Saturday, September 8, 2012

Indigenous Nowhere

Diaspora is one of the most beautiful words I know.  It wraps itself around me, warm and welcoming and smelling of home.  Diaspora means there is nowhere to return to.  Diaspora means my people have left and changed and the land from where we came has forgotten us and changed too.  That land has opened its arms to others and we and our land are strangers except in our hearts.  Diaspora means return is impossible.  It calls on us to look at the land we stand upon whether we came here in desperate flight or in chains or to make our fortunes.  

This land is not mine.  No land is mine.  Only diaspora is my home for I am a guest everywhere and indigenous nowhere.

As a guest I owe a debt to my host.  I owe them the debt of one whose life has been saved.  Mine is a debt that can never be fully repaid and my debt is owed to my rightful hosts.  It is not owed to the conquerors of any land even if they are the ones who grant me papers of entry and passage and stand at the doorway when I enter.  They too are guests here.  They came in desperation or ambition.  My rightful hosts are indigenous people.  We owe our presence, our lives to them. 

To be a guest is an honor.  To be a thankless guest is more than shameful.  There is nothing worse than to be a guest who does not acknowledge her hosts and instead takes their land, their houses, and their lives. This is the travesty of settler colonialism, this is the heresy of the United States, this is the unforgivable sin of conquering nations.  This is too is travesty of people who have been deeply wronged, enslaved, forcibly relocated, exiled, banished, and threatened with genocide.  Our harrowing histories do not cleanse us of our sins and do not free us of our obligations.

Those of us who are indigenous nowhere are tied to indigenous people everywhere. We cannot claim land and they are not allowed to claim land that is rightfully theirs.  We belong nowhere and they belong where no one else will allow them to be. Their genocides are tied to our genocides.  We owe our existence, our very lives to them.  And we who are indigenous nowhere must know who are debt is owed to.


It is for another time, another essay to analyze more fully the fact that our killers are also shameless guests, are also indigenous nowhere.  It is also for another time to try and figure out how one becomes indigenous nowhere or how one remains indigenous.  

For now, I will content myself with one sidebar that I surely do not have time for but will include regardless.  It is a side bar for fellow Jews.  Everyone else, especially white non-Jewish immigrants to the US of however many generations ago, please deal with your own settler colonialist issues first.  I'm sure that will keep you occupied for a good long time.  When you're done I will be more than delighted to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Hear, oh Israel! We were forced off our land. We became indigenous nowhere. We are people in diaspora, in exhile. We have no home. We have no right to take another's home.  One wrongdoing cannot justify another.  We have come unto the land taken from us - land we could never return to - and we have erected our own arc de triumph over the ruins of indigenous people. There are many Jews in Israel and around the world working in solidarity with Palestinians but there are many who are not.  Many are the worst kinds of guests, colonizing guests. And those of us Jews who are not Israeli, who owe our debt to other hosts, we must remind each other that we are indigenous nowhere; that our common struggle is with indigenous peoples everywhere.

Our wisdom is in our exile. Our soul, our spirit is of diaspora.  For millenia our wisdom grew only in diaspora.  What strength lies in our history. What cruelty we enact when we deny our history and take on the colonizing ways of our killers and our oppressors.  We learned our thanklessness somewhere but that does not make us innocent. We forget who our lives are truly tied to. We forget who holds and twists the knife. Look at the beauty of our history in diaspora. Learn from the wisdom of being indigenous nowhere.  Our harrowing histories do not cleanse us of our sins and do not free us of our obligations.  We must know who our real hosts are and who we must thank.  Our common struggle is with indigenous peoples everywhere.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

She Bleeds.

She bled. This does not come as much of a surprise because she is a woman. Bleeding is our thing after least for a few days out of each month of our childbearing years if everything works down there the way our 6th grade health books tells us it should.

Yes. She bled. As she always did. Yet...this time was different. This time she was prolific in her bleeding. Her blood flowed like the River Jordan: fast and furious. To the point where those units of blood and mucosal tissue that could not seem to keep up decided to bond together and make the very thing she heard her mama say that she hated most in the world: the clot.

Yep. The blood clot. Those monstrosities of matter that make a woman afraid to laugh, cough, walk or breathe. Because she knows that if she moves even a hair a crimson fashion malfunction can overcome her.

She was experiencing the worst of it all for the first time. It went on like this month after suffering month.

