As the date of the quintessential celebration of colonial oppression for Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. approaches, signaled by loud explosions in the night, an image from my childhood comes unbidden to mind – a child crouching, head bowed, eyes closed, hands tightly covering ears.
Photo Credit: Carol A. Hand
I remember how much I disliked attending these events with my family, surrounded by crowds of people cheering and oohing and aahing in the local park as the symbolic missiles of war blossom like booming “fiery flowers” in the darkened evening sky. I didn’t know the deeper symbolism then for Indigenous Peoples, but the mindless and frenzied fascination of the crowd frightened me. I realize it still does. It brings to mind a story I wrote about my experiences in Missoula, Montana, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
What if we wondered what was hijacking our emotions,
and holding us in tightly wrapped boxes of fear, shame, anger and distrust
sealed by corporate satisfaction and greed;
as we’re fed from the roots of oppression.
Where it’s too dark to see truth,
amidst the noise of lies and deception
that relentlessly deprive and control thoughts,
what if we just started wondering?
What if, in wondering, we chewed a little hole,
just enough to let in the light of another’s presence
from a nearby box;
and in that light we found each other’s hands
and just started holding?
What if holding hands
made us each desire to see and understand
more of each other
and so together we just chewed harder?
What if chewing harder together
warmed our hearts
which fueled our courage;
so we could pull each other through
the holes in our boxes,
to just embrace?
What if embracing each other
made us able to stand together
and see all the millions of chewed boxes near and far,
and caused us to just question?
What if our questioning
how and why all so many people are struggling to survive in boxes,
made us tune out the noise and just listen?
What if our listening to different stories
helped us understand the forces outside of ourselves that are controlling us;
and the realization of our own and collective suffering
made us just start thrashing?
What if our combined thrashing
caused our boxes to break down,
so we could all just join hands?
What if our collective hand holding,
helped us all just stand up?
What if just standing up together
made us realize that sometimes each of us needs to be just held up?
What if in holding each other up
we were able to move together to figure out what just what we needed?
What if figuring out together what we needed
fed our hungry conscious
and a collective vision just started to grow?
What if the collective vision was nurtured
by the power of our continuous connections
and we just loved what we found in ourselves and each other?
What if we grounded ourselves in that love
and co-created just enough changes to save ourselves and sustain our world?
I haven’t contributed much to this space yet, and that’s in part because things are awful out in the world, and in part because I struggle with depression, and the combination of those two things, well, it’s not great. But I’m working on it. And a good thing, too, because things are bad and getting worse.
I probably don’t have to recount to y’all allthehorriblethingsPresidentVoldemorthasdonesofar, and we’re not even through his first week in office. Things are going to be bad or worse than bad for quite a while. You know what, though? This is what I keep reminding myself of: Things have been bad and worse before. And people resisted. Sometimes, things got better. Even when they didn’t, we still benefited from the examples of fighters who did not give up in spite of immense odds, and in doing so inspired future generations of fighters.
What did the Menominee Nation do? Well, they did what they’d been doing for the past several centuries, only more so: they resisted. They organized–as “shareholders,” since they could no longer officially organize as tribal members. They held meetings. They planned. They tried to hold everything together in the day-to-day while also trying to bring about massive change.
That kind of thing is unbelievably hard to do, especially because in the moment, you don’t actually know whether anything you do is even going to work. They had no idea that they would eventually be successful, and yet they kept trying, because they had to. Their very existence as a people was on the line.
And even though they were taking on the federal government, and even though that’s not often a situation in which tribes come out with a win, they did not stop, but kept on working and planning and RESISTING.
And they won. It took nearly two decades, but they won. In 1973, President Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act, which re-established the Menominee Nation as a federally recognized tribe.
As a side note, one of the people who was instrumental in this fight was Ada Deer, and if her name is not familiar, you are missing out. (I know that Carol knows her–in real life, even!) Read about her here and here, for starters. If you’re looking for some activist heroes, look no further–and keep in mind that she’d also likely point out how many people fought alongside her, and that they were all heroes, and that she’d be right.
Menominee Restoration happened, against the odds, because people got together in protest and fought for their rights. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fun (though I bet there were jokes and laughter at meetings, along with serious business), and it had no guarantee of success–and it was necessary.
