Accidental Racist, American Indians, History, Holocaust, Memory, Native Americans, The Long Walk, Time, Tragedy
A career in Native American studies makes you the grammatical equivalent of a time machine. No sooner do people learn where you work, what you study, or what specific things you happen to be working on than they suddenly switch to past tense. Often this will be accompanied by sad tones and slightly downcast eyes. Seriously, I’ve lost track of the number of times a few comments from me have led people to great moments of reflection about “what we have done to them.”
These moments of introspective time-travel usually leave me with a bit of motion sickness. See, the thing is that people go back to the past like this when I am actually talking about perfectly contemporary issues. When I worked on the Navajo Nation, simply telling folks what I do for a living was often enough to send their souls searching through history for resolution of collective sins, real or imagined. In most cases I don’t think folks had any real sense of the specifics in question, no real idea of just what Anglos had done to Navajos, for example. In most cases, I suspect the sudden trip to the past tense was filled with thoughts of generic cowboys and even more generic Indians, …who probably looked more like Lakota than Navajos anyway. In any event, the problem is simple enough; for far too many people Native Americans simply belong in the past.
…and yes, I do wonder just how often Native Americans get this? Perhaps it’s a white thing after all. I don’t remember getting this effect in the presence of natives, just when it’s me talking to my own, so to speak.
Anyway, I figure it makes it a Hell of a lot easier to be sorry about something if it happened a few generations back. Try to talk to people about issues such as uranium poisoning, forced relocation, or any number of contemporary issues, and they are less certain that what ‘we’ are doing to ‘them’ isn’t somehow justified, or at least necessary, or at least.
But folks are happy to talk about Custer.
Wasn’t he a bastard!?!
Rarely do I get the sense that this sort of time warp is meant to provide historical perspective; often it strikes me as just one more way of changing the subject.
Of course somber regrets for crimes long forgotten are only the nice-guy half of this coin. Flip the quarter over and you get a range of narratives effectively using time to disclaim responsibility for these same crimes, perhaps even a comment to the effect that it’s best for Native Americans to put the past behind them. Occasionally people will actually tell me that reservations or casinos, etc. are attempts to pay for what ‘our ancestors’ did, and of course the point is always to suggest that such concessions are unfair to the rest of us here in the present.
And no, this time-to-forget theme is not limited to Native Americans. One has only to suffer his way through “The Accidental Racist” to hear Brad Paisley play precisely this shell game with history. I don’t have the stomach to parse the details of this terrible tune, but let’s just say that Brad is apparently paying for the mistakes of a southern past, and L.L. Cool Jay is happy to let bygones be bygones.
…Seriously, both of them should have known better.
It’s funny those who support the rebel flag are always prepared to discuss its significance in the civil war. Rarely do they want to comment on its use in opposition to the civil rights movement. History textbooks probably don’t make this much easier, telling us that slavery ended with the close of the civil war. Sure they note the existence of debt peonage and Jim Crow Laws, etc., but that is a more complex story. The morality tale for most people ends at Appomattox. I suspect it is the story of slavery that many will imagine when they ask why African-Americans have trouble putting the past behind them. The notion that some folks can still remember when there was real danger in looking a white person in the eye just seems to escape a lot of people.
…most of them white.
But what’s past isn’t equally past for all people. I learned this very clearly out in Navajo country. The nadir or their historical narratives begins with the story of the Long Walk. In 1864 Kit Carson burned marched through Navajo country, burned their crops and destroyed their homes. He then waited for winter to bring them to him.
The result was 4 years of internment at a place called Fort Sumner in Southeastern New Mexico. Many of those who started the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner didn’t make it to the end.
When my friends, students, and coworkers told me their stories about the long walk, what struck me most about their narratives was the way they always began. They almost always began with a clear reference to some family member. These weren’t simply stories about something that happened to their ancestors; they were stories about the death of a Great Aunt or the trials of a Great Great Grandmother. People telling me these stories consistently anchored narratives of the long walk in their own relationship to one of those who had been through it. These were not stories about an event over a hundred years ago; they were intensely personal stories of family tragedy.
