Monthly Archives: November 2011

What to Read This Winter

One such dreadful scene viewed from my window during October's freak blizzard

Much of my winter is spent sitting on window sills and peering with darkened eyes at the dismal scene outside. Today as I peered into the 4:30pm sunset I had a dark vision of the impending season: Every morning, I awake with cracked, bleeding lips.  My bicycle leans against the basement wall, lonesome and sobbing. Shrouded old ladies slip on the icy streets pulling me down with them. I suddenly feel very “white” with my newly found fair complexion and  wind-whipped cherry-tomato cheeks. Big bowls of pasta don’t even make me smile. Scarves begin to look like so many nooses marching through the black snow sludge.  Okay, so obviously I have an unhealthy and overwrought dread about this season, but most of that vision is accurate.

These dramatics are all in order to introduce something that is direly needed in the winter yet unjustly claimed by the summer season.  I’m talking about summer reading lists. I don’t know what magazine editor decided people only need to read in the summer, but somehow the season that already has everything also gets to tell people what to read. Yet, it is the winter when I most need that kind of moral and literary support. Books in the summer are nice but everything in the summer is nice. It is the foul weather of the winter that shuts us up in our homes and after watching every BBC detective show on Netflix, what are we to do? It is in this cruel, barren time that books can be the last bastion of sanity and human empathy.

In order to reverse the perverse trend of summer reading lists, I have compiled a list of five books I think would be good winter fare.

The Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

To answer my previous question, the first thing you do after watching every BBC detective show on Netflix is go to the mother ship of all British detective stories: the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. These stories are practically cut out of the cloth of winter. I mean that quite literally: the stories (or more accurately the mythology surrounding them) are filled with upturned collars, wool coats and dramatically adorned scarves.  There is also no denying that the winter evokes an obscure mood of mystery and conspiracy. Or perhaps some of us find, as Sherlock himself does, dulled by the monotonous existence of ordinary life, in which case the perfect cure, short of becoming involved in an actual bloody mess, is to indulge in some old-fashioned literary gum-shoeing. And, for those interested in such things, there are also ample opportunities to critique the underlying frameworks of British colonialism that guide our narrator, dear Dr. Watson, in his interpretations and retellings of Sherlock’s adventures in the great art of deduction.

The Girl by Meridel Le Sueur

I know I said I would try very hard not to talk about my boyfriend in this blog, but like the fox he is, he has snuck his way into a post. He recently introduced me to a book, The Girl, incessantly pleaded with me to read it and even insisted I should review it for Mixedblood Messages. Seeing as how we are probably gonna find ourselves inside in close quarters often during the winter, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to start making good now. And in all sincerity, what more could I ask for than a guy who brings me novels by working-class feminist socialists?

The Girl, written and set during the Great Depression, is the kind of book you could read in the span of a single snowed-in day. Along with being rather short in length, it is written in the colloquial language of the poor souls of St. Paul and filled with dialogue that glides off the page with an urgent poeticism. The main character of the title is never given a “proper” name because her story is actually the pooling of many women’s experiences. As simply “the girl” she can be related to by all the women of the world who have suffered under the unjust economic and gendered oppressions of this world, past and present. The books tells the many stories of this oppression, whether at the hand of single male abusers or more systematic forms of patriarchy, but then ends as a story of hope and resistance. While reading it I was actually reminded of the strong women zinesters I talked about.  As Le Sueur describes it in her afterword, their writings and her own serve similar ends: “to mirror back the beauty of the people, to urge and nourish their vital expression and their social vision.”

Petersburg by Andrei Bely

The winter season is a good time to tackle those books that spend time on our shelves intimidating us with their size, scope and reputation for difficulty. These are most often the books we feel we “ought” to read but which we never get around to. Or, just as often, they are books we read because we felt we ought to, but also feel we will probably have to re-read a couple times to truly “get”. Such classic tomes include Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, Infinite Jest, etc. If you are prone to taking on such reading projects, I suggest a slightly more obscure but no less enriching Grand Novel of the 20th Century, Petersburg.  In fact, if you are truly ambitious I think you could make a whole winter course in Russian novels (the misery of winter is well reflected in the Russian literary spirit) and then cap it off with Petersburg, rewarding yourself with a sip from your hot tottie at every literary reference you recognize. You might want to make that drink on the weak side, however because the book is a veritable labyrinth through Russian novels, history and culture. The story itself tells of anarchist conspirators, a ticking bomb, unwitting bureaucrats, torturous love affairs, mischievous masqueraders and a Peter the Great statue that possesses the city and its people. It is a book that will surely keep you busy.