That’s the kind of spirit of resistance that we all need right now. Indigenous people have been resisting for over five hundred years, and their struggles are at the heart of everything that happens on this continent. Not coincidentally, the Menominees are the people indigenous to the place where I am writing this right now, and it is right and proper for me to think about their struggles and their rights (including their rights to the land I am on right now) and acknowledge my debt to them as we all move forward in resistance.
And if you haven’t already, go learn about the ways the nations in your area have resisted colonization. Because the Indigenous people of this continent are, and should be, the wellspring and heart of resistance, and all of us need to recognize and honor that in order to move forward together. In resistance.
I wrote this note while staying at the Two Spirit Nation camp within the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock about a week ago. I originally drove out there to help someone else out, but without the intention of staying, because I take seriously the critiques that suggest that white activists have been taking over the protests. However, I stayed much longer than I intended because it turned out that there was important work to do as a white accomplice–work that addressed precisely the issue of white activists at these camps and these actions. Part of the necessary work of white accomplices is to lessen the burden on people of color. At camp that meant I was asked by Two Spirit folks to give white visitors “allyship 101” or “Two Spirit 101” lectures; this letter is my attempt to keep that work up, and keep taking on some of the burden, even when I’m not at the camp anymore. As requested, I’ve sent hard copies to the folks at camp (there’s barely any internet access there), but I’m also re-posting it here.
Read this, please, with an open heart. If you start feeling defensive, take a moment to reflect on why that is before returning to reading.
The first and perhaps most important thing to understand is that this protest is not about you. Yes, we are all affected by what happens here, and we should all serve the earth as stewards and protectors. But this camp and this resistance is first and foremost Indigenous. This movement comes out of countless thousands of years’ relationship with this land. It comes from 500 years of colonialism that tried not only to take this land, but to eliminate every Indian person on it, and when that didn’t work, tried to kill off the cultures of the hundreds of Indigenous nations of this continent. This movement comes out of centuries in which Native sovereignty has been ignored, during which Indigenous nations with thousands of years of history have been reduced to “domestic dependent nations.” This movement comes in response to the centuries of genocide that have made the United States what it is today. It comes from hundreds of Native nations who live within the country that stole their land and stole their children and stole their culture and keeps on trying to steal everything they were and are. It also comes from the prophecies of many different tribal traditions, as well as an ancient and contemporary relationship between the people and this land.
For these reasons and many more, this protest is fundamentally Indigenous.
* * * *
What does this mean for white people at Standing Rock?
For starters, we are not and should not be the leaders here.
Native community structures, and especially leadership structures, may not look like what we as white Americans are familiar with. What may look, at first glance, like an absence of leadership is not that at all, but instead the presence of leaders who are humble, who don’t announce their leadership role, who understand that leadership is facilitating the will of the people around you rather than putting yourself forward. Many people here who are leaders probably don’t consider themselves that way, because Indigenous leadership is all about putting away your own ego and serving other people. Leaders might just as easily be cooking dinner or clearing trash as running meetings or heading an action. Trust that the community knows and recognizes who they are.
Instead of trying to lead, ask how you can serve. Do the work that needs doing, not just the work you want to do or that is most visible. Be humble. Accept corrections and advice. Make yourself useful outside of the spotlight.
That also means don’t charge to the front of actions unless specifically asked to do so. Do notsimply do your own thing at an action. Don’t rush to be interviewed or filmed. The world has heard enough white voices and seen enough white faces. We do not need to be the representatives of this movement or this place. Even if the Native voices are quieter than yours–in fact, especially then–they should be the ones to speak. If a reporter asks you for a quote, ask them if they’ve spoken to Indigenous demonstrators. If they haven’t, facilitate that. Emphasize and understand that everything here is happening because Indigenous people and tribal nations decided to resist.
We as non-Native people are here for support, not for recognition.
Do things because they need doing or because you are asked to, not because you want someone to thank you. Do your best to bury your ego. This may be harder than you expect, because regardless of how much we might think we’ve left mainstream whiteness behind, we’ve grown up in a world where white people are always at the center. It’s hard to be on the margins; practice being on the margins here, behind the scenes rather than on stage. Understand that Indigenous people, like other people of color, are nearly always pushed to the margins and made invisible. See what that space feels like.
