If You Believe in Anishinaabe
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. The first winter storm of this season has descended on us here in Western Montana and I’m kinda jacked about it. I look forward to these conditions arriving all year, and I’m happy to wave at first sighting, even if it is just a drive by … for now.
For the second time in a month or so I’m in a historic Montana hotel that has made the choice to decorate much of its common area with art and paintings and photographs featuring Native people. I’m sitting in one of those common areas right now, in Kalispell, facing Main Street on a bright afternoon that is also, at 27°, fairly cold. I’m between sessions of talking to high school students at Flathead High School, home of the Braves and Bravettes. Their logo features either the business end of a spear or arrow – the deadly, stabby part chipped from flint or some other stone – but it’s hard to tell which without context of scale. At the beginning of the first class I visited earlier this morning the students watched a charming series of video announcements that ended, abruptly, when they all surged to their feet to recite the pledge of allegiance. That is never not weird to me. Then they slumped back into their seats for the entirety of my time with them and could not have looked more disinterested. But that’s high school students for you.
I’m sure if I challenged anyone about the choices in art, or the mascot, or any of it, the odds of them understanding, or even being anyone who can do anything about it, are slim. The last time I challenged art choices and placement it didn’t go so well. So I kept my mouth shut about all of this this time mostly because I didn’t want to actually hear what I suspect the comments would be, that these choices are supposed to somehow “honor” Indigenous people, or recognize us, or whatever.
I can tell you that none of this – the mascots, the art, the photographs – feels like being honored. I don’t feel uplifted or respected when I look at any of it. I feel deep sadness. It feels threatening, particularly that loathsome pledge, especially in light of what I know of the overwhelming voting habits of this particular community. Native-themed mascots are just repugnant1, unless being used by Native people, and Kalispell is only Indian Country in context with places where Indians have largely been erased from. There is also a vague message being broadcast when all the Native imagery in these hotels is intermixed with images of elk and bears and moose. It’s not lost on me that all the Indian stuff is integrated into a curated diorama that celebrates targets white people shoot at, mostly for sport. I’m a little surprised there isn’t an Indian’s taxidermied head next to the elk and moose ones near me. It’s disturbing and it takes a significant effort to be emotionally strong in the face of it all. The messages being delivered are barely subliminal.2
It feels like life under genocidal occupation because it is.
“The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages ... The rude, fierce settler who drives the savage from the land lays all civilized mankind under a debt to him ... it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and yellow aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
One of the things I love about being in bigger cities3 is the variation of faces and races and colors and languages. I particularly enjoy hearing other languages. I marvel at how I can eavesdrop on a couple, or a small group, of people talking among themselves in one language, then observe them approach a local American shopkeeper or whoever and address them in English, often flawlessly. As Americans we don’t do that so much. We are notorious around the world for, while abroad, the expectation that others speak our language, observe our social and cultural customs, meet us where we are, etc. It is an unconscionable arrogance. I’m as guilty as anyone. The only language I can carry on a conversation in, or express myself in, is English. A woman approached me recently and told me that as a poet she finds she can’t express her connection to the world, or the beauty of it, or something like that, in English because it can’t properly capture the nuance of her appreciation for it. I was with her … until she said to fix this she’s thinking about inventing “her own” language. Which is fine as an art project, I guess, but I was offended. Native languages tied to a land do the job perfectly. She didn’t seem to even consider that.4 I was pretty disturbed by the interaction.5 I muttered something about doing the best I can with the tools at hand and that was that.
Which brings me to my point. A non-Indian friend asked the other day if it’s okay to introduce herself in Salish. I get asked this a lot. Sometimes folks respond to these Irritable newsletters and ask if it’s okay to say “boozhoo” and “miigwech” or any of the other Anishinaabemowen words I share. I say yes, YES, to all of this. Of course it’s okay! Do we not expect our relatives from other parts of the world, from other countries, to use English when visiting here and interacting with us? Of course we do, almost to a fault. We should all do the same then. Not just in going abroad, but in interacting with our relatives here at home, our Indigenous people. Don’t “honor” us with art and mascots. Learn a few words in the languages of the people whose stolen lands you are living on, and then use them too. That is a wonderful first step to truly honoring people, to truly making an effort to connect yourself to the land. Language is critical to that effort. Also remember there’s a fine line between humble bragging and humility. And remember the vast majority of Indigenous folks have few, if any, of their traditional language near to their tongue. Does this practice sound fraught with peril? It is! Nuance and context are abundantly important. It’s really hard and we can’t all stand around stamping our feet and demanding, “Someone needs to do something!”
