Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An open letter to the "Navajo Tribe" of Irvine, CA, and the board of the Broken Lance Native Nations: Ya'ah'teeh (greetings in actual Navajo), Shi ei Stefanie Tsosie yinisnee. Hoonigaghni inshli, Kinyaaani bashishcheem. Bahalii dee nasha. This is my introduction in Navajo. It states my name, my clans, and my connection to the land. I am writing for a number of reasons. First, I would like to thank you for taking down the website. Many friends of mine had first posted the link and we were instantly amazed and appalled. I then created a petition to take the website down. I did not write immediately because I wanted to provide a forum for people to voice their opinion, and I also did not want my writing to be too reactionary, so I thought it best to wait and process the information before sending anything. This letter will also be open and posted. I really want to ask - What do you gain from using tribal names for your groups? I would like to know more about why these organizations feel the need to use this categorization. I ask because I believe you are do so much more damage than good. The behavior and activities are racist and demeaning for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s wildly inaccurate. I looked at the chants and names and "ceremony" on the website and they obviously have no historical basis. Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the site is that the practices seemed to just be entirely made up. I have no objection to the fabrication of activities in order to further family bonds, but to call whatever it is that you do something that already has strong roots and cultural traditions is offensive and absurd. I shudder to think of what a Navajo child thinks while doing a web search and stumbling across this site. This not only causes trauma to our Native youth, but teaches non-Native youth that they are allowed to take the initiate to impersonate other cultures without actually learning about them or verifying historical accuracy. I don't think these are values we would like to promote in an age where we are trying to understand other parts of the world to solve global problems. Secondly, it’s offensive because it strips multiple tribes of their unique identities. There are over 500 Nations in the United States, each and every one with a unique culture, history, and stories of survival. This behavior ineffectively melds them all together. I've noticed the merit badges are a mesh of different tribal identities, some of which are extremely disrespectful (I took a very large personal offense to "medicine man" being nonchalantly used as an official position). The only similar experiences I can relate this to is people melding together all Asian cultures into "Chinese." Or a German dressing as an Irishman and pretending to be British. In any case, it's not ok. Any blatant disregard for our cultural heritage is nothing short of racist despite good intentions. As, from what I gather from looking at a number of ridiculous photos, a group of mostly white (with few Asian) men, you are at the top of the spectrum of power and privilege. Although that spectrum is a discussion for another time, regardless of whether or not you know it or admit it, that is where you are. And any time somebody at the end of that spectrum uses the culture, tradition, or caricature of another without instruction or permission, and for your own personal gains, that's racist behavior. We don't get to choose who we are, but we do get to chose how we treat others. Not only are you allowing grown adults to perpetuate racist behavior, but you are also allowing children to engage in the same behavior when you could really be using this as an opportunity to learn about different cultures and community issues. I challenge you and your board to watch the movie "Reel Injun" (it's streaming on Netflix) and take the time to reflect. There are also a number of readings I could recommend, but they do take time to read and process. Please understand that this does not come from a place of hate. I wanted it to, because it never seems fair that while we live in intense poverty, on land that is targeted for exploitation and environmental racism, in bodies that suffer immense health disparities because commodity foods and heartache, and in fear that our women cannot be safe because they are at the highest risk of sexual violence with an overwhelming number of offenders are white males, that the sons and daughters of our oppressors get to play Indian and take all the good qualities. They get to learn skills of survival without ever having to use them. They get to enjoy taking off the headdress and war paint while we are still fighting for respect. They get to do these things in the guise of willful ignorance or with the preposterous notion that actions are absolved over small periods of time. Unfortunately, the interest of pain gets compounded. No, this come from a place of real confusion. Why do you think this behavior is ok? Or excusable? I created the petition to show everybody how personal this situation is. It's not just a few individual Tribal members, but many. And not just members of the Navajo tribe either, but from all over. And even non-Natives have expressed concern and disgust because they know and understand how large of an issue this is for us. Thank you for taking down the website. However, I have also seen that the Blackfoot and the Apache "tribes" also have websites with inaccurate information. I ask that you take down those websites as well and issue an apology. I would be more than happy to continue this dialogue, and I understand that there are others out there as well who are willing to do the same. Best and Ahe’hee (thank you), Stefanie Tsosie

