Tag Archives: indigenous

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:

 

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Magic & Marginalization: Et tu, JK? :(

Let’s establish something off the bat: I am a huge fan of Harry Potter.

  • I’ve written research papers;
  • I’ve written blog posts – heck the WordPress title of my blog is Walker Wrackspurt;
  • I collect books (paperback, hardcover, British/English versions, illustrated editions, digital books, audiobooks, coloring books) movie paraphernalia, costuming;
  • My daughter and I have spent the last year working our way through the series (we’re mid-way through Order of the Phoenix);
  • I spent way too much money at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida last year and REGRET NOTHING;
  • My friends and family know Harry Potter is a quirky but important part of my identity – many a HP-themed birthday party has been thrown in my honor;
  • I connect with people on the subject, even those who could care less or haven’t read the books/seen the movies, because it’s such an iconic pop culture topic.

Like most fans, I’m super-jazzed about the upcoming continuations on stage and in theaters.

But with this week’s release of History of Magic in North America, a collection of what will be four episodic essays as a lead-up to the Hollywood version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I’m having a serious crisis of fandom specific to the (mis)representation of Native people in Rowling’s new writings.

Here are some of the problematic passages released March 8:

In the Native American community, some witches and wizards were accepted and even lauded within their tribes, gaining reputations for healing as medicine men, or outstanding hunters. However, others were stigmatised for their beliefs, often on the basis that they were possessed by malevolent spirits.

And:

The legend of the Native American ‘skin walker’ – an evil witch or wizard that can transform into an animal at will – has its basis in fact. A legend grew up around the Native American Animagi, that they had sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation. In fact, the majority of Animagi assumed animal forms to escape persecution or to hunt for the tribe. Such derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.

The Native American wizarding community was particularly gifted in animal and plant magic, its potions in particular being of a sophistication beyond much that was known in Europe. The most glaring difference between magic practised by Native Americans and the wizards of Europe was the absence of a wand.

OK so I pretty much copied and pasted the whole thing. It’s all problematic. Native women much smarter than me have already written the analytical whys and wherefores – please go read their criticism, as I totally agree with everything they say: Dr. Adrienne Keene on Native Appropriations and Dr. Debbie Reese on American Indians in Children’s Literature both give Rowling a piece of their amazing minds (my girl Johnnie Jae, founder of A Tribe Called Geek, has also been in the Twitter fray). And it being JK Rowling, you can imagine the kind of violent backlash these Indigenous women are receiving from fans who couldn’t care less about Natives or our issues (or our women, obviously).

For me the representation issue boils down to this: The mass media narrative around Natives is intensely problematic; if we’re mentioned at all, it’s within a stereotypical or fantastical sense, and very rarely goes beyond 1 or 2-D. Many consumers of this media have no idea we still exist as contemporary, multi-dimensional individuals, which makes these fantastical/fictional perpetrations very much a part of the problem in that NO ONE knows or cares to know any of the very real issues our communities face. Who cares about the epidemic levels of Native youth suicide when OMG JK ROWLING IS WRITING ABOUT MAGICAL INDIAN SKINWALKERS!!!

We’re marginalized in real life and we’re marginalized in media. To have a powerhouse like Rowling (though any non-Native author really) profit off our continued erasure and harmful representations is something I am totally not here for. The argument that it’s “fiction” is worthless to me. If we (as consumers) had diverse representation of Native people the same way white people do, Rowling’s latest wouldn’t be so problematic, because consumers would have other representations to base opinions off of. As it is, so much of the Native narrative is romanticized and fantastical and now one of the world’s most successful authors has thrown her mighty magical empire against our fragile reemergence from near-total cultural genocide.

And I write this knowing full well I’m also a fan of the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, which I’ve written about here. However, unlike Rowling, Meyer’s Native fantasies were expressed at the outset of the series, not as an afterthought (so I had a trigger warning of sorts: bullshit ahead! Not so with the Harry Potter universe).