I’ve heard similar stories, …from my high school history teacher, for example. A native of Georgia, her account of Sherman’s march included a great grandmother’s efforts to save a family heirloom (she stuck it on a wall in the hopes Union troops wouldn’t notice). When I taught briefly at a Jewish private school in Houston, I heard such stories from survivors of the Holocaust. More importantly, my students heard those stories. They hear them every year, directly from the survivors, and in countless other contexts throughout the year. I’ve heard such tragic narratives from Inupiat speaking about the horrors of influenza epidemics brought by whalers and the trials of the boarding schools. Exposure to virgin soil epidemics is hardly ancient history on the North slope, and most any native can tell you about some elder who was punished for speaking her own language at the schools. What all these narratives have in common isn’t simply tragedy; it’s direct personal connection to the suffering.
Of course, the suffering in some of those stories is greater than that in others.
People don’t just forget these sorts of events. They keep them alive; they keep them personal. The suffering becomes part of the meaning of history, and part of the personal identity of those that have been through it, of their children, and their children’s children.
Whether or not such stories should be kept alive in that way is a whole other question, and a rather ironic one at that. The suggestion that people subjected to injustice ought somehow to simply move on has more than a trace of might-makes-right in it. It is an attempt to suggest that certain horrors are simply an accomplished fact, as are the long-term consequences of those horrors; land lost, buildings and nations built for the benefit of someone else, and whole scores of missing family – aunts and uncles not present and cousins never born, all of it, so the argument goes is just a done deal. Yet some people say that it would be best to just move on; accept all of this and focus on the future.
Best for whom?
Your land is ours now, but let’s not dwell on how that happened. Your grandmother’s language is gone now, but let’s not think too much about that. Cities wrecked? Whole populations wiped out? What’s past is past, so some say; let’s look to the future.
But if the long-term consequences of such atrocities might be thought an accomplished fact, then so are the bitter narratives.
…and the bitterness itself.
It seems those with such tragedy in their past rarely (if ever) take such advice. They remember! They remember with a passion. Here we have at least a trace of poetic justice. It seems to me quite fitting that those hoping the descendants of tragedy would accept the consequences and simply move on should run square up against one other uncomfortable and very stubborn fact, namely that folks just don’t forget such things.
They really don’t.
Enchanted Seashells, Confessions of a Tugboat Captain's Wife said:
Really good, I’m glad you teach about things like this.
You are very kind.
Penny L Howe said:
Yes, I agree completely! Very well written.
Thank you Penny.
Very thoughtful post. Thank you for exploring this. I am Cherokee and this is a very complex issue. Thank you for looking at so many sides of this for us.
Hi DY, I’m glad you liked this one. It is indeed complex.
Kristen Chapman Gibbons said:
Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
Read it, and then read it again.
Thank you, Kristen. I hope your readers like this.
Juliana Lightle said:
To say this is a complex issue is an understatement. Hatred and oppression still exist in so very many places, I wonder if humanity will figure out a way to survive in the long haul.
I’m not hopeful for humanity as a whole myself; generally keep my goals to specific peoples and specific issues myself. 🙂
One of your best. Brilliant!
Thank you Gerald.
Marsha Ingrao said:
I don’t have words to express my reaction to yours. A few days ago one of the challenges was to write about silver linings. There are consequences, long lasting ones, for those who suffer losses, and there is no retributiongreat enough to cover for those losses. Yet life goes on around,past and beyond those who still suffer. For some there are no silver linings except, perhaps, in the brief moments of capturing something pleasant. For my friend who was imprisoned at age 4 until almost 9 in Nazi camps, the students ask her what she did for fun. She just looks at them, and says, “Nothing was fun. Sometimes to pass the time I would look at the color of my skin and compare it to the color of the dead bodies stacked in neat piles along side of the fence and wonder when my skin would look like theirs.”
I am glad that I got to see your comment here. The quote of your friend made me aware of, well I’m not so brave enough to say yet, something from my past, a gift for noticing, no matter what. I feel horror, and shame, and an inner leap that I am not the only one to notice or to think like this, and the circumstances to allow it are not unique. There are some things that I have learned that other people don’t seem to want or nor are they able to handle.
Thank you for sharing the story; that was very moving.
My part in this story is now. At times it can be similar to events of the past. I think that it is what I choose to do with it that matters. To whom does it matter? Sometimes I know, sometimes I do not.
