Archives For September 2010

On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City

The white woman across the aisle from me says ‘Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old, ‘
as she points out the window past me

into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories

whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. ‘Walden Pond, ‘
the woman on the train asks, ‘Did you see Walden Pond? ‘

and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,

the city I pretended to call my home. ‘Listen, ‘
I could have told her. ‘I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born

and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and father hadn’t come here in the first place

then nothing would need to be saved.’
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice

back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out

another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time

somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.

 –Sherman Alexie

(Poem found here)

AK thoughts: Bree posted this in the comments on my post yesterday on activist fatigue and daily interactions, and I was so taken aback by the relevance and power. Especially since I live in Boston, and I deal with the “there is so much history here!” comments constantly. I do have mixed feelings about Sherman Alexie sometimes, but then there are moments of clarity and realness in his work, like this poem, that remind me why I loved his pieces in the first place. So, I found strength in knowing that even the arguably best know Native author out there struggles and deals with these feelings, just like me.

(Thanks so much Bree!)

Yesterday morning I walked into my 7:15 am “Total Body Workout” class at the gym, laughing and joking with my friend. As I turned to get my hand weights and mat, my gaze fell upon a girl in the class…wearing this shirt.

I sighed and wrinkled my nose, but turned back to my friend to continue our conversation. A few minutes before class started, my friend whispered “Did you see her shirt?! Wasn’t that on your blog?” I nodded in response.

As class went on, in between sweating through sit ups and lunges, I kept catching her reflection in the mirror behind me. Each time sent a twinge through my stomach, a quick moment of discomfort and unease. I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her how I was feeling. But the problem was, even in rehearsals in my head, I couldn’t think of how to go about talking to her about the shirt.

 In the grand scheme of images on this blog, this particular shirt isn’t that bad. I mean, I can easily sit here and tear it apart–how it represents a stereotype, how the cartoon-izing (I think I just made that word up) of the headdress takes away from it’s sacredness and power, commodifying it and making it into a mass consumer good, how the blank, empty space where a head/face should be is representative of decontextualizing the headdress and separating it from the people and places where it belongs…but anyway, it’s not an image of an Indian holding aloft a beer bong, or a severed Indian head, or any number of other blatantly racist images. She wasn’t wearing a headdress. She was wearing a shirt that she probably bought at Urban Outfitters without a second thought.

But, as I’ve talked about so many times before, these seemingly benign images have just as much power to create and perpetuate negative stereotypes as the blatantly racist ones. Because of all these images she’s seen and encountered in her life, she probably never would have thought that the dark haired girl struggling with push ups in front of her was a Native person who might take offense to her shirt.

So, you’re probably wondering, what did I say? What did I do?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Even I, who day after day on this blog can spout the reasons why continued cultural appropriation and misrepresentations of our communities are wrong and harmful, couldn’t find the right words to tell an undergrad why her shirt is hurtful to me. 

Not that I’m always silent. I once made a Harvard student in an Indian costume at a local pizza place almost cry when I confronted him, and another time at a football tailgate I physically ripped a headdress off a huge guy’s head and stomped on it in the mud, after he wouldn’t take it off when I asked nicely (That technique is NOT recommended).

But it’s often the daily encounters, the seemingly minor interactions, images, and subtle messages that give me pause. Do I call out every classmate that substitutes the word “powwow” for “meeting”? Do I rip down every indie band poster advertising their latest gig with an image of an Indian? Do I tell the girl in the headdress shirt at my gym class that her shirt hurts me?

Some days I do, some days I don’t–or I can’t, or I won’t–it’s a combination. Because this work gets tiring. It’s a never ending battle, and some days I’m too tired to fight.

My friend’s solution? She thinks I should make up business cards with my blog address on it, so I can just hand one to the offender and say something like “I think you should check out this blog, it might give you a reason to rethink your shirt choice.”

So I’m curious–since I don’t purport to have all the answers, I’ll turn it over to you, readers. Do you have any techniques for dealing with these daily interactions? Do you have a way of approaching someone that cuts defensiveness and allows for your voice to be heard? Stories of encounters with hipster headdresses?

I do have a few techniques I fall back on, but I think it’s time we have a step-by-step “how to” guide for dealing with these incidents. So let’s generate some thoughts, and I’ll compile it all together.

Next time, Girl with the Headdress Shirt, I’ll be ready.