Beyond this, I’m writing because as a fan, I’m so… hurt and disillusioned to discover a world I escape to so often and with people I love like my young daughter is now an unsafe space that takes the very real cultural histories, practices, and belief systems of a hyper-marginalized group of people and casts them into the realm of myth and fantasy. Ironic, isn’t it, that I’m disillusioned with a fictional world based on magic? As someone who carefully curates the pop culture I promote and allow my child to consume, I can’t in good faith continue to support one of my favorite storytellers. If I want to read a misrepresentation of Native people, I’ll just pick up the nearest K-12 history book.

While I (used to) look forward to reading the series with my daughter at night, I’m not eager to witness the disappointment I’m sure she’ll feel when I tell her the author of Harry Potter has decided Natives don’t deserve dignity or respect and that the values of Native people can be torn apart and packaged as a fictional commodity for profit. And you might think: Well, you can still read Harry Potter and be a fan of that series and boycott FBAWTFT. To that I say, no, I can’t separate the Rowling who wrote the problematic Native prose from the Rowling who wrote HP1-7. It’s like making room for The Wizard of Oz‘s L. Frank Baum, who wrote in support of Native genocide, supporting President Abraham Lincoln (and other ethically questionable leaders), or being OK with American history textbooks because everything except the little bits about Natives and other marginalized groups is accurate.

 

When heroes disappoint, the letdown is very real heartache. Yep. It’s just a book. Got that. But a large chunk of my life has been utterly devoted to the story and characters and I simply can’t help the betrayal I feel. Coming off of her awesome pro “Hermoine as a Black woman” storyline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I was sure Rowling would embrace creativity and leave her white-washed, European-centric version of Native culture out of the canon. Or perhaps she’d develop a wizard character who just happened to be Native. 

As a lover of pop culture, I often have to check my Lakota feminist lenses at the door, or else spend the whole TV show or movie being angry and dissatisfied (I’m thinking of “The Revenant,” right now as a for instance). Sometimes I’m able to get past the ignorance and marginalization. But… Rowling could have done this so much better. SO MUCH BETTER. I’m not willing to give Rowling a pass here.

This Land Was Made For Decolonized Love

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A painting of my own creation.

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:

  • Alethea J. Rosales (Oglala Sioux Tribe)
  • Alfred Walking Bull (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Alicia Mousseau (Oglala Lakota)
  • Alli Moran (Wakpá Wašté Oyáte)
  • Allison Renville (Sisseton Wahpeton-Oyate Two-Spirited Society)
  • Angel Mills (Oglala Lakota)
  • Anna Brokenleg Keller (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Anna Diaz-Takes Shield (Oglala Lakota)
  • Ashley Nicole McCray (Oglala Lakota/Sicangu Lakota/Absentee Shawnee)
  • Ashley Pourier (Oglala Lakota)
  • Carrie E. Sitting Up (Oglala Lakota)
  • Chas Jewett (Mniconjou Lakota)
  • Corrine Sitting Up (Oglala Lakota)
  • Coya White Hat-Artichoker (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Dani Morrison (Oglala Lakota)
  • Darren Cross (Oglala Sioux)
  • Darren Renville (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • David Bender (Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Davidica Little Spotted Horse (Oglala Lakota)
  • Dawn D. Moves Camp (Oglala Lakota)
  • Dawn Ryan (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Two-Spirited Society)
  • Deanna Stands (Ihanktonwan na Isanyati Dakota)
  • Doris Giago (Oglala Lakota)
  • Eli Conroy (Oglala Lakota)
  • Felipa De Leon (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jacqueline Keeler (Ihanktonwan Dakota/Diné)
  • Jaida Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jeaneen Lonehill (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jedadiah Richards (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jenna Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jesse Short Bull (Oglala Lakota)
  • James G. La Pointe (Oglala Lakota)
  • Joel Waters (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jonna Grey Eagle (Oglala Lakota)
  • Jonnie Storm (Ihanktonwan Dakota)
  • Juliana Brown Eyes-Clifford (Oglala Lakota)
  • Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • Krystal Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota)
  • Lenny Hayes (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate)
  • Leo Yankton (Oglala Lakota)
  • Marie Giago (Oglala Lakota)
  • The Rev. Dr. Martin Brokenleg (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Mary Abbott (Cheyenne River Lakota)
  • Mary Baird (Oglala Lakota)
  • Melissa Buffalo (Kangi Okute/Kul Wicasa Oyáte/Meskwaki)
  • Monique Mousseau (Oglala Lakota)
  • Natasha Bordeaux (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa Oyate)
  • Sarah Brokenleg (Sicangu Lakota)
  • Ronya J. Hoblit (Oglala Lakota)
  • Sloane Cornelius (Oglala Lakota)
  • Tasiyagnunpa Livermont (Oglala Lakota)
  • Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota)
  • Thalia Wilson Ellis (Standing Rock Sioux Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Theresa Halsey (Standing Rock Sioux Hunkpapa Lakota)
  • Tom Swift Bird (Oglala Lakota)
  • Valerie Jean Collins-Siqueiros (Cheyenne River Lakota)
  • Vernon Renville (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Two-Spirited Society)

