I come from that endless water on the coast of Washington where the lilacs bloom against the sand that stretches forever, and it is mossy and wet and seaweed tangles like Ursula’s tentacles in the Little Mermaid. I come from the oyster people, the clam people, the ones who were born schooning on the Bay, the Cedar people, the Plankhouse people, from loggers, from laborers, from blue-collar rez rats with a penchant for crafting beautiful things with their hands. We are a people who know who we are, and a people who keep that to ourselves. A secretive people, perhaps. Yet, after all has been said and done, a proud people.
That pride is in my blood, and perhaps it is true of my people that the righteous indignation that comes with seeing one’s culture stolen, bastardized, and appropriated comes young, when the Indian child first sees a red-skinned cartoon with a big nose smoking this or that phallic peace pipe and wearing wampum beads and jerking a tomahawk up and down behind it (the cartoon’s) back while ahh–wa–waa-waaa-waaa-waa-ing with three fingers of the right hand rhythmically tapping the lips as they emit a soft howl, like a wolf pup just learning the direction of the moon.
So this is what the world knows of me – I am a wolf pup, a howler, a girl born with lips suckling the edges of a proverbial peace pipe, because all Tribes are the same, right? All Indians come from one standard pot of Indian. Same feathers, same designs, same war howls and ghost dances.
So now the story of my life is living with obtuse white folks perpetually saying ignorant shit, and the societal pressure for me to respond with grace and decorum at every microaggression, and look, cut me some slack, it gets old. In my MFA program, I hear and read stories written by non-Natives in which they depict the Indian in the same “Noble Savage/Heathen Indian/Little-More-Than-An-Animal” way that mainstream media has been pushing on us for years. They do this in the name of historicity, stating, “Oh, I was just telling the true story of that region.” But as writers, we get to decide how to frame stories. You can choose the media’s representation of the Indigenous, or you can look beneath the redface and find the truth.
As the only American Indian in my Native Lit class, I have found myself all the more sensitized to ignorant remarks. I won’t go in detail here, but what gets my goat is when I share from my lived experience, and my opinion is taken as just that – opinion – no more true or valid than Susie-whatsherface who’s never been to an Indian reservation in her life and wouldn’t know the Blackfeet Tribe from the Blackfoot Confederacy if either of them kicked her in the face.
But, with issues of appropriation in a professional environment, like school and work, the onus to be cool always seems to be on me. I have to manage racism gracefully. I’m encouraged not to call a spade a spade. The person acting gracelessly is never the individual writing the stupid story about the Savage Injun, it’s me saying, “Why did you frame the narrative this way? And what the f**k do you think you know about Indians? You wanna see a bitch bust out a tomahawk, we can take this outside right now…”
My rage is sensical. But my excuses for those colleagues and students who are foolish are many. “They didn’t know.” “They’re ignorant.” “Calling them ignorant doesn’t help or solve anything.” “This is a learning environment, and they’re learning.”
But what about my learning, and the learning of other Native people like me? What about my little brother, who’s been dealing with this crap since elementary school. I remember him coming home from the first grade with people having said things like, “If you’re Indian, why are you wearing a shirt?” And what about my sisters, whose very textbooks tell a colonialist narrative that does not accurately reflect the genocide of the Americas, but rather, paints the Indigenous as obstacles in that Manifest Destiny that ruined the West?
The fact of the matter is that it’s not my job to educate, and I’m really tired of being so f**king civil all the time to arrogant and pretentious people who believe they know the truth about Native America when they don’t even recognize the land on which they live is Indigenous. And sometimes, I feel really, really angry. And, if it seems like I’m judging or looking down on people for their neo-colonialist bullshit, then it’s because I absolutely am.
Lately, I just keep my mouth shut. Some would say that I should speak out, anyway – but if my voice isn’t valued, then why bother wasting emotional energy? Besides, I’ve gotten the impression that when I speak out, I make things awkward. I shake the system up. I don’t understand the context in which racist remarks and illustrations are being made, and I confuse everyone with my anger.
Some would say that I should speak out, anyway. But I’m not going to force myself to share in a hostile environment, in an environment that doesn’t care that I disagree with how minorities are represented. Art for art’s sake is the key, and the means to that end are, perhaps in the minds of some, negotiable and justified in the name of staying True to that divine and higher self, the self that appropriates, the self that misrepresents, the self that steals. The White self.