was amaze-bombs.) Believe me, I get it, and I whole-heartedly agree that just as Johnny Depp donned redface for Tonto, so too did Taylor Lautner for Jacob Black. Beyond this, however, Twilight did a great job of casting several talented indigenous actors for various big roles; in addition, the story behind Jacob Black (and I’m talking the book here, to deviate a little) describes him as a lead character who just happens to be Native. His ethnic heritage (usually the only depth a Native character has) takes a backseat to the love triangle, and his character development as a son and capable leader. And I really enjoyed that this was the case for most of the wolf pack characters in the books and – to an extent – in the movies. No war paint or feathers (albeit a lot of fur) or alcoholism to be found.

This issue kinda came up during The Stream conversation, too. Chaske Spencer was asked about people seeing his role in Twilight as a sort of sellout move on his part. He had a fantastic reply, saying the franchise gave him an international platform to not only choose a more diverse range of films to act in (catch Winter in the Blood if you can!), but also to advocate for great indigenous causes. Then the host asked him something along the lines of: So, you’re using your heritage as a selling point? And Chaske Spencer was like: No, I’m not “selling” my heritage. That’s just who I am… I was proud of Chaske in that moment, because he brought to light the point I make over and over again in this post: Native Americans are relevant only when cultural byproducts (like regalia, and smudge sticks, and feathers) are involved. We are not individuals.

I’ll end the Twilight discussion here. For me, the biggest thing was it jumpstarted a new generation of readers. (Side note #2: I was introduced to The Twilight Saga by my then-15-year-old mentee, Tiffany, who recently turned 20. There were times throughout our relationship I didn’t expect this kid to graduate high school, for various reasons, so when she started telling me about this great book with a Native main character, I had to check it out. Thanks – in part – to Twilight, Tiffany and I built a stronger relationship and I have been entertained by the series – including the movies – ever since. I’d hang my head in shame if I weren’t so jazzed. *shrugs* Never said I was perfect!)

Returning to the topic at hand, even including Twilight, these Hollywood images leave us with few – if any – ways to interpret how a real, modern Native American looks, behaves, or what she desires. In our own familial and friendly circles, many of us will joke about how people ask if we really live in tipis, or ride horses all day, or if they can touch our hair. Funny, right? It happens far more often than any of us want to admit. We have to laugh to keep from crying. The frustrating reality here is this: We don’t exist as people until they actually meet one of us. And even then, developing a relationship beyond the silver screen takes a lot of time and patience on both my part and the part of the non-Native, which means true exchanges don’t often occur, because it really is just easier to live life based on assumptions (you know, like Skittle-wielding Black kids are inherently dangerous).

So where does that leave us? On one hand we have a Hollywood Indian dramatized as a paint-and-feather-wearing warrior whose people have all but disappeared from the face of the Earth. On the other hand we have the fantastical Hollywood Indian, a werewolf. And in these depictions lie the danger of the Hollywood Native Stereotype: We’re like museum artifacts from “back then,” and the imaginative creations of a white profiter; we’re fun to look at, but absent from any modern or realistic context.

That being said, you’d be hard-pressed to find either of these stereotypes in the real world today, and because those Hollywood images are what many people are working from, real Natives – and our issues – remain invisible. So when we have very real issues like crippling poverty, staggering unemployment, laundry lists of health issues, or even when we’re trying to enact positive change with protests against pipelines and predatory alcohol sales, we rate less than the latest celebrity gossip on the local news channels.

Stereotypes hold everyone back, because they don’t allow outsiders to see the human beings underneath all that black and white makeup and stupid bird hats. Stereotypes allow non-Natives to appropriate indigenous images and traditional aspects of our heritage with offensive whooping and tomahawk chopping, dancing in fringed costumes and war bonnets, Navajo panties at Urban Outfitters…

Argh! I AM NOT YOUR HIPSTER ACCESSORY, dammit!

It is so normalized and accepted in America that we see this (mis)appropriation of ourselves in music videos, fashion shows, Halloween parties, frat shindigs, and sporting events. We become obsolete pieces of art used solely for entertainment purposes. And just as Depp’s Tonto ended up as a carnival sideshow, so too do important tribal issues.

How does this all come back to harm Native people and communities? In one of my favorite books, The Lucifer Effect, Philip G. Zimbardo talks about how stereotypes and misrepresentations are classic tactics of those in power to marginalize, dehumanize and ultimately do away with specific populations:

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

Zimbardo explains how dehumanizing can trigger ‘good’ people to commit atrocious acts, i.e. the Jewish Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and abuse by guards at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Dehumanization allows people to redefine harmful behavior as honorable, minimizes personal responsibility, maximizes apathy, and “reconstruct(s) our perception of victims as deserving their punishment” (p. 311). <—- Sound familiar? Read through some of the comments on my blog… Or better yet, through the troll-infested comment sections of news stories about Indian mascots or Hollywood depictions of ethnic people. In case you were operating under some delusion to the contrary, let me be the first to point out how alive and thriving racism is today. Let’s stop that whole "post-racial" fantasy, mmmkay?

