My friend Walt used to tell a story. He’d tell people of an Anishanaabe elder who spoke of the fire at the beginning of the world, “No” he’d say ,”before the beginning.” All the people sat together around that fire with the creator. One by … Continue reading Who Am I?
500 Years of Genocide
I went to listen to the senior seminar of a student that I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the past few months today. Quinn will be graduating with a degree in psychology and was speaking to the problem of suicide in Native American communities in the U.S. and the connection to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and inter-generational trauma.
Her presentation was excellent overall and gave me something particularly new to think about. I’ve heard the comparison over the years between the holocaust and Native genocide. Quinn pointed out a key difference. Many of the survivors of the holocaust were able to leave the concentration camps when the war was over. That’s not an option in this case, at least not for the vast majority.
I am reminded of my old friend Walt Bresette. Walt was Anishinaabe from the Red Cliff Indian Reservation on the shores of Lake Superior. He would often go around speaking to groups about mining and other environmental issues and he would tell these largely non-Native groups– We must come to recognize this place as our home. We don’t do that. We tend to believe that if we don’t live here we can live there. It’s not that way for the Anishanaabe. For the Anishanaabe this place is home. This was where the creator led them, to this place where the food grows on water, that food we call wild rice.
So, we look at the history of Native people in the U.S. forced into small corners of their home, these corners we call reservations, as part of the torture. So, on the reservation is the place of torture because it is what remains of the home and off the reservation is the place of torture because it is the part of the home that was stolen.
What do we do with that?
I’m thinking about all this not only because of Quinn’s presentation, but because I lost an old friend and mentor this past week. He was shot. His nephew shot him. A middle-aged Indian had his brains blown out by a somewhat younger Indian. Why? No one really knows. I doubt the nephew really even fully knows why he pulled that trigger.
What I do keep thinking is that while that young man pulled the trigger, a whole society, a society of which I am a part, murdered my friend.
The stealing of land, the failure to tell the truth of history, the economic, environmental, and social acts of destruction aimed toward the Indigenous people of this land for the past 500+ years, told that young man who he is. Those actions helped him define his own view of himself and determine his response to the world. Every action leads somewhere. Quinn spoke today of inter-generational trauma and ACEs impact on the high levels of suicide in Native American communities. I suspect the same is true for acts of violence and for deaths due to drug and alcohol overdoses as well.
Until we, as a society, really deeply and sincerely address those underlying causes, until we speak the truth of the history, mourn together, and change our actions, we are still engaging in genocide every day and every moment of each day.
The Boarding Schools Continue
I was a foster parent for a bit over a year before I moved to Morris. It gave me an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the foster care system in Minnesota as well as to care pretty deeply about some profoundly hurt children.
The foster care system in Minnesota is a lot like that in other states. It needs systemic change. Wonderful, caring people work within the system. They are overworked, under prepared for their roles, often lacking cultural competence for working with the groups that they interact with, and eventually just burned out.
There’s a piece though that troubles me most deeply about how the system works. Here in Minnesota that piece goes back to 1871 with the opening of the White Earth Indian School. The White Earth Indian School was one of sixteen boarding schools in Minnesota, the largest of which was on the campus where I now work. The Morris Industrial School for Indians which was begun by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and later run by the Federal Government had over 2000 students during its 22 year history from 1887 to 1909. These schools were where Minnesota lived out that idea made famous by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”
Native children were kidnapped. Their hair was cut. They were denied their traditional diets and forced to speak only English. They could no longer practice their own spiritual beliefs or learn from their elders. Entire generations began to lose a sense of who they were. We know now that this loss has fed into many of the challenges that our Native communities face today. We understand that the destruction of the Native diet has led to diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. We know that people need a sense of family and self to stay clean of drugs and to succeed economically and emotionally. We know that many of the elders who lived through the boarding schools still carry the trauma and that those experiences are handed down one way or another.
Why does that matter? Well, here in Minnesota 2% of the population is Native. Yet, over 20% of the children in foster care are Native. In 1871, maybe the Federal government didn’t understand the culture of the Native people and how the community raised children. Maybe they really thought they were doing something good. I don’t know. What I do know is that today we know better. Today we know that it’s wrong to simply kidnap those children, cut their hair, take away their language and their beliefs, and feed them poison. Yet we continue.
The system needs to change. Stop putting Native kids in foster care at record rates. Instead, feed them good food, bring back their languages, let them learn their history and their values, honor their communities.