"This shit is the worst" she thought.

The worst part of being a woman. The part that made her understand why her mama and aunties let the doctors take their lady parts when it all got to be too much. Passing clots the size of grapefruits, while cramping like hell, working full-time, raising kids alone, and making pound cakes for the church...this rites of passage was for the birds.

And yet...she quickly accepted this draining annoyance as her new normal. She wanted to shut this portion of her womanhood off at times but not knowing how to do so she relented. She began to question whether motherhood was still a viable or even desirable option for her. She tried to imagine a new uterus-less future for herself.

"How the hell did I get here?"

But she didn't linger there.

"I guess this is the price we pay for our lusciousness...for whatever that's worth."

A uterus in question and new language acquired, words like: iron-deficiency, anemia, hemorrhage, fibroid, and myomectomy became part of her everyday. A new obsession with Google-enabled self diagnoses was born.

She really tried to make the best of it, but it still sucked...the life out of her every month. It does so today, in fact. The suckiest thing about it is that she feels all alone. The blogs and message boards tell her that Black girls suffer from this crap the most, but none of them tell her why. And she's too ashamed to ask her friends and peers if they too suffer from the uterine fibroid blues. Not knowing if it is only a trait her and her mama and her aunties and her girl cousins share, she shrugs and suffers in silence and says,

"I guess this is just how it be."

As she bleeds and bleeds and bleeds...

Friday, July 13, 2012

But People are Dying!

In polite conversation with good progressives one sometimes encounters the more emotionally difficult areas of international geopolitics - civil wars, famine, natural disasters, and rampant poverty.  Sitting in the local activist-approved Starbucks-alternative, the disparities between our mocha and our perception of human suffering lie gaping before us pulling on every sense of injustice we have. The void that opens before us cuts a hole through the earth into the upside-down image of whatever third world country we're discussing, let's call it Africa.  The point is, we're staring at the undersides of black feet at the bottom of our black mochas that eerily resemble the incomprehensible chasm between our comfort and their despair and the words that slip off our tongues are like salve for the wound: "but people are dying!"  The words roll off the tongue and over the gaping hole and suddenly the unbearable distance, the aching chasm before us, is less threatening.  It's going to be okay.  

Obviously people are dying.  People die everywhere on earth all the time.  We don't need a void in our mocha to tell us that.  A third party listening in might think that the point is that people die in radically unjust ways.  After all, poor people in developing countries are dying much younger and for all sorts of reasons that rich people don't generally die from.  But that third party would be mistaken.  If that were the statement's utterance, it would be said with a sign as one reflects on the void in one's mocha.  

"But people are dying!" is said with force.  It is a reaction to the despair that threatens to swallow one whole at the impossible treachery of it all.  "But people are dying!" is a statement not just that people are dying in unjust ways but that something needs to and can be done about it, not just in theory but by people like me.  I need to and can stop the dying.  That is why it feels so good, why suddenly everything is going to be ok, why the conversation can end and the void can close and we can finish our mochas and go on with our lives.

At its heart it is not an observation about them, those people who are dying, but an observation about me and my capacity as I gaze at my own pain.  And here is where it's tragic danger lies. It is rooted in a all too common unstated assumtion that we wouldn't need to stop the dying if they could stop it themselves.  Certain types of people (poor, of color, third world-women, third world-queer people) need help and certain types of people (white, rich, first world) are the ones who can help.

This has been a long held belief.  It has led to many attempts over centuries by very well intentioned people to stop unjust death.  It's much easier to assume bad intentions on all those who went to colonized lands in the past, that they were going exclusively personal benefit.  The more difficult truth is that, despite some selfish colonizers, most people had good intentions not just for themselves but for the people in the lands they were traveling to.  They wanted to save them, bring them modern comforts, or educate them - not in a superficial way but in a deep believing way.  They wanted to help colonized people live better lives.  It may seem obvious now that what they were doing was often very harmful and created the dynamics of death that we observe today but in the past many were motivated by the same observation - "but people are dying! (and I can save them!)" 

The person staring at their mocha and sighing probably knows that people aren't just dying of apolitical reasons beyond the control of just those who are dying (and the people around them who don't seem to be helping).  People are dying for reasons we are deeply connected to.  The dilemma lies in the desperate need for us white folks to divorce ourselves from the bad white folks of the past - we're different! we're better! we're anti-racist! we mean well!  we can really help!