As I speak to elders and attempt to maintain respect and traditions that are now said to be old, I think that I carry forward more than pain or negative spin and blame. I try to act in honor. Often I fail. I have seen that even a ‘card-carryin’ individual will hold more or less romantic ideas and ideals. These ideals come from many places, most of which are out of my control.
The last thought that I’d like to share that is associated to my processing of your words:
People are more inclined to get upset over Haiti and injustices to ‘those’ people, they are prone to take action and to call that action compassion. People will read about deaths from lack and make themselves feel good to have done something, and yet will not even notice when the homeless person down the street vanishes, let alone decide to find out that he/she died from a lack of $10 to fill a simple antibiotic prescription. I do not understand it, and yet I know that I am blind to doing similar things. How does one learn which cause is ‘just’ and which one has value? Does altruism and group-think about such choices really work?
oh shoot, I began commenting thinking that it seems so simple, the idea that “we will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door upon it” and yet, who am I to choose for others to foist the concept onto them, I can only share about my own good days and my own bad days and remain teachable.
Thank you for sharing all your thoughts above. I have been thinking about them for a couple days. I am particularly interested in the blindness to nearby suffering. How people decide when to give a damn and when not to is a very tricky question. Not sure that I understand it myself.
I love the tone of your writing with the wry humour through out.
It’s like most people around the world have actualy forgotten that the people native to America still actualy exist – until them come across some nice contemporary art created by them or something. I’m guilty of painting a romantasized version of them in the past as much as the next person though. In Manchester UK we have a magnificent exhibition of Native American costumes and tomahawkes etc but I don’t recal seing anything about the people in recent history apart from on TV shows – where they all own casinos of course.
The romanticism is fascinating. I used to watch people come through the reservation on a kind of standard tour, meet all the right people and go home to write-up a polyana-narrative that had nothing to do with the actual lives of the people I worked with. Happened on a regular basis.
I often feel like an anachronism. Perhaps there is some strange particle that hovers near us that immediately shifts any discussion of Indigenous issues into the past. Somehow I can be right here, yet all other Native people only exist in the past along with all of the issues we face. It is truly weird.
What’s particularly troubling, to m anyway, is just how often that shift takes place in the comments of someone who seems to be in a supportive move, and how effectively it turns that support into a meaningless gesture.
Reading this reminds me of a Native American experiences I had a few weeks ago…
I’d been chris-crossing the Navajo Nation in the 4-corners area.
I went to Shiprock, New Mexico… the rock, not the town. No one lives there and I had scouted it out the previous evening for sunrise photography.
In the morning I arrived about 45 minutes before sunrise to setup. I saw a car parked not far from where I planned to take pictures. The only people I ever encounter in isolated places like that before sunrise are other photographers. Shiprock is a famous photo site so I thought nothing of it.
Turns out there were two Navajo guys, one Navajo girl and a dog in the old rattle-trap car. They were right near this spot where I took pictures:
They came over to see what I was up to. All three of them were drunk as drunk could be at sunrise in the middle of absolute nowhere! I’d heard alcoholism was problematic on reservations, but this was my first confirmation.
They were harmless, very friendly and quite interested in my camera equipment. The girl wanted to take pictures using my camera!! We compromised. I unsuccessfully attempted to help the girl click the shutter, then I took a picture of one of the guys with his dog.
They then took off belching blue smoke out the tailpipe as they ambled off the 20 miles or so back to town.
Is that how anglo-europeans have influenced Native American culture?
This reminds me of the time when my neighbors came in a group to my door shouting about how my (biracial) children weren’t black enough because we didn’t eat fried chicken and watermelon. They also committed the horrid sin of disliking cornrows in their hair! Eeee Gads!!!
Oh now that is terrible: I hope your kids are well past that sort of thinking.
think think intent think…
No, they still dislike cornrows BUT, they now also tell off the white girls (and some of the black, asian, and hispanic ones) to stop trying to get them to flat iron their hair.
No one can ever seem to tell what they are. They look back with a deadpan expression and say, “I’m human, nice to meet you.” It’s hilarious! They can be walking anti-stereotypes, by their own choice, at times. I think they get it from their blue-eyed-ness.