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Confessions from a Person of Color: Confession #1

Alright, so this came up from a few discussions and personal responses I've received to previous writings. So I've decided to start a series, "Confessions from a Person of Color." These are things that I've always wanted to find a way to express to some white people. This blossomed into receiving confessions from other people. So now these aren't entirely personal to me, but are also things that I've heard from others. The intention is to create dialogue. If you have a comment, you can send me a message personally, or if you'd like to be anonymous, you can post comments at If you'd like something to be included, please write me a message. I will be posting a confession about every week or so. Please share with others and please share dialogue with others as well. Thank you!

Sometimes, the weight of the world really is on your shoulders and you will probably never know what that feels like.

No matter where are, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that people expect you to be a certain way because of your race – whether you’re the exception or the stereotype. And so sometimes how well I do on a test, or where I am in my graduating class, or even the fact that I graduate from high school can put me in separate places in your mind.

And the truth is that sometimes I don’t want to be the ‘one that got out.’ Or ‘the one that fell through the cracks.’ I am not a personification of affirmative action. And I am not an automatic failure. But sometimes the friends get to you and tell you that you’re suddenly too good for them. And sometimes your family gets to you and tells you that you’re the future for them. And sometimes your community gets to you and says you abandoned them. And sometimes the media gets to you and you’re afraid of looking or sounding like an idiot. Every word we say can mean the difference between being Van Jones and Antoin Dodson. We carry those weights every day. Deciding whether or not we’re going to be ‘that black guy’ or ‘just an Indian.’ We carry decisions that have the expectations of entire communities and races of people on them.

And the harsher truth is that you will probably never feel that. You have an advantage that gives you freedom to move within the power structure that permeates this nation. You wonder why not all black guys can succeed like Barack, and why not all black guys talk like Morgan Freeman. You wonder why reservations are so poor and why there are community centers on university campuses. You wonder why we can’t make it. But for us every decision has a consequence, and you will mark those in your mind and continue to wonder why we are so ‘obsessed’ with race. And we will continue to wonder why you haven’t started to think about the consequences of your actions.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thankstaking (or Thanksgiving, if you prefer)

Takesgiving (or Thankstaking)

I am writing this not to bash thanksgiving, but rather out of anxious anticipation of how my rather conservative office will be decorated next week. I spent some time today walking the halls thinking of how I would best phrase my response when I see cartoon images of Indians and pilgrims on the walls. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, one coworker has already broken out the Pilgrim hat. Also, this is available at

First thing is first – I don’t hate Thanksgiving, or the people who celebrate it.

Let me reiterate - I am not against Thanksgiving. Our family celebrates Thanksgiving every year. For us, it is a time of togetherness and a chance to visit and spend time with each other. It’s not like I’m NOT going to see loved ones when I get the chance, right? In fact, I am going to see some very dear friends this thanksgiving because that's what I always do.

No, my problem with Thanksgiving is how people learn about it and present it. You can ask any student in America’s school system about the history of thanksgiving and you’ll probably get similar answers – Indians and Pilgrims had a feast.

First thing – Indians??? All Indians? Or just some Indians? As a follow up to the mascot rant, this rather juvenile portrayal of Indians denies “Indians” any individual identity. How many of you can name the specific tribe that was part of the first “thanksgiving feast”? In teach about, or portraying thanksgiving, there's never any mention of individual tribal identity, which erases us as a part of the story. Just saying "indians" isn't good enough to justify anything.

Second thing – this holiday seems to skip parts that are too ‘harsh’ or inconvenient for people to remember. What happened after thanksgiving? Unfortunately, this story did not have a happily ever after. For some people, thanksgiving may have been the end of Indians in school. Nobody teaches the subsequent Native histories (yes, we all had separate histories) about federal termination, relocation, and assimilation policies. These are experiences that have altered (and in some cases decimated) entire nations. Now we happen to be a halfway remembered, halfway honored race. Somehow we all got erased…until thanksgiving. And then we were erased again and only portrayed as the generic Indian.

