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Light Winds From the North
With high scattered clouds
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Boise, Idaho, to give a presentation at a conference there. Idaho is a beautiful and weird place. Politically it is one of the worst states in the country yet there remain many people fighting the good fight and the vast majority of my encounters were friendly. Still, seeing gigantic “Ammon Bundy for Governor!” signs is a bit surreal. And, after a summer of events surrounded by Indigenous people, to get out where I felt like the only one in the world was strange. Had I forgotten what that was like? Maybe. This post is something of a snapshot of those three days; the events, encounters, and reflections that occupied some of my time. I hope it’s interesting. It seems maybe a little weird to me.
While some speaking gigs can be lucrative, opportunities like this particular one don’t contribute much to making a living. Subscribers to this newsletter make it possible for me to get out and about and make sure Indigenous perspectives are heard anyway. If you think there is value in that, or value in anything going on here, please consider a paid subscription. There will be another “for paid subscribers only!” post coming in less than a week, I promise. That one will be another photo essay from wanderings around the lands of my relatives to the north – The Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes.
I’m stranded in Seattle longer than anticipated. The airport is in chaos, and I think my fellow travelers and I spent more time on the tarmac at SeaTac waiting for a gate to park in than we did in the air from Missoula to Seattle. Most of us missed our connections; I certainly did. Waiting for a customer service rep to get me a later flight (it took forever but she was friendly and kind and it wasn’t her fault), my attention is diverted by a commotion in the hallway. Loud hollering and clapping headed my way. It is a procession led by a short, stout woman in a TSA uniform shouting and swinging her arms as she walks. Her scowl doesn’t look celebratory and I swear she is looking straight at me when she loudly demands, “Show your respect! World War II and Vietnam vets coming through! Show your respect for their service!” In her wake are a number of old men accompanied by young men in navy uniforms. I don’t pay that close of attention. Without moving I just return her stare, and probably her scowl, as she passes.
It’s maybe not my best moment. I don’t have a problem with vets. I’m glad these men survived. I’m sorry they ever had to go anywhere. I do have a problem with the way our country has been force-fed this cult of celebration around our armed forces. Another facet of our society – teachers, health care workers, et al – that we like to talk about how important they are but do nothing to take care of them. Even Indian Country fetishizes the military and its veterans. Indians, per capita, volunteer for the service higher than any other demographic, and we make a big deal over our veterans. They carry our flags. If there isn’t a veteran to carry a flag, what happens? I don’t know.
We haven’t survived as Native people because (mostly) young men with scant opportunity went away to die for the nation who only ever tried to kill their ancestors. No, I think our aunties and mothers and grandmas should be carrying our flags. They are the ones who have done more than anyone else to keep our culture and language and families together and should be celebrated for doing so. The U.S. military has never done anything for Indian people beyond piling our bodies in mass graves and continues to do nothing but sow more sorrow and trauma in brown communities around the world. I won’t be forced to clap and grin for it. This probably isn’t a popular opinion, even among my people, of whom many have larger beefs with the armed services than I do. Worshiping the militarized arm of our oppressor is no way to establish and strengthen our sovereignty. This worship is an ancient form of tribute, only instead of crops and livestock and treasure, it is blood and bodies. We aren’t warriors defending anything. We are cannon fodder for the wealthy elite.
The Challenges of Privilege
I arrive to my hotel late and sleep late the next morning. I wake hungry and in coffee crisis. I know there is a Panera Bread on the corner between my hotel and where the event is being held so I plan to stop there during my walk over. Except the Panera lobby is closed due to staffing and I’ve missed the conference breakfast. The hotel one too. So I huff and puff and I sit down at a metal table outside the store and download the stupid Panera app. It doesn’t go smoothly but I make it happen. Then I can’t find where I am supposed to pick up this carryout order because all the doors are locked. I follow another woman in a similar situation in walking up to the drive-thru window. The staff inside look worn-out and confused. Eventually I get what I ordered and I find myself back at the patio table with two – yes, TWO! – large iced coffees and a mediocre – yes, MEDIOCRE! – breakfast sandwich. It’s a beautiful day though and I linger and feel my happier mood swell with the accumulation of that cold, delicious beverage.
It’s not lost on me that I am a mere two generations removed from ancestors who were among the last people to hunt wild buffalo on the plains and yet I am nearly undone by recalcitrant convenience technology and a couple locked doors. I have a long way to go on my spiritual journey, don’t I?
On arrival to this weirdly twee conference center I have a brief meeting and chat with the woman who will assist me, handle my introduction, manage interactions from the zoom audience (it is a hybrid conference with people attending both physically and virtually), etc. She is friendly and kind and I like her and my good mood is magnified. It’s sunny outside! There is a plate of cookies and no one around to see me take more than my share!
Not long after I arrive it is lunch time and we sit at a table with a couple other folks in a big room full of other tables and other folks. One thing that strikes me as odd is that at every turn there’s someone with a bar code reader wanting to scan everyone in and out of everything via the bar code on their name badge lanyards. I don’t even put mine on and when asked for it to be scanned, I go full Bartleby and say, “I prefer not to,” and nothing bad seems to happen. I’m mostly grateful I don’t have to wave my hand in front of the person’s face and say, “I’m not the Indian you’re looking for….”
