Our Own Pulse Beats
In every stranger's throat
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. I am grateful to have you here reading this newsletter. I am grateful for the interactions, the community, and especially all the comments you contribute in response to the stuff I write. I am grateful for those of you who take the time to write me directly too; I am grateful for all the perspectives I am exposed to just because I decided to start writing.
Truthfully, though, it is becoming more difficult to keep up with a lot of it and I feel guilty when days stretch and, in particular, piles of emails go unanswered. I feel it necessary to say I read everything I get, but I likely won’t respond in a timely fashion, and it’s possible in some cases I may not at all. I do my best, but in the event I can’t, your understanding is appreciated. I have edits on my book to finish and that is a challenge. I receive correspondence related to all the other things I cobble together for my living and keeping up with all that is a challenge. Trending Luddite in a technological world is a challenge. Everything is a challenge, really. Especially when I just want to sit and watch the birds, or ramble off into the woods somewhere. Sometimes I do too well living up to the sticker I have taped to the bottom of my computer monitor. I’m sure you can all relate.
FYI, my next post arriving later this week, maybe early next, will be a photo essay of sorts for paid subscribers from my main stomping grounds, Council Grove. If you aren’t a paid subscriber and don’t want to miss it, now is your chance. Or maybe you know someone you think would like to participate in such things? Here’s a chance to act on their behalf too! Your generosity, as always, is deeply appreciated.
The other evening I ventured into the barbershop I frequent for a beard trim in preparation for a public appearance immediately following. The woman who has performed this monumentally odious task for me for several years now is wonderful. She’s even been known to wrestle my hair into a braid for me, as she did the other night. She’s friendly, but also peaceful and quiet. Sometimes we chat a little bit, but mostly we just share those moments together and it’s cool, each of us content with our own thoughts. I always feel better when I leave just from having been in the vicinity of her state of chill. It’s also this quasi-meditative experience largely because I know her well enough that I’m not in a constant state of near freak-out over being touched by a stranger.
This time was different. Rather than zoning out on my own head trip I found myself listening to the conversation between the barber working the next chair over and his customer. The barber and his wife seem to have bought a farmhouse or something overseas, and the two were chatting about it. I don’t want to ramble on about this, but I found myself getting irate because the customer kept going on about how, except for on the east coast and during the initial founding of the country, the U.S. doesn’t have any real history, nothing interesting, etc. the way Europe does. This is a terrible paraphrase but close enough and I was getting pissed and arguing with myself over keeping my mouth shut or not.
I’ll say this: You can blame the specifically terrible ways our history is propagandized in K-12 (and beyond) education, but to be an adult in 2022 and not have some serious questions about what you have been spoon fed your entire life about where you live means you are either utterly devoted to the most willful kind of ignorance or you just don’t care. Does the “Black Lives Matter” sign right at his eye level mean anything to this dude at all, for better or worse? It’s all out there and it takes a mere tug on a single thread and everything unfurls. Everything. All the terrible. To choose not to do this betrays a staggering degree of entitlement and privilege and I’m pretty damn judgmental about it. The guy had a mask on but he seemed young. There is nothing more stupid than a young guy who thinks he’s smart. I essentially was that guy twenty-five, thirty years ago. Sometimes I still am, I just don’t have the excuse of youth going for me anymore.
So I just sat and seethed and took that angry, frustrated energy into my event, which was an online celebration and fundraiser for the Freeflow Foundation. It seemed to go okay but it’s all just kind of a blur to me now and I hope I didn’t make (too much of) an ass of myself.
How to confront these situations will be my daily struggle. Should I have spoken up? Maybe. The guy wasn’t outright attacking anyone, he was just being a dumbass. Chances are he is a dumbass in a multitude of ways. It’s really on that other barber, the person having the conversation with the ignorant dude, to set him straight, but he seemed blithely unaware of where all the wealth of the country he is about to expat to comes from as well; we are talking one of the major colonial villains of the world. It’s all complicated … but then again it really isn’t. We need to confront this shit whenever it raises its head, and I feel I failed in doing so. Next time. Because if there is one certainty in all this uncertainty, it is that there will be a next time. If not from the barber’s chair, then somewhere else.