The next two books on my list are more recent and I haven’t read either yet so I can’t say with any certainty that will be worth your time, but I do plan on reading them this winter and possibly reviewing them here, so I am hoping that perhaps somebody will join me.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco joins Anthony Burgess in being a scholar of linguistics (well, semiotics but close enough) who also writes novels, and darn good bestsellers at that. He gives me hope that I too, a lowly one-time student of linguistics, may one day finish the scraps of fiction hiding in my desk. Eco also indulges my taste for historical conspiracy theories. In his latest novel, just released earlier this year, he tackles the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a real-life forged document written to “reveal” the conspiracy for a global Jewish takeover. I don’t know much else about it, but it has the word Prague in the title and I am a bit of a czech-o-phile as well, so my interest is piqued thrice over.

The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, and other true stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge border town by Stew Magnuson

I always begin books on the subject of Native peoples written by white authors with a guarded and skeptical attitude. This book is certainly no different. I am also hopeful, though, that a white author has turned their eye (I hope a critical one) to Indian country border towns. Border town violence is one of the most overlooked instances of racism in modern America. Over the past few years, a few particularly outrageous and outraging cases have gotten extended coverage in Indian Country Today, but for those who do not live in/around bordertowns the Jim Crow-like violence and rule that defines these places is a reality easily ignored. The book apparently also covers some of the historical figures behind the American Indian Movement, who along with all their high-jinks also attempted to create pan-tribal border town violence response teams and reveal the ugly face of white settlement on Indian lands. Let’s hope the book looks to accomplish the same.

Those are my suggestions. Leave your own in the comments!



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Part 2: Zines and Me

My own “how I got into zines” story is trite to the point of embarrassment: I learned about it on Livejournal. This statement feels akin to saying something like “A Facebook page changed my life” in todays terms. But it’s true. It is hard to think about how high school could have been worse, but without Livejournal and my subsequent introduction the zine network it certainly would have been.

Let’s review the sad state of adolescence I found myself in. I lived 20+ miles outside of downtown Tucson where all the cool stuff happened and all the punks hung out. My mom once asked me if I was gothic because I was wearing an over-sized Ramones t-shirt. My only close friends were boys who argued about Nietzsche and played in a post-rock band called Dialectic. Everyone at my high school thought I was weird and snotty because I only hung out with dudes and tended to glare silently at others.  Suffice to say, I was miles away (literally and otherwise) from being part of any kickass community of others like myself.

In “real” life that is. Once I started cruising Livejournal sites, the borders of my little life started to open. Within 24 hours of discovering the Livejournal community “Zine Scene”, I was sending postage and $1 bills like a madwoman to zinesters all across the country. I was rather indiscriminate. If somebody’s zine was under $3, I was prone to buy it. The ones I followed with dedication however were mostly written by other misfit girls living in the ‘burbs or equally soulless locations. (I was also inexplicably attached to this zine written by a 30 year old Portland hippie dude).

The thing is though that, while I loved these zines, they all reflected the experiences of white people. Awesome and alienated white people but white people nonetheless. This isn’t something I was very conscious of at the time. While I could never pass as just plain old white, people around me definitely tried to erase any personal sense of Native identity but telling me I wasn’t Indian enough. Maybe this made me want to relate to the stories of white zinesters even more as a way to replace the messy, conflicted mixed-blood identity with the identity of a white outsider.