The Red Dress
Miigwetch to David Manuel or whoever took this photo.
I’ll start this by being clear. My ancestors are from Luxembourg and surrounding countries. Sometimes when I advocate that the people of the over 500 different tribal nations in the place now referred to as North America get treated with basic respect and dignity I am asked if I am Native. I’m not. I was just raised to care for and respect my neighbor. And, I’ve had the good fortune to count some great Indians among my dearest friends.
I saw the photo of the red dress this morning. It made me think. I have long believed that racism is an act of fear more than power. Somewhere in our being white folks recognize that we’ve done wrong for these many generations and we’re afraid of retribution. We’re afraid of what could happen if everyone else had homes, jobs, money, education, and a safe place to be, at the same level that we do.
I’m not talking about individual fear. Some people individually have moved past it. But, as a group, we’re afraid.
We women, we have to address that fear. It’s our to address because we are strong. I remember as a young activist standing on the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol, listening to Frannie Van Zile from the Mole Lake Nation. She was talking about the proposed Crandon mine. She said “You women, you women out there, you are the keepers of the water.” Those words changed my life. In many Indigenous cultures women are respected and honored. They are recognized to carry an important power, that they are keepers of the water, bearers of life.
That red dress reminds me that Native women, in fact all women of color, are in great danger because fear attacks where power resides. It also reminds me that, as a woman, I have a responsibility to my sisters to care for them, to mourn their loss, and to do what I am able to keep them safe.
Another Addict Is Gone
Another addict died this week. Did it matter?
While more white people in Minnesota die of opioid abuse than any other population in the state, the tribes are some of the hardest hit by the epidemic. In 2016, 395 Minnesota residents died of overdoses. Native people in Minnesota die at a rate nearly 6x as high as whites. Yet there are no answers.
Native people are roughly 2% of the population of the state. Why are they dying every day from addiction?
American Community Survey data suggests that Minnesota has a poverty rate of 10.8%. Native people, however in our state face a poverty rate of 31.4%. Native people are also less likely to make it through the educational system.
Still, after more than 200 years of attacks by European invaders and their descendants the tribes survive. But, yet the attacks continue.
If white people were dying of opioid abuse at a rate 6x that of Native people, would we be responding differently?
Success in recovering from addiction requires hope and stability. Right now that hope and stability doesn’t exist. We need to change that. We can arrest as many dealers as we want and more will appear. If we’re serious about ending the opioid epidemic, we need to address racism. Here are a few steps to take.
- Learn about Native history and treaty rights
- Support local Native run businesses
- Be a vocal ally
- Support efforts to teach Native languages
- Encourage our schools to accurately teach about the history and cultures of tribes
- Help build a sustainable local economy
- Support young people by showing that you care in whatever ways that you can
- Listen to the elders and learn
- Stop and think
- Question the system
Why the Violence and What’s the Role of the White Ally?
April 27th, 2015
Therein lies the big question; what happens when the powers that be have already decided they have the o.k. to attack?
I started this entry by noting that I’m a white anti-racist activist. That white piece is important here. I think it’s important that those of us who are allies ask ourselves how our whiteness impacts our perceptions of what nonviolence means, our understanding of its history, our willingness to make the commitment, and our expectations of our fellow activists in communities of Color.
In recent months there’s been a story replaying across the U.S. Communities of Color, especially Black activists having been fighting back specifically against police brutality and more broadly against racist systems. In many renditions of this story there are some incidents of disruption of the day to day and occasionally violence, though that tends to be sporadic. The mainstream press likes to grab onto it and make it into news.
What happens in these stories is that white liberals, including many good activists who have claimed to care about racism for years, get upset because of what they see to be violent actions and disruptive behaviors. They want peaceful protest. They want actions to be directed toward a clear target and to follow the rules and regulations set forth. They’d feel much more comfortable with a permitted rally or march. They definitely get angry when things get out of control, when they can’t see the strategy, and when actions they deem to be violent happen.
Part of what made the Civil Rights Movement a success were those who were both committed to nonviolence and ready to defend themselves and those around them with a weapon if necessary. We forget that. We forget the disruptions that the were caused by the actions of those who struggled for freedom. We forget that the gains beyond those told about in a page or two in a history book some February day in some classroom somewhere that took lifetimes and lives to achieve.
