Carol A. Hand
At this time of year, when many families in the U.S. are celebrating Thanksgiving, I am reminded that it is a fictive holiday. It was initially celebrated in the 1600s by the descendants of European colonizers and immigrants to assert their sense of belonging in a nation founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples, massive land thefts and, in later years, the enslavement of darker skinned peoples from around the globe. For many descendants who describe themselves as a mix of ancestries, a “Heinz 57” of national and ethnic ancestries, Thanksgiving is an important holiday that symbolizes what is unique about their identity as real “Americans.” There is nothing real about nationalism – it is a social construction used to justify oppression and dispossession by “white-washing” history. But how are these descendants of colonizers able to learn the truth about history?
Photo Source: Daily News, 2013
Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 2013
I know from my own experience teaching university classes on diversity, few students have ever read works by Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States), Ronald Takaki (Through a Different Mirror), or James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me). Fewer still have read Black Elk Speaks, Night-Flying Woman, or Custer Died for Your Sins. This indoctrination could be addressed by colleges and universities, but too often, faculty are more interested in convincing students of their expertise on subjects than in promoting critical thought.
Interesting if you think about the word “professor.” The meaning of the root “profess” is – “to affirm, to make a pretense of, to have or claim skill in or knowledge, [or] to affirm belief in” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1983, p. 547). Students are rarely in a position to question those in positions of power who profess to know the real truth. And rarely do those in power admit that theirs is but one possible perspective among many.
When it comes to Native American studies, the professors in colleges and universities are more likely to be descendants of Europeans than indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. Some are gifted scholars and teachers who are continually learning and are careful not to perpetuate superficial and harmful stereotypes. Yet others have unfortunately built their careers on superficial work that reinforces ignorance and stereotypes. Some teach “feel-good” history – far more palatable to many students of European ancestry. Fictive feel-good history doesn’t make most students uncomfortable or challenge their preexisting assumptions – these are dangerous things for professors to do if one’s tenure is reliant on favorable evaluations by students. Nor is it wise to question the trustworthiness of the work of other scholars or researchers. It only makes it less likely that scholars who challenge the legitimacy and accuracy of colonial assumptions will ever have their work published by the most prestigious of journals in their field. But what gets published is sometimes not only astoundingly foolish, but also potentially harmful. Following is a story drawn from my years in academia about one such contribution that makes truth less accessible.
I went to see a documentary called “A Long Way from Home.” On a weekday evening after classes, I entered a dimly lit basement of a student dormitory. I noticed folding chairs facing the podium at the front of the room and a cluster of people gathered in an alcove at the bottom of the stairs. Because the event was advertised as a screening of a Native American documentary, I expected food and laughter, and a warm welcome that are omnipresent for Native gatherings. There were no tables laden with food, no warm greetings. There was only an uncomfortable “hello” from several fifty-ish White women in flowing scarves. There were maybe ten people scattered around the room in folding chairs awaiting the evening’s event—a lecture and video presentation. Most of the audience members were Euro-American, with the exception of four young women from Africa. (I only learned this later when they asked questions at the end of the presentation.)
I found it odd that no one thought to ask the very small audience to introduce themselves. This made it clear that the audience was going to be lectured to by an expert rather than invited to participate in dialogue as equals. One of the women present walked to the podium and introduced the speaker, a former faculty member who had developed the video we would be viewing that evening. The speaker was a small gray-haired Euro-American woman in a black pants suit and flowing bright scarf that kept falling from her shoulders. As she spoke, she continually pulled at the scarf, readjusting it, only to have it begin slipping off again. She briefly described her video–a chronicle of the efforts of an Indigenous group to rebuild their tribal identity and culture and to obtain federal recognition.
The video was a fairly amateurish production. Interviews, still photographs, and drawings were interspersed as the story slowly unfolded. It described the group of people with indigenous ancestry who coalesced and elected a tribal leader. They talked about their efforts to rediscover their culture and language. The tribal leader of the group had amassed a considerable amount of money during his years of work as an engineer on the Alaska oil pipeline. (There was no discussion in the video of the consequences of this work for Native Alaskans or the environment.) These resources were used to help fund the group’s efforts to obtain recognition from the U.S. government as a legitimate tribe.