When I heard the speakers at Meet me at the Race Riot talk about how they had found reflections of themselves in zines, I felt like I had missed an opportunity. Certainly zines had given me the sense that  there were people out there who would accept me, but perhaps only the version of “me” that wasn’t a mess of internal contradictions. The speakers at Meet me at the Race Riot however blew open the doors to a zine space where messy personalities that defy expectation and categorization was the norm, a new kind of normal that eschews any sense of normalcy. This made me realize that while my past zine experiences were meaningful, they could have been much more empowering.

The event not only blew open some doorways of thought, it also lit a fire under my bum. I realized it was definitely not too late to reconnect with zines and find that community of mixed-up folks like myself. In fact just learning about the event made me want to finish the two incomplete zines sitting in my desk drawer. While I did talk very briefly to a few people at the event, I didn’t make any new friends or have any in-depth conversations. That’s probably because I’m still as shy and awkward as I was in high school. However, while I didn’t have those conversations face-to-face, I believe they are waiting for me via zine communication.  That is one of the beautiful things about zines (similar to blogs in a way) is that they give meek and marginalized voices a space to be loud and be heard.

Now, I not only want to make zines for myself but for all the other mixed-blood and Indian kids who don’t see themselves reflected or even acknowledged in empowering ways.  At the very least, there might just one other nerdy little Lindsey out there right now who also really wants to talk about Indians and aliens and what that all has to do with colonialism.  Well, a girl can dream anyway.

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Report back from MEET ME AT THE RACE RIOT

Some awesome zines written by awesome women at the Barnard Zine Library.

I just got back from Meet Me at the Race Riot: People of Color in Zines from 1990-Today, a free form panel event at Barnard with women of color zinesters talking about their experiences in d.i.y. culture and sharing their zines.  Needless to say, it was awesome.  I am now at home reviewing my bounty, which includes a mixtape of international lady punk bands, We are Destroyers of the Status Quo,  and the zine International Girl Gang Underground.  Needless to say, both are awesome.

The event was organized by the Barnard Zine Library, the People of Color Zine Project and feminist collective For the Birds.  All of the groups, in their own way, do work that shows D.I.Y. is not dead and riot grrls will live forever.  The continued dedication and vibrancy of radical feminists was again reflected in the speakers they brought to the event.

These included a Barnard junior Jordan, a graduate student/zinester Jamie, Mariam a writer for MaximumRocknRoll, Osa also a writer for Max and creator of Shotgun Seamstress and Mimi Thi Nguyen, who created the compilation zine Evolution of a Race Riot and is possibly the closest to rock-star a zinester can be. Each one had something unique and powerful to say about why zines were important to them and what they used zines to accomplish.

Jordan’s zines came out of a project where she talked incessantly into a recorder and then transcribed and illustrated her thoughts.  Her zines dealt a lot with issues of always feeling in between identities and places, as an adopted Bangladeshi, growing up in Seattle and going to school in NY.  Her pen drawn comics were simple but clever and her descriptions of feeling unsure of yourself and unstable in your identities were immediately easy to relate to.

The next speaker Jamie began by talking about the emotional abuse she had suffered in her first romantic relationship with another girl.  This girl had introduced her to zines and then tried to make her feel she wasn’t cool enough to actually be involved in the zine community.  I was glad she addressed the issues of “not being cool enough” and abuse within within D.I.Y./punk communities.  While these movements claim to be totally inclusive and places for the otherwise dispossessed, it can often feel like the cultural capital requirements exceed the account balance of those who do not look or act “radical” enough.  Then Jordan talked about how taking and later teaching a Puerto Rican History class shaped her views on colonialism and emotional abuse, namely how the metropole and assholes in general create feelings of inferiority in the people they colonize or abuse.

The night then turned over to women zinesters who came to zines through a love of punk/hardcore and who ended up framing their critiques of racism and patriarchy through critiques of the punk scene.

Mariam, from the (in)famous punk zine MaximumRocknRoll, described herself as belonging to two of the most hated groups in America, as her father is Iranian and her mother Mexican.  She began by talking about how zines can open opportunities to construct alternative representations that mixed up kids, like herself, can actually relate to.  She then read a biting, sometimes sarcastic, response to white punks who resent the term “people of color” for being too exclusive.  First, she claimed my linguistics major heart by saying “Language is really important”.  Then it was time to call out  white punks who feel threatened when marginalized peoples find a banner of unity to stand under, a banner not defined in relation to “white” (as in non-white peoples) but defined in their own terms. In this way, she believes the term “people of color”totally inverts traditional categories of inclusive/exclusive creating a profound space for people to share common stories of oppressions and build radical responses.