The struggles going on in our communities are like that. Mainstream media is giving us that one line quip about a 500+ year story. Just like that history book they’ve missed almost everything and told us only what they wanted us to hear. We have to ask ourselves is it violence when people are acting against generations of genocide (cultural and physical)? Is it violence when people are acting against centuries of economic oppression in its multiple forms from physical slavery to being denied equal education, pay, and access to work? Is it violence when people are acting against prison, housing, healthcare, and education systems that all work against them? Or is it simply self defense?
My fellow white anti-racist allies, I have to challenge us. It’s time for us to step up. We must take our role as allies seriously and step out into our communities of privilege to create change, to educate, and to eliminate the systems of oppression. Many of us are doing the work in some way, a few of us live it with our hearts each day. Now’s the time for all of us to do that. Peace can’t happen until we take our role so that our brothers and sisters don’t have to defend themselves.
Thoughts on How to Be a White Ally in the Struggle
December 6th, 2014
I hear some of my fellow white activists struggling to find a way to be allies in this latest chapter in the ongoing struggle for justice for Black people and, I believe, all People of Color. This is a difficult puzzle for a group of people who have for many generations held the scepter of power, to consider not wielding it. I am writing the following not a final thought for myself or anyone else, but as my own process of thinking things through. I welcome any People of Color who might read it to tell me if I am off track or continuing to carry out my privilege in my words. I welcome other anti-racist allies to consider how these thoughts might fit or not fit your own practice and to share your thoughts as well. Here’s what I’m thinking about how to best be an ally in the struggle for justice for Black people and all People of Color. I recognize that the story is far from a perfect analogy, but I hope that it works.
Imagine yourself and a friend. That friend grew up in an abusive situation (society). They didn’t choose that situation. It was simply the one that they were born into. When you were younger you didn’t realize the nature of your friend’s situation. At some point you realized you weren’t allowed to go to that person’s house and slowly you learned other unwritten rules. As you both grew older you both grew stronger and wiser as well. Your friend stretched their wings in small ways at first, gaining little freedoms here and there. Now, they’ve come to the point that they’ve decided to confront their abuser. What do you do?
Do you say follow me I’ll figure out a plan to deal with this? Do you tell them to stop? Do you tell them to behave and it will be o.k.?
No, I think you say I love you. I respect your decision and stand behind you. Now what do you want from me to help you make it happen? Then you listen, do what you are able, mourn the losses, and rejoice when the struggle is won.
Musings After Fergusen
I was looking at Facebook today, skimming messages, seeing a lot of sadness from my politically liberal, progressive, and radical friends about the decision in the case and more broadly around how it has been considered a reflection of how Blacks are demonized in the U.S. Then I saw a message that troubled me more. It was from someone who I care about deeply and who generally doesn’t share my politically ideologies. It was a picture of an African American police office (I think it was an actor, but I couldn’t remember the show) with the message “Instead of saying ‘fuck the police’ How about you stop breaking the fucking law.”
It troubled me more because I know this woman to be a loving mom with beautiful, smart kids, a caring person who is very involved in her community and church. She’s someone who is thoughtful, politically engaged, and wants the best for the little ones that she is raising as well as herself and her husband, friends, and family. Politically a conservative yes, but not so different from me or anyone else I know in her underlying human needs and wants, and someone who I love as family.
I had to decide what to do. Should I ignore this post that bugged me and keep tension out of the family or do my job as an anti-racist activist and say something. There was no choice there never is. I made a comment. I started it with letting her know that I love and respect her then went into just acknowledging that my experience and the first hand accounts I’ve heard in my years of work tell me that the systems (police, schools, healthcare, etc) treat People of Color whether they be African American, Latino, Native American, or any other group differently than they treat White folks and that there are no “bad guys” unless society pushes people into that behavior. I opted not to get into how behaviors are looked at differently depending on who you are. It was just a brief facebook post and I thought that would get too confusing for a first naming. I did, however, suggest reading Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. I don’t know, maybe she will. She is a person who likes to learn and think.
As for me, I continue to think about what brought me to this place.
Thinking about the stereotypes associated too often with African Americans; criminals, uneducated, low income, addicts, unwed moms, etc. reminded me of when my eyes were first being pried open as a student at UW-Stevens Point. I think it was during the time that I was SOURCE director and working to ensure that the Black Student Union get a fair trial with the Student Government Association regarding some small issues with a member of the BSU who had been accused of taking some money at an event. I understood that race was a huge factor in this case and that it would be difficult for the all Black group to get a fair hearing from nearly all white government. I went to several mentors for advice. It was somewhere in here that I learned about the struggles that Dr. Andrea Turner had finding housing when she’d first moved to town in the 1990’s. The Affirmative Action Director for the University was having to deal with racist landlords! What the heck! She left Stevens Point after only a few years.
