Photo by VIKI EAGLE
I am an amalgam. Love. Ideas. Cultures. Identities. Knowledge. Haudenosaunee. Seneca. Welsh. English. German. Writer. Teacher. Daughter. Student. Hiker. Beader. Photographer. Someday mother. Small-town raised. No rez.
These float, glide, and knock around inside. My blood works them all through toes, heart, and brain. I cannot imagine another me. I can imagine a different raising. A raising where there are no fears about who I am making their way up the family tree. Branches have cracked and fallen away because silence was a safe choice. Now is the norm. To not be Native.
I reject that silence. I reject the insistence that I be otherwise.
AWP five years ago, volunteering, attaching plastic casings, maybe DC, a lean, brown-haired woman asked me what I wrote.
“Indigenous literature,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
What did I mean? I don’t fit some box or label. Fumbling, I said, “I write literary fiction about Indigenous issues. About my community.” The plastic casings were cold and slick.
Round saucer eyes stared back. “You’re Native?” She leaned toward me, intense light beaming and beaming. “That’s so cool.”
Association for Writers and Writing Presses is the writer’s conference. Probably the largest conference in the US. And yet, this still…
My heart plummeted. The first time I had owned my identity as a writer, as an Indigenous writer. Her reaction intensified. Overpowered. I pushed my sleeves up.
“Tell me a story,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, a story from your culture.”
“Well, it doesn’t quite work that way.”
She simply stared. Her cheeks collapsed.
“So, my grandmother…”
A minute later, the woman turned away. Must be she only wanted creation stories.
The following summer I traveled with scholars studying Pacific Northwest Coast Alaska Native and First Nations art from Alaska to British Columbia. I remember dances, wooden face masks, patterns within patterns, carvings, people, stories, sadness, knowledge. I often sat with that week’s Native artist or the cultural center director, not the scholars, most often white, most often speaking on the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Musqueum Nations. I couldn’t believe so little time was spent reading Indigenous scholars or with Indigenous peoples but about Indigenous peoples. This made me think and think and think.
“We helped out with the exhibit for that museum,” said one man.
“We just saw the exhibit,” I said. I pierced salmon with my fork and chewed. The barbeque sauce took over the salmon, but I still tasted the salt underneath. “What did you do?”
“Well, we gave advice about things. Told them what something was.”
“Yeah. It would have been had they used our knowledge. Sometimes they disagreed.” This man was from the nation whose materials the museum exhibited.
I raised an eyebrow. The museum director had just talked so passionately about working side by side with this nation. I thought about Nora Marks Dauenhauer’s poem she read to us only a few weeks ago, “How to make good baked salmon.” I ate more salmon.
The man shrugged. “I’m glad to be done with it.”
A week before, on Haida Gwaii, a white female Pacific Northwest Coast art scholar climbed aboard our bus. We had just eaten a traditional meal sponsored by the Haida cultural center. She had traveled with us an entire week.
“Can I have everyone’s attention.” She clapped her hands. “I just wanted to follow up on the discussion we heard today by the young man.” She waited for silence. “Just so we’re clear, we can’t always believe what we hear. That young man has no proof for his theories about Haida art. A lot of that was hearsay.” A young Haida man. A young Haida artist. Grandson of Bill Reid.
My face reflected back from the window next to me. I shook my head and pulled my jacket closer. I felt my cheeks burn heat that grew and grew. The ocean surrounding each side of the island blew in damp breezes which ran a chill along my body.
While fireworks cover America, while celebrations go on and on and on, later that night, July 4th, she would remind us that he doesn’t have an art degree.
I didn’t know you needed a degree to understand your own culture.
I hate that silence left hanging.
Livid, I boiled inside. Today, there are so many things I could say to her. Do say in my mind. The things I left silent. The things I had no words for then.
The things that made me go back to school. Not to learn her ways. To teach Indigenous knowledge and perspectives and rhetorics.
That same month, we picked up the local Vancouver paper. Above the fold, Haida Gwaii had official government recognition as Haida land and water with proven Haida occupation long before contact.
I sat. Nervous. Three years later. Snow fell and then melted that morning. Passing by the mountains, light hit the shadows, casting a yellow glow behind the peaks. My breath blew white clouds along an East Coast March. But in the office, dark wooden shelves and molding and the age of the old concrete consumed much of any light. The graduate director insisted that I meet with him urgently, immediately.
“I have some concerns.” He pulled out paperwork and flipped through pages. “It seems you’re perhaps not fitting in here.”
My heart fell. Fell deeply. “What do you mean?”
“According to one of your professors, you’re inflexible.” He paused and sat back in his chair. “Are you planning on applying to our PhD program?”
“Do you have other places you can apply to?”
“No.” My O drew out like a question mark.
“Consider writing about other topics while you’re here.”
He said more. He meant more. He smiled while speaking.
I had straight As.
My mentor, also Native, she translated. We had all been guaranteed that we transfer on. The previous graduate director’s promises rang through my ears. “It’s no problem so long as you are of course attending classes and doing the work. You don’t have to worry about anything.” I had asked since I already had another Master’s degree. Why would I do another Master’s if this wasn’t directly moving into a PhD?
“They want you to write about other topics,” my mentor said.
“Aren’t I supposed to be working toward my dissertation?”
“Yes. That’s usually what you do. It’s code for you shouldn’t write about Native topics.”
Oh my God. I lost my breath. I cannot believe. This actually. What?