Third thing – it just seems to be a way to promote youth partaking in disrespectful imagery of Native Americans. I believe that education and dialogue is the best way to facilitate social change. What bothers me is that we are teaching children a sugarcoated version of Thanksgiving, and having them dress up as generic, stereotypical Indians, and then they reenact it. How can I expect adults to engage in open dialogue when we don’t even teach that to our children?

Fourth thing – I don’t hate thanksgiving. I’m not going to ask people to stop celebrating thanksgiving. I am not saying that people shouldn’t spend time with their families and loved ones. No, I am just asking people to have an open dialogue of how we represent the holiday, how we teach it to our children, and that we all remember ALL of native history and not just the good points. I mean, think about it – it’s called thanksGIVING. But who GAVE? And WHAT?

At home last night I mentioned to my boyfriend, “what if we didn’t have the first thanksgiving?” Well, first off, the colonies would have starved (and the irony is that my boyfriend can trace his lineage back to the Mayflower, needless to say, we’ve had some interesting dialogue). Secondly, the world would be vastly different. People don’t remember that the ships went both ways. We gave potatoes to the Irish. We gave tomatoes to the Italians. We gave chocolate to the French. I don’t regret it.

Often I get responses such as “Well, if Columbus never came we would never have America. You must hate America.” Or, “Well Thanksgiving is a major holiday for families and is significant in American history. You must hate families and America.” I don’t hate America. (Sidenote: More than half of my family serves in the Armed Forces. How can I hate America? Actually, Native American troops played key roles in World War I. They fought when they weren’t even considered citizens yet.) Also, that response shows me that you are trying to justify history. I didn’t ask for justification. I’m asking for understanding and dialogue. Neither of us can change history, but we can definitely change how we teach and talk about it.

Please, let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns. I’m more than happy to discuss what I write, and more than happy to rewrite what I’ve written to fit a learning environment or for you to share. This will also be available at Thanks!

P.S. For those that do share on your Facebook walls, thank you! I feel very honored. However, if you could just let me know if you receive any feedback it would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Seven reasons why I don't like Indian Mascots, and I'm willing to bet there's at least one you haven't thought of before...

Okay. Here is my mascot rant. But it’s not like any other mascot rant. I don’t to chastise or tell you that it just sucks. Rather, I have listed seven facts that will hopefully give some insight into why it sucks, from the big things to the little things. I’m willing to bet that there are some facts listed here that you’ve never heard before, or that you’ve never thought about before, or that you haven’t thought about in this context before. Some of the facts you have heard before, but please don’t get frustrated. I’m writing this for everybody. And, as always, feel free to comment, criticize, etc. This will also be available at Thank you!

P.S. For you Stanford students, this is in direct response to the Fighting Harbaughs shirt. SHARE!

Fact one: we are a historically oppressed people.

The power dynamics that govern contemporary Native America are as old as first contact. Native populations were not only decimated by warfare, but also by diseases that were introduced to the new world. The rapid decline in population only reasserted European belief that they were dominant and able to control, enslave, and massacre the Natives. British, French, and Spanish empires negotiated (or coerced) Natives into compacts that outlined land settlements, resource usage, and power structures. As the “American” colonies were established, the sentiment of control and Manifest Destiny were furthered and the need to break from European practice allowed the new Americans to negate previously established agreements. After the revolution, compacts made by the British were considered null and void. At that point, American governments continued ‘treaty’ negotiations to outline definitions and restrictions for tribes. As American government and land mass expanded, so did their need to ‘deal with’ tribes. From extermination, to relocation, to assimilation – all acts of tribes were at the hand of outside forces.

Even contemporary issues that regulate tribal governments are at the hands of federal regulations. There are even cases where state rights trump tribal rights (even though that’s unconstitutional). Consider this – Native Americans are the only ethnic group in America that need document their blood quantum in order to be recognized by any governmental entity. There are also restrictions for a ‘minimum’ blood quantum to be considered part of a tribal entity.

To say that historical oppression has nothing to do with the current state of Native America is entirely na├»ve. Furthermore, to say that it’s in the past and that we should ‘get over it’ is extremely selfish and does not acknowledge that there is a domino effect to historical oppression.