In the case of Hollywood whitewashing, the context behind the offensive Native imagery is at issue. In relegating Native Americans to Western or mythological roles, Hollywood perpetuates and popularizes racist trends proponents say “honor” Natives; mascots, in particular, which are the little racist brothers to Hollywood’s stereotypes.

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns regarding AI [American Indian] mascots is that, because AIs may be largely defined by (and socially represented in terms of) mascot stereotypes, AI people have ceased to be perceived as real. From the time of first contact with European explorers, AIs have been portrayed fictionally as barbaric, wild, and savage––terms that imply AI people are less than human. Thus, it could be argued that AIs have existed as mascots for the 500+ year history of this country, and one consequence of AI sports mascots is that they keep AI people allegorically fixed as a kind of ‘cultural souvenir’ preserved in the American identity. (Chaney, Burke & Burkely, 2012, p. 43)

Mascots and Hollywood stereotypes exacerbate the issues plaguing Indian Country today by making the American public complacent and indifferent to those “Indian-only” problems, in addition to totally leaving out the fact that many of these issues are because of past and current U.S. POLICIES (I’m thinking in terms of assimilation, allotment, boarding schools, ICWA, VAWA, and – most recently – the sequester)! These images further divide Us and Them, because we Natives are nothing more than ticket sales and sports jerseys. Who cares about the Indians when there are REAL issues to deal with? Dehumanizing Natives through racist imagery has been the most effective modern means of annihilating the few of us remaining.

On Being Indian: A Girl’s Story

I was asked to submit a piece for the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award, due Feb. 8. The request came about two months ago, so of course I got down to writing… Feb. 6. I’m a deadline writer by nature. I can’t help it. Anyway, not sure what will come of it. But it’s out there.

The piece is fictional by nature, but they say the best writing comes from true life. I wanted to incorporate werewolves and wands, but those just didn’t fit. Seriously, though, if you’re going to read this, just know it’s graphic, as real life tends to be.

And that brings me to another line of thinking, why I tend to lean toward books with fantastical, adolescent bents, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, and the many more like them. When I say I enjoy reading stuff like this to friends or acquaintances, I often get the mocking smile or that’s-so-juvenile roll of the eyes. I shake it off now, but I still feel a ping of offense, like, “What’s it to you? Come at me, bro!” As a kid growing up how I did, books served as a means of escape. When I read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in fifth grade, or Dune in sixth, or the Narnia series in high school, it was because those books took me out of myself. Growing up is hard. It really is. Adolescence, with it’s raging hormones and rites of passage, is like a war zone. If you survive it, you’re guaranteed PTSD, regardless of the number or depth of scars. You see, the books I’m attracted to, books with magic and heroes, usually feature some insurmountable odd(s), cast little guys against big guys, and generally show that true magic – love, perseverance, and friendship – wins in the end. I totally put myself in Harry’s shoes. He was abused, shoved in a closet, and told that’s as good as life gets. Then he was given a wand and a way to take himself out of the life Circumstance had given him. Books were my magic wand. And I’ve never grown out of their ability to transport me to new heights.

I was inspired to write the following short piece after a mandatory child abuse recognition and reporting training at work. We watched a tough video, “Why God — Why Me?” about child abuse survivors from Maine. It was extremely detailed; to say it was hard to listen to is an understatement, but when you talk about the rape and other soul-destroying actions taken upon a child there really are no words. We were all professionals at this training and most – if not all – of us had at some point worked with clients who had experienced abuse of some kind, but the general feeling of the group was helplessness. How do you, as an adult, prevent abuse? Treat abuse survivors? Work with abusers? We’re supposed to do all those things in my line of work. But it’s hard.

Harder still is going through it, and the survivor featured on the portion of the video we watched got me thinking of my own experience with child sexual abuse, and how it’s the survivor in us all that keeps us from being paralyzed by feelings of helplessness. We may feel like we can’t cope, but we do – somehow. Like the heroes in the books I read, you keep going, keep breathing, keep pushing for something better. My push – my power – is my daughter.

My daughter walks her own path, but I will be there as a guide and support system.
My daughter walks her own path, but I will be there as a guide and support system.

The following story, though based on true events, is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

On her tummy, she stares up at the TV, her face propped by her hands on bent elbows. The screen shows a man in a trench coat and fedora hat being thrown off a big boat into choppy, dark waters.

Later, when they asked her what she remembered about that night, the TV and unlucky character was all she could remember.

