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In the face of mortal threats
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. June is over and we’re into July and just like that it’s real summer. Which is to say, as Jonathan P. Thompson reports over at The Land Desk, “– it’s frigging hot. In fact, the Earth as a whole experienced its hottest day on record on July 4, a record that fell the following day and was shattered again the day after that.” Oof, what a hellscape. Please do what you can for our relatives without access to climate control, will you?
I’m pretty hot over the 4th myself, which is nothing unusual, though for other reasons. I was doing my best to avoid talking about the abominable holiday at all but, as you’re about to find out, I failed. I’ve been pecking away at this damnable edition of this cratering newsletter for several days now so, a week later, it is certainly bordering on irrelevance. I’m still mad though and who cares about relevance anymore anyway? I appreciate your understanding….
Last month, the morning I arrived at the fancy ranch where a dozen-or-so other Indigenous folks and I, plus a contingent of park service-related folks, would spend two-and-a-half days discussing how to increase awareness toward Indigenous people and presence in Yellowstone National Park, staff there – called “Wranglers” – delivered our bags to our cabins while the rest of us had breakfast and began our meeting. After those first couple hours we had a short break to go see to our accommodations before returning to the main lodge for lunch and more meetings. From what I gather, every cabin has a theme. My gear was ensconced in “The Hunting Cabin.” Decor included a couple vintage outdoorsy posters in frames. You know the type, like the covers of old Field & Stream magazines, or the art inside a Famous Dave’s BBQ joint: lots of buffalo plaid, bird dogs, rosy-cheeked white kids out with their dads huntin’ and fishin’, etc. In this case, there was a poster for some shot gun shell manufacturer, then another one for Winchester rifles and cartridges. On the top of the dresser was a coffee table book about cowgirls. I’m not complaining, the room was nice enough, in its predictable, every-bougie-Western-trope-imagineable way. At least there were big windows that offered spectacular light which, after being opened, also invited the relaxing sound of a gurgling creek just outside into the room. But on the wall beside the bed was this image: a U.S. cavalry troop out on a landscape which could be the Southwest, or could even be the sage-covered, rocky-and-hilly terrain just outside from where I stood gaping at the thing.
My stomach flipped. Now I ask you, reader, in the context of this being the “hunting” cabin, who/what do you think Mr. Mustache here and his friends were hunting during this particular depiction of U.S. history? Is he cradling his rifle in anticipation of taking an opportunistic potshot at a careless jackalope? No, this man, and his companions, are out hunting Indians, of course. It could easily be a rendering of the very people who burned any one of the people attending this meeting’s recent ancestors out of their homes, or worse. After all each of us, every single one of us in attendance, was somewhere between two and four generations removed from ancestors who were menaced by the business ends of those rifles. In my case, it was my great great grandparents, who were part of a community chased out of the Milk River area to the north by troops under the command of Nelson Miles, a guy who had just recently attacked the Nez Perce in the Bear Paws, and who would later renege on the promise to Geronimo that secured the Apache’s surrender. Geronimo ultimately died hundreds and hundreds of miles from his ancestral homelands, just like most Indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island will, thanks to the men in the imageand the unconscionable policies that turned them loose on us.
This image was at best in poor taste, and completely tone deaf and culturally insensitive considering who the ranch was hosting. I seethed for a few minutes – I even considered grabbing my bags and up and leaving – then decided to suck it up and keep it to myself in service to the higher purpose I’d been invited here for. Because to live in this country, particularly as someone who isn’t white, reasonably wealthy and male, is just one instance of “sucking it up” after another, 365 days a year. I determined to at least put the print face down on the table when I returned to my room, then perhaps leave a note when I checked out.
When I got back to the lodge for lunch, it ended with an orientation of sorts about the ranch. The woman who I assume manages the place, or at least the aspect of it that engages with nonprofits working there, delivered a long spiel about how the ranch was founded, how it works, etc. It was self-congratulatory in the way such things are, which is to be expected. There is rarely a more egregious example of humble bragging than when rich people think they are graciously doing the world a service and this woman represents the mouthpiece for that. A tough gig, I’m sure. Usually I hardly notice.
This time it got under my skin because the entire presentation trumpeted obliviousness to the truth that even the ranch, as an organization, can be a participant in the very kinds of problems they invite other organizations to the premises to address, if only in putting a hard stamp on the imaginary natureof “life in the West” as depicted no matter where one’s gaze may settle on the premises. Despite the magnanimous sense of self they seem to project onto the world, they are down here in the scrum with the rest of us, like it or not. Probably more so in most ways. So when this woman asked if there were questions, I asked her how one might go about bringing the ranch into discussion if something they were doing needed to be considered in the larger scheme of our discussions on how to relate to one another. She shifted immediately to Concerned Face and asked if there was a problem. I told her, for example, about the cavalry print on the wall of my room and began a brief description of what it represented to me. Her demeanor immediately changed, which makes me wonder if the ranch has gotten grief for its decor choices in the past. Her tone hardened, as did her face, and she all but wagged her finger at me as she explained that they think it’s important to show ALL aspects of the history of the region in their art choices, and that if I looked around I would find plenty of representations of Indigenous people and art on display. She concluded with a “but if you would like….” and offered to have the print removed. Her sincerity felt … insincere.