This all should have been Native History 101, but I felt like it was somewhat relevant and necessary to establish that before I continue. If this IS new information, then please read only two fact two and then stop and educate yourself. Suggested reading: First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History by Collin Calloway, Vanishing American by Brian Dippie, American Indian Holocaust and Survival by Russell Thornton.

Fact two: somehow, in being a historically oppressed people, it became okay to objectify us.

Think about it – when you don’t like somebody one of the things you do is pick out the parts you don’t like or that make you different, play it up, and turn it into some sort of mock adjective. Example (an overly dramatic one, at that): “OMG. She drives me nuts! She is so stupid sometimes! And her hair?? That is SO wrong for her face. Can you imagine?? If I just walked around with my hair like that?? OMG I should do that for my costume this year!!” Obviously, I don’t talk like this. But do you get the point?

Now when we take that behavior and mindset up a few notches, we get more drastic convictions, adjectives, and resulting actions. Genocide and racism works best when you can ‘otherize’ or ‘dehumanize’ another culture or people.

Now let’s take the previous conversation and change it up a bit: “OMG. They drive me nuts! They are so stupid sometimes! And their noses?? That is SO wrong for their face. Can you imagine?? If I just walked around a nose like that?? OMG I should do that for my costume this year!!” Sorry Jews, I’m sure somebody said that in Nazi Germany at some point but with less text lingo.

Now let’s change it again to represent a different holocaust: “OMG. They drive me nuts! They are so savage sometimes! And their clothes?? That is SO wrong for their face. Can you imagine?? If I just walked around with clothes like that?? OMG I should do that for my costume this year!!” Side note – I did see a white girl dressed like an Indian for Halloween this year. I do every year. Did anybody go as a Jew this year? I don’t think so. In my eyes, she might as well have been wearing a holocaust jumpsuit with a tattoo on her arm. That’s how I felt. More native Americans were killed within the first ten years of European contact than Jews in the Holocaust. And neither of us have been the same since.

I think because of our small population and our historical oppression it’s okay to objectify us because we’re not as visible and we are unique to North American culture. We represent something that had to be conquered (and for all some people know, we ARE conquered), that was wild, savage, brute, and untamable for the success of America. So what more do you want as a mascot for your football team? Think of the adjectives ‘wild’, ‘savage’, ‘brute’, and ‘untamable’ and you get…the Redskins?

Objectification had a secondary consequence that affects individual tribes and tribal members more than Natives as a whole – it took away our tribal and individual identities. We take pride in who we are, how we dress, how we eat, and how we live and that is unique to each of our tribal identities. How does a Redskin dress? What does a Redskin eat? You’ve just taken what makes us unique, melted them all together, objectified it and turned it into YOUR thing. Have you ever had your identity stolen? You wallet taken? Or even somebody wore the same prom dress to your prom? Well imagine that, but then make it a million times worse and strip yourself of all the pride you have. THAT’S how it feels. And don’t pretend like you ‘relate.’ The truth is you don’t, and you probably won’t. But at least try and understand and compromise.

Again, if this is new information, stop now. Stop reading, go back and read facts one and two again, find some of the suggested reading, and mull it over a few days THEN come back and read the rest. Suggested viewing: “Reel Injun”, a documentary by Neil Diamond and produced by Charlie Hill. Suggested reading: Honest Injun by Sandra Schulman, and look up some history on the Florida State Seminoles and NCAA mascot business. The Seminoles are unique, but the issue should be addressed on a team-by-team basis.

Fact three: at some point, it became an act of hypersensitivity to overtly react to stereotypical and oppressive images of us.

The Civil Rights era did wonders for American politics and altered the social landscape significantly. People started to realize that it’s not okay to wear blackface and treat people unequally because of the color of their skin. The word ‘offensive’ actually started to mean something and permeate American vocabulary. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start. Somehow we’ve lost that momentum. Historical oppressions can’t be fixed, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be recognized and that they should be forgotten.