(listing here)

Reader Leah passed this one over via Facebook, it’s an Ebay listing for a “Miller TOMAHAWK Beer Tap Handle”. I’m guessing the whole concept here was Miller–American Beer–”Real American”–Indians. Or something like that. I’m also a fan of the labeling: “Tomahawk…Peace Pipe…War Ax.” Um, I’d say “Peace Pipe” might be the outlier there. Here’s the listing on Ebay:

On a serious note, associating Native peoples with alcohol is very troubling, given the legacy of alcoholism and alcohol abuse in our communities. The “drunken Indian” stereotype is one of the most harmful and still pervasive images of Natives in our society, and having a beer tap drawing that connection is definitely not helping the issue.

Other things to draw your attention to: The ebay store is called “Da Man Cave” (I wouldn’t expect anything less, since we all know “manly”=”warrior”=”Indian”), and then there is this great disclaimer at the bottom of the page:

***EBAY DISCLAIMER:  This item is a replica and NOT an actual historic Native American artifact***

Really?! Historic Native Americans didn’t make beer tap handles?! Mind. Blown.

Better hurry, grab your $175 dollars, and bid away…there’s only 15 hours left on the auction.

Listing here: Miller TOMAHAWK Beer Tap Handle

(Thanks Leah!)
(My Cherokee-style basket I made in Tahlequah!)

Labor Day weekend was the annual Cherokee National Holiday in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (the capital of the Cherokee Nation). When I used to work in Native recruitment at a university out west, my travels brought me through Oklahoma fairly often, but since I’ve moved to Boston I hadn’t been back to visit my family in a while–so the National Holiday offered a great excuse for a trip.

The weekend proved to be incredibly powerful and really transformational in a number of ways–it became much, much more than just a surface-level visit. I went to stomp dances, learned a lot more about my Cherokee history and family, and left feeling so proud and so connected to my community. I’ve been trying to put my feelings and experience into words, so I’ll put that up as soon as I feel comfortable with it. Then, on Sunday, I had the chance to meet up with filmmaker Sterlin Harjo for coffee and a chat. Post forthcoming on that as well (got the scoop on the New Moon Wolfpack Auditions video)!

So because the weekend became much more about family and community, I actually only managed to snap a few pictures throughout the weekend. Here they are:

This is from the “State of the Nation” address in Tahlequah on Saturday, that’s Deputy Chief Grayson and Principal Chief Chad Smith up on the stage. It was really interesting to hear about all the cool things going on in CN, and they gave out some community awards and had performances as well. They also had a huge, yummy (and free!) feed in honor of Wilma Mankiller afterward. I also stood next to Wes Studi, who was trying to be all covert in a hat and sunglasses, but I spotted him right out! No picture of him, unfortunately. I chickened out.

One of the cool things about Tahlequah is that all the signs are bilingual–even the big storefronts like Bank of America. You can see me in the reflection (hi!).

Here’s one of the street signs–Choctaw Street, in Cherokee.

Behind the main courthouse square, they had stations where you could learn some traditional Cherokee crafts, practice some Cherokee language, use a blow gun, and even play stickball. I made a basket (which I am exceedingly proud of, I even ordered supplies when I got home to make more!), and these cute mini-stickball sticks, which I would totally hang from my rear view mirror…if I had a car:

That’s my Auntie’s house in the background (like the Indian art?). Finally, I’ll leave you with this awesome bumper sticker that I saw at the Cherokee Heritage Center:

True that.

In addition to these random pictures, there was also a powwow, an art show, and a million other cool events throughout the weekend. It was so neat to see so many Cherokees in one place, and it just really had the feel of one, big, family reunion. I’ll definitely be back!
So stay tuned for a post about the more personal side of the weekend, as well as my interview (slash conversation with a tape recorder) with Sterlin Harjo!

 (Wado to Marcus for making me promise I would go!)
(link to article here)
Notice anything distinctive about this posting from Jezebel this morning? Please direct your gaze to the upper righthand corner of the photo. See the hash tag? Here, I blew it up for you:
Yes, that says #trailoftears. Trail of Tears. The forced relocation of my ancestors, where they were unlawfully and forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast and marched over 1000 miles, in the dead of winter, to what is now modern day Oklahoma. Over 4,000 of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey died along the way from exposure, hunger, and disease. 