… And many more who choose to remain anonymous because they face the real possibility of retaliation as LGBTQ+ or Two Spirit.

John Trudell: 1946-2015

12/8/2015: His ride toward the next great journey came today. Asníkiya él wówaȟwá. May his family find peace.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

Woke.

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.

ENDURE

The people cry outTears of angerTears of sorrow / FlowingGiving birth to resistanceYoung onesTo remember struggle

For the people cry outTears of happinessTears of joyWashing the pain / Cleaning the spiritGiving strength

The generationsRemembering the pastTo rebuild the futureFor weeping isAnother way of laughing / And resisting andOutlasting the enemy

Lines from a Mined Mind, By John Trudell

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.”

Damn.

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:

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

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.”

John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)
John Trudell (Photo by Taté Walker)

12/8/2015Ikíčize waún k’un hé waná henála (Once I was the warrior, but now all that is past). — Sitting Bull’s Song

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!)

Submit Your Application for the Great Plains Emerging Tribal Writer Award

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.

Learn about our 2014 winner, Marcus Bear Eagle of Chadron, NE.
Learn about our 2013 winner, Taté Walker of Sioux Falls, SD.

The 2015 winner, judged by the SDSU English Department, AIS and AIECC, will receive an award of $500 and be invited to read at the Great Plains Writers’ Conference at SDSU, in March, 2015.

WHO CAN SUBMIT: Tribally-enrolled writers from the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Minnesota who have not yet published a book of creative writing.

WORK ACCEPTED: Fiction, creative nonfiction, drama, or the screenplay (20 double-spaced pages maximum) or poetry (15 pages maximum).

LOGISTICS: Send materials to arrive by January 15, 2015 to Emerging Tribal Writers Award, English Department, South Dakota State University, Pugsley Center 301/Campus Box 2218, Brookings, SD 57007. 

There is no entry fee. Finalists will be asked to demonstrate tribal enrollment to the AIS and AIECC.  More details are available at https://greatplainswritersconference.wordpress.com/awards/great-plains-emerging-tribal-writer-award-submission-guidelines/

For queries or to submit electronically, email April Myrick at april.myrick@sdstate.edu.


 

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.

Native Peoples Magazine: 6 Native artists empowering urban landscapes

As more and more Natives move to cities, artists urge merging identities and reject the ‘urban’ label

Native Peoples Magazine, July/August 2014

Native Peoples Magazine
Art by Native Peoples Magazine: (Top, L-R) Louie Gong, Thosh Collins, Lynda Teller Pete; (Bottom, L-R) Dyani White Hawk, Debra Yepa-Peppan, & Brent Learned

[Alternate Intro]

Settling in Denver in 1986 was a practical move for Lynda Teller Pete (Diné). She had graduated from college two years earlier with a degree in criminal justice and knew returning home to Newcomb, N.M., on the Navajo Nation would offer her few employment opportunities to use it.

“Helping Native people was always in the forefront,” says Pete, 54, of her employment history. After nearly two decades working to help Denver’s Native population in social services and government agencies, Pete picked up the loom she had earlier set aside and began weaving full time two years ago. It was a skill she began learning from her mother and other family at the age of 6.

“I grew up in a little community where you didn’t see a lot of outsiders,” she says. “I was very influenced by a fourth grade teacher who came from Maine. When he showed us on a map how far he traveled to get to us, I thought he came from around the world.