Mariam was followed by fellow Max writer Osa who is more well known for her zine Shotgun Seamstress, written for and about black punks, especially queer, feminist black punks.  She said that while her zine is open to everybody, it is definitely geared towards building a home for black punks and in order to bring the anti-capitalist, D.I.Y. movement to other blacks.  If you haven’t noticed this is a common theme: using zines to construct alternative communities and representations not provided by mainstream culture.  Osa went on to read a hilarious piece by a writer named Vaginal Davis about discovering her mother was a bank robbing bad-ass raising funds for a feminist separatist liberation project.

After a bit of group discussion and some talk of how zines are cropping up around the OWS movement, Mimi Thi Nguyen took the mic.  Mimi, you might recall, I mentioned briefly in my post on White Riot.  As an aside, I would just like to say I am so happy this event existed to counteract many of White Riot’s and my own failings: ample discussion of women of color and what they built in the punk scene.  Anyway, as usual Mimi threw down some serious punk rock post-colonial feminist theory, and my pen could hardly write down her brilliance fast enough.  A lot of her critique had to do with how feminism and riot girl in particular is historicized as a series of waves or bursts and how women of color are portrayed within these movements as being “big bummers” for disrupting the white feminist narrative.  The periodization of certain critiques and the corralling of interventions into singular movements creates an anxiety over “lessons that should have been learned but were not.”  Moral: riot girl is not dead, women of color still have to battle a lot of bullshit.

Once again the floor was turned over to the audience to ask question and engage with the speakers.  I am cursing myself now for not taking better notes during this time, but I think I was too captivated to look down at my notebook.  Let me just say: shit got real and I’m not naming names, but there were some teary eyes.  People from all manner of marginalized positions laid their heart out, to a room full of strangers and friends, about how important zines and punk were for making them feel a part of something and giving them a space to share stories on their own terms.  The last person to speak was a woman who introduced herself as “project from the projects” of Brownsville.  This event was her crash course introduction to radical zines and as she held up an issue of Shotgun Seamstress, she said she had finally found a way to express the stories and ideas she wanted to share with the world. It might seem crazy, but when women of color come together to share their xeroxed pieces of paper, it can actually change your life.

In Part 2 I’ll be looking at how those xeroxed pieces of paper changed my own life and talk about my continuing relationship with zines!   Stay tuned!


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Re-taking Native American Heritage Month

Native people across America have just finished another exhausting campaign to explain to the ignorant and insensitive the inherent racial exploitation of their Indian Halloween costumes. Yet, on the heels of that annual struggle, there is yet another display of Americans’ misguided and backhanded “appreciation” of Native peoples and one that gets a lot less criticism: Native American Heritage Month.

This month is part of the larger tradition of the U.S. government granting minorities and marginalized peoples their own month as an abstract monument to their histories and recognition of their oppressions.  There is Black History Month, Asian Pacific American History Month, LGBQ Pride Month and many others. In fact, there are so many people to cover that many have to double or triple up. March is shared by Women, Greeks and the Irish, while Germans, Italians and the Polish all have to live in October.

The preceding nationalities are all qualified by an obligatory “-American”. This addition signals that heritage months may be for celebrating outside histories, but only in a context that emphasizes their absorption into a larger American culture. This is a way to honor the sacrifice of those peoples who have been more than happy to jump into the neutral categorization of American without qualification (synonymous with “white”) and reward them with a brief sense of history not fully provided with a relatively new nation. I don’t think it is in the best interest of tribes and Native peoples to attempt such assimilation.  Historically the absorption of Native peoples into the citizenry of America has been a tactic to take more land and steal more resources. They start by giving you private property; they end by calling you American. We are made to believe these are all good things, gifts we should be grateful for. Well, I refuse to believe. There will be no Thanks-giving this November.