It took longer to remember why the show was on. Or why she – at 3 years old – was watching it.

Or why she was on her tummy.

“This is what Indian’s do,” her uncle whispers in her ear.

Like many kids living in traditional households, she grew up amongst her tiospaye. She had a mom and a dad and an older sister, but she also had aunts and uncles and cousins who played the role of mom or dad or sibling. Her 3-year-old mind turned every old woman into an unci, and every wrinkled man into a lala. She both respected and feared gray-haired people the same. As she grew older she became aware people like Uncle Duane weren’t really, in fact, related. When she was a woman and told people about how her mom and aunts had breastfed her and her cousins indiscriminately, she understood that not everyone was raised like this. Not everyone had been loved and cherished by the many adults in their life. To the little girl, the trailer house she lived in belonged to everyone.

And she belonged to everyone, like they belonged to her. Hopes and dreams were shared alongside the despair and nightmares.

For her, growing up Indian meant living with and among a lot of people.

It meant getting poked in the eyeball if she looked too long at her unci’s face.

Being Indian was being jealous your last name was Murphy like your dad and not Whirlwind Horse like your cousin.

It meant lots of laughing. It meant lots of crying but shaking it off before someone caught you crying.

It meant beads everywhere – stepping on beads or finding beads in the cracks at the table. It meant getting yelled at by aunts when you used their quills as toothpicks.

Being Indian meant being taught without words when sage was used, when sweetgrass was used, when cedar was used, and that tobacco – whether natural or from a cigarette – was the best way to honor the elders and spirits.

It meant learning whitewashed history at school and real history from drinking relatives.

It meant going into any trailer on the street and being fed a snack if you were hungry or given a bed if you were tired.

It meant wearing the clothes your cousin wore yesterday.

Being Indian meant you didn’t need to be at Wounded Knee or Sand Creek or a boarding school to have PTSD.

It meant the smell of coffee and fried Spam on Sunday morning.

It meant sitting at the hospital for a looooooong time.

It meant watching people get starquilts at weddings and graduations and funerals and wondering when you could give away your baby blanket, because people who gave stuff away were respected.

Being Indian was driving to Pierre or Rapid City and bitching in the car on the way back about how much you hate going to Pierre or Rapid City. Being Indian was knowing at 3 years old that racism exists.

It meant eating lots of cheese. It meant selling some of that cheese for cigarettes so Auntie Lennie could smoke.

It meant having award-winning artists in the family who used their winnings to buy the whole tiospaye burgers at Dairy Queen.

It meant money was important, but not that important.

Being Indian was to be intimately connected to all things, even if you weren’t quite sure what that meant exactly, but being confident of your place in the world nonetheless.

It meant being told totally believable ghost stories and hearing about White Buffalo Calf Woman over and over again.

It meant knowing spirits were everywhere and that they made shit move and made sounds but weren’t to be feared.

It meant pointing without using anything but your lips.

It meant having an Indian accent, ayyyy.

It meant getting pregnant as a teenager and knowing the child’s grandparents would help raise it.

It meant dancing in circles until you couldn’t move anymore. It meant standing beside drums and drummers and instinctively knowing what song they were singing, because it was the song in your heart.

It meant playing horseshoes.

It meant lots of artwork with red, yellow, black, and white used.

Being Indian was laughing at how stupid Lt. John Dunbar is but secretly loving the only movie to make Indians look kinda nice. Being Indian was telling people just because they knew the word tatanka didn’t mean they were Indian.

Being Indian had to be proved to people who weren’t Indian.

It meant surviving.

She sits in a small room with a white woman who wears long jean skirts and tennis shoes. The little girl never looks up. Maybe the woman wears glasses. The woman has lots of toys lined up along the walls. “Show me what your uncle did to you,” she says. The little girl, maybe 5 or 6 now, understands what the woman is asking. But it’s dirty. She’s not supposed to talk about that stuff.

Daddy gets mad and walks away when Uncle Walter’s name comes up. Mommy tells her to stop “messing around” when she touches herself and makes her Barbies kiss and cry. Daddy took her to a doctor not too long ago and said, “Doctors are nice and can touch you anywhere.” This made her cry and shake as she took off her clothes. The episode was so bad the doctor said, “No. No one should touch you unless you want to be touched. Not everyone is nice.” She remembered her daddy getting flustered, like he knew he had said the wrong thing. It wasn’t long after the doctor found out why the little girl never wanted to pee or poop.

She takes a boy doll and a girl doll from the wall of toys. “My Uncle Walter hurt me,” she tells the skirted woman. “Like this.” She shows the boy doll on top of the girl doll, both face down. She doesn’t know what else to say or do. No one told her what to call it.

The tiospaye is broken now.

“She’s lying,” one auntie says. “She watches too much TV.”