“I got a very big education, not from the curriculum, but from the stories he brought into class,” Pete continued. “There was a whole world out there. And I thought, ‘How many of us [Navajo] are out there?’ To this day our people can’t be out ‘there’ without us helping one another.”

Artists like Pete, who teaches Navajo weaving at workshops across the country, help pave the metaphorical roads from reservations to urban centers where Native populations are growing exponentially. Although generally associated with a rural lifestyle, last year, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures showing 78 percent of all identified American Indian/Alaska Natives were living off reservation. That’s a jump from 45 percent in 1970 and 8 percent in 1940.

Assimilation policies, including government boarding schools and relocation programs of the early-to-mid 1900s, encouraged – and often forced – Natives to adopt American culture, language, and lifestyle, and leave reservations for big city hubs like Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Denver. These policies continue to have a profound impact on Native identity.

The six artists profiled for Native Peoples Magazine, including Pete, represent the innovative ways art can help heal or enhance Native identity, whether on the reservation or off. In fact, the artists profiled here dismissed the idea of the reservation/urban Native binary, saying more than anything it acts as a divisive wedge among Natives. Indigenous people, they say, have always adapted and evolved, and art has always played a role in keeping traditions and culture strong through the generations.

“Art reflects current situations, in addition to being able to capture the past,” says Minneapolis-based artist Dyani White Hawk, some of whose paintings use a transitional moccasin motif to explore what makes something traditional.

“Natives were always trading and using the influence of other cultures – look at the jingle dress,” White Hawk says. “We have a strong history, but it’s always changing and always dynamic depending on the perspective it’s coming from. Our ‘real’ traditions are the teachings that come with it, the beliefs and world knowledge.”

 


 

My thoughts… 

Photo I took of Frank Waln in Boulder, Colo. Look for his profile in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of Native Peoples Magazine.

Feeling pretty blessed to participate in some of the interviews and conversations I’ve had lately. Native America: We have heroes alive and well and kicking the shit out of stereotypes and bad news TODAY in all our communities. They are creating photos, music, jewelry, and laws, and hashtags. Support them. Encourage them.

Recently – and over the past few months – I’ve had the honor and privilege to speak to Natives living in Minneapolis, Pine Ridge, Orange County (CA), Phoenix, Bernalillo, Chicago, NYC, Seattle… The list goes on, thanks primarily to the amazing stories I get to write for Native Peoples Magazine and other publications. Every single one of these people are in some way bettering their communities and the people within through art, law, activism, rapping, cultural preservation, volunteering, health/wellness, and even simple parenting or mentoring (wait – what’s so simple about that???).

These individuals: Thosh Collins, Debra Yepa-Pappan, Frank Waln (with a profile coming in the next NPM issue) and others embody the true spirit of what it means to be a thriving indigenous person. Someone who embraces modernity and traditionalism. Someone who understands there is no “two worlds” or there is no “urban” or “reservation.” We struggle but also succeed regardless of location or adjective or blood quantum applied to us by Western narratives.

Collins, a photographer living in Tempe, Ariz., said the binaries we place on ourselves as Native people – reservation vs urban or traditional vs modern, educated vs uneducated, full vs everyone else – only further divide us as a people that really can’t be separated from one or the other. Our traditions have ALWAYS been adaptive and evolving. I’ve said this before, but the whole point of the oral culture was to ensure adaptation and evolution. The Lakota language, for example, is tough to learn because each word and sentence you utter will be different as the time of day changes or whether you’re speaking to your grandmother or your child or a stranger, and what kind of body movements and emotion go into it. The structure is different because you always speak with deference to the subject and everything flows around it. And like water flowing over stones in a river that is always changing, so, too, does the language (and “language is culture is language” – not my quote – I’ll edit post once I remember who said it – I think it was a White Hat…?). It’s about context, not about stagnation. Being Native is to be an ever-moving aspect of Nature.

Photo I took of Scatter Their Own, an alter-Native rock duo out of Pine Ridge helping both the music scene and Native youth through their advocacy and tunes.