But the fact that we think WE are the ones who can and have to help is a continuation of the same systems of thought that helped create such oppressive deadly dynamics in the first place.  What on earth makes us think that if the aggregated results of our past interventions are more death and suffering that we are therefore the best group of people to stop the death and suffering?  If a company destroyed one of our coasts, lets pick BP at random, we would not bring them back to develop a plan for cleaning all of our beaches and solving all the ills of coastal life.

Given the same (not all-together ill-founded) logic, if a group of people destroyed the systems of sustainable living of another group and replaced it with systems that left them structurally poor and more vulnerable to natural disaster and famine, would you really want them trying to solve all your problems?

We have to resist the urge to say, "but those people aren't me!"  We come from the same frame of thought that gives us the ridiculous entitlement to think it is our job to go save people and fix things.  You may mean well but so did a lot of people in the past and look where that got us.

My point however, is not that we white folks (and we first world folks) can't do anything.  It's that we have to be very critical of our urge to want to solve everything right away and that we ourselves know how.  This has been written about a million times already, but let me reiterate the point here briefly.  We cannot be the leaders (or the string pullers) of a movement for real change in communities that are not our own.  We come from a long line of well-intentioned, entitled people who really messed shit up and it would be arrogant of ourselves to think we're any different.  We do not know the pain or the joyful fullness of peoples' lives that are not our own.  We do not know their wants and needs.  We can help.  We have access to people and resources they may not have access to.  But we cannot frame the movement or determine its demands.  We need to step back and listen.  And we need to stop exclaiming that people are dying.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Private Property is Theft.

            The issues of stolen land and private property implicate us all. The history and laws surrounding land interweaves connections between us and it. Our personal and communal histories are etched onto the land. And it carries our spiritual scars while simultaneously healing and nurturing people, animals, and plants. Written into its text is a history of colonial ruin and agriculture, past hopes and dead bodies. The land carries all the secrets we give it, those ones we cannot tell another being. Land bears the injustice of being owned and turned into a commodity. The earth might be trying to accommodate a place for all of us, but on this land you must make an increasing amount of money to afford a home. Land connects us to one another and to our ancestors, while simultaneously telling stories about capitalism, environmentalism, and homelessness.
            Land is especially important to indigenous people, though this has been largely hidden behind other issues. That the United States is predicated on stolen land is a common refrain, though nothing has been done to rectify it. Instead, the focus is on alcoholism, environmentalism, well-being, poverty, or language loss. In other words, the issue is anything but land while it is issues of land that connect to many of the present issues indigenous people face.
            Native people are the inheritors of this land, we are the ones who come from it, who have undertaken the care for it. A give and take - the land cares for us and we care for the land. Indigenous care for the land is both spiritual and ecological, they're one and the same. The land gives us food, provides us with shelter. We gain spiritual, mental, and bodily sustenance from the land. Unfortunately, when indigenous people are not allowed sovereignty over lands we deem sacred, then we cannot care for the land nor can we (or anyone else) receive proper care from the land. We are dying and you are dying; because its not just indigenous people who gain sustenance from the land, its everyone and everything.

These three paragraphs are just the beginning of a longer piece. To be continued . . . . 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Letting Go of the Revolution

The Revolution doesn't happen in our lifetimes. Don't look for it; you won't know it when it happens. It isn't a months- or years-long battle during which the voices of the oppressed reach a crescendo, overflow, take to the streets, and replace the current system with our own. The revolution isn't our dreams - it's impossibly beyond them. Our dreams are of this world order.

The language, the divisions, the categories, the orders of this world aren't just in us, we are them. I don't just talk about liberalism, I am a part of liberalism. I do not exist beyond liberalism no matter how critical of it I may be; it shapes the possibilities of my thought. The same can be said of all other contemporary modes of thought and distinction – of race and sexuality and individualism. We lack the capacity to conceive of the revolution or recognize it if and when it comes.

We fight for a better world, we dream about it, but we are selling our own dreams short to say we know what "after the revolution" looks like. Likewise, we are lying to ourselves if we claim to know our actions are going to bring it about and not just get co-opted for the status quo or some other revolution, not "the revolution" but a revolution - the kind that sucks. You know the kind - the only kind that ever has been (not like the American or the French Revolution) - a revolution in thought and lived experience, like the kind that brought us liberalism and colonialism - that kind of revolution. The kind that's messy, that's slow, that's unexceptional in every way until it has passed and everything is different and we're - well, we're dead. It passed us and we never even knew it happened because we are of the old world order.

