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