Case-in-point: We are indigenous to this land, Collins said, and so to say one of us is urban or one of us is rural and to put value on one or the other is to deny our inherent sovereignty and claim to Turtle Island. When I walk out my door in Colorado Springs, I don’t (shouldn’t) see *just* a military/evangelical mecca/touristy city, but a sacred space of healing waters and mountain scapes with a history AND current importance unique to the Native perspective and experience. While I honor and respect and miss the family on my reservation in central South Dakota (and elsewhere), I don’t need to be on a reservation to live a Lakota existence. You may be reading this and thinking, “Duh,” but having light skin and having attended eight different mostly white-filled K-12 schools, I had a huge identity crisis growing up that somehow I was never going to be “Native enough.” And, yes, there are people — too many of them Native, but a lot of them rich white men who own film studios or sports teams — who will never see me as “enough,” but the point isn’t about them. It’s about me. How I live. What moves me to action or to prayer. About my daughter who will carry with her what I’m able to pass down.

There is something powerful in recognizing just how much control we have over our own identities, surely, but there must also be recognition to the power OTHERS have in shaping that identity… Why appropriation and mascots and media representation have such a significant impact on how our younger people will identify as Native. Because without the voices of people like Warren Montoya, Louie Gong, Brent Learned, and others throughout Turtle Island, we lose sight of ourselves through the fog of mainstream (read: culturally insensitive) entertainment, sports, fashion, and politics. Listen to these voices, support their endeavors, follow them on social media. Our identities – the identities of our children – depend on their messages being spread.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day; Support #MMIW & Stop Violence Against Indigenous Women

Celebrate Valentine’s Day; Support #MMIW & Stop Violence Against Indigenous Women

Courtesy photo used with permission from the February 14th Women's Memorial March committee (showing the movement marching through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, 2005).
Courtesy photo used with permission from the February 14th Women’s Memorial March committee (showing the movement marching through Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, 2005).

I wrote another column encouraging folks to pay attention to the ongoing violence against indigenous women. One of the things I dread most are the conversations I have with my 5-year-old daughter about keeping herself safe from unwanted attention. She is a beautiful Lakota/Anishinaabe child, and unfortunately that means she is bombarded on all fronts by the very real possibility of physical, emotional, and spiritual violence. I don’t know that any parent relishes the idea of going over “worst case scenarios” with their child, but as a survivor of childhood and adolescent abuse, I am even more sensitive to the dangers of having an uninformed child, so we talk daily about ways to keep herself safe.

There are a lot of great resources available to help parents word these discussions, but the point here is that we HAVE to keep this discussion in the forefront throughout our daughters’ lives. Too many indigenous women suffer from violence and too many of our issues suffer from exploitation, so much so that we fade easily into the shadows where no one can see us. Do yourself and our indigenous daughters a favor and support the work of groups like the February 14th (First Nations) Women’s Memorial March and the Turtle Island solidarity events fighting to keep our women, their protection, their survival, and their successes in the forefront. Wopila tanka; anpetu cante wasté.

The Move to Manitou

Sorry for the lapse in posts, dear readers. I’ve been moving up.

Literally.

We’re now mountain home dwellers living in a tiny abode at the base of Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a high place to be, to say the least: We’re at an elevation of about 6300+ feet; and the state just legalized recreational marijuana.

Photo from the New York Times - Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.
Photo from the New York Times – Check out their write-up of this quaint little town by clicking on the photo.

The move was hard. Very hard, and I was convinced I’d live a terrible existence of unemployment and loneliness here. Thankfully I was wrong. I’m normally quite the extrovert, and while I miss my family and friends dearly, the introverted part of my psyche is thriving here. I love it. I love being in the mountains. The weather is amazing. The people are super-friendly – it’s a tourist town, so I think they have to be, but it’s refreshing to live in an area where pedestrians truly do have the right-of-way. I’m making headway on that novel I neglected in November. I’m spending quality time exploring with my 5-year-old. My husband and I have reunited after nearly 3 months apart.

It feels like home.

My daughter loves her new home, too.
My daughter loves her new home, too.

I think part of that has to do with the culture and heritage of the area. The similarities between Manitou Springs and the Black Hills area of South Dakota – a state that will always be home to me – are striking: Extremely spiritual destinations for local and surrounding indigenous people, but a landscape and history marred by advertising billboards and a sort of local poverty that depends wholly on white tourism dollars.