As folks at Occupy know, the stakes are high. Real change has nothing to do with democrats or republicans in Congress or the White House. But it is not just that the stakes are high, it is that they exist at all - that the stakes we're trying to move and to transform are liberalism and capitalism or, depending on what working group you are in, heterosexism, racism, and structured oppression in all of its varied and interconnected forms in our movements and in the world. The revolution isn't when heterosexism stops being a problem - it's when heterosexuality stops being an intelligible category. Revolution isn't when we look back at capitalism and think "what were they thinking?" Capitalism was a revolution because today the vast majority of folks can't wrap their minds around the fact that money can exist without capitalism (or that more than two genders are possible). Revolution isn't a blood in the streets thing, at least not the kind of revolution that fundamentally changes the world. Revolution is total and complete incomprehension. And that's why we have to let it go. If it comes and we recognize it, it's not the revolution.

As much as it pains me to say, and as much as it goes against the ways we talk about the revolution so often, if the revolution comes and I'm still a woman, it's not a revolution. Our categories are of the old world order - both the ones we love and the ones we struggle to change and destabilize.

* * *

In the early, heady days of Occupy, I lay in bed with my partner and anxiously whispered, "What if this is it? What if this is the revolution?" Here was something that started like so many other hopeful monsters* that we've never heard of – a few activists had an idea for an event, but instead of passing with a few dozen participants and a comment in a local paper and a three day long argument on a few blogs, it took off. What if I'm wrong, I thought (dare I say hoped?), and revolutions happen just as we hope they do in our wildest dreams - what if this was it? Within a few weeks I was livid and over it - Occupy was just a manarchist party. These days I think Occupy is complicated, a mix of hope and potential and the same fucked up shit we see and fight in all of our movements only bigger and faster. I'm open to the idea that this is part of a revolution, a real one, the kind that radically changes how we think. But I don't think we can know what kind of revolution it is a part of, if any.

We can never know who our movements will help or what kind of change, if any, they will create. This movement, any movement, may do more to entrench capitalism, sexism, or our current government structure than the work of a Republican president. We have no way of knowing. I doubt the doctors who came up with the term "homosexual" were thinking of RuPaul's Drag Race as a natural progression of their work. Maybe they'd be pleased, probably just confused. Likewise, our actions, the systems, and ideas which we create can turn on us just as they can lift us up. They do not belong to us. We do not know what purpose they will serve once they are released into the world. For all of the ideas, actions, movements, and campaigns that exist maybe one will mutate into the revolution we dream of. Millions more will simply putter out of existence without notice or concern. Maybe a few will become revolutions that are truly terrible. Many will probably strengthen or chip away at the world order. Maybe, just maybe, one hopeful monster will become the most amazingly inconceivable revolution possible - the one beyond our wildest hopes and understandings - the one we never even dreamed of because it was so wonderful. The possibilities are incredible. They can also be incredibly terrible.

Despite all the work we undertake to change the world for the better, we do not know what good our actions will do in the long run. Co-optation always looms over movements, especially more successful ones, threatening the possibilities of real change. If the heart of Occupy, or any movement which critiques the foundation of our society as inherently inequitable and unjust, gets lost or silenced and the paraphernalia, the words and symbols become part of the very structures of injustice that perpetuate inequity, we have helped entrench the system we were fighting against. But while co-optation is a fear, it is based on deeper uncertainties.

We have faith that the work we do is good and will, in the long run, bring about more good in the world. We believe we know what is good – what a better world might look like. We have faith that our actions can bring it. But our belief in what a better world might look like is necessarily based on flawed judgement, rooted in the current world order. Not only do we not know what our actions will bring about, we do not have the perspective to know whether our actions, ideals, and dreams are “good.” Our ideas of good are narrow. They are shaped by liberalism and capitalism and everything we know, and they take place on the brink of utter unknowability.. We do not know if our actions or ideas are “for the best.” If we're talking about revolution, real change, we must let go of any idea that we know what is right and that our actions will help bring it about – we will most likely be proven wrong. We do not know that we are fighting for “good” things. We do not know what the future holds. We are little people in little movements in a big world with a long history. This Occupy movement is hope and it's faith, but it is not knowing. We stand with an infinite dearth of knowledge before the chasm of infinite possibility.