Dressing like an Indian is fun again because it was a ‘long time ago.’ What the hell does that even mean?? “IT” was “A LONG TIME AGO”?? What was a long time ago? What is this IT you speak of? I’m right frickin’ here! “Oh, well it’s a joke. You can’t take a joke?” Well, your joke isn’t funny. Remember from fact two when I asked if you’ve ever had your wallet taken? Well, by standing in front of your ‘joke’ it’s like you stole my wallet and my identity all over again. The “IT” your talking about isn’t funny either. Are you trying to say that we are no longer allowed to dress in our native dress because it was a long time ago, and some of us have lost our culture because of assimilation and can’t even replicate our native language, dress, or foods and now that’s funny? Or are you trying to say that the manner in which we used to live, and survive healthily has been taken away and now that’s funny? Or are you making a comment on how you stole our land and our resources and now you can comfortably dress (and afford to dress) however you want because of your privilege that you gained at our expense and now that’s funny? Please, tell me what’s funny, because I want to know. I don’t get your joke. And don’t get mad at me because I don’t get your joke. And don’t sit back and let other people tell ‘this joke’ because you don’t want to offend them. Or you don’t want to seem like the overly politically correct jackass of the group. It’s not a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of respect and I WILL COMMAND RESPECT FROM YOU. I want my identity back.

Is it being hypersensitive to want your identity back? Think about it.

Fact four: that act of hypersensitivity has been internalized, where WE now think it is hypersensitive to react to such images.

In my opinion Natives that condone the use of Indian mascots either: a) don’t understand the history of their people, or b) have internalized their oppression and now find ways to talk themselves out of standing up for themselves, or c) have internalized this sense of hypersensitivity. All answers are wrong. Not that there’s a correct one, but these avenues are not the way to go about changing the status quo. And if we can’t even stand up for ourselves, how can educate others and expect things to change? The simple truth is that we can’t.

Fact five: lack of self-confidence leads to a continuation of internalized oppression.

If I am not encouraged in believing in myself because of your preconceived notions about me, then I will continue to fail at being a productive human being. If revealing a part of my identity to you, a part that defines me, will induce images of tomahawks and wigwams, then it is a hard thing to wear proudly. And if you are not receptive to my requests that you respect my culture, and acknowledge OUR history (yes, you are a part of our collective history), then that makes it hard for me to want to change things.

What you need to understand about this is that this is a DIALOGUE. Seeing people dressed as Indians for Halloween isn’t conducive to a dialogue and makes me think that this is a one sided conversation because you have silenced me from your ears. Your dominant narrative has demonstrated that dressing like an Indian is funny and you don’t have to listen to me. That takes away self-confidence, and takes away my power as an individual. Again, you’ve stolen my wallet.

One thing that I ask all white allies, and other people of color to understand, is that this generation of Native youth is unique in historical and contemporary perspective. The 1900s was an era of Indian assimilation. Most of our parents and grandparents were encouraged and sometimes forced to forget their culture, their language, and their traditions. They had been removed from their traditional lands and taught that they were bad because of where they came from. They were taught to not be proud of the color of their skin and the length of their hair. They were told that they would not become anything in life if they did not abandon their culture.

And most of them did.

What if you parents continually told you that you couldn’t be anything because of who you were, and not because of your ambition? Again, I don’t expect you to relate, but I expect you to at least try and understand.

Fact six: continued internalized oppression leads to divisions within communities, rather than equipping them with the tools they need to be successful as self-governing and self-sustaining cultures.

This is a whole separate rant, but I had to put it in here. If you’d like to know more about this, please contact me.

Fact seven: lack of education leads to a continuation of intolerance.

I can’t expect anything to change if I don’t continually talk about it and advocate for myself. Also, since the current power dynamics includes a variety of peoples and populations, I can’t change anything without including EVERYBODY in the dialogue. I also can’t expect anything to change if you don’t help me. You can help me by talking to others and spreading awareness. You can even help me by asking questions.

You can share this rant.

You can also talk to me about this rant, and if you’d like to share it but you think one of your friends won’t understand something then let me know and I will rewrite it for you.

If you think your friend doesn’t understand a certain type of language I used, or a certain concept, then I will rewrite it. I want to make sure that all of this is accessible to everybody.

Thank you for your attention and let me know if you have any comments, questions, or just want to chat. Thanks!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Views on White Allyship from a Person of Color

Here it is. I've had some people ask me before about how white people can help with anything. This is what I came up with. Enjoy!

Rule number one: Step off.