The narrative of Manitou Springs is quite beautiful – at least the little I’ve heard and have been able to dig up. Geographically, it’s a space hugged on every side by the mountains, and a creek winds and gurgles its way through town. But the area’s most heralded features are the natural mineral springs that bubble up year round from a deep underground system of cavernous aquifers.

From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area.
From the site http://manitoumineralsprings.org, showing 8 of 10 springs in the area. People flock to these with water bottles and buckets to imbibe the health benefits of the springs.

As the ancient water erodes the surrounding limestone, carbonic acid is created which gives Manitou’s springs their special effervescence. This natural carbonation forces the water back to surface through cracks in the rocks, where it absorbs high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate (soda) and other healthy minerals.”

– From the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce site

Tribal people – the Utes and Cheyenne, in particular, although the Osage, Apaches, and many others – have used the space for several thousands of years, according to their histories. The cliff-dwelling Anasazi also had a stake in the area (there are abandoned cliff dwellings just above the springs that are highlighted every sunset for me, since I live on the opposite ridge). The place was so powerful – so spiritual – that though many tribal nations warred with each other, the springs were considered neutral territory. Like the sacred Paha Sapa, indigenous people made the pilgrimage to the springs year after year for healing and prayer.

I don’t know what names tribal people called this place, and I can’t really find the etymological history of the word “Manitou” (or at least one that makes sense for the region – Google tells me the definition is Algonquian in nature, meaning it came from way out east) but the locals here tell me it’s a “Native American”  word for “spirit.” The vagueness of this makes me laugh – that’s like when people talk about someone “from Africa” and you ask what country and you get a blank look in return. #canyounarrowthatdownforme

Google "define:Manitou"
Google “define:Manitou”

It should come as no shock that colonizers would later exploit the area for financial gain; in the late 1800s/early 1900s, the town became a sort of Deadwood-esque destination, but instead of gold diggers (of which there were many here, I’m sure), tuberculosis patients flocked to the springs in search of a cure. Today, historic buildings line the main drag filled with shops selling made-in-China dreamcatchers and stoner art (seriously, there’s a store called Crystal Wizard Gift Shop). To be fair, there are lots of nom-nommy local restaurants and a pretty cool arcade area, but when you live here it’s hard not to feel frustrated that it’s easier to buy useless trinkets at “The Quacker Gift Shop” than, say, a gallon of milk.

Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can't tell - 60-degree day in January!).
Gimmicky shops like this can be found littered across the springs. My kid loves it (the sun is in her eyes so you can’t tell – 60-degree day in January!).

As an indigenous activist, the thing to get used to here will be the weird New Age mystical-ness that always rides the coattails of all things Native spirituality. I’m sure these people mean well (and it seems they propel a lot of the natural tourism that takes place here) but in appropriating our indigenous cultures they completely and utterly dilute our spirituality into something that whitewashes the conversation (and our super-important modern-day issues) and can be damaging and harmful. I haven’t seen it be much of an issue (yet – the Native population here is ultra-low compared to the urban areas of South Dakota), but I cringe – and chuckle – inside every time someone asks if they can touch my hair, where I powwow, and whether I can teach them how to make a sweat lodge (true story!) – and I generally pass as white in South Dakota, so it’s new for me to be the token Indian. I plan to join the local Indian center, so hopefully I can get in on some homegrown Native advocacy and activism. Living here now, I feel blessed knowing I come from a place Native people are driven to protect sacred sites, like Pe’Sla and Bear Butte.

Despite – and perhaps because of – the tourism, the place has a good vibe, and my 5-year-old’s elementary school is across the street from where we live. I’m seriously considering selling the two storage sheds full of stuff that won’t fit in our small one-bedroom apartment just so we can settle down here. There are homes for sale within our budget, but they’re all old and super-inflated, price-wise. Plus, I never want to move again based on how much I hated the last move.

I do love it here. More to come.

An Indigenous Mother’s Perspective on Pledging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Robert Jackson, writing for the majority.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pressed 2. #shocking