It is this infinite possibility that we cannot forget. Despite the not knowing, we on the left keep on going not because this movement is what creates The Revolution, not because we know our struggles will make the world a better place (they may not, they may get co-opted or just further entrench the oppressions we are fighting against). We keep going because we have faith in our work and because the more hopeful monsters we create the more likely it is that one of them will mutate into a wonderful monstrous future that we don't even recognize because it is so incredibly awesome. We especially don't fight for ourselves. Like I said, we'll be dead before we know it happened even if it happens in our lifetime. And that goes for terrible revolutions too - we won't know to be miserable, so I guess there's a silver lining. The possibilities are literally endless. The point is, we can't stop now.

*"hopeful monsters" is a phrase that I took from Radiolab on WNYC where it was used to describe how viruses are created in an episode called "Patient Zero." It contributed to my understanding about movements and change in unexpected ways.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indian Giver

This story begins with a blanket, a Pendleton blanket to be exact. When I was 13 I received a Pendleton for graduating middle school. To be honest, I was confused and slightly embarrassed by this gift. Confused, because I had grown up a city kid unaware of what I was given. My father attempted to explain to me that a Pendleton was gifted when someone had achieved something, such as graduating. It wasnt until years later that I was able to fully comprehend that Pendletons are expensive blankets that Native Americans gift one another in honor. My lack of understanding regarding the blanket also contributed to my embarrassment over it. In the 90s, Native American patterns were not en vogue. They looked gauche and cheesy, connected to the Southwest and the 1970s. Additionally, I had no real connection to my own indigenous ancestry having grown up in a suburb of Los Angeles (far away from my families reservation in North Dakota), so I could not connect the Pendleton gift to any prior experience. I share these reactions because they fit snugly within the larger history of indigenous people of North America. My experience growing up was one of cultural disconnection, and it fits neatly into the broader history of cultural assimilation experienced by many indigenous people. My blanket collected dust for a decade, until I was renting my own apartment, in need of warmth during the lonely Los Angeles nights of my early twenties.

Five years after pulling that blanket out of my closet, MGMT release their video for Time To Pretend ( The video features a strange amalgam of non-Native looking kids and pan-indigenous fashion mixed with1990s neon. The clothing and the actions of the band are of innocent children playing neo-Indian: they run through tall grass, "hunting" with bows and arrows, they participate in ceremonies, they play drums. The space and place of the video dances between various cultures and locales. On one hand it is a post-apocalyptic anti-capitalism neo-primitivist dream: they literally burn money for warmth, they eat raw meat, their clothing is a scavenged mix of modern clothing and animal hides. On the other hand, the imagery of the video makes nearly direct reference to various eras and cultures of indigenous Americans: there are Mesoamerican buildings with the attendant headdresses. Another part of the video features clothing that looks like the revolutionary era war garb that many indigenous people wore during the eighteenth century.

While the song Time to Pretend discusses the banality of adulthood, the video supports the idea of creative innocence in the face of the normal. The main marker of innocence in this video is the indigenous dress and actions of the videos actors. The band members act like children playing Indian, much like the lost boys from Peter Pan. In many ways, the video explicitly connects indigineity and innocence. This connection between innocence and indigenous people has a long history spanning from highly regarded authors of liberal theory (Deloria:1995,4) to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. On one hand indigenous people are stupid and easily manipulated, on the other their innocence is regarded as something to look up to American Indians have, rather ironically, represented the liberal ideal of freedom. This was largely because American Indian society was thought to represent lawlessness and a people who existed without a social contract. American Indian innocence often accompanies ideas of their lack of scientific progress and their ability to be easily manipulated. These ideas perpetuate the idea that indigenous people had no agency, they were duped into giving away land for trinkets.