There isn’t an America history month because it’s an American history year. American history decides what other histories it’s going to include, and what times it’s going to include them. At the Native American Heritage month events I have attended in the past, there is always eventually the same joke: We may have the month, but the white man owns the calendar. The white male power structure rents out months to keep the voices of its victims separate and contained. It is rather like the “free-speech zones” that flourished under Bush II as an oppressive tactic to contain protestors and squelch their passions.

Current president Barack Obama put his signature on the Native American Heritage Month proclamation last week with the same empty promises and broad sentiments of every prior year. He begins with benign compliments of Native peoples’ “enduring achievements”, followed by recognition of the “vital role American Indians and Alaska Natives play in enriching the character of our Nation.”

The recognition of Native cultures as anything other than barbaric and strange may seem beneficial, but in being accepted, Native cultures can also disappear.  In his proclamation, Obama never acknowledges Native cultures as valid in their own right. Instead they are like spices “enriching” a culture for the sake of the dominant nation’s flavor. We can begin to see that Native American Heritage Month isn’t really about Native Americans, it’s about Americans trying to re-make heritage into a happy story of co-existence and multiculturalism.

Obama then moves on to the obligatory acknowledgment of that whole genocide/dispossession issue, though of course he calls nothing by name. Instead he “recognizes the painful chapters in our shared history” and then makes a vague promise to “build a better future together.” Yet, there cannot be a better future until the American government and its citizens take a long, hard look not only at a painful past but also a very painful present. They may try to put the issues of government oppression into the past, recognizing it only within the discourse of “heritage”, but Native peoples know government oppression still happens every single day.  In fact, Obama is very close to signing off on something that will assuredly open another painful chapter in U.S.-tribal relations: the Keystone XL pipeline.  The pipeline if built would disproportionately put Native communities at risk for contamination, of both their lands and bodies.  It doesn’t sound like Obama is really thinking about how to build a better future; he’s just working on the same old empty rhetoric.

In order to make Native American Heritage Month a more honest period of awareness and recognition,   I have several suggestions to make to my fellow Native peoples and their tribes all across the country.  This month should be one of actions, not just cultural events that please the crowd without challenging them. Occupations are getting a lot of attention right now, and ironically this may help tribal de-occupations get attention too. Tribes could take back their traditional homelands and take over government buildings in order to run public services on their own. These places could be held under the demand to honor all treaties since betrayed.

In the interest of education, tribes could erect monuments and memorials throughout towns, cities and parks to commemorate important moments in tribal histories, specifically memorializing the places of murder and dispossession but also places of tribal resistance.

This is not a statement against Native peoples who find Native American Heritage Month a time to celebrate and raise awareness of their cultures to a larger, rather ignorant population. It is of tremendous importance to force awareness of Native peoples and their struggles. However, I do not think the sanctioned space of a “heritage month” is the way to do it. There are much more meaningful expressions of pan-tribal pride and much more effective tactics for raising awareness than Native American Heritage Month. In fact, the first thing that has to go is the name. November will now be called The Month of De-colonization. We begin by de-colonizing the calendar, while working to de-colonize ourselves, and then we can begin to de-colonize America.


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Putting Place-Names in their Place

A map of place-names taken from indigenous languages translated into English. Source:

America is a nation in a constantly developing condition of amnesia. Its citizens can hardly remember its heroes from it enemies, its past from its future, its letter from its spirit. To do his small part in illuminating the spirit behind the letters on the map, George R. Stewart wrote Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States a veritable encyclopedia of the stories and processes behind the names given to the country now called the United States of America.

Even in their forgetfulness, and perhaps because of it, Americans recognize and appreciate their names’ oddity and mystery. It is almost as if Americans relish in their engima, in their ignorance of their own selves, at least when it comes to names. As Stewart points out, “Talk to any average American about names, and he will be likely to say before long, with pride: ‘You know, we have a lot of queer names down our way.’” The names themselves may not in origin be so queer (Goodnight, TX is just the last name of its founder), but in the distance between history and understanding, the queerness comes.