Another Point story for me was a diorama in Andy Gokee’s office. Andy works in the Native American Center there. The diorama was one he made with his daughter when she was in elementary school. Her teacher was teaching the kids something about Native Americans and was having the kids make Indian teepees. The Gokee family has a long and proud history in what is now Wisconsin and their tribe, the Anishanabe didn’t live in teepees. Andy took his anger and funneled it into teaching and made a beautiful piece of work with his daughter that shows more accurately how her ancestors lived.
From there I go to the road, I keep coming back to that Protect the Earth Walk from Red Cliff to Madison. We walked to draw attention to the seventh generation amendment, the environment, social justice, and to ask people what they wanted for the seventh generation. I still see it. Walking down the road, Frank, Walt, and I and there’s an older man, a white man across the road looking at us. We cross to go talk with him. Frank who is white and middle aged starts up the conversation. Walt who is unmistakably Native is standing next to him and I’m a step or two off to the side. Frank explains what we’re doing and asks him his thoughts. The older man responds as if Walt and I aren’t even there with a tirade about those “goddamn Indians and those goddamn Indian casinos.” I realize he has the ability to choose not to see us.
There it is. There’s privilege. Those of us with privilege get to decide what to see, who to see, what to do with what we see. Those without privilege had better see everything or they will be beaten and killed by whatever they miss in that one moment that they miss it.
I was hoping that I would come out of this free writing exercise with some great insight on moving forward. I’m not sure that I have. I only know that the toughest folks to confront are the ones you love and those are the ones you must confront. Do so lovingly. And, that a whole lot of stuff has brought me here, I am honored to have been given the gifts of these experiences though many have made me sad. I am and continue to be amazed by the strength of those I have grown to know.
Keep on keeping on.
Privilege and Guilt– One Activist’s Perspective
January 21st, 2014
In that discomfort I see hope. There’s no reason to fix a problem until we see a problem exists. Right now some of my activist friends are looking into a glaring light and their eyes are hurting. They want to turn away. Instead I hope they will give their eyes the chance to adjust and that they will do the work that needs to be done on this issue just as they do on so many related concerns.
There is a particular term that has been thrown about lately and seems to be being inappropriately defined. I’d like to offer my fellow activists some more accurate definitions. The term that is generating heat and misconceptions is White privilege. White privilege simply means that by the nature of our skin color White people, as a group, have access to resources at a different level than do People of Color. As a group we are more likely to have access to jobs, education, and other positives. We’re also, as a group, less likely to experience the negative impacts of these systems like jail, homelessness, poverty, etc. That doesn’t mean that White people don’t go to jail or aren’t homeless, or aren’t struggling economically. Most certainly many are. However the research is clear White folks have a better chance in life just because we were born White. That’s reality.
Now, that’s something different than what I’ve been hearing some of my fellow White activists turning to. They are quickly pulling out White guilt and claiming they are being made to feel White guilt. White guilt is about feeling bad about yourself because you were born with White skin and frankly, it’s a waste of time and energy. No matter how badly you feel or how many tears you cry your guilt isn’t helping anybody.
So why talk about privilege if it isn’t to make someone feel guilty? Here’s why; when people with privilege are willing to act in their every day to assure that everyone gets their needs met and privilege is no longer a reality we all win. If you believe in social, economic, environmental justice and in peace, it can’t just be for some people. If it is, well, then it’s really not for anyone.
I know, we’re all working hard on the issues we’ve chosen and can’t take on one more thing. Well, don’t take on something new. Instead, ask yourself what am I doing in my current action that makes this work for everyone? How am I acting in my everyday?
A few months ago I had the good opportunity to travel to Tennessee with a group of students of Color from the UW. Along the way I got into a conversation with a few of them and one young man was speaking to how racism affected his every day. He told us of how White people would rather stand on the bus than sit next to him, a young Black man. It made me think. How do I respond in those moments? I encourage my fellow White activists to ask yourself over and over again in those little moments in which you are engaging with people of Color what are you thinking? What prejudices are defining your actions? How are you overcoming those prejudices? I encourage all to do the same exercises in those moments in our groups and activities to learn about ourselves and how we unintentionally welcome or turn away those who do not look like us.
Let go of the guilt. It’s doing none of us any good. Instead start asking questions of yourself and the world you live in and start acting.