Tag Archives: tribal

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!

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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.

Major shade thrown at Washington DC NFL team; The Daily Show, South Park weigh in on racist name & indefensible positions

Did you catch The Daily Show tonight (the link takes you to tonight’s clip)? Or how about South Park yesterday (or its teaser earlier this week)? A few months ago, John Oliver did a nice piece using the National Congress of American Indians #ProudToBe video.

When parody TV takes notice (well, let’s be honest: When popular white folks take notice…) it’s downhill from there. It’s nice to have allies, but what was so great about tonight’s Daily Show segment was it used real, live, honest-to-goodness Native people on the show. #concept

Dan Snyder and his racists R**skins are going down. Just a matter of time.

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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.

Wrongs in Whiteclay

Alcohol has been a volatile subject in Indian Country since explorers and settlers and sneaky land-stealing government officials introduced it during expansionist efforts of yore. Recently, the Oglalas of Pine Ridge, S.D., one of the nation’s poorest areas and a dry (alcohol-free) reservation, filed a lawsuit against major breweries and alcohol distributers for abuses suffered primarily at the hands of establishments operated in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

A brief, if incomplete history:

There have been theories and proof the indigenous peoples of North America enjoyed mind-altering substances (peyote, anyone?), although those studies show the substances were utilized as spiritual tools, and generally came from the natural world.

For most of Western society, alcohol in its various forms has been enjoyed through the ages, giving those populations unique, evolutionary advantages in absorbing the effects and processing the sugars and yeasts and hops and whatnot (#notabeerconnoisseur). Native people, by comparison, were only very recently introduced to Western spirits, and it’s never enjoyed a positive place in our histories.

In the past, alcohol meant tricking Natives into signing over land rights and creating dependency. Today, it means much of the same, except that dependency has yielded to family destruction and death; studies show 1 in 10 Native American deaths are alcohol-related.

What’s Whiteclay got to do with it?

You need to put Whiteclay into perspective. It’s a town with a population size equal to the average age of Justin Beiber’s fanbase. Don’t let its small size fool you, though: Whiteclay sells about $5 million worth of alcohol annually. How is it possible for the towns four or five businesses to sell hundreds of cans of beer each week? The answer is its proximity to the Pine Ridge reservation (and by “proximity” I mean less than a stone’s throw away; someone can blindfold you, spin you, and send you toward Whiteclay, and you’re gonna have no problem pinning the tail on that donkey) whose largest town is within walking distance of Whiteclay. Since the reservation does not allow alcohol within its borders, people who want to imbibe must get their drink on elsewhere, and Whiteclay = easy access. Let me be clear: the town of Whiteclay exists solely to sell alcohol to the people of Pine Ridge.

That’s not free-market economics, folks; that’s predatory and abusive practices. Businesses in a whiter world are punished for less. Alcohol companies are targeting Pine Ridge – there’s no other way to say it.

And yet sadly many are saying it in other ways:

  • This is the Indian’s fault.
  • No one is pouring the beer down his throat.
  • I was an alcoholic for X years and I stopped on my own without blaming the beer companies.
  • They should focus on 12-step and recovery programs, not lawsuits.
  • If it’s not Whiteclay, those Indians will go somewhere else. We don’t want them here.

I’ve seen and heard other comments, but these seem to be the thoughts on most people’s minds. They are legitimate statements, for the most part, if you’re comparing Pine Ridge and its inhabitants to any other town or population (and if you’re a racist bigot, but that’s another post).

Disparities, Disenfranchisement, Disease – Oh my!

And there’s the rub. Indian people and reservations are unlike any other place on Earth. We are not simply a racial box to be checked on the Census sheet; we are socio-political, sovereign entities, and our relationship with the US government is akin to being an unwanted ward of the state. We are very recently conquered nations that have been allowed to continue a separate but equal way of life while enjoying the comforts and progress of Western civilization. Our numbers once reached into the tens of millions; Native Americans now account for less than 1% of the total US population, while our spiritual leaders and fluent language speakers account for much less than that. The efforts to bring our tribes to near-extinction are emblazoned in our hearts – all Natives are genetically wired for historical PTSD.

