So what's it like to be an Indian on a regular basis? (Inspired by a gal I met who said "So being an Indian on a regular basis pretty much means you're offended about something all the time right?"
You know when I was little I used to say "well, I gotta go be an Indian today." For me this referred to when I would dress up and go to dance in a pow wow. When I would see Native people dressed up to go to a pow wow I'd say "look Mom they are going to be Indians today." I didn't consider it "being an Indian' when I went to my tribal ceremonies, however, I just thought that's what we did. For me, being an "Indian" was the whole powwow thing. That thing you see on TV. That thing that's been in the movies.
I also once asked my mother why we didn't go to church. And she said something about how whenever we went to a ceremony it was kind of like we were going to church, if I needed to draw some sort of parallel to Western culture (can you tell I was raised by an academic? Smartest, best one ever...) And I said "no, you know, a REAL church, the kind where you stand up and sit down a lot and someone lectures you and you sometimes sing boring songs and then at the end you eat cookies" (can you tell I went to a "real" church one time and all I really remembered was eating cookies?).
I never really felt like an Indian on a regular basis. I never really felt much different then the kids I went to school with or the other kids I went play basketball with (although many of those were my cousins. At least the ones who were really good at basketball. And there is something that people don't tell you a lot, Natives are really good at basketball. Epically good. Except for me...).
Growing up being an Indian on a regular basis meant for me - being inconvenienced on a regular basis.
Sometimes I had to miss school to attend ceremonies. Also my grandmother always told me things like acting like an "Indian" meant that I respected elders, that I was always clean, that I sat up straight, that I didn't yell at my parents, that I walked carefully on the earth (as to not step in the dirt and get my new shoes dirty). It also meant that I didn't say things like "whatever" or "dude" or "shut up", especially not to my Indian Grandma, because having an Indian Grandma means that the most powerful woman in the universe is standing in front of you so you better not try to talk to her with a smart mouth.
And then there was fourth grade when we (being at a public school in California) were supposed to learn about the Missions. You know, how the Catholic Missionaries came to California and brought the poor Indian people into the missions where they fed then and gave them agriculture and told them a little about God. I was supposed to make a diorama where I put those poor Indian people gardening and those nice Missionaries standing next to them helping them to garden. When my Mom showed up to tell the teacher that I would not be building a Mission and I would also not be learning about Missions in this way, she instead offered to bring in additional information for the class. It was both Grandma and my Mom who came and did a presentation about what it was like to be Native in California, about canoes and baskets and singing and ceremony. They also had me dress up and walk around the class to show them what I looked like when I danced. And then a few months later my Mom took me to the Mission Carmel where she told me about how Native people were buried in mass graves under the mission as many of them died while helping to build it. She also told me about the enslavement of Native people, how they were beaten, tortured and disregarded. How the missions meant to destroy Native people by either killing them, or killing their culture. The tour guide lady who was listening in while we talked had this horrified look on her face.
I have this responsibility now - to tell these stories to my younger cousins, me nieces and nephews, and my daughter. I consider this a great honor. I consider it a honor and an imperative. In California there are a lot of Native people. It has always been this way. Pre-contact populations have California at the highest population above Meso-America. And now, we have one of the biggest Urban Indian populations (in LA) and some of the highest population rates per capita in certain areas. We're growing. Yet, we still work have to work every single day to remind people that we are still here. One of the reasons I study Native American Studies is because I see the value in Indigenous epistemologies. The deeper we study the universe, science, health, humanities, philosophy, thought, or many other areas - the more we see how Indigenous societies had and valued a very deep knowledge that contains the answers to many of the questions we have about - of the interrelatedness of all things - of the responsibility, reciprocity and respect that is a part of existing "in a good way" on this planet. The future of "development" of "evolution" or "science" of "technology" of the very society itself really does depend on the understanding of these epistemologies. The value of this knowledge continues to grow among Western thinkers and researchers and one day all of the knowledge that was lost, ignored and destroyed may finally be used as a way to move forward.
I was inspired to write this post because of my previous "Ishi" posting - about the play that was performed at UC Berkeley that was rooted in the glorification of trauma and an ignorance to the continuing existence of Indigenous peoples. You can read the entire thing here. I plan to write an update post very soon. In the course of conversations with people who emailed, called, Facebooked and approached me in person one person (who herself was wondering if there was a slippery slope between "censorship" and "you've offended me with this play") said to me "so being an Indian on a regular basis must mean you're pretty much offended about something all the time, right?" I actually wasn't offended by this question which made me feel oddly vindicated and I almost threw my hands in the air and went "HA!" I've been asked a lot crazier question in the course of my Native life.
It's just what people start to think. We're always pointing out the problematic representations of Native people. We're always asking for opportunities to speak for ourselves. Part of the problem is that there is still a feeling that there are no real "Native Americans" who can actually speak to their experiences because real Native Americans died a long time ago (and there is a WHOLE lesson plan that needs to be inserted here about why people want all Native people to be gone that has to do with claim to the land and distancing oneself from the responsibility for the genocide and holocaust that took place on the same land where we live each and every day).
The statement though - it made me think about this, what's it really like to "be an Indian on a regular basis." Being a Native person on a regular basis for me has been what it has always been - telling stories. By telling stories we give voice, we provide testimony to those things that other seem so quick to forget. We speak up in public places to remind people "we are still here." We provide alternative narratives and view points and ask questions, we are always asking questions. We live the past as we live the present as we live the future. We like laughing (hanging out with Native people is probably the most laughing you are ever gonna do, ever). And on those occasions where we "have to go be an Indian today' we do it, not just because it is meaningful and spiritual and beautiful - but because we are not so far away from a time where people died to be able to carry on these ways of balancing the earth. We never really "lost everything" and we are not so far away from when we were walking this earth "in a good way" - in fact we are so much closer each and every day.
The picture above is of the Trinity River which is the river that runs through the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Picture by me.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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