It would seem to be one of the narrative themes, unfortunately a common one. …worth noting that Native Americans also have a very high rate of complete tee-totallers. Problem drinking is common in native communities; so is total sobriety. What seems to be thin (if not entirely lacking) is the notion of responsible and/or social drinking that stops short of excess.
Well written – thank you
The Indian wars are as active as they have ever been – despite the colonial romanticism of genocide in western films et al which is where so many folks find a connection to the history…
I make it a practice to consciously deface and correct public monuments which use past tense language regarding present living First Nations peoples – as this turning to past tense is a part of an ongoing cultural genocidal process – like blood quantum laws are… awkward to encounter – even find it in textbooks on multiculturalism
Much of the land in the United States is still owned by the Indigenous Title of our First Nations as most land was never legally ceded and most treaties never ratified. A reparations process can be healing and non traumatic. I think of the Lakota proposal for return of the Black Hills – in which they propose that non native title holders who occupy land can live out their lives and pass forward one generation – but land can no longer be sold and returns to native title if unoccupied by the title holder for a number of years… I hope many First Nations will do this for land that was sold to non natives on reservations as well using alcoholism and debt strategies after the big wars
I personally think that there should be treaty liens on private title which require ecological responsibility and access to the ecological realities that allow for treaty obligations to traditional food harvests – these harvests in so many places are so tainted with chemical pollutants that eating wild foods has become a huge health risk…
We are all losing to this kind of disregard and will all benefit by facing this ongoing reality with collaborative restorative community justice… Much thanks again for raising a voice amidst the emotional land mine of a topic!
Cameron Ohara said:
I’m interested in First Nations issues in Canada, so this was a really good read. Thumbs up.
Thank you; I’m glad you liked this.
I love this! Great read.
Hi – A very interesting piece – I spent thirty odd years building a life as part of a privileged ‘White Minority’ in a British colony. After Independence, I lost everything. Scrapping together what I could, I managed to buy a ticket for my wife and I to a UK I had visited years before as a teenager and where I knew no one, with only £200 ($300) in my pocket.
This item brought it all into sharp focus for me. Do I qualify as having been on both sides?
Thanks for stirring up the memories – times are better now and I wonder if this colours my feelings.
Trapper Gale said:
Very interesting and insightful post.
Laura Lynn said:
Dang! What you said…I’d like to add the injustices that befell my Irish grandmother, born 1913, and what she did to survive, still makes my blood boil. Don diabhal leis na Breataine! However, in all fairness, if she hadn’t had the strength to survive and leave, I’d never have been born. Soooo…Don diabhal leis na Breataine anyway.
Loved this text, Daniel. Really important. I have shared it on Twitter. Also your text about the pets and the one about the different skylines in Alaska och the southwest. But this one is by far the most important and simply has to be read by a huge amount of people. Anders Moberg
Two things. 1) I’m endlessly fascinated when people try to co-opt a tragedy they have no emotional connection to. The mournful, “Oh, what we’ve done to those people” stance almost always strikes me as hollow; people KNOW there was a systemic series of grave injustices done to the native Americans and feel like they should be appropriately sad, but can’t discuss a single event (Trail of Tears? Anybody? Somebody? Somebody?) so they revert to what they know. They at least can feel like they’re being relevant to the conversation and emotionally on-point by adopting a grim air of melancholy. I think it satisfies some weird need to feel important and deep even if the tragedy you’re acknowledging really doesn’t matter to you. They do the same thing when something tragic happens that’s not on a genocidal level. If someone dies in a car accident (or something), often people who sort of know who the victim is will invent a fictitious relationship (“OH MY GOD! I went to high school with his cousin Billy’s first girlfriend! It’s like we almost knew each other! I’m despondent.”) Usually, this feels like the equivalent of LOLcats performing Twilight. http://microsuede.blogspot.com/2009/11/movie-review-twilight-saga-new-moon.html
I has a sad. *Mope*
And 2) I was 45 seconds into my first (and only) listening of “Accidental Racist” when I realized I was literally having a flight-or-fight panic response.
Thanks for a great post!
Talking Trees Gallery said:
I’ve heard similar remarks when people say,” you should just get over the memories of child abuse.” Time doesn’t always heal.
Victor Tribunsky said:
Excellent post, Daniel.
Usually people remember and say only about genocide in Germany.
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