Sometimes, knowledge (and experience) of this trauma drives Natives to seek stronger, better lives. This happens in many forms, both on and off the reservation. Good on them! More often than not, however, this trauma repeats itself in a cyclical fashion. The disparities faced by Natives across all areas means the potential for continued trauma is greater than for non-Natives. It’s just so pervasive. Unemployment, poverty, education, disease, and other areas are so affected by trauma that each compounds upon the other to create suffocating conditions. To put it another way: Most people deal with poverty, and that’s it. Or just disease. Or a lack of educational opportunities. Sometimes people will deal with a combination of one or two issues, but they still have direct access to infrastructure, resources, and political ears. Natives deal with three or four or five issues at a time. It’s not just diabetes, but depression and alcoholism and a dropping out of school. It’s hard enough to dig your way out of one issue; try digging your way out of five. To make things worse (yeah, gets worse), Natives often live in geographic isolation, making access to resources difficult, if not impossible. Then, there’s political limbo – local and state officials and authorities are often reluctant to assist Natives as we’re under federal jurisdiction. A common refrain from state representatives here in South Dakota is “Why would we put money into Native programs when they can get the money from the Feds?” (BTW – there’s not a lot of – if any! – federal money funneled into social, academic, or employment programs, so the above excuse is BS.) Don’t get me started on fighting crime – money from Washington is often shoved in the direction of the tribal police force; that’s not bad per se, but what happens after the arrest? Take into account also that on the Pine Ridge reservation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, 50-some tribal officers patrol the borders — down from over 100 officers in years past. To say there is a lack of resources would be the understatement of the century.

And there’s no holistic approach to overcoming all these issues Natives face. There might be a 12-step program, but the nearest therapist to help you deal with depression and suicidal thoughts (suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American youth) is a three-hour drive away and you don’t have a car because you’re unemployed – no one is hiring in your small town (90 percent unemployment rate in the nation’s poorest county, Ziebach, which houses my reservation, Cheyenne River). And, statistically speaking, you probably also have diabetes or some other disease, which probably means your outlook isn’t at 100 percent and that you are also dealing with the underfunded, bureaucratic behemoth that is Indian Health Service. So while non-Native people may experience all of these issues on the surface, Native health issues (specifically addiction, disease and mental health) are compounded and often treated as separate, stigmatized problems that need “dealing with” versus total healing. A brilliant medicine man recently spoke at the Sioux Falls Diversity Conference here in Sioux Falls talking about holistic Native health care. Donald Warne, MD, MPH, called it the “Indian Health Trifecta” in which the patient is experiencing the three major health issues faced by Native Americans: diabetes, depression, and alcoholism. Because of the way the US health system operates, these three issues are never treated wholly or in conjunction with the others. What happens is the person never truly heals, and because of the compounding nature of these three boomerang-type issues, the individual is, in a word, screwed.

Not the Same Thing; Not the Same Ballpark; Heck – Not Even the Same Sport!

Saying, “Oh, it’s the Natives who have to stop – no one’s forcing them to drink,” is an overly simplistic and presumptionary stance to take. Because, really, they are being forced to drink. The news reports and lawsuit describe how people pay for their alcohol with their bodies, with SNAP (food stamps), with… anything. Alcoholism is a disease and you can’t hold people suffering acutely from any disease accountable for actions taken when they’re under the influence. You hold the people who sell the beer accountable, because they’re selling to people already intoxicated, or knowing full well they can’t afford it, or abusing/raping women, and they’re selling knowing full and well the majority of people purchasing the alcohol are heading back into a DRY reservation (dry as in prohibition – no alcohol allowed). This is what we call PREDATORY! Think about it: Our country went through similar issues in the 80s and 90s when health advocates began blaming cigarette manufactures for cancer-related deaths, accusing them of targeting and advertising to at-risk populations, like teenagers – who couldn’t even legally purchase cigarettes in the first place. If our communities can summon the energy to ban smoking in public spaces, surely we can band together to figure this out…?

What’s Left?

Beyond all of this – and I’ve only grazed the surface of all the issues that should be taken into consideration – what else is there to do? Where do you go if your back is perpetually against the wall? Desperation makes heroes or idiots of us all and at this point, what does Pine Ridge have to lose here? Children are dying – being brought into this world with brains befuddled by fetal alcohol syndrome. Men and women and families are drowning in alcoholism and its pervasive effects. Something needs to be done. Is this the best way? I don’t know. But it’s action, and action is needed. To those who mock or bemoan this particular action I say, “YOU do something, then.” Because chances are, you’ve done nothing.

I applaud the tribe for trying.