When I was a senior in high school, I wrote a lengthy research paper on American Indian Sovereignty for my U.S. Government class. I pored over books detailing the stories of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which featured characters Russell Means and Leonard Peltier in the settings of Wounded Knee and Washington, D.C. I got an A on the paper. Since then, I have written many papers on American Indian sovereignty, history, art, and literature, including a Georgetown masters thesis entitled “Shaping an Audience in American Indian Women’s Literature.” I’m very proud of the work I’ve done, but every November, during American Indian Heritage month, I feel like there is still more work for me to do. What follows are ways that I have been thinking about and/or working toward ways to underscore the continuing story of Indians in America.
Last week, my literature students read works by Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, and N. Scott Momaday (I also hosted a Poetry at Noon session at MC-Rockville, featuring these same poets). This morning, my students read Louise Erdrich’s poem “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways.” I do this the immediate days before Thanksgiving in order to remind my (mostly) non-native students that American Indian people and their ideas still flourish in this country, that the myth of Thanksgiving — where Pilgrims and Indians supposedly sat down together to share a harvest meal — is not the end of the Indians’ story, that, indeed, the c0mplex narrative of the Indian continues to weave into, out of, and with the American narrative. Sometimes there are moments when my students roll their eyes to express that they have been over this before, that they know Indians still exist, that they know there are such things as reservations, casinos, and museums, but that’s usually as far as it goes. Ask them to point out a Native person in a classroom and none of them will be likely to do so, despite my standing at the front of the room.
Last night, in response to the football game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, I posted this status on my Facebook page: “Just realized that the historic American battle between the cowboys and the Indians still plays out on the football field. The irony is that the Indians represent Washington, D.C.” To my surprise, the posting sparked an interesting conversation about racist mascots. One person argued that there is a difference between racist and “semi-racist” mascots: i.e. the Cleveland Indians are racist, because the caricature exaggerates Indian features, complete with bright red skin, arched nose, and a feather on the head; the Washington Redksins are “semi-racist,” because the caricature looks “normalish” (which I understand to mean “more like a real Indian”) with darker red skin, arched nose, and feather on the head. To this, I argued that racism doesn’t exist on a spectrum, and that naming a team after a peoples is a form of racism. After all, as the old argument goes, teams today would never be called the Negros, the Jews, the Darkies, the Blacks, or the Slaves. We know better.
Last night, I watched a DVD of The West Wing and caught the episode, “The Indians in the Lobby,” a title that, as the characters repeatedly suggest, sounds like the opening to a joke, but one that leads to Press Secretary C.J. Cregg’s serious moment of enlightenment. The two Indians had an appointment with the Secretary of Interior but were brushed off the day before Thanksgiving, and are willing to camp out in the White House lobby until they meet with someone of importance regarding better health care on their reservation. In the end, C.J. finds compassion for the duo, and asks, “How can you keep fighting these smaller injustices when they come from the mother of all injustices?” To which, Maggie Morningstar-Charles answers, “Is there any other choice?”
Tomorrow, my cousin Tony will be flying down from Boston to spend Thanksgiving with me in Washington, D.C. Last week, he called to tell me that a tribal delegation from the Tohono O’odham Nation spoke at Harvard (where he’s studying for a masters in public policy) on immigration reform. He said the panelists blamed the tribe itself for not doing enough to address immigration issues like drug smuggling and people trafficking. Tony said he gave a detailed response to what he knows the tribe has done — as he was a former tribal employee — and disagreed with the delegation for not recognizing the tribe’s own efforts. The moderator cut him off, but in his words, Tony said, “I’m going to say what I need to say,” and continued.
In July, I visited Tony in Boston for a weekend; I met another native student who had become a friend of his. She said she rarely speaks up in class, because the atmosphere in the Harvard classroom, dominated by rich white men, silences her. She doesn’t feel invited or welcome to participate in class discussions, so she doesn’t. When Tony told me how he stood up to the moderator and continued to speak, I was filled with pride. My cousin has a voice and is using it.
During my summer visit, Tony and I walked around Cambridge with my Pomeranian Molly. As usual, we talked about our mothers: two half-breed women of mixed Mexican and Indian ancestry. We spoke of our absent fathers, his a Mexican, mine an Indian, and marveled at where we were in that moment. Our mothers grew up on the cotton fields of Arizona, where our grandparents handpicked cotton for small wages. “From the cotton fields to university campuses,” Tony said. “Who would have thought it?” And we laughed. Who indeed?
The work I began in high school on the legacies of Wounded Knee, a story that is not specifically my own, yet is very much all our history, is still with me today. I think about it every now and then, not usually when I’m lecturing in a classroom or when I’m grading papers, but definitely every November, when I’m confronted with American Indian Heritage month. I do not consider myself an Indian political activist — though sometimes I feel like Tony is fast becoming one — but I do recognize the political power in literacy. In this way, I hope I’m fighting some injustices — not just the killing but also the forgetting of Indian peoples and our contributions to America — after all, as a writer and an English teacher, what other choice do I have?