I bring up the MGMT video because it had to start somewhere. I dont believe that the current fashion craze for Navajo patterns, Indian headdresses and American Indian war paint has developed entirely from the MGMT video. However, the MGMT video is one of many inspirations for it. I view the cooption of indigenous patterns to be part of a larger issue than fashion this is rampant in music as well. Recent album covers and band names have increasingly had some type of American Indian influence. Here is a list of just a few: Indian Jewelry, Eskmo, Warpaint, Apache Beat (whose album is called Last Chants), Chief (with an album named Modern Rituals) and Neon Indian. Undoubtedly, these names and fashions run the gamut of offensive to relatively benign. I take offense to the wearing of headdresses and faux Indian war paint by non-Natives (who dont understand the cultural significance of either), I dont take offense to a band being called Neon Indian. However, what is and isnt offensive has already been elaborated by several others. I want to understand why this is happening now, when our government is engaged in a war effort and our economy has completely flunked.

American Indians (as well as the other related imagery: wolves, feathers, beads, buffalo, horses) connect to something that is integrally American. But how and why does this happen? There is an obvious juxtaposition inherent in this: American Indians are indigenous and often called the First Americans but they were also viewed as dangerous enemies to the progress of Manifest Destiny. American Indians were once viewed in much the same way as modern terrorists, during the 19th century attempts to exterminate entire tribes by settlers was typically ignored and often allowed to happen without serious governmental repercussion. Currently, American Indians continue to be stereotyped as poor alcoholics who have forgotten their culture, they are believed to be bereft of what once made them great, they are inauthentic and out-of time. The juxtaposition is two-fold: American Indian patterns and things are at the height of fashion even though these things connect to a people who were once targeted to be killed for non-Native land acquisition. Similarly, American Indians today face stereotypes of disappearance, inauthenticity, and alcoholism. Yet, the stereotype of savage innocents persists, these are the Indians seen in the MGMT video: childlike and liberated, so primitive and anti-capitalist they burn money for food and warmth. The crux of the problem is that the savage innocents dont exist in the real world, theyre a progressive fantasy from another era, a hodge-podge of Peter Pans Lost Boys and 1970s environmentalism. They never existed, theyre an entirely culturally created image, and this is what makes them safe for cultural consumption. They are memoirs from our collective childhood of Star Wars, Disneys Peter Pan and our parents impressions of the sixties and seventies. It would be uncouth to add a splash of genocide to this mix, dear, because this is about the children and our collective remembered innocence.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Another part of this story has to do with the era that were currently in. The United States has been involved in two colonial and capitalist wars for several years. These wars involve the creation of the enemy as an other people from countries in the Middle East have been constructed as enemies of the United States as well as enemies of the tenets of the United States, as American Indians once were. While there are very obvious differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the various tribal nations of the United States, the discourse and development of all of these wars has been similar. In a strange embracing of feminism, women are created as the feminist crisis situation. Native American women were viewed as drudges who did all the work, while Native American men were considered lazy. Muslim women who cover are considered oppressed. Similarly, within the United States, it was about how American Indians lived: American Indian women were bad mothers and were treated badly by their husbands, they had no government or they were ruled by despots. In the end, it all sounds the same: these people dont have democracy, choice, freedom, or equality. Moral and ethical problems regarding how people live has been a call to arms for decades and possibly centuries. American policy has dictated that democracy (and capitalism) must be brought to those who are believed to live without it.

The essential difference is that American Indians were conquered whereas Iraq and Afghanistan have not been. This is the reason why moccasins and Navajo patterns can be fashionable, but Rachel Ray cannot wear a scarf resembling a keffiyeh in a Dunkin Donuts advertisement. Once a group has been conquered (or colonized) they are no longer a threat, and allegiance to them is no longer a threat. Once they are conquered, the other becomes assimilated into the story of the nation and onto the very bodies (in the form of clothing) of the nation. A similar pattern has followed with Japan after the United States occupied Japan with US military bases and administered help in rebuilding their country after WWII. At one time Japan was the ultimate enemy of the United States, but after WWII and after theyve established a successful capitalist economy, snippets of Japanese culture has filtered into US consciousness and become fashionable among certain circles. Manga is one iteration of this, as is Gwen Stefanis commodification of harajuku girls (there are several iterations of this that are beyond the scope of this article).

