Tag Archives: reservation

With A White Gaze Upon Us

Camera zooms in on a white guy with shaggy hair and casual clothing talking seriously to an elderly Lakota woman. He smiles brightly, formerly braced and now straight teeth gleaming in the light of a setting sun.

Narrator: What we’re seeing here is a real treat! The grandmother may look weary of this man’s offer to take pictures of her takoja, but with our special mic, we can hear how he promises his photos will help the outside world see her struggles and want to help her. How exciting! The Great White Savior is in his natural element, stalking prey with his most potent weapon: Good intentions.

I put this together - I'm not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don't sue me.
I put this together – I’m not selling it, not profiting from it. Just all in good fun. Please don’t sue me.

A commenter on this blog wrote recently:

Hi, I know this is not directly related to your blog entry, but I’d be really interested to hear your perspective about Aaron Huey’s work with the Pine Ridge Community Story Telling Project and his TED talk stuff. Do you think this is a more representative approach, or is he just another white guy doing well off other people’s stories? – Sunshine

I thought I’d answer as a post, since this is (unfortunately) a consistently relevant topic of discussion. In fact, I was just having this conversation on Facebook with a friend the other day. Because his documentary, “Honor the Treaties,” was released to a worldwide audience a few days ago, Aaron Huey’s Native-inspired works (and his skills as a photographer aren’t being critiqued here, folks; he’s obviously a talented artist) are making the rounds on social media again. Good question/topic, Sunshine. 

Yes, in my opinion, Huey is another of those Great White Saviors [GWS] who (1) rides onto the reservation with privilege and a colonial lens, (2) takes some pictures or makes a movie showing surface culture and poverty, (3) receives praise and notoriety for his efforts, and (4) leaves. This isn’t to say GWS folks like Huey and Johnny Depp (yeah, let’s drag him into it, too), aren’t good people. They probably are (I’m nowhere near cool enough to warrant a meeting to judge for myself).

But being a “good person” with good intentions is one of the overarching characteristics of the typical GWS. Yet as many people smarter than this blogger have noted, intentions aren’t worth crap if your impact isn’t measurable and/or worthwhile to the communities you claim to be helping. It’s one thing to bring attention to reservation plights, quite another to profit from it in some way (movie tickets for Depp, a National Geographic/TED spot for Huey, or even TV ratings for Diane Sawyer) without doing much about the problems you’re “bringing light to” in the long run. Again, it’s about impact, not intentions. This is where Huey (and others) fall flat.

The other issue here is that these stories (positive or negative reservation issues) belong to Native Americans. Really, what I love most (not really) about people like Aaron Huey or Diane Sawyer or Johnny Depp is that they talk about Native issues like they’re experts, and people EAT THAT ISH UP!!! Like, “Whoa! Huey said the government hasn’t honored the treaties! Shit just got real.” Or “Diane Sawyer is a true journalist exposing the poverty of reservations. Glad people know about it now.” WTF?!? Why is this news?!

“Revelations” like these are super-frustrating for those of us on the ground, and when some stranger can walk in, point a finger, get some publicity, and walk away from our very real issues it’s like a kick to the gut, and a reminder of how little we rate. The United States has been encouraging and perpetuating third-world conditions on reservations (South Dakota and elsewhere) for more than a century! This isn’t news, folks! It’s everyday LIFE for people, and privileged talking heads just keep getting (taking? hemorrhaging?) more and more out of the daily struggle of people just trying to survive.

These are our stories to tell, and while getting attention from Hollywood or TED or ABC can be a nice boost, the end result isn’t usually all that beneficial or useful to Natives. And, of course, what we’re missing when non-Natives tell OUR stories is balance. Huey and others focus on selling the poverty porn of reservation life, how broken our homes and spirits are. But we are not broken; we struggle – no doubt – but we are strong, and the outside world would know that if we could share our stories on the same platforms available to the GWS.

Beyond this is the fact that some of these stories are not meant to be shared outside a certain sphere. Huey, in particular, took many photos of Lakota ceremony that should never be recorded; that his excuse is a tribal member allowed him to do so tells me he doesn’t care about our community, only his end product. Make no mistake: This is cultural rape in its most basic form. Filming or photographing ceremony is a violent and abusive way of stripping our culture of its spirituality and pureness. One indigenous cosigner does not consent make.