In many societies, some of which exist within and predate the U.S., names are more than a mark on the map but rather succinct stories and guides for the people who use those names to situate themselves physically, morally and culturally*. American names could function in a similar way, except that they usually don’t. This lack of recognized narrative force behind the fledgling nation may come from the constant reworking of a cultural and political identity. Steward recounts with much chagrin the trend of “Good Taste” in the post-civil war era when many of the more colorful names describing the hardships and vulgar minds of earlier settlers were replaced by fair sounding and “snobbish” names. Hence the evocative Hungry Harbor in Long Island became the bland Brookfield. There is also the awkward reversal of enemy names whenever America finds itself in a conflict. First, the royal names all had to go, then later there was an issue with the German names, then with the “Tokio”s, then with Russian River and all its fellows. Many of these were changed only until the last year of whatever war and then returned.

The book also goes into detail about the many names of America obviously and not so obviously taken from the many indigenous languages the government was otherwise intent on destroying. What is interesting to note is the way in which some Indian names became common place to the American tongue while others retain their “difficulty”. As Stewart so backhandly states, “Massachusetts, Mississippi, Chicago and Milwaukee are essentially just as grotesque strangers to the English language as are Paducah and Punxsutawney.” Momentarily disregarding the qualification “grotesque”, it is certainly true that though all of these words are recognized place-names, my spell check objects to the latter two—they are more alien than the others.

In this way, America has enfolded and estranged the indigeneity it has appropriated for its national project. The major locales listed above stray so much from their Indian origin as to be more English in their severe appropriation (truly deserving the qualifier grotesque), while the “queer names” of Indian origin retain the difficult spellings and pronunciation, always remaining slightly alien to the settler. These names fit into the larger struggle for a unique American identity. Philip J. Deloria in his work Playing Indian traces the way in which the personality crisis manifests itself in different kinds of Indian play throughout American History, from the Boston tea party to the Grateful Dead Indians. While Stewart does not take up a parallel project for appropriation of Indian words in American names, the seeds of such a study are strewn throughout his book.

The authors in their separate projects find similar trends. For instance, in the period right after the revolution Americans sought to discard trappings of their British parentage and in looking for a more fitting mark of American rebellion and freedom, they turned to the Indians. There is also the conflicting sentiments between admiring the perceived mysterious and noble nature of Indians while also seeking to justify the destruction of Indian peoples and theft of tribal lands: basically a conflict between romanticism and racism. No matter what they chose, both Deloria and Stewart note the flippant attitude towards maintaining any semblance of authenticity. Just as a hippie commune modeling itself after Pueblo communities might live in tipis, so too might an American namer take an Iroquois name for their southern town. A trend unique to linguistic appropriation is the folk-etymology practices of American people trying to make sense of those strange Indian names. Often the explanation is more bizarre than the name itself as in the case when Pocotaligo is explained as a saying in black slave dialectic.

While his account strives for historical accuracy and scholarly rigor, Stewart is certainly not above narrative flourishes and prejudiced colorings. Such aspects are surely what have garnered this book its ranking as a popular classic (few titles involving either the words “place-naming” or “a historical account” are ever so lucky. It is very clear from the start that Stewart rallies against the bourgeois and the bureaucratic or anything that would rob the color and imagination of people’s names. He is also rather partial to romanticizing those men honored in American history as great explorers and adventurers, as if traveling to places with white skin somehow makes you more brave than the people that had been traveling there before.

His greatest show of emotion, however, comes when Stewart explains his biggest gripe with the biggest name of all, The United States of America. He bemoans it as the worst misfortune of all American names for its length, its vagueness, its lack of poetry. This may be true, but its alternative, Columbia, would have added insult to injury to Native peoples who must suffer the sick, twisted conservation of indigenous names on stolen and bloody land.

*I am referring in part to the Apache method of place-naming, which is explored in the one other classic text about place-naming, Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith Basso.

Books I Talked About:

Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-naming in the United States, by George R. Stewart. New York Review of Books, 2008.

Playing Indian, by Philip J. Deloria. Yale University Press, 1999.

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