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.
“But it is not enough to listen to or to read or to understand the truths contained in stories; according to the elders the truths must be lived out and become part of the being of a person.” – Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage
When I started off in Native American studies, my view of the world was resolutely materialist. Raised by parents whose main belief is “science is what explains the world,” I never really thought of religion as anything other than a bunch of interesting stories. My folks certainly didn’t discourage the idea of spirituality, and I went to church with friends from time to time, but I never found my way to belief. Religion, as far as I was concerned, was the opiate of the masses.
As I started graduate school and read my way into Native literature and theory, and as I listened to Native folks talk about their experiences, it became fairly clear to me that there were people I respected, authors as well as friends and acquaintances, for whom the “supernatural” and “paranormal” were both natural and normal. Anishinaabe author Gerald Vizenor and Choctaw-Cherokee-Scotch-Irish author Louis Owens use the term “mythic verism” to describe the world in which much Native literature takes place. Even though a character’s bread might turn into a never-ending cascade of mud, or the dead could have conversations with the living (who think the dead have a creepy sense of humor), describing Native literature as being “magical realism” is, they suggest, a mistake.
“Magical realism serves as a metaphor to tell us about our existence,” Owens explained. “But what’s magical in Native American writing is part of the real world. It requires that the reader cross a conceptual horizon and enter into the Indian world in a new way. If a raven flutters down from a branch and talks to a character, as it does in James Welch’s `Fool’s Crow,’ that’s reality. It’s not a metaphor for anything.”
Magical realism means that both the author and the audience understand that what happens in the world of the novel would be impossible in the real world–no old man is going to grow wings and fly away, though it makes a damn good story. But much (though not all) of Native literature does not come out of that same assumption. Instead, it suggests the possibility that the real world is considerably more magical than many people think it is–which I was also hearing from people I knew and respected.
This idea challenged my own sense of the world in a fundamental way that I wasn’t prepared to deal with, so I put the question of belief on the back burner. There it remained for a long time. Throughout my doctoral program, I managed to keep the issue at arms’ length personally, even though I dealt with it on the level of critical theory. (This, of course, is a classic academic move: Complex emotional or spiritual issue? Oooh, let me intellectualize it and file it away!!) In addition to Native lit, I was reading postcolonial theory, Marxism, and Indigenous theory in order to develop a critical framework with which to read, study, and eventually teach Native American literature.
As I studied, it became clear to me that insisting that spiritual experiences were opiates or mass delusions was rather patronizing. You can see that clearly in the way that Frantz Fanon, a brilliant anti-colonial writer and one of the key thinkers in the struggle for African independence, looks at religion. As Federico Settler describes it,
Not unlike other scholars of a similar materialist orientation, Fanon regarded religion as essentially pre-modern and as such,he assumed that the onset of modernity marked the decline of religion. In his The Wretched of the Earth (1968) he asserts that religion is more terrifying than the [colonizing] settler. He argues that religion, whether through established faith communities or indigenous traditions would undermine the struggle against oppression.
Beyond that, I gradually began to see that the problem wasn’t merely a patronizing or dismissive attitude, but was rooted in the very way the world was conceptualized. Reading Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies gave me a great deal to chew on in this regard, quite literally challenging me to decolonize my methodologies. The book articulates–and critiques–the ways that Western methodologies and world views negate Indigenous ways of knowing, and thus, I recognized, negate many, many Indigenous experiences. The ways we are taught to do academic research, and the ways we are taught to think, even our very language enforces a Western cultural distinction (material / spiritual), not a universal one. What does the world look like if you don’t distinguish between “supernatural” and “natural,” or “paranormal” and “normal”? What if all of that is natural and normal, and your definition of the world is more expansive and inclusive?
Those questions blew the top off my mind for a while, and yet I only remember talking to one person about it. Because this is true :
In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar…can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project.
That’s Jeffrey J. Kripal talking about the challenge of doing Religious Studies in this kind of environment, and that’s the essay that started me on this whole essay (which began as a Facebook link to Kripal’s article). I think Indigenous Studies is probably more open, more porous when it comes to this than most other fields, but I also think it’s something we may avoid because it might make other people take our field less seriously–a challenge we’re constantly faced with. It’s certainly not a topic that non-Native academics tend to approach in anything other than an extremely theoretical way. But the truth is, I now realize that for me, it is impossible to teach appropriately about Native American literature if I do not accept the possibility–even the probability–that Native spiritual experiences are, quite simply, real.
At the same time, seeing how many Native beliefs have been co-opted by white folks (first and foremost New Agers, who really raised neocolonialism to an art form), there’s a large part of me that also sees claims of Native beliefs or practice by non-Natives as almost inherently colonialist. (That “almost”… that’s something I’m still thinking about.) So while I want to accept the truth of these beliefs, I don’t want to go so far that acceptance turns into adoption that transforms into a kind of ownership. If you are trying to decolonize your own mind, you can’t do that by simply going around colonizing someone else’s beliefs.
Part of my challenge is to find what is true for me, and that is a complicated path full of potential pitfalls as well as possible epiphanies. But part of my challenge is also why I’m writing this essay: finding not only my way in this, but considering how this might be an important conversation to begin, both with Native people and with non-Natives, so that more of us might start thinking about how this might affect our truths and our ways of being.
For the past few years, I’ve quietly transformed the way I see the world. I talk about it in the classroom (because it’s why the phrase “magical realism” isn’t appropriate when talking about Native lit, and because it necessarily affects how we read the literature), and it’s an acknowledged fact when I’m talking with friends, colleagues, or students who are Native (or Hmong folks who have been raised in the traditional shamanist way). This openness has led to important conversations, creating a safe space for students from Hmong and Native traditions to speak about knowledges and experiences they consider important, without fear of being disbelieved. (These conversations have been among the most important ones in my academic career.)
Generally, though, I don’t discuss this in a wider public context. In part that is because I’ve not had any of these spiritual experiences myself, and in part that is because I’ve imbibed the notion that these things are inappropriate for The Academy, and for an academic. But it is also, to be honest, because these are difficult and uncomfortable things to talk about, things that took me years to even articulate to myself, let alone to others. So this is nothing like a finished product, let alone the final word, but a first attempt at conversation. How do we respect and accept beliefs without colonizing them? And when we do this, how does this change our relationship not only to reading and scholarship, but also to mainstream society and its accepted ways of knowing? How do we live this change in the world?
A Little About Miriam Schacht. Miriam is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her special interests include Native American and international Indigenous literatures, post-colonial literature and theory, and queer and two-spirit literatures. As a teacher, her courses are demanding but always filled to capacity and receive rave reviews. As the faculty advisor for the Inter-Tribal Student Organization, she plays a crucial role in supporting Native American students and educating the broader university community about contemporary challenges for tribes and Native American peoples. And as a scholar (Ph.D. in English, University of Texas at Austin), she devotes her skills as a critical thinker and creative writer to address oppression.