Sometimes I think it’s nearly impossible for some white people to just chill out and not lead any groups, not spearhead any activities, or to not go out and teach people the ways of whatever culture they just learned about. We don’t need that. WE can do that. That’s what we WANT to do. Rather, you’d be much more helpful by just sitting back and stepping up when we ask for help. 500 years of colonial leadership got us in this situation in the first place, so why would we want that same power to lead our movement for community empowerment?

Rule number two: Ask people directly about what you can do.

Instead of telling others what they should do, or expressing opinions on how communities can fix themselves, why don’t you ask THEM what THEY NEED. You’d be surprised to know that most communities already know what they need and they know what makes them thrive. We don’t need 5,000 copies of Ayn Rand that you collected from your whatever drive (although if it’s a cold winter, we’ll take them!). My suggestion is to find an organization or community you’re interested in and care about and contact them to see what they need. Don’t approach communities with your ideas because they’ll probably get shot down. Also, keep in mind that ‘your part’ can be big or small. Some communities may want you to attend a rally, or to gather resources for an event. Others might simply ask you to help them by changing a part of your daily routine (ie. don’t shop at this store because the owner is doing x, y,z). Those types of contributions are okay. As long as you asked, and as long as you follow through, your contribution will not go unrecognized.

Rule number three: Don’t get butthurt.

You will be excluded from some things. You will feel left out sometimes. You will get made fun of and laughed at sometimes. But don’t get butthurt and say we hate white people and we’re racist.

It’s not racist.

And if you don’t understand that, then this isn’t the first thing you need to be doing to help out other communities. Instead, you need to educate yourself on race and power structures. Unless you do that first, you’re doing everybody a disservice. Please understand that although you are an integral part in helping communities get recognition/sovereignty/rights/resources, etc, you are not a part of the grassroots constituency served.

Rule number four: Don’t go blabbing to your friends about how cool you are because you’ve joined the ‘movement.’

It’s not your movement. It’s our movement. And don’t join it to impress other people. We expect people to be committed. Not only to whatever movement it is, but also to education, empowerment, and understanding. People that blab are the ones that set up ‘Warrior Camps’ and ‘Sweatlodges’ and think they ‘Know the way of the Indians.’ You may appear to be cool to your friends by wearing your ‘spirit object’ around your neck, but to us you just look like a jackass. The other thing that happens when you start talking to other people, is that sometimes people get misconceptions and don’t fully understand what community empowerment is. See rule number five.

Rule number five: Refer interested people/parties to the organization or community itself.

The second biggest problem to white people taking over movements started by communities of color, is white people speaking on behalf of those same communities. First off, it makes us look like we can’t speak for ourselves, which is just offensive. Secondly, we want to be the ones to finally educate others properly on issues that we think are important. Why would you take that away from us? That would take us back to square one. Thirdly, this always leads to bad news. Like whities dying in sweat lodges constructed out of noxious plastic.

So whether it’s a media representative at a rally, or an inquiring friend, ALWAYS refer them to speak with a representative from the organization/community. We know how to tell our stories best.

Rule number six: Educate yourself and be aware of your surroundings.

If you don’t understand something, just ask. Most people are more than willing to impart knowledge of why they’re pissed at something.

Also, pay attention to where you are and who is around you. And don’t pretend like you’re ‘colorblind’ or ‘you don’t see race.’ That’s bullshit. Even if you don’t see race, it sees us and it impacts the world whether we like it or not. Being colorblind is one of the most selfish things you can do. Feel free to question who is around you and always be aware of that. Ever notice that sometimes you’re the only white person in a room? How about if there are no people of color in a room? Yeah. We notice those things all the time. Now try and think about why that is. It’s okay to recognize privilege and that you have some. We don’t hate you for that. We just don’t like it when you don’t recognize it. Practice run - Why are there no or very few people of color on a golf course or ski resort? I’ll just leave that at that. We’ll see how you do on figuring out the rest.

Rule number seven: Be persistent.

Power structures and institutions cannot change without everybody involved. Thank you for your help, but it’s a long fight. Be persistent and enduring.

I’m sure there are more subtleties to the rules. And there may be amendments later. This is just a start. Please feel free to comment, question, share, whatever. Thanks!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why I dislike New Agers as much as the Cleveland Indians....(or, I have no idea what an 'american' is)

Pre-emptive note: Please let me know what you think defines an 'american,' because I really have no idea...