We’re also taught that we have a right to everything. All knowledge should be shared, all culture belongs to everyone, the world should be open-source. This in particular can be extremely difficult to unlearn, but it’s also extremely important. Don’t assume that you are invited everywhere. Especially when it comes to ceremonies, ask humbly if you are welcome instead of assuming, and always be willing to accept “no” as an answer. This is not about you personally; accept that fact with grace and understanding. Some spaces or events are for Native people only. Not all knowledge is for everyone. Not all ceremonies are open to all. Respect that.
Learn what the protocols and expectations are, and follow them.
We are guests here. Following the guidelines set up for the camp and for the actions is appropriate and respectful. This isn’t a question of following authority or being a rebel by disregarding it; it’s about respecting our hosts in ways that white society, in general, has never done. (In fact, if you value rebellion, consider that respect for Native protocols is the ultimate act of rebellion against the US government.)
If someone else fails to follow protocols–even someone Native, even someone local–don’t take that as permission to disregard them yourself. Respect the community that established these guidelines.
Understand that you are in a place where the expectations for behavior may be different than what you’re used to, and that’s OK–ask when you’re unsure. Some things to know: Elders hold a place of great respect in Native communities; listen to what they have to say, defer to their experience and knowledge, offer to get them food, give them your chair, let them go ahead of you in line. Ask if it’s OK to enter someone’s campsite. If folks are in a circle, don’t join until you are asked. Don’t add things to the fire unless you know what’s what–some things around the fire might be sacred medicine, and wood might be rationed for specific purposes. Be a part of things appropriately and with respect.
When you are at Sacred Stone Camp, you are a guest of the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota nation. If you are told to do or not do something according to tradition, please be respectful and comply. Photography is not allowed during ceremony or prayer. If you are a woman, you are asked not to attend ceremony, including sweat lodges, while you are on your moon (menstruating). Certain traditional events, items, and clothing are only to be attended/used/worn by Native people. Please ask before collecting sage, berries, or any other plant from the area. When in doubt, ask an elder or local.
Think of yourself as a student, not a teacher, and spend more time listening than talking.
Share your expertise if and when you are asked, but don’t ever assume you are the only expert in the room (or around the fire). Educate yourself as much as you can, and cut yourself some slack, too; learning means making mistakes, and everyone here will make some mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and they’ll become valuable experiences.
Recognize, too, that no amount of education gives you license to explain Nativeness to Native people.
Understand that you are not Native.
Non-Natives in this country have a long history of claiming a Native identity that is not ours to claim, whether it’s colonists dressing up as “Indians” for the Boston Tea Party, Boy Scouts holding supposedly “Indian” rituals in the Boy Scouts’ Order of Arrow, Grateful Dead fans calling themselves the Society of the Indian Dead, summer camps naming themselves after Native nations, or New Age practitioners laying claim to ceremonial and sacred Native practices. All of these are ways of claiming tribal identity without being Native, and all of them are colonialist practices that work to erase the continued existence of this continent’s Native people.
Even if some people (even some Native people) tell you that we are all Native, understand that many others not only disagree, but see this viewpoint as a way for colonizers to appropriate Native identity–yet another way for whites to steal Native culture. For non-Natives to claim some form of Native identity reinforces the pain of colonialism for many Native people. Even if you are not wholly convinced by this, please understand that this can hurt people deeply. If, in spite of this, you still think that your right to claim Nativeness trumps the right of Native people not to feel hurt and erased by your behavior, then you should think about what your goals are and whether you belong in this camp.
It is true that we are all indigenous to someplace, and that there are indigenous European cultures that were wiped out by Christianity. This does not mean that those of us who are of European descent are not also colonizers on this land. Additionally, Christianity’s rise to dominance in Europe happened in a very different historical context well over a thousand years ago, and did not involve racial genocide; please avoid suggesting that it was in any way the same thing as what has happened with Native people on this continent.
Don’t make assumptions about other peoples’ identities.