It was clear she made no effort to really listen to what I was saying and why the picture was a problem, so she didn’t Hear me. I chose not to bother to make a bigger deal of it. I just nodded and said, “Yes, I would like very much if you would remove the picture.” When I returned to my room a few hours later, it was gone, which I appreciated.
Some of you reading may think the same thing she clearly did. It’s just a painting, right? Of ancient history? And I’m just some entitled and overly-sensitive lib’ral whose boxer briefs are squeezing a little too tightly? Maybe. But I see it differently. I see another example of not just one (most likely overworked and underpaid) settler but an entire organization of settlers utterly clueless to the ongoing genocide they are participating in through not so much their ignorance, but their casual indifference to learning. Most people don’t understand because it’s simply not a part of their daily reality.
“As peoples we had been broken. We were still in the bloody aftermath of a violent takeover of our lands. Within a few generations we had gone from being nearly one hundred percent of the population of this continent to less than one-half of one percent. We were all haunted.”
– Joy Harjo, from Crazy Brave
Both Shocking and Sickening to Indigenous Iowans
Which brings us to this nightmare that went down in Muscatine, Iowa at a 4th of July parade. Maybe it crossed your radar via social media. It came to me because I take emails from the Great Plains Action Society. Basically a (white) woman in an Indian costume was tied up and led behind a horse as part of their parade depicting … what? The folks at the GPAC do a fantastic job taking on all the ways this depiction is hateful and racist via a letter addressed to the Muscatine Chamber of Commerce, which I urge you to read HERE. This is the closing paragraph of the letter, and it gets to the heart of the issue:
“Regardless of whether this aspect of the parade was your intent, you allowed it to carry out. It should have been shut down immediately. We live in a world where real women, our not-so-distant ancestors, were bound and pulled beside horses like that. And they were raped and murdered. They watched their babies' skulls be smashed. They witnessed and experienced unspeakable horrors. And, you allowed a part of that real history to be recreated for entertainment value. Shame on you. We expect an admission of accountability, an apology, and a forever ban for the racist organization who did this.” – Jessica Engelking, Anishinaabe, Representation Director, Great Plains Action Society
In discussing the egregious nature of this event, people wonder, “Why?” or “What were they thinking?” I’ll tell you why: they weren’t thinking. Because people don’t think about Indians. Most don’t believe we even exist. They can’t connect the horrors that have played out from coast to coast here as being part of anyone’s lives today, let alone face the idea that those horrors are extant. They are still happening. HERE is an example. And HERE. And HERE. And HERE. This is all stuff recent and local to me; it happens all over Turtle Island, both sides of the Medicine Line.
And Now the 4th
“Silence in the face of mortal threats to what I most deeply value violates my own moral convictions.”
– Kathleen Dean Moore, from What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?
It isn’t the obnoxious and rude practice of blasting off fireworks that makes me loathe the 4th, though that is part of it. It isn’t all the flag waving either because I am largely blind to that symbol anymore. There was a time, more than a decade ago certainly, when I was indignant toward how the worst elements of our population – the racist, the heartless, the cruel – were doubling-down on claiming the image of the flag for themselves and their repugnant world view. Since 2015 or so it’s only gotten worse and now I don’t even care. They can have it. Let them use it to ID themselves for what they really are. It’s pretty, the flag, but as an Indigenous person trying to return to my roots, I find it a gross symbol that I can’t summon any emotion for that isn’t, at best, cynical. I know there are plenty of Indigenous folks who would disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. I subscribe to a different, more radical view of our relationship to the flag and the country it represents. I’m in line with Dr. Charity Clay who, in THIS STUNNING PIECE for Hood Communist, writes, “For me, it’s a symbolism indicative of the intimate bonds we have with our oppressor, and the way it results in a longing to be accepted by those whose survival is predicated on our destruction.”