The Trail of Tears was also unlawful in the truest sense of the word. Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation took the case to court, fighting for the right for his people to remain in their homelands, where they had been for thousands of years. The Cherokees argued that as a sovereign nation, the state of Georgia had no right to enforce a removal within Cherokee territory. The case worked it’s way up through the court system, ended up in the supreme court. In a series of decisions, Justice John Marshall and his court sided with the Cherokees, stating that only the national government had the right to intervene in Indian Affairs. To which President Andrew Jackson reportedly stated:

“John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”

With the signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, Jackson took matters into his own hands, authorizing the removal of thousands of Native people from throughout North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama. 
To put this in perspective, this is the mid 1800′s. The Cherokee Nation was a successful and prosperous community, with large plantations, farms, schools, printing presses that produced books and a newspaper in the written Cherokee language, a literacy rate exponentially higher than the local white community, and a system of colleges that educated members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (I hate that term) in a way that incorporated both mainstream and tribal education traditions.
The federal government sent in troops to enforce the removal, and without warning, they swooped into these communities, burning homes, killing livestock, and removing families without even time for them to gather belongings. They were then rounded up into concentration camps where conditions were squalid and supplies limited, and then forced to begin their journey.
My great-great-great grandparents came over on that journey, a time that is called Nunna daul Isunyi in the Cherokee Language–The Trail Where They Cried. 
So, Jezebel, calling Megan McCain crying over her dad picking Sarah Palin as his running mate a #trailoftears? You are dismissing the pain and legacy of my community’s genocide–and that’s not something I take lightly. 
UPDATE 9/15: The #trailoftears tag is still there. On the day the post went up, I tweeted my thoughts on the tagging to Jessica Coen (@JessicaCoen), the Jezebel editor who authored the post, and received no response. Later, I tweeted this post, and again received no response. I received numerous emails from Native Appropriations readers who said they emailed the editors, and they received responses from the site ranging from “complaint noted” to “thank you for your response” to “dissent noted”. There are also multiple comments on the Jezebel post expressing concern over the tag, and then there is this comment thread: (complete with the typical “stop whining” troll) that exhibits the thoughts of some of the Jezebel readership. 
Am I surprised they didn’t take the tag down? Not really. Jezebel is not exactly know for sensitivity about issues pertaining to race. Of course it’s still upsetting and frustrating, and the most annoying part to me is it seemed like such a simple fix–something that they could have gone in and corrected with little fanfare and no one would have been the wiser. I know it’s embarrassing to get called out when you eff up, but, I’m sorry Jezebel, ignoring the issue isn’t gonna fix it. This may seem small and inconsequential to you, but these are my ancestors and my community, and the way this was handled does nothing to restore my faith in how people of color are treated on your site.   

Indie Hipster frontman Christofer Drew Ingle of NeverShoutNever, who apparently has an aversion to his spacebar, has decided to sport a huge warbonnet and breastplate in his newest promo shoot.

The picture is emblazoned across the band’s myspace, but was also used for several days on the general myspace music homepage, advertising a live Never Shout Never concert stream. Reader Erica sent over that image:

Then, back on the band’s myspace page, they’re using this image of a headdress-wearing buffalo to promote their upcoming concerts:

and finally, in their new video for cheatercheaterbestfriendeater (again with the spaces), they have this whole upside-down chin thing going on, and one of the “characters” they use? An “Indian.” With warpaint and everything:


I have about 8 bazillion more examples in my inbox of indie bands who use Indian imagery in their promotional materials, but I thought this one was interesting since it hit a fairly mainstream audience with the myspace music homepage promotion.

So, for the inevitable NeverShoutNever fans who stumble over here and wonder what’s so wrong with dressing up like an Indian, read this post: But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

But if you’re as adverse to clicking links as you are spacebars, here’s the cliff notes version:

Headdress wearing by non-Natives promotes stereotyping of Native cultures. It collapses 565 tribes with distinct cultures, traditions, and regalia into one stereotypical image of a Plains Indian. There are few tribes that actually wear headdresses like the one above. It places Natives in the historic past. We still exist and are still Native, but we don’t walk around in headdresses everyday. Headdresses are reserved for those given deep respect in Native communities–chiefs, leaders, warriors–and they have to be earned. It is offensive to see the frontman of a band wearing a headdress, implying he is on equal footing with these honored tribal members. Also, this practice is not “honoring” Native Americans. At all.

(Thanks Micah and Erica!)