I checked a box for them. That they allowed diversity.
Minority students have left…yearly…a mass exodus…after the Master’s. For years. But a quarter minority students remain, the department responds. Ninety-five to one hundred percent white students remain.
A few years later, less coded, he will tell a white student studying African American literature that she should focus on white authors. Because that’s better for her career. More beneficial. Write white.
I have been called things. Resistant. Emotional. Crazy. Difficult. Less. Resistant. Resistant. Resistant. Woman. Try persistent. Passionate. Caring. Storyteller.
I and other American Indian writers had just finished giving a reading which completed the two days of our workshop. Southern Arizona held a chill about twenty degrees cooler than Phoenix. So I’ve pulled on my sweater and looked to the sun to warm my face. The clouds ever so slowly drifted and curled around themselves. They matched the almost perfectly rounded rocks strewn along the local landscape.
I was across the country from my family, deep into a PhD, and days like these, I felt the distance ever more present—that hollow something missing.
An older male writer, someone Native I trusted, waved me over. He and a young male student writer talked.
The older writer nodded. “You know, your writing, you could learn from being more like Charles Bukowski. You need some humor. You know.”
I just stared. Our group had just talked about how not all Native writing can be or should be humorous. That sometimes, stories were serious. Must be serious.
I assumed he could relate to me, to my writing.
“It’s okay to critique,” he said. “It’s a time to critique.”
But I walked away. Got in the car.
When I later looked up Charles Bukowski, I wanted to hurl large objects at said mentor.
After each reading, I had women come up and shake my hand. “Where can I get your novel?” They all asked this. I told them I hoped to finish soon. I want them as my readers. Those that acknowledge the difficult. The serious. The emotional.
A few months later, I sat at a very long wooden table, a March Arizona breeze passing through the café. I joined a writing group that meets a few hours each week. The idea: just write. No workshop. No critique. A young man, who also happened to be an adjunct philosophy professor had just sat down. He heard me tell the other woman I was applying to a fellowship for Indigenous female writers.
“What do you write?”
“A novel about American Indian boarding schools.”
“Oh. Prestigious schools.”
“No. Not that. These are Indigenous children kidnapped from home and forced to assimilate and not allowed to see family until they’re 18.”
“Oh.” His fingers hit laptop keys.
I typed, too.
He paused mid key strike. “Is that it? Is that all that the novel is about?”
“No. Much more.”
He and another young man talked. They clearly knew each other.
I found the space motivating. Maybe it was the smell of coffee. Or maybe the approaching dusk along the skyline and strung lights nailed to the red café edges.
But the more this man talked, the more I pulled back, stopped typing, couldn’t concentrate.
“There is no Western versus non-Western view. There is merely one world view,” he said.
“What about other ways of knowing and being?”
“Well, that doesn’t matter. Everything comes from one place.”
I raised my eyebrow and narrowed my eyes. “But the worldviews are very different. Different ways of interacting, thinking about things…”
Each time I asked a question, he squeezed around his words, going this way and that way, eventually arriving far flung, the letters and vowels unrecognizable.
“Take my students for example,” I said. “I teach about Indigenous issues and they get angry and frustrated that they weren’t taught about these stories. And these matters come from having different worldviews and living under colonization.”
“Well that’s not fair to just study Indigenous issues.”
“We look at many sides.”
“How can you force your students to read that?”
I let the conversation uncoil over an hour. I will not do that again with anyone else. I let him give his philosophical rant on identity and knowledge, one that included no self-acknowledgement of power or elitist upbringing, that knew no fear of being who he was…a white, young man. A rant never letting my worldview hold any candle to his flame. I wish I could tell you exactly what he said. But this one, this one I had to let go.
I left. I heard a woman ask him if he knew what he said could be taken as racist.
I drove. I cried. And I cried. And I called a friend.
“He doesn’t know. He will never change or know anything close to what you have known your whole life,” she said.
“But how should I have responded? I had no comebacks.”
“He wouldn’t have let you. Nothing from you would have affected his mind.”
“He thinks I am ruining my students. That I’ve done something wrong by making them learn Indigenous topics because I made it seem like there was just that viewpoint.”
“But that’s not really what you do. And your students want to know. I was there in your classroom.”
We hang up and I drive home only to wail to the empty four walls. The empty apartment.
A student from my Indigenous Rhetoric class once wrote, “I have learned more in the four months of your class, than the four years of my high school.”
As a scholar and a writer, stories and the narratives that wind through them, they are the theories I seek. I have come to know them intimately while teaching, listening, observing, writing. But only because I and others like me see them. See. Them. These stories. These experiences, alter and move through Western ideologies and Western interpretations of theories like a small fish swimming the great lakes to the St. Lawrence, to the Atlantic. Upstream. Warm and cold waters, strong currents, and other unknowns below those depths can make them so easily disappear. As if they were never there. They are there. But they have such a long haul unless fished out. And those currents never stop. Their force so intense. But the fish, too, are a force.
The people I encounter live theories. Speak theories. Are the theories. Know intimately trauma and resilience and resistance and how to respond, how to analyze, how to deal with a colonization that doesn’t go away, that leaves us somewhat lost, somewhat connected, and somewhat angry. But always present.
This is why I still write. I still teach. And I still research. Upstream.
Those stories carry understanding, carry hope, carry a way to apply the stories as sources of knowledge, power, and research worthy, sometimes more worthy.