Back to the original issue of Huey doing good work in Pine Ridge. The short answer is: He’s not. Disagree? Please, tell me – using tangible examples – how Huey, Depp, Sawyer, or any other White Savior Industrial Complex sideshows (Teach For America, church mission trips, etc.) have created lasting impact on our reservations…? How have their pet projects changed anything for the better? Maybe one or two or a hundred people can say their lives are better for having their picture taken. Maybe. But I think it’s the people who work with and among Natives day in and day out their entire lives who will be the true, (often unwritten) warriors and heroes in all this. Everyone else is just a voyeur getting off (and getting popular or even rich) on the desolation of our communities. Natives must be their own sovereigns and saviors. Help (attention, money) is great – but it’s on us to make it better in an appropriate and respectful way.

End Note: I’ve linked to her in this story, but please check out Lauren Chief Elk‘s Tumblr, “Life Returned” (scroll down to April 14 to read her take on Huey, then follow her on Twitter via @ChiefElk and @SaveWiyabi). She is the epitome of indigenous (and feminist) activism and advocacy. I learn something new everyday just reading her Twitter feed and guarantee you will, too. 

RIP RieLee, Baby

It’s hard to hear or read about violent or unavoidable deaths of children; their demise is unnatural, unfair, and heartbreaking. For me, as someone who has always loved and connected with children, and now as the mother of a near 4-year-old, it brings out raw emotion: a burning behind the eyes, constricted throat, wrenched guts, and flushed skin. Like I’m losing all my children.

The story of RieLee Lovell, a 2-year-old, has been especially hard to absorb. Published photographs show a beautiful Native American child still full of life. She was found dead, it seems, by other children, more than a day after it’s said she probably died. Folks are pointing their fingers at her caregivers, who were recently charged in RieLee’s death and are accused by community members of being drug addicts. Other folks on the comment boards of news organizations are pointing at the parents, the tribes, and Native American savagery. They point at everyone except those reflected in their mirrors.

But we are all to blame for RieLee’s death, and other children like her. The all-encompassing We condemn youth like RieLee and their families to their fates every day.

It’s not enough to say RieLee’s parents or caregivers – who so obviously need professional help for their own problems – are solely at fault. I am not saying they hold no blame. They surely do. But I wonder: What resources were they offered for the problems plaguing their family and community? What were their circumstances, historically and presently? This is the vicious cycle all people in poverty, but especially Native Americans, continue to be devastated by. There is no greater victim, no person more hated and outcast, than he of circumstance. It’s easy for those of us keeping our financial heads afloat to cast squinty scorn upon demographics we feel should be able to simply “get over it.” Like it’s easy to pull yourself out of five or six generations of poverty, or easy to overcome institutionalized racism or privilege. For most – especially children – it’s an impossibility.

Lots of folks scoff at this. I hear from judgmental people all the time about how they changed their own destinies through hard work and dedication, yadda yadda. I don’t want to downgrade or make light of anyone’s success – heck, by most accounts even I should be a stereotypical down-and-out Indian – but I contend success (lots of it, anyway, if not most) isn’t determined by the work you do. It’s determined by factors beyond your control, like paler skin pigmentation, male genitalia, generational financial legacies, the right side of the train tracks, whether you can fake a smile or not, and a sturdy network of people who know people. That last concept could very well be an answer to many of the problems children in poverty face: If more structured and “successful” adults compassionately and appropriately mentored youth, we’d see a great shift in the structure and success of at-risk kids.

Unfortunately, Americans surround themselves with protective bubbles to keep isolated from Undesirables. For non-Native people living in states like South Dakota, those bubbles are known “Reservations.” We value individuality and independence, and disregard communal efforts of living among fellow human beings. When those two value systems collide, as they often do for Native American people torn between traditional family/spiritual structures and capitalist consumerism, you get stories like RieLee’s, whose parents felt leaving a toddler with chemically dependent young adults was the best caregiving option they had to choose from while they “worked through a rough time in their relationship.”

How proud are we to live in a society that promotes ME versus US? (Sad pun, and ironic when you consider RieLee died at the height of our country’s Fourth of July celebrations.) Why didn’t WE provide RieLee with a world where her parents could receive adequate couple’s counseling without having to drive three or four hours to see a licensed therapist? Why aren’t there well-funded treatment facilities located in communities devastated by meth and alcohol? Why is our state government debating the merit of Bible studies in schools and not elementary, middle and high school budgeting courses to pull the next generation out of poverty? Where the fuck are our priorities, folks?! We could demand these things and more from our government leaders (many of us do). But helping the underdog isn’t in our nature anymore.

And kids like RieLee die.