This is a guest post by Jennifer J. Carroll. Jennifer is a medical anthropologist who researches gendered identity and drug addiction in Ukraine. She is currently earning her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Washington. She also holds an M.A. in Sociology from Central European University and a B.A. in Anthropology from Reed College. She can often be found talking with her college students about the social construction of power, explaining Bikini Kill to her mother, and accidentally cursing in public. See more of her work (edited for cursing, not for riot grrrl lyrics) at www.jenniferjcarroll.net.
I realized something recently. I realized something about rights, about oppression, and about voices—specifically, Native American voices.
I can already hear some of you exhaling in thought, shuffling through your memories, trying to recall a recent incident, a story in the news, a connection between this post about Native Americans and current events. There isn’t one. There isn’t one because stories of Native American hardship don’t get told very much. While headlines do occasionally appear, most people have never heard of the abject poverty suffered in Attawapiskat, or the imprisonment of five Makah men for their participation in a traditional hunt, or of the state of South Dakota essentially kidnapping Crow Creek children from their community. Many of us carry out our lives completely unaware of what is going on just miles away from the communities that we know.
There is a woman at the university where I work (a Mohawk woman, if that matters) who begins every presentation she gives with a verbal acknowledgment that our university and all of the institutions that support it are occupying stolen lands. When I first learned that that she did this, I would roll my eyes every single time I heard it. “Oh dear lord,” I would say to myself. “Yes. Yes, it happened. Yes, it’s very sad. Yes, it’s still an issue. But what does it have to do with your power point presentation about library resources?”
However, at some point along the way, and despite my iron-clad cynicism, it occurred to me that my annoyance was precisely the problem that this woman was attacking by bringing the issue up over and over again. I, myself, am Native American—genetically, at least. I grew up with an Irish surname in a North Texas suburb and have no connection to the Illini community that my family came from. If you like, I could tell you the stories about how my grandparents inter-married, about how my family lost its cultural heritage somewhere along our way to mostly-white, middle class comfort. I could also tell you truly devastating stories of other “mainstreamed” Native Americans I know–people whose families were viciously marginalized for their Native heritage, whose grandparents had to pass as white in order to get a job, who had their whole history swept away in a hush so that they could get by in this prejudiced world. Knowing this, you would think that at least I would have had some sort of sympathy for what this woman at my university was doing. But I didn’t—a lot of people didn’t, and that, I now realize, was precisely the problem.
Where is the appropriate place to discuss the past and current marginalization of Native Americans? When should that happen? Where should it happen? I contend that there are no honest answers to these questions, because the questions themselves assume that their relevance is dependent on the social or political context. They assume that these things might matter, but, then again, they might not—and I just don’t believe that to be true.
After a year of hearing my colleague openly acknowledging the theft of First Nation lands, I came to the realization that everything she does is relevant to this issue. There is not a day of her life in which this reality does not define her, does not define her social life, does not define where she, her family, and her friends are living, does not affect the mental health of her community, does not affect how she perceives herself in mainstream culture, does not affect the tools that she has at hand to get through her day, to advocate for herself, to know her language, to stand up for their land against the state. It is always and everywhere relevant. And perhaps the biggest barrier that stands between Native Americans that are still struggling against active oppression and having their voices heard is the willingness of people like me to roll my eyes and ask, “But what does that have to do with this?”
I have stopped rolling my eyes, and I have started telling all of my undergraduates the same stories that she has told me. I think that the “question” of Native American issues and rights is still hugely important today. Unfortunately, the vast, vast majority of Americans live in settings where we don’t ever come face to face with the reality or consequences of those issues. We know it through Sherman Alexie books and “Twilight” movies. Race and class grant many of us the privilege to not have to know these things, to not have to see these things. They begin to seem less salient, less contemporary, less real.
That’s at least what happened to me. I guess I can’t really speak for anyone else. Living in a part of the country where First Nations are actually dense enough and populous enough to have any sort of a voice at all has caused me to fundamentally change the way I approach the issue of Native American rights, Native people, and Native voices—and I am very glad for it.
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Don’t want to learn about Native American life and politics from the “Twilight” movies? I can’t say I blame you. Here are some other, very excellent places to start:
“Brave Heart”, Maria Yellow Horse. 2004. The Historical Trauma Response Among Natives and Its Relationship to Substance Abuse: A Lakota Illustration. In E. Nebelkopf & M. Phillips (Eds.) Healing and Mental Health for Native Americans: Speaking in Red. (pp. 7-18). Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press.
Read it online!
Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1969. Custer Died for Your Sins; an Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan.
Read it online!
Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1994. God is Red: A Native View of Religion. North American Press.
Read it online!
Mihesuah, Devon A. 1996. American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press.
Read it online!