The lunch address is delivered by an actress/filmmaker/celebrity who is active in the community this conference is centered around. She comes from a storied, troubled family history and her address is personal and emotional and I can dig that. It’s also rife with person of privilege rhetoric. I don’t want to dwell on that, it’s pretty typical, but what finally gets up under my skin is when, while describing all the spiritual traditions and inferred silliness she’s tried on her way to “healing,” she flippantly mentions sweat lodges as if they are something ridiculous. From there, she describes how her epiphany about herself comes after she has a personal meeting with the Dalai Lama. That’s when I get steamed.
With lunch over and 90 minutes until my presentation I retire to a quiet table outside and rewrite my presentation. I’m supposed to talk about the Little Shell Tribe, and generational trauma, and disenfranchisement, and the usual stuff. I include that. But I also include clueless celebrities taking shots at Indigenous traditions that have served as healing for thousands of years, not so unlike the stuff the Dalai Lama tends to spout. I talk about occupied land. I talk about gigantic banks. I get emotional and a little worked up and I don’t know if it is the presentation they wanted or expected but it felt more like the one they needed. It is a small breakout session and I am disappointed that I didn’t get to address the entire conference but that’s probably my ego as much as anything. I don’t know that anyone really heard what I had to say anyway but maybe they did. It’s frustrating. I came away feeling like if I hadn’t been there, no one would have spoken for Indigenous people at a conference right in the heart of Indian Country. It's possible there were other Native speakers there, I don't know. I didn't see any.
I didn’t go to the evening social event. I walked around downtown instead. I went to a bookstore. I ate a pizza alone in my room. As the hour grew later I looked out at all the lights of the skyline and wondered why they all have to be on all the goddamn time when the night sky is so utterly beautiful. I started writing this newsletter.
At the Boise airport I’m early for my departure so there’s no line to wait in as I approach the Delta ticket counter. The smiling middle-aged woman asks for my ID and I hand it over. She looks and her smile turns to puzzlement. “What kind of ID is this?”
“It’s a tribal ID,” I say.
She positively beams. “Oh, wow! I’ve never seen one of these before!” She calls over a co-worker. “Have you ever seen one of these?” she asks and hands him my ID. No, he hasn’t either.
When I have my ID back she’s still eyeballing me and continues to smile. “I have a story I want to tell you,” she says. I assure her I’m eager to hear it.
It’s the “my great grandmother had Indian blood” story so many of us endure hearing. In this case I’m not learning of any kind of Cherokee princess – she doesn’t even say what tribe – but in this instance her story is set in the early 1900s, when “everyone wore big hats with lots of feathers.”
When great grandma arrives at “the office where they were giving Indians land” she was not allowed any because “her hat had too many feathers.” A true story? What do I know. I’m just supposed to think it’s funny or something, I don’t know.
This dovetails into a story now about grandma who, when grandpa proposed to her, “said she couldn’t marry him” because she had Indian blood. Grandpa laughs and says, “I don’t care, I have Indian blood too!”
The woman relating these tales to me laughs and laughs. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think. Did I miss the joke? I know I’m not the sharpest arrow in the quiver and I just want my boarding pass. Then the woman and her co-worker proceed to tell me how so many Indians denied their identity, heritage, etc. and I guess I should be grateful for the education bestowed on me by these white people simply because I announced who I am with my Little Shell ID.
“That used to happen!” the co-worker tells me with wide eyes and I just want to say it’s still happening but instead I just walk away.
At security there are two agents checking IDs and boarding passes. I hand my ID to the first one. She looks, frowns, then hands it back and informs me they don’t accept it. I hand it back and assure her she does. She hands it to the other agent who also frowns and says no, she doesn’t think they take them either.
“It’s a tribal ID,” I say. “It is accepted as federal identification because we are a sovereign nation,” but they aren’t listening to me, they’re still discussing with each other how they’ve never seen anything like it. My skull is beginning to pound. Finally one goes down the line to another agent who takes one look and says, “Yeah, we take those. We take all tribal IDs.” I nod and say thank you. I am on my way through security.
I stop at a bench and gather myself. It may seem trivial but it’s not. Or maybe I’m just tired. Maybe those agents hadn’t seen a tribal ID before and it’s not their fault but they are so used to being in a position of power over travelers that they never considered they could be wrong, under-trained, whatever the excuse is. I’ve used my ID many times all over and never had a problem before, and it’s not like there aren’t Indians in Idaho.
What’s hard is that expressing ourselves as Indians opens us up to all those bullshit stories about great great grandmas, Indian blood, defending the legality of who we are, etc. Being erased from conversations unless we risk being made asses of ourselves by standing up for ourselves. It’s watching one of two white guys in your presentation get up and leave halfway through and choosing not to shout, “Yeah, and don’t come back either, Chad!” It’s having a discussion of Native lit in an essay online that includes a photo of “books by Native authors” that aren’t books by Native authors and nobody in editorial took two seconds to look and say, “These aren’t Native authors.”
I think this is a struggle for anyone trying to swim upstream against the dominant culture and it isn’t exclusive to Indians. So many relatives face the struggle, and there is so much struggle. It sucks.
I made it home weary and disillusioned, but only for a while. There was another beautiful night sky, and an even more beautiful morning. I know things could be a lot worse, and so many have it worse than I do.
It’s just exhausting sometimes.
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Whatever that is, I’m a $50/event guy who still gets jacked at $500/events.
I think. I honestly don’t entirely recall what I ultimately said once I went off script.
Don’t get me wrong, there are few people in the world I respect more than the Dalai Lama, if any; it’s the “I’ve been a Buddhist ten minutes” people regurgitating his perspective that rile me up.