The Politics and Implications of Traditions

I have always pondered (and I’m sure a lot of people have) what America is, and what defines an “american.” The book “Playing Indian,” by Phil Deloria (Vine’s son), was recently recommended to me. Although not as powerful as his father, he further articulates that “american” identity lacks any structure. I have always thought that American identity is best defined by outlining what an American is not. For a long time I thought that this personal definition stemmed from my personal beliefs and assumptions of having a positive identity. I am not american, I am Navajo. At least from this reading I now know that these speculations about american identity have been pondered by others.

The rhetoric of american identity is even more important in this time of “change.” People are using the american identity to discuss politics that cater to an ill-defined section of the population known as “americans.” I am not equipped to ponder such questions and outline any semblance of an answer, but I challenge others to do so.

During this self-reflection and in my course of readings I am continually reminded of a social, political, and very personal struggle for Indigenous communities – the belief and imposition that any Native American culture must have a tradition that has been stagnated in the late 1800s to be considered ‘authentic.’ I think this is a result of a century old brew of 2 parts otherization (both savage and noble) of Native Americans, 1 part white guilt, 1 part ignorance, 2 parts paternalism, and ½ part of New Age fascination. If you take out a tad of white guilt this is also a great mix for Native American appropriations.

“Playing Indian,” among other writings, detailed the need for early american settlers to delineate Native American tradition in order to create a solid sense of otherness and to help solidify what america is not. The result was not just centuries of political oppression and social exclusion, but also a stagnation in the actual physical definition of Indianness. The colonial definition of what Indianness should be has survived and still permeates contemporary thought of identity. Personal experience has shown me that the general population has no idea that Indians still exist, and have no concept of an Indian identity – except for the colonial one taught in schools. If I only had a dollar for every instance where somebody told me that I was the first Native American they had ever met, or asked if I grew up in teepee, or requested dollarstore spiritual advice, then I might not be in the mountain of student loan debt that I’ve accrued further colonized my education.

American Indians have never had the chance to define American Indian identity to the majority of the population. We have always had tribal identities but nobody ever asks us what they are. I think in some ways we’ve been so brainwashed that we get confused about who we are and what we’re allowed to do. I have asked people what they thought Indian art is. I once put together a slideshow of art (all made by Indians) and asked people to identify the Indian art of the presentation. Alarmingly, people disregarded art that did not explicitly have Native American motifs or themes. Few were courageous enough to ask if the artists were Indian, and those that did classified all the art as Indian art. This showed me that even in our freedom of expression we are circumscribed within a colonial definition of what Indian art should be. Politically we can’t decide what an Indian should be. I’ll leave the blood quantum debate for another article, but there’s no denying that the institution of blood quantum is a colonial imposition.

We have been fooled into thinking that we can’t determine who we are, and who we should be. We have been tricked into believing that Indianness and authenticity is not allowed to evolve as the century progressed. I’m not sure which is worse – that the colonial definition has been internalized or that it’s been taken and is now used by people who genuinely what to be Indians.

I have seen a fair share of white people dawning turquoise jewelry with southwestern designs, Pendelton vets, and leather pouches around their necks. I have overheard one too many stories of sweatlodges and vision questions, and spirit animals. I once had a white roommate lead a ‘weekend warrior training camp’ for men. So weekly, I would see a hoard of middle aged white men with their leather pouches come into my house and smudge themselves. One weekend I learned that they held retreats that culminated in sweatlodges, and each new inductee received their leather pouch containing ‘a sacred Native American object.’ Of course, when they all first met me it was a mix of awkward awe and I tried so hard to bite my tongue (after all, it was actually a really nice house). In between sessions or on casual evenings they would talk Feng Shui or overseas trips or spirit water or any one of their sheddable identities that they carried around like keys on a keychain – unlocking compartments of ‘others’ that could be a quick fix to their emptiness. It pained me. No, it sickened me. It made me want to believe in the Ghost Dance so that they could vanish and leave these sacred things behind that they carried like toys. Not only did they buy into the Native American colonial definition, but they appropriated it to the extreme for ‘spiritual healing.’ They perpetuated the idea that our traditions should not evolve and they added money into that definition. They capitalized on traditions and teachings that they don’t own (which is one of the core definitions of colonization).

