As with any other group of individuals who share enough common traits to be recognized as one people, it is is never fair to accept the opinions of one as equal to the opinions of all. When Kanye West accused George W. Bush of not caring about black people, I heard quite a few members of the black community condemn what he said. In fact, the last time I heard that was last month and this happened in 2005. Even Kanye West later retracted the statement. Nevertheless, there are also a number of individuals in the black community who felt that West was correct in his accusation and were even dismayed with him when he retracted the statement. My point is that you cannot take the opinions of an individual as the opinions of a group.
I am going to give my opinion, as an American Indian, on perceptions of events and attitudes of other American Indians. I want my readers to understand that I am an individual, as mentioned above, and my opinion may not reflect the opinions of most, or any other American Indians.
A friend of mine whom I have a deep amount of respect for, especially when it comes to matters of social justice, shared an experience with me which left a bad taste in his mouth over the attitudes of some American Indians. As a student, he was involved in a disagreement between professors at his university. There were a group of Native Indians who taught subjects involving animism and shamanism, and when a European (or descendant thereof, I don’t know for certain) professor who was involved in a European practice of shamanism (for those of you unaware, there is nowhere in the world where animism and shamanism were not practiced at some point in time, and I would even say that there is nowhere today where it is not practiced, though admittedly not in the same numbers as it once was. The most famous example of European shamanism are the Sami people whose shamans are called Noaidi. Look them up, they are a fascinating, spiritually powerful people) expressed a desire to teach classes on shamanism as well there was a strong outcry from the Native Indian professors. I do not actually know the result of this story. I do not know if the white professor was allowed to teach, or if the Native Indian professors kept her out, or if the Native professors walked out. I do know that it was a disturbing enough event to my friend for him to even hesitate to bring it up, and I understand why. That is what I want to talk about.
I cannot possibly comment on the specifics of this event, as I heard about it second hand from only one individual. I can comment on the generalities of it as I have experienced personally. I believe that enough of us realize that Native Indians have brutally suffered under a Eurocentric regime since the days of Columbus. Whole tribes have been rendered extinct, and their traditions, beliefs, languages and cultures with them. I have often heard that Native Indian history is negligible and unimportant because Native Indians did not have a written language, yet we know that the Catholic Church burned and destroyed histories and evidence of language when they arrived in Mexico. We know that it took less than a decade after the Cherokee people adopted a written language (and had a higher literacy rate than the European Americans that lived in Georgia with them, I note) for the U.S. Government to begin the removal and eradication process against the tribe. It was less than twenty years after that they were forced upon the Trail of Tears. We also know that the Mayans did in fact have a written language, and even though it has been over a decade (maybe even two, by now) since we realized this, the belief that no Native Indians had a written language persists. I could go on at length about this, and even present my readers with facts that they probably did not know about. But I think that the majority of us can agree with the above statement about the suffering of Native Indians and the eradication of their culture. Not all of us might agree that it is a suffering that continues today, but it does.
As we speak, the proposed plan for the Keystone XL Pipeline goes directly though sacred Native Indian sites, including burial grounds, and the U.S. Government has done nothing (and will do nothing, in my opinion) to assist the needs of those tribes who are effected. As we speak, there are proposals in Washington State (my current home state) to tax gasoline sold on reservations, which are recognized by the Supreme Court as independent nations. As we speak, Native Indian children are being stolen from their homes to be placed with white families where their culture will be lost and the risks of sexual abuse rise at an alarming rate. Again, I could go on with a list of atrocities which are perpetrated against Native Indians today, but I hope that my readers will take my point.
All of these historic and present day actions have had an effect on Native Indians. Although not all of us have been effected in the same way, it is not uncommon for us to walk away with fear, hatred, loathing and disgust in our hearts. Those feelings are going to be directed, more often than not, toward white people. I think that throughout my life, I have had an advantage in this. I am half white. This means that it has been more difficult for me to form these feelings, because one whole half of my family is white, and I love them. It also means that I do not always receive the same level of negative attention as I would have if I were 100% Native. At the same time, it has created difficulties for me. I have white friends and even family members who have thought that there is nothing wrong in making racist jokes about Native Indians around me, ranging from some of my best friends to my soon-to-be father-in-law. I have often floundered in my attempts to learn when it is okay for me to tell them that I am not, after all, comfortable with some of these jokes. I still do. I am not sure how I would explain to you the method I use to cope with them…because I don’t think that I do, at least not very well.