“When we dare to face the cruel social and ecological realities we have been accustomed to, courage is born, and powers within us are liberated to reimagine and even, perhaps one day, rebuild a world.” — Joanna Macy
Speaking of my beloved Freeflow family, here’s an opportunity for you: a workshop called SHIFT. SHIFT is “a five-week online interactive workshop series focused on building creative community, reconnecting with process, and addressing the question of how we use our art and words to catalyze positive change,” facilitated by Chandra Brown, the Director of Freeflow Institute, herself! This is an excellent workshop series and not just because I’m one of the guest speakers. The lineup is amazing! Chandra is amazing! Learn all about it HERE. If I could spare the time I would sign up myself and I’m not kidding. I might anyway. Enrollment is ending on December 31st, which is coming up quick. This is an excellent course and will set a great tone for the rest of your writing year. Shit is going to happen in 2023, you’ll see.
“Our own pulse beats in every stranger's throat.” — Barbara Deming
UM instructors, staff weigh in on land acknowledgements
One thing I’m not shy about opening my big mouth about is land acknowledgements. They used to be just a minor annoyance; I’ve written about them before, starting more than two years ago. Now they are one of the most triggering subjects I’m often subjected to facing. Lately I’ve been advocating for requiring organizations, people, whoever, to lead with a TW for Trigger Warning whenever they are about to unleash one on people. By "people" of course I'm probably mostly just talking about "me."Are you about to open a conference or something with a land acknowledgement you dug out of the internet compost pile twenty minutes earlier? Share a TW for Land Acknowledgement first so I can leave. Do you have a vague, performative land acknowledgement in your email signature? Open your email with a TW for Land Acknowledgement so I may delete the thing unread first. I’m dead serious here. So when I get a chance to spout off about them, I do.
A couple weeks ago I was contacted by a University of Montana journalism student named Daazhraii Alexander, a Dranjik Gwich'in Native from Fort Yukon, Alaska, a tiny community way, way out in the back of beyond. She’s studying in Missoula as a recipient of a Presidential Leadership Scholarship, which is a big deal. She told me she never encountered a land acknowledgement before coming to the university and was fascinated by them and the weirdness of their existence. She asked to interview me for a piece she wanted to write about them in hopes it would be published in the Kaimin, the university’s student-run paper. Her efforts paid off, and her piece was published last week. You may check it HERE; I urge you to consider reading it as she did a wonderful job with it, and it sets the context for the wrath I’m about to unfurl on this aggravating subject. Here is the lede from the article:
While widely celebrated as a progressive step, three enrolled tribal members affiliated with the University of Montana question the effectiveness of land acknowledgements at UM.
Question, indeed. I want to talk specifically about the insidious, gaslighty nature of these things as exemplified per the following: In Alexander’s piece, she shares this land acknowledgement recently adopted by ASUM (Associated Students at the University of Montana); a separate piece specifically about that adoption, also from the Kaimin, may be read HERE. Here is the land acknowledgement:
The University of Montana acknowledges that we are in the aboriginal territories of the Salish and Kalispel people. Today, we honor the path they have always shown us in caring for this place for the generations to come.
It is that second sentence, “Today, we honor the path they have always shown us in caring for this place for the generations to come.” I would like to take everyone involved by the proverbial ear and drag them somewhere with a good view of the Missoula valley, say the big “M” abominated into the side of Mount Sentinel. Is there a single important example anywhere in the valley where anyone with any authority to set policy is doing anything at all to “honor the path” Indigenous people have “always shown” the rest of us in how to care for this place? Any sign they are even paying attention to it?
Did Indigenous people strive to churn every inch of ground in this valley into profit? Did they let people go hungry and unhoused on the street while others among them got wealthy enough that they could still churn income out of the suckers here while they hotfooted it to warmer climes for the winter? I think there are pockets of people, individuals and small groups, making an effort to turn this around, to actually practice a degree of honoring “the path” but the road is a steep climb and the efforts are essentially invisible.
It’s the “honor” part. It’s the same reason, this honoring, that people who think it’s cool to slap a caricature of an Indigenous warrior on the side of a football helmet use. It’s the same reason some fashion designer uses when he wants to drape a Nordic model in buckskin and feathers and have her slouch on a mountaintop somewhere for the center spread of some glossy toilet paper roll of a magazine. It’s the same excuse people use who see a table full of Native jewelry at a pop-up somewhere and copy it in their own work and sell as “Native inspired.” It’s the so-called “honoring” without action that comprises the gaslighting; it is a euphemism for taking without giving back that has been the story on this continent since colonizers first arrived here.