But no one can dispute the medical and psychological reports. So the uncle goes to live with another tiospaye. It isn’t until she is in college that the girl-now-woman gets a call saying Uncle Walter is going to prison for a few years, because he raped Sheryl and Denise and Wilma and Heather and…

Someone finally reported it. Reported it to people who cared enough to follow through, to help figure out the jurisdictional mess and file charges. Other men in the family are charged with child molestation. Rape. Incest. The girl-now-woman might need to come forward as a witness.

“Yes,” she says. Conviction, certainty, and finality ring in that one word.

She never gets a call. But she imagines what she would do if she saw him. Maybe it’s for the best. She’s never been a violent person, but she’d make an exception for monsters.

To say she “reported” what Uncle Walter did is too official. To this day she doesn’t remember actually telling anyone what happened. The whole experience still gets muddled in her head. She remembers him bringing her into her parents’ bedroom; mommy and daddy were out playing volleyball in their blue and yellow uniforms, and he was babysitting not just her but maybe four other cousins who were outside. She remembers watching him put on a white condom before he took her to the living room.

She remembers the TV show. And being on her belly.

She can’t recall being entered, but she remembers him putting her up on the counter in the bathroom and watching him through the mirror as he puts a Band-Aid over her anus and vagina. She remembers her parents coming home.

She remembers touching herself, because it feels really good. Her parents find her humping stuffed animals, making dolls do terrible things to each other.

Later she’s told how the doctor found rips and tears underneath and inside where little girls should never have rips or tears. Skirted women with toys in their offices make her show them what happened and ask her how she feels.

She feels shamed. And confused.

And angry.

Uncle Walter? He gets to finish high school. No one makes him see doctors or skirted women with tennis shoes. When he gets out of prison he comes out to his family as a gay man. People say, “Oh. That’s why he did what he did to all those little boys and girls.”

That explains it.

Funny uncle.

What drives the girl-now-woman crazy is that Uncle Walter – and so many others like him – are milling about free as birds. She has a daughter of her own now. And it drives her crazy thinking something a sinister as a sick child molester could be on the same planet as her daughter. It drives her even crazier knowing people like him – people like him who hacked away at her body and stole her childhood – continue to be accepted within the tiospaye. Is that what being Indian means? Sitting down at high school graduation dinners, or marriages, or funerals and breaking bread with child molesters? Because that’s what happens. She – not him – but SHE! is blocked out of parties and celebrations. Oh, sure, she’s invited, but he’ll be there. He’s in all the Facebook pictures, smiling, and holding babies. Her own mother has pictures of him, and she feels betrayed. She told her mother once how much it hurt to see his acceptance. Her mom told her family doesn’t give up on itself.

Fuck that.

If being Indian means accepting and tolerating cycles of abuse, then she wants out of the club. She knows there is more to being Indian than this, but when the tiospaye welcomes the sins of someone who so unapologetically suffocates childhood innocence, someone who so completely violates the wakanyeja… it is impossible to embrace a culture of complacency.

With her daughter, she runs through body parts and “good touch/bad touch” dialogue. It’s not a “private” or “wah-wah.” It’s a vulva or vagina. It’s a urethra, not a “pee-pee.” Anus. Breasts. Hips. Hands. Stomach. Neck.

No one – not even mom or dad or grandmas or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends or teachers or… – is supposed to touch you without your consent, she tells her daughter every few weeks. No one should make you watch or touch them if you don’t want to. She quizzes her daughter about how people touch her, like tickles or pushes or handshakes or hugs. It might be paranoia. If it is, she hopes it will help keep her daughter’s body and soul intact. Help keep her daughter’s mind free of shame, shoulders free of weight.

This is the new Indian. One who prevents abuse, not harbors it. One who surrounds herself with only the family she trusts implicitly to support her and not harm her daughter. Being Indian means getting educated to become a warrior. With education – with healing of the mind – comes understanding that being Indian doesn’t mean having to do something because family sticks together no matter what.

The tiospaye is only as strong as its weakest link. When a whole generation of wakanyeja are broken by abuse, the tiospaye ceases to exist. It can only be built up strong again when prayer and treatment and counseling and support from loved ones breaks the cycle of abuse. This is the same for families struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, diabetes, depression… Those abuses must be faced head on, or they continue to fester in the peripheral shadows of denial.

She kisses her daughter on the forehead goodnight. “I love you,” she whispers in her daughter’s ear.

A good mother. This is what it means to be Indian.

This stone angel is weirdly situated in a grove of weeds and natural grasses on my dad's property south of Bismarck, ND. It makes me said, but hopeful, all at once.
This stone angel is weirdly situated in a grove of weeds and natural grasses on my dad’s property south of Bismarck, ND. It makes me sad, but hopeful, all at once.