For decades Hollywood has shown us what Indians look like. The problem is that some of Hollywood’s most prominent Indians were actually Italian…and some actual Native people couldn’t (and still can’t) play Indians in Hollywood because they don’t “look Indian.” That should tell you all you need to know about whether you can tell who is Native simply by looking. Native people today are extremely diverse. Sure, some look like Indians do in movies, but plenty don’t. There are blond Indians with pale skin, and black Indians with afros. There are Indians with straight hair, curly hair, no hair. They’re tall, short… you get the point. Nativeness isn’t always something you can see, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Carry this recognition into the rest of your life as well.
Remember to take care of yourself.
You cannot help others well if you are not trying to be healthy and balanced yourself. You will hear people talk about doing things the right way; taking care of yourself and keeping yourself in balance is an important part of that. Don’t do anything that goes against your values or beliefs, or that makes you feel unsafe. You deserve the same respect as every other person in camp.
Understand that genocide and colonialism are not just history; they are the present.
We are all part of a system built on genocide (and slavery, and more), a system that has benefited us as white people whether we want it to or not. There is no way to opt out of white privilege. Some parts of your identity may mean you are oppressed in other ways, but even if you are transgender or grew up poor or speak with an accent, you still have white privilege. Even if you are not from the US, you still have white privilege. You may choose to live in ways that challenge this system, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can live outside this system. We have white privilege, no matter what. It doesn’t mean we need to feel guilty about it, but it does mean we need to take responsibility for our place in the world, and decide what to do with it. Acknowledge your privilege, understand it, and then put it to use to help break down this system of colonialism and white supremacy we all live in.
And, of course, as you can see from the Tiger Lily article, I rather love pop culture. I’m probably the only person who consistently brought up Battlestar Galactica in just about every Native Studies class I taught. Not the original, of course, but the re-imagined 2004 series, which I still think is one of the best series ever to hit television and the only one I know that took on torture and waterboarding in a serious and nuanced way, and presented an Iraq-analogue occupation from the perspective of the occupied. (Not for nothing did it win a Peabody Award). It also really does connect to Indigenous issues, because one of the BSG actors is First Nations, and has never ever played a Native-identified character in anything he’s been in.
So, yeah, I’ve just introduced myself in yet another venue by immediately bringing up Battlestar Galactica. That seems about right, because one of the reasons I love speculative fiction like BSG is that, at its best, it can make us think about ourselves and the world in ways we don’t expect, and can serve as a vehicle for radical re-imagination and change. And since we’re at introductions, I’ll add that I am writing a fantasy novel at the moment that I hope will be able to do some of that work too (while, of course, never seeming like “work”).
I also have four (!!) cats–I didn’t set out to become a cat lady, but a breakup some years ago took the human-to-cat ratio in my household from a reasonable 2:3 to a cat-lady-territory 1:3. Then I fostered cats for our wonderful local humane society, a no-kill shelter that deserves all the support in the world; after successfully returning about 20 cats and kittens, they gave me a foster kitten who seemed to be dying and who needed a good home to live out his last days. (Which is just a really sweet thing for the humane society to want for him.) He wanted to live, though, and he and I pulled together and got him through, and he’s been with me ever since. So, that leaves me with a human-to-cat ratio of 1:4, meaning, yeah, I’m a cat lady.
I also love gardening, which is another thing I share with Carol; I have seeds from her garden to plant in my garden next spring, which is a wonderful thing. Spending time digging and planting and weeding and replanting is incredibly therapeutic, plus it gives me time to catch up on all the podcasts I listen to like I’m an aural addict. It also really helps in dealing with depression, which is something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
So, there you are. That’s a longer introduction than I intended, but us white folks always do like to take up space and talk about our own selves. I kid, I kid! some of my best friends are white people!
…and I should probably mention that having a sense of humor is something I find essential to surviving in this world.
Years ago, I was advised to submit one of my university exam papers for publication even though it was too long to be accepted as a journal article, and too short to be a book (Hand, 1999). I decided to share it here, with minor edits and illustrations added, in hopes that it might be of interest and stimulate thoughtful dialogue.
INTRODUCTION: THEORETICAL OVERVIEW
Many theories have been formulated to explain child abuse and neglect within what is now the United States. Recently, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe youth won an award for an essay he wrote to explain his perspective as a foster child. (Please refer to Endnote 1 for more information about the request to include this work in my writing.) In his attempt to make sense of his experiences, this young man’s essay expresses both his vision of the future and his theory…