I’m half-white and I still often feel hatred and fear toward white people. I am afraid of the police. More often than not in my experience, police are dominated by white men. I have been harassed and detained far more often than just about any of my white friends, and have engaged in just as much, or sometimes even less illegal activity. I am sometimes uncomfortable talking about my heritage, for fear of being judged, or even worse, for fear of someone thinking it is okay to lift their hand and say “how” to me or do that stupid noise with their hands over their mouth that is supposed to be some kind of war whoop or rain dance, I don’t even know. I am afraid of telling people in rural parts of America that I am Native Indian, because a significant amount of the time I have been subject to abysmal levels of hate and racism for doing so. Unfortunately, in rural areas near reservations, I cannot hide this fact, because when people are familiar with the common “looks” of Native Indians, they can pick me out.
Though my experience is different, it is still related to Native Indians who are not white at all. I understand the fear and hatred which are often felt. That said, fear and hatred never helped anyone. Fear and hatred result from ignorance, and I believe (here is where we get controversial, my friends) that there are a lot of ignorant Native Indians. There are a lot of hateful Native Indians. There are a lot of—and I cannot stress this enough—a lot of racist Native Indians. There is not only racism toward white people. There is also a significant amount of racism toward black people and Latino people. The racism toward Latino people is legendary, and in fact, there is a strange dichotomy of Native/Latino hate in my own family that I won’t even go into here, but is significantly complicated when you take into consideration the fact that the majority of Latinos are actually Native Indians with some Spanish ancestry (or none) who come from south of the U.S. I just recently had a discussion with a very good friend of mine about the racism directed toward black people from the Cherokee tribe, who used to keep black slaves. Just last year, the Cherokee nation changed their qualifications to be a member of the tribe by denying the descendants of black slaves owned by Cherokees membership into the tribe—even when there was intermarriage and blood ancestry involved. The Cherokee are not the only tribe to restrict membership for questionable reasons. The Chiricahua (one of two tribes which are my own) deny membership if your family has been “estranged” from the tribe. Think about how that effects the foster children I mentioned above. They are not the only tribe to hold the “estrangement” tenet.
When I heard the story I mentioned above from my friend, I first intended to write a quick response meant to sum up my feelings on it, especially since he was hesitant to share the story because it cast Native Indians, acknowledged oppressed people, in a bad light. I found myself writing more and more and more until I knew I had to take it here instead. I want him, and everyone who reads this (hell, people who don’t read it) to understand that if you experience fear or hatred or racism at the hands of a Native Indian, you are not alone and they are not right in treating you that way. On the other hand, I genuinely, desperately want you to understand what we as a people have gone through—but more importantly, I want you to realize the depth of fear, hatred and racism we as individuals go through on a daily basis. I am not telling you that the same treatment in response is acceptable. I am telling you that it comes from somewhere, and it comes from somewhere specific, and the more that you do to attempt to understand where it comes from, the more roads of communication you will have before you to attempt to correct wrong behavior and form a positive relationship.
Most specifically, it comes from the loss of our culture. Tribes throughout the nation and in Canada and Mexico and Central and South America are desperately holding on to what we can to try and make sure that our descendants realize the greatness of our ancestry. There are very few living peoples on this earth who have suffered, specifically, from a loss of culture to the degree we have. I have turned a significant portion of my life to absorbing as much culture and history, not just of my tribes, but all Native Indians, as I possibly can. I could never possibly teach everything I have absorbed to anyone, and I have absorbed but a mere fraction of what is still out there. Most of it will be lost. I am keenly aware of what has already been lost, and what we are losing today. It pains me deeply. I have no shame in telling you that when I learn of something new being lost, it often brings me to tears. The largest Mayan temple in Belize was bulldozed for road fill this month, and I felt a physical tightness in my chest that made me want to hide myself from my fiance (who alerted me to this news), and the pain has not yet fled me. The knowledge that almost no one I know—including those who love and wish to preserve Native Indian culture—has heard of Cahokia or the Mississippian peoples leaves me feeling ever-present terror for what else will be lost in the next generation.
Native Indians were not the only shamans, and were not the only people who practiced animism. In fact, not even all Native Indians did. As I said above, this is one of the most common spiritual beliefs in history. But it’s also one of few cultural beliefs which a modern Native Indian can hold onto and claim as his. I do not agree with the persecution of European animists, and I believe they deserve the right to teach their beliefs and histories as well, as I believe every other culture which has a history in shamanism and animism should be taught.
Be aware of every piece of this puzzle. Be aware of not only the ignorance of oppressed peoples, but also the ignorance of the oppressors. And be aware how this not only effects you, but the people who you encounter. Use that knowledge as best you can (because none of us can use a perfect knowledge) to bridge the gap which ignorance has created between us. Ignorance is the source of all evil, we need to open our eyes to understand how to stamp it out.