Monthly Archives: December 2011

What Wounded Knee Means to Me

Most of the time I don’t say, “Hi my name is Lindsey, and I’m an Indian.” I  would feel false, insincere and presumptuous. That is why I identify as  mixed-blood and qualify my Navajo with an Irish. But today is different. On this  day in 1890 three hundred and fifty men, women and children were killed at  Wounded Knee after being completely unarmed by American troops looking to  capture the sickly Chief Big Foot as he lay on his death bed.

It was not the first time Indians were massacred and it wasn’t the last.  Today the battle continues, sometimes bloody sometimes not. For a long time I  didn’t even recognize myself as a part of that battle. I was in a state of  surrender. But not today.

Hi my name is Lindsey, and I am an Indian.

They* have tried to make me deny that. They have tried to silence my  heritage. They have tried to take the land from my tribe and  take my tribe  from me. They have tried to kill off the Indian inside for something more  suitable. But not today.

I may be Indian, but I am not Sioux. I’ve never been to Pine Ridge. I’ve  never seen a plain. I don’t know how to ride a horse, in fact they kind of scare  me. But on this day I stand with the Sioux as a comrade and a relative.

I don’t know the day or the place but I can always remember the thought, in  fact the series of thoughts, that secured my Native identity. I remember  traversing the past, tracing back the lines of my family and fully realizing for  the first time that I had ancestors who had lived for generations on this  continent before any settlers. I then began to walk back to the present day. I  knew that more painfully than I would ever experience my people witnessed the  theft of land, language, clan members, tribal members, everything they held  dear. I used to think of all this pain, all this loss as a sort of curse, the  curse of a colonized people. Performing this act of time travel today, I know in  a different context, it could just as easily have been my ancestors shot down,  slaughtered and mutilated by the 7th cavalry regiment without warning or  reason. Indeed, every tribe, every Native person, has their Wounded Knee moment,  the time when they told you you were dead or tried to make it so.

As a non-traditional mixed-blood who grew up in the suburbs, I often feel  guilty, even ashamed, that I can’t live up physically or culturally to the model  of an ideal Indian. I know in my mind that it’s not my fault. I didn’t give up  my culture, my language, my people. They were taken from me. It  may be my duty to struggle to regain these things but it is not my duty to feel  bad that I was not born with the a legible and uncomplicated identity. Over the  years I have accepted myself not as a traditional Indian, no, but as an Indian  whose identity is founded in the struggle of all indigenous people for what is  rightly theirs: their lands and lives.

Unfortunately when Wounded Knee is mentioned, in fact when Indians are  thought of at all, the predominant theme is one of death and defeat. But there  is another story of Wounded Knee, a story of resistance, hope and pan-Indian  solidarity. On February 17, 1973 members of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of  Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where the massacre had occurred less than one  hundred years past. They held the town for seventy-one days and light a fire in  the hearts of Indians across the country, many of whom came to join in the  occupation. The re-occupation, or de-colonization, of Wounded Knee was a moment  where the possibility of standing up to the colonial government and corrupt tribal governments became startlingly clear. It is true the  occupation did not end as a total victory. Two of the occupiers had been killed  and Leonard Peltier would be sent to prison for the rest of his life for a crime  he did not commit. Regardless, it was a proud moment for a people so often made  to feel hopeless. It was a moment when people who had been beaten down by history stood up and refused to pass away. Today, when we  think of Wounded Knee, we need not only think of tragedy, we can also think of  the resistance of a proud people.

Many lives were taken at Wounded Knee and many lives continue to be taken in  prisons, reservations and more subtly in the melting pot. You don’t have to let  them take yours. You can be a part of the resistance, not the tragedy. Today,  whether full-blood, half-blood or mixed-blood, we can all stand as an Indian. We  can all stand with the Sioux. Together we can say “We are here and we shall  overcome!”

*”They” in this essay refers to the colonial actors and forces in Occupied  America.

Originally published at Indian Country Today.



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Looking into America’s Magic Mirror

The magic mirror where the ugly becomes beautiful and the beautiful ugly. Source: ACME archives

“’The sex instinct,’ repeated Mr. Talliafero in his careful cockney, with that smug complacence with which you plead guilty to a characteristic which you privately consider a virtue, ‘is quite strong in me.’”

 -William Faulkner, “Mosquitoes” [emphasis mine]

And so begins the closest thing to a comedy Faulkner ever wrote, and the farthest thing from the epic profundity of his later novels. Yet in that brief aside between the words of Mr. Talliafero there is that discernible knack for the particulars of a most often distasteful human nature.

The first time I picked up Mosquitoes, that first sentence (along with a rather strange epigraph about football squads, majesty, and of course, Fate) was all I read. Though I didn’t return to finish the novel for at least two years that first sentence often ran through my mind reminding me of the all too prolific tendency to insult the worst of one’s own behavior as a secret method of exaltation.

Like a new vocabulary word, once I learned to recognize this tendency, I began seeing it everywhere.

It is particularly common among the youth, who in sorting out their identities often chose to peacock “controversial” behaviors as positive personality traits. For instance, on countless occasions I have heard around the watering holes of my alma mater such declarations as “I’m such a bitch” or “Oh mah god, I’m such an alcoholic” (the website Texts from Last Night is a treasure trove of such low brow Talliaferian confessions).

Perhaps the youthfulness of this affliction is the reason I notice it so often here in America. As an immature nation constantly re-working its identity, often in a rather reactionary manner, Americans will embrace the worst of their cultural tendencies just to have something “unique” to hold up as a passable personality. Unfortunately, this insecurity is manipulated by politicians and media who try to shape the American citizen into the mold of a complacent consumer.

I was angrily aware of this during that darkest of days after Thanksgiving. To my naive disbelief every big news outlet, and even several smaller ones, covered Black Friday like it was a major election or the Kentucky Derby. There were photo montages, gory reports, as well as, in more liberal mediums, obligatory anti-consumerism political commentary. Yet even though Black Friday was sometimes condemned and ridiculed, it was still promoted via an onslaught of coverage, making one wonder if the spectacle of it all is an orchestrated move between big retailers and news outlets that rely increasingly on advertising profits.

In these news pieces, Black Friday was depicted as a ritual of American consumerism (replete with nighttime vigils, coordinated mass movements, sanctioned outbursts of violence, etc). It was something all Americans could take part in (whether black, white,  or brown– the consumer is always a worthy citizen). Even acknowledging its debase, grotesque nature was a sort of free pass to indulge. I heard comments from those who intended to partake in the ritual acknowledging how wild and crazy it was going to be “out there”. Like those who strap themselves to trees to experience the awesome power of hurricanes, many Americans seem to hit the mall on Black Friday simply for the thrill of a new space and time defined only by how much you can buy and how quickly.

And if your liberal heart has a hangover the next day, you can console yourself with the saving grace of “Small Business Saturday” (sponsored by American Express). The idea is that after you spend Friday giving money to the big retailers (Best Buy, Macy’s, Wal-Mart, Target, etc), you can make up for your complicity with horrible labor practices by giving whatever you have left to locally owned businesses. Companies such as Tom’s and Starbucks operate on a similar redemptive logic, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, wherein the consumer becomes convinced that their acts of buying are actually helping the world and making them a better person. Like Talliaferro’s statement allows him to claim a