I used to be shy about using the “Indian” words I learn. Then Stephen Small Salmon, a Kalispel tribal elder from the Flathead Reservation, told an audience I was part of that, “If you know just one word of your Indian language, you say it! You say it with pride!” I’ve taken that to heart. Recently a presenter I listened to who spoke on reviving and teaching Indigenous languages said, “If you only know five words, you teach those five words.” So I’m doing that too when opportunity presents itself.
These are tiny steps, my friends. I hope more of us continue taking them.
My visit to Flathead High School was largely decent, I think. The teacher who invited me seemed to appreciate it, and when it comes to high schoolers I think lending the teachers a helping hand for a couple hours is probably the real point6. How exhausting that must be, day in, day out. I have no idea if I reached a single student but I’m not giving up. Not even on the kid wearing the big belt buckle with a U.S. flag on one side and a Confederate one on the other. Not on the kids smirking and texting each other through the entire program. Not on the eye rolls or guffaws. Teenagers are just … teenagers.
It was hard though not to feel depressed driving home and I did, and I am. Hard not to wonder if all these scheduled events in the coming months and years are going to be worth it, or what the emotional price of it all is going to be. Hard to say. I hit the northern boundary of the reservation and felt a surge of relief which quickly deflated. It’s no more my home than anyone else who isn’t part of that tribe and I wish it was different and it’s not. I wish our collective relationship to the land and each other wasn’t so messed up but it is. I wish colonialism wasn’t so deeply baked into everything and everyone but it is and the only way to do anything about it is one tiny little step at a time. Then another, and then another.
I’m not giving up on the effort just yet, despite all my grumbling and pouting and melodrama. I’m reminded of the kid who reminded me of myself in his Cannibal Corpse t-shirt and pentacle necklace who approached me right before I left and said he was Salish and asked about the meaning of an encounter he had with a crow. I’m reminded of how my heart burst for wanting to give him a better answer than I did. So back to it. There’s too much to be done to give up now on anyone.
Meanwhile, Missoula, bringing it all back to me, this is on the near horizon….
November 10 at the library, doors at 6:30, mayhem starts at 7:00.
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There aren’t any overt racist caricatures of Indian people in any of this school’s stuff that I can find, but the spear/arrow thing is a giveaway of who “Braves and Bravettes” are talking about; it’s a blatant wink and nudge certainly.
Friends, I am going to mention this again, but speaking of the idea of SUBLIMINAL, I have a new poem appearing in the latest Fred&Dan Zine on that very topic, which you may pre-order HERE. All proceeds will be delivered to Access RJ, a California organization that “removes barriers and builds the power of Californians to achieve reproductive justice.” It’s worthy of your loose change! DIG IT.
We lack this in Montana, which besides not having cities of size, is an overwhelmingly white population.
It’s the same gripe I have with white, Western Buddhists and their like. “Let’s see, I’m on land stolen from a people I know nothing about and feel spiritually hollow. So I think that, rather than learn something, either about the original inhabitants or my own ancestors, I’m going to appropriate and cherry pick from yet ANOTHER culture’s spiritual wealth to make myself feel wise and whole. Ommmmmm….” I know that sounds harsh but man am I ever weary of the pretentiousness of self-proclaimed white dude mystics.
Nor did I really say anything to her. Most of you have no idea how well I hide my indignation and irritability in person, unlike on this website.
And she very kindly gave me some FHS swag and a lovely card and I was touched by it and when she asked if I would come back I wholeheartedly said YES and meant it.