The glaring contrast of New Age appropriation of Indianness is best exemplified by the Cleveland Indians. It is the savage side of the colonial definition of Indian otherness and is one of the hardest monsters of offensiveness to take down. Although, it is always amusing (and ironic) to hear the phrase “The Indians are Winning,” because such declarations don’t happen in real life. I don’t entirely understand why there are not more people that find that symbolism ridiculously offensive, but now I realize how much of it has to do with the early colonial definitions of the Indian other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that supporters of Indian mascots are also individuals that place a lot of effort into the concept of ‘moving on.’ The phrases “oh, that was in the past,” or “oh, don’t blame me, those were my ancestors” would be more powerful if they held any truth. If they want me to not be angry and to let go and move on then WHY WON’T THEY LET ME? Why do they limit the definition of who I am and who I can be? Then again, maybe circular logic is how Columbus got lost in the first place.

The difference between New Age spiritual warriors and real Indians is that New Agers have the luxury of shedding that identify whenever they wish. The rest of us are left here to create divisions amongst ourselves. The rez Indian versus urban Indian battle is one that I don’t know how to tackle. Although I think the one thing that we can all agree on is that we want to find ways to better our communities. The ‘how’ is the tricky part. I think that in many ways we are getting better at finding the balance between maintaining and recovering parts of our culture that are important to our survival and progressing in a way that best suits the needs of our people. We are not stagnant. We should not be held to colonial definitions of an ‘other.’ We are not your mascot and we are not your savior.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why I'm sooooo glad that Avatar did not take home best picture (or, a rant about race, pt 3)

I can’t even express how THRILLED I am that Avatar and District 9 did not win best picture. For starters, the script is not original at all. Avatar could have been easily named “Dances with Aliens,” or “Fern Navi,” or “Eywa Talkers.” The novelty is that Avatar found a different way to “otherize” a race. Avatar could have been a great movie if it weren’t masked in colonial propaganda, which was then masked in faux environmentalism. The colonial layer is the fact that a white male (ex-military, no less) still gets to be the hero ON ANOTHER PLANET WITH ALIENS. The white guy gets to “go native” and “be one of them.” He feels drawn to and encouraged to have two lives. Lame. Although Avatar may have shown energy hogs for what they are (heartless beasts without any concern for populations affected by their energy harvesting), it doesn’t seem to have sparked any fits of environmental passion. Nor does it explain what environmental justice really is.

Don’t get me wrong, I would definitely watch this movie again for the visual effects. What startles me is it’s popularity for the storyline. I have started to ask myself – why does this same movie keep getting made? It’s not novel, it’s not super intriguing. Half of the time it’s not culturally appropriate. Why is this interesting??? It’s only interesting because it’s not normal. What disturbs me is not that it’s not normal, but rather an examination of what is considered normal. It occurred to me that you don’t see movies where people of color get to “go white.” Not because it’s not as stressful or dramatic or trying or shocking as “going native,” but because that transition is considered normal. That is what is expected of us. People don’t want to hear about assimilation into dominant culture because it’s a story we’ve been forced into for hundreds of years. For a long time we even tried really hard to fit in because it was the only way to survive. That’s the disturbing irony I see in the success of Avatar.

I’m glad Avatar didn’t win best picture not only because the storyline sucked, but also because it has the potential to inaccurately alter the discussion of race relations in the media. I read an article about people suffering from the “Navi Blues” after seeing the movie. These are people who sink into depression because they long to live on a planet like Pandora – undisturbed, pristine, and wholesome. But this isn’t new or any different from places we have today that are under indigenous control. No, I think the allure sits in a different kind of “other.” We are bored of the kinds of “others” that are human. We are not interested in the conflicts between various races or cultures that actually exist today. No, we are bored of that. We want humans vs. aliens and now risk losing out on valuable discussion concerning actual race relations. I am still wondering when the same storyline will get old. Maybe movie critics can to me why the dominant narrative is still so popular. Then again, maybe it won’t and we’ll be stuck seeing the same colonized plot on different planets. Boring.