I remember hearing an elder speak at the dedication for Grizzly Bear Tracks Bridgenot so many weeks ago. This ceremony was held almost exactly across the street from the barbershop where that ignorant chode was spouting off last week. The elder said she remembered going with her grandma to gather Bitterroot in an open meadow out in front of the university. This was a living woman remembering the participation in the practice of traditional foraging that had been going on in this valley for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, in a spot of built-up real estate now so prime that no one who isn’t a millionaire can even hope to live on it. It has all gone downhill so, so fast. The irony is that it is the hordes of urban deer coming back who are finding a pretty goddamn easy living there.
Without a complete crash and burn of our current society (which isn’t an impossibility) no one expects a return to that sort of life around here anytime soon. But if you are going to pretend to “honor” something as if work is actually happening, you better offer more than just a platitude. Don’t say you “honor” or “uphold” or “support” without saying how you are actually doing this. And very few organizations or institutions are. Most engage in performative lip service that is patronizing and insulting and little different from the smug, willful ignorance of the guy in the barber’s chair. That’s what pisses me off.
This is one of those things I know I sound irrational and like a broken record on that I don’t know how many people really care about. It’s frustrating because I don’t know how many Indians really care about it either. Most of us are happy to be mentioned at all. I’d like to change that. I’d like for more of us to really dig in and start to stand up for ourselves. Otherwise, what is the point? That is a question I ask myself every day, in the aftermath of pretty much every newsletter I write, etc. What is the point? Am I really just a crank slowly losing my mind? When I share this garbage to places like Instagram, or when I previously did to Twitter, it gets a fraction of the action a picture of something like a sparrow taking a dump on my cherry tree will. Is it overwhelm? Would people really prefer not to be in any way challenged? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I don’t want to know.
Something Beautiful: Bitterroot
Enough of all that uselessness. Here’s something better. I mentioned Bitterroot, which besides being a food staple for a number of Indigenous tribes is also the Montana state flower. Erin O'Regan White is the current Editor-in-Chief of CutBank, the U of M’s lit journal, and, more importantly, one of my good friends. I told her I wanted to mention Bitterroot and asked if she had any good photographs. Making photos of flowers is one of her many talents, and so of course she did! Here are some examples. Thanks, Erin!
This quote and the one posted above are from Joanna Macy’s World as Lover, World as Self. It’s mostly an inspiring, beyond wonderful read. Where the book loses me is when she is bolstering her views with “Buddha said, Buddha did”, whatever. In my current disdain for anything that feels constantly and blindly spit-yelled at me, I don’t care about the Buddha, frankly. I care about Joanna Macy and her wisdom, regardless of where it came from. Maybe she really learned it staring at a sunrise. I like to think that’s where it came from, because this right here is beautiful:
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it — is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, with self-reflexive consciousness that brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to join the praising and healing of our world.” — Joanna Macy
What a lovely thing to remember. Let us join in praising and healing this world. It’s what I want, even if I sound like I don’t.
Miigwech, my friends. Stay warm. Be curious of the world around you, and be kind to it, and to each other.
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The sticker, as well as a few other cool things around me, are the work of my filmmaker friend Patrick Shen, whose Patreon page is one I haven’t visited in months though I have every intention several days a week of getting caught up….
The big fundraising auction and event is over, but you may still donate. I know you’re getting hassled for money from all directions these days, including via this monotonous newsletter, but this organization really is doing wonderful work. Please consider these folks when deciding where to help out.
As we seem to have essentially veered into “the customer is always right” territory, I’m here to say that position is ludicrous and particularly doesn’t exist here in the Irritable country, just to be clear….
Of course exceptions apply, but 90% of the time we aren’t talking about exceptions.
Honoring, recognition, whatever … this is the kind of thing I can get behind so long as it doesn’t end here.
Every since I heard you liken land acknowledgments to a 'liberal's version of thoughts and prayers' a few years ago my perspective on them shifted. (and continues to shift) I appreciate you sharing so much on the subject--in my next book I put in a LA, then took it out, put it back, lamented how it felt like virtue signaling, took it out again, added a bunch of action items and an acknowledgement that a LA is but one tiny step toward actual necessary change, felt okay about it for five minutes, took it out again, and so on. It ended up being included. I'm still unsure about how I feel about it.
A good thing about 67 is it's easier and easier to be publicly disagreeable. And not even be taken offensively, because you're 67, and basically invisible.
Anyway, I'm not silent when people say things like, " Oh you teach in a prison. That's so nice of you." Bleh. Like education isn't for everyone.
Look forward to 67.