Of course, the figure that Native Americans pose in this story is unique. There is a tension between the reality of the situation (genocide and poverty), stereotypes of that reality (alcoholism), and the childish stereotypes of storybooks and liberal theory (noble savages). In other words, Native Americans face denigration as poor alcoholics with no recognition of the collective historical trauma theyve endured, nor is there much mention made of the economic poverty some tribal peoples have been forced to live in. Similarly, iterations of the Noble Savage stereotype pervade our culture constantly (in the form of childrens movies and liberal theory), as does the simple historical idea that Native Americans have been duped into giving up their land. Phil Deloria discusses this in Playing Indian, in which he points out that American Indians had to be assimilated into the national consciousness while they simultaneously had to be degraded. Because American Indians are indigenous to the United States, in order for non-Natives to feel that they belonged on this land they had to assimilate Native Americans into themselves, while they also had to degrade them through stereotypes and discourse. Native Americans are honored and appropriated for what they once were (or, rather, for what they were believed to be), while they are blamed for being alcoholics, poor, lawless, and for having lost their culture. A frightening amount of paternalism runs rampant in this it is the white anthropologist who understands real indigeneity, it is the non-Native government that knows what is best for them, it is the rich urban youth who now understand the aesthetic value and history of a Pendleton blanket. This is not a juxtaposition, it is a Janus head coin. On one side Indians represent innocence and freedom, and on the other they portray stupidity and lawlessness. This is what happens to indigenous people within a settler society.

Perhaps the current fashion trends are only frightening in how they represent this, a strange co-option of indigeneity and Americana while a war is being fought and constantly elided, while the real history and trauma that Native Americans have faced is simultaneously elided in the stories we tell one another.

Works Cited:

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. Yale University Press, 1998.

If interested in this topic, please read:

Julia Fiesenthal, "The Strange History of the Indian Trade Blanket":

Sasha Houston Brown "An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters":

Al Jazeera "Don't Trend on My Culture":

My Culture is Not a Trend:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Brown Skin Feminisms: Hip Hop and Sexism, Part 1

I witnessed a disturbing Twitter interaction between two rappers (one male, one female) and a popular hip hop/urban blog over the past 24 hours. It all started when the male rapper (an up-and-coming hip hop star with a Shawn Carter co-sign) sent out tweets (jokingly) referring to past sexual exploits with the female rapper (a well-known indie rapper from NYC). It was inappropriate from the start for my tastes, but it probably would’ve been easy to dismiss after the first tweet. However, even after she asked him to cut it out, the male rapper went on to send an even more explicit tweet pointing to the way the female rapper supposedly liked to “receive” sex (based on his fantasy experience!). Now, it was clear to me from the beginning that this was all a joke to him. The female rapper didn’t find it so funny. Now I don’t know her well at all but I am some what acquainted with the female rapper through a mutual close friend. Therefore, I could sort of pick up how she was feeling about the whole conversation through her responses. I myself took exception to the whole exchange and even (sub-)tweeted a message that expressed my disdain. She did the same by making a remark or two about it but she quickly moved on.

It was not until this morning that my last feminist nerve was completely worked to no end. I woke up to read my timeline on Twitter (as we social media addicts tend to do each morning) only to find that the male rapper was complaining to the popular hip hop blog about reporting on his twitter exchange with the female rapper from the night before. They had, in fact, reported it as a news story. He would go on to apologize to the female rapper for his joke-gone-too-far and the aftermath. For its part, the blog only felt it necessary to apologize to the male rapper for exposing his wordplay with a friend. They mentioned the female rapper in the tweet, but did not offer her one world of apology for defaming her name before its thousands of blog readers. UGH! Of course I went on an all out twitter rant!!!!

What is the deal with the sexism in hip hop in 2011? I know that this topic has become so cliché and normalized it’s kind of sickening. But it still drives me crazy…why must hip hop and sexism go together like ODB and Mariah; babies and pacifiers? As a life long hip hop lover and critic, I am tired of it all. I, of course, cannot blame one segment of the population or a particular group of people. Anyone who comes into contact with or has anything to do with the production (I mean this in a cultural sense here) is partially responsible. There is no accountability for anyone: the artist, the consumer, corporate record labels, advertisers, and scholars/critics; not a one of us. We let soooooooo much slide in the name of a dope beat, some commercial success, and/or “keeping it real”. Well…for me and my crew (hip hop speak for my friends), it’s a wrap for keeping it real if we are only going to simply keep it real ignorant. For my part, I plan to use this space over the next few weeks to further investigate the role of feminism in hip hop discourse and production. Furthermore, I would like to look at how feminists can fight sexism in both the commercial and underground arenas of hip hop in the 21st century. More to come…