What gets me about the 4th is the cavalcade of pieces people write – social media posts, newsletters, et al – where the writer tries to virtue signal their recognition of the struggle and then just cuddles up with the worst of our population. They always begin with something like, “I know this country has done terrible things and I know there is so far to go….” – and I can almost hear the hand-wringing and see the uncomfortable smile, and then out comes the dog whistle – “but can’t we at least have a day to gather in a good way and celebrate all the freedoms we have?” The nervousness and hand-wringing betrays the fear of offending their white friends/family/citizens/whoever (see below) so they choose instead to throw the people still suffering the terrible things under an oversized pickup with a Gadsden flag on the license plate in an effort to “just get along.”
Basically these folks are asking me to choose, even for a day, to join with all those asshats driving the big trucks with flags in the back and flags on their front lawns with TRUMP emblazoned over them and “Joe and the Ho Have Got to Go!” stickers in mutual celebration of what that fucking flag represents. Please. Get behind me, coward.
What are these freedoms we are celebrating? Who gets them? Every meaningful act of the last fifty years or so – from social reforms to environmental reforms to you name it reforms – are under constant and vigorous assault from a huge percentage of the country. What is so great about that?
You know how often the people with flags and the TRUMP stickers set aside their racism and hate and avalanche of phobias for a day to get along with the rest of us who just want to live our lives and have the same opportunities as anyone else?
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Obviously, aside from the lateral violence that occurs in our own marginalized communities,most of who I am talking about are white people. I’m sorry if this offends you. But think of it from my perspective: 61% or so of this country is comprised of white people. Of that percentage, let’s be super generous and suppose half of the people of voting age do so. So right there half of the population either doesn’t care enough about the state of things or is comfortable enough with their situation that it doesn’t matter who makes the rules because they never touch them. Of the half who do engage civically, more than half of the women of that population vote pro-Trump or worse. Way more than half of the men do so. So if you are a white person, and I don’t know you, I don’t need your forgiveness for being really suspicious of what you are all about because I have plenty of reason to be. Understand: I’ve got a few hundred years of reasons to be suspicious baked into me.
Places like the ranch with the cavalry picture, or small Midwestern towns with parades, aren’t meant for Indians. It isn’t so much that we are excluded or barred from them it’s that the people in those places don’t recognize our continued existence. This country was never meant for Indians. We are the “Merciless Indian Savages” as described in the Constitution. To suggest otherwise, that the U.S. was every meant to be a place for everyone, is the most extreme form of gaslighting imaginable and many of us do it to ourselves.
I’m not giving up on figuring out ways to get along. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to do something meaningful in service to it. I believe that if we pay attention, if we keep our eyes open, we can resist the 500-year trend of colonialism on this continent and what it does to all of us. Many of us are part of this resistance every day. I’ll do my best every other day to work toward something better – 364 of them!– but on this day, this “Independence” day, when more true colors than just the red, white, and blue are being proudly displayed, I won’t. The fight toward eliminating Indigenous and other marginalized people is ongoing and I am here in vigorous resistance to that.
Nothing is ever “just” a painting. Nothing is every “just” a joke. Nothing is ever “just” an anything. We are all haunted and we must listen to each other. We must.
Miigwech if you’ve gotten this far. I don’t like writing these kinds of posts but sometimes I am compelled to. Your support and understanding is appreciated.
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I recognize a good number of those men were victimized by the system and experienced a healthy share of trauma that lives on in their descendants as a result. Colonialism is a cruel and bloody business that affects us all in so many cruel, cruel ways.
I could have used the word “Myth” here (as in the “Myth of the West” – think cowboys, the notion of the rugged individual, all that horseshit) like everyone else does but I am trying to not get sucked into doing that anymore. Myth is a word that has morphed almost entirely into a synonym for “untrue” – even the 3rd definition of the word in my handy desktop mass market edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary describes it as “any fictitious story, person, or thing” – and I don’t like that. Using it so is in itself a kind of erasure and I’m again’ it.
At minimum, I found the gratuitous display of wealth and privilege on this recently stolen land was far more of an affront to me than, say, our YNP hosts failing to put out a smudge bowl to accompany the mountains of food they welcomed us with at our informal gathering the night before, as some of my colleagues apparently were. And this is just one of three such ranches the same organization owns and offers at varying degrees of cost to people who want to gather.
I didn’t investigate every nook and cranny of the place but there was only one instance of such that I observed. In this case, another stereotype-enhancing Western painting of an Indian in ceremonial headdress out doing something he would never be out doing in a ceremonial headdress, which isn’t unusual given the cluelessness of the majority of white artists of that period depicting something straight out of their own imagination and taking praise for its authenticity.
Of which I am occasionally accused of being guilty of for having problems with people sucking up to Church and State.
Our rigged, garbage system makes voting essentially useless for national politics except for people in a handful of states, but voting makes an enormous difference locally.
And there is also a solid number of disenfranchised white folks suffering from the same situation the rest of us are and feel absolutely powerless, I get that.
Well, give or take.