The video was disappointing, and even troubling. Here I was in a group of people who had little interaction with Native Americans. The documentary left a strong impression that there were no real Native American cultures anymore–only those that were being reinvented. (This is not to say that cultural revival is not important. It is!) There was no mention of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, or the more than 200 Native languages still spoken. And the questions were even more disturbing. It was one of those times when I did not even know what could be said in this setting, so I remained silent. I did notice that the four African women kept looking at me. It is true that I am rarely identified as Native American when I am away from northern Wisconsin, although I did resemble a number of the people in the video. Perhaps my African colleagues were expecting me to speak, but I honestly had nothing positive to contribute so I remained silent.
Then, an amazing thing happened. Each of the four African women asked questions. One asked a question about cultural bias. “How is it possible for someone outside of a culture to represent that culture in an unbiased way?” The speaker responded that she had taught journalism, and each semester, she began her class by writing all of her biases on the board. She explained that because she knew all of her biases, she was able to report from an unbiased perspective. (Interesting that knowing one’s own biases is a magic step for some that leads to an understanding of vastly different cultures with little effort! Although I know some of my biases, a commensurate epiphany about other cultures has never miraculously manifested for me. And even with hard work and years of study, I cannot even claim to be an expert on Ojibwe culture.) The next question was a complex query about the effect of colonialism on indigenous peoples around the world.
The speaker’s response made me feel as though I had entered not just a strange culture, but had also somehow been transported back in time to the 1950s. She threw her ever-slipping scarf over her shoulder with an exaggerated movement, raised her right arm to the ceiling as if in a dance recital, and stood tall. “I have just come back from a sabbatical in Africa where I had the honor of being selected to study traditional dance. And it is so fascinating. You know, African dancers as they move bend low and reach toward the earth.
Distribution of the various language families of Africa.
When Native American people dance, they reach upward toward the sky.”
As she uttered these remarks, she glided across the space in front of the audience, first bending low and reaching toward the floor, throwing her slipping scarf over her shoulder repeatedly, and then, reaching toward the ceiling.
The questioners were silenced. The only people who spoke afterward were Euro-American academics in the audience, each sharing what they knew were the crucial issues for Native American people. I wondered as I listened how many had ever spent time on a reservation or visited an urban Indian center.
Out of politeness, I stayed until the event ended. On another occasion, I would have sought out the women from Africa. Their questions reflected such astute insights. I wondered if their reactions were similar to mine. The arrogance of someone categorizing continents in what I could only see as “the dance of illusions!” Yet, my emotions were raw. I needed to reflect on this evening, so I walked silently up the stairs and out of the building. As I headed toward my car in the dark, I suddenly understood that time warps are real. I had not realized before that difference here had that added dimension. I doubted that I would be able to reach across this double divide to speak to people who already knew all of the answers about Native people. I felt as though I was a long way from home–a home not only in place but in time. And I wondered if I would ever find my way back.
Many years have passed, and at least for brief moments I feel that I have found my way back home. But, like the title of the video I saw so long ago, it has been a long way. I have learned many new things in the intervening years, yet I am quite certain I will never be able to profess the absolute truths all of my students must believe.
The one truth I can speak is my regret that I could not do more on the way to present alternatives to the never-ending books, articles, research studies, speeches, and videos that perpetuate distorted, misleading, or fabricated histories and cultures and hide the real suffering of indigenous people today.
Photo Source: Google Thanksgiving Clip Art
A nation of colonizers and immigrants, built on the blood and the bones of my ancestors, continues to celebrate Thanksgiving year after year in ignorance of the costs to indigenous peoples past and present. I will not be joining them. I will continue to celebrate in my own way. I will remember the suffering of the past and present with rage and sorrow and gratitude because indigenous peoples have survived against all odds.