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.

Race and Culture (or, a rant about race, pt 2)

Race vs. Culture

Nobody ever really understands what it is. And I don’t blame them. However, people are very comfortable checking boxes. In light of the 2010 Census, and as a series of race, culture, and status rants, I am presenting an argument of race and culture.

I think the first time I ever really thought about this issue was when I was in 7th grade. I distinctly remember a girl telling me “I’m not white, I’m Dutch. And if anybody ever calls me white, I’m gonna kick their ass.” That was it. My mind was blown. She looked white. She acted white. How in the hell was I supposed to know the difference between a Dutch person and a white person if I met her on the street? Little did I know that this was only the first (memorable) of a long series of oddities that confused my perception of race. That is…until I had to check boxes.

In 9th grade I think I finally understood how much of a social construct race was. I was born and raised Navajo. I am DinĂ©. My blood shares the same story as the dirt between the four sacred mountains. But there’s no DinĂ© box. There’s no Navajo box on standardized tests. Only “American Indian/Native American/First Nations/Alaska Native.” So I check that box. And then I thought about that girl from 7th grade. I wondered if she was upset that there was no “Dutch” box. Maybe, but she had to check the white box. So now you can blame the PSATs for my somewhat controversial and slightly convoluted ideas of race and culture. You can also blame the fact that white people never cease to amaze me (as well as acculturated Americans).

Race is a skin tone, not a culture. A culture is a way of life.

In my rantings about race, I’ve often heard what I call the “Irish Argument.” This argument often comes about to counter the presentation that minorities suffered innumerable desecrations and injustices throughout American history. This argument consists of “Well, I’m part Irish, and at the turn of the century they were treated like the scum of the earth.” This is a valid point to make, but does not reconstruct the current institution of how race and racism function. Culturally, the Irish were discriminated against, but racially, they had a leg up since they were still white. And honestly, I think the Irish argument only exists because every other race was not even allowed a part in society. At the time blacks were still slaves (maybe not legally, but practically), Asians were not even allowed into the country (thanks to the Chinese exclusion act), Native Americans weren’t citizens (even though they fought and died in WWI), and Mexicans weren’t even a problem yet. In any case, at the turn of the century, I can guarantee you that if all of those guys were in a room they would hate the white guy the least.

I think subtleties of conflating race with culture exemplify itself in very common conversations that detail one’s traveling experiences. “I walked across Africa.” “I traveled Asia.” First off, Africa is a continent, not a country. I notice in conversations that somehow pull Africa into the mix, people don’t mention specific countries or provinces. People talk about Africa like it’s just one big place, and not a conglomerate of different cultures and governments and tribes. Not to mention that each country has it’s own history of colonization that shaped whatever policies and governments that they have now. I just noticed that that happens more often with Asia and Africa than it does with Europe. Maybe that’s just leftovers from colonial education and our uncanny ability to ‘otherize’ people.

Speaking of Europe – let’s talk about where white people are from. White people, like any person, have stories in their names. Everybody has family trees and a lineage and a homeland. I don’t ask white people if they’re white, we both know that they are, but I do ask where they are from. “Oh I’m part Polish and Dutch and…” That’s cool (also, have you ever noticed that EVERYBODY is Irish on St. Patty’s Day?). But I get different questions – “Are you part Native American?” I say yes (I don’t even bother to mention that I’m full blooded because that comment is normally followed with a tirade of comments filled with mysticism, wonder, odd pride, and straight up ignorance). I realize that I am being asked to racially define myself before I can ever culturally define myself. Oh and blacks! I feel sorry for blacks sometimes because I hear you being just called black – regardless if you’re from the Caribbean, or from Africa (forget people knowing the specific country), or have a lineage stemming from the slave trade. Can you imagine if I said “I’m not Native American, I’m Navajo”? Or if a black man said “I’m not black, I’m Nigerian”? Blaspheme!!

Race is not something I defined, and as a social construct in a larger fabric, it’s not something I can change. I can’t change how racism works, or what it is either. But I think it’s important to notice these subtleties, and to understand the difference between race and culture. Referring back to my previous rant, you can’t be racist against white people, and you definitely can’t be racist against a culture. Prejudice exists in every form of our current system and prejudice does not hurt less than racism. In any case, I hope this clears up some ism questions, and ism arguments. And as always, please feel free to criticize, comment, and question as needed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A rant about race... (pt 1)

So, for some reason I've seen a large number of my facebook friends posting about race lately, and for some reason, I decided to rant. Comment, criticize, and question as needed. Here goes.

Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within power structures. Socioeconomic power structures exist now in our everyday environment. People without power can’t be racist. People without power can be prejudiced, but not racist. Prejudice is something that you own, something that you create and hold on to. The second you let it go and act, then it becomes part of the powers that be. It becomes part of the system that determines whether or not it’s racist. White racism does not exist. There is no power structure in America that does not acknowledge the benefits that a white person has just by being white. The same goes for sexism. Sexism is an ism when a man exerts prejudice on a woman. Sexism is not sexism when a woman hates dick. We just call them FemNazis. There is no power structure that acknowledges the benefits of being a man. And heterosexism. Most people don’t even know what heterosexism is, or that it was an ism. People have an advantage of being straight. I don’t write the rules. I wish I did, but I don’t. Racism is just another ism that does not exist between two people, but rather, it exists within the structure that position two people in relation to each other. Hate has no bounds. Prejudice has no bounds. But racism can ooze down the power structure and muddy up my boots because I know a lot of white people who don’t want to get their feet dirty. And down here we can still hear the echoes of ‘yes master’ and ‘redskins.’ We still remember chains, and long walks, and internment camps, and fences. And we walk carrying a race tax that whites don’t have to pay. My loving and humorous (and white) boyfriend once told me his version of the story of white struggle – “why do we live in the suburbs and we’re still unhappy?” I don’t know. I’m not white. But I laugh anyway. Does that make me racist? No. No, I can be prejudiced. Oh but if only! If only I had that power to be racist. If only I could shoot words into the air and let them get funneled down to echo. The sad thing is that sometimes we get so tired of looking up that we forget about each other. Clawing and climbing over bodies. Climbing over black bodies and brown bodies and yellow bodies and red bodies so we don’t have to sit and wallow at the bottom. We cutting open old wounds with old (s)words. Sometimes we get stuck dreaming old dreams. But we’re not racist. We’re just tired.

Innaugural blogspot post!!


So I've been posting a lot on Facebook lately, but would like to have an open forum about race, culture, and politics that is not limited to Facebook users. I haven't copied the comments over, but would still like to have dialogue. In any case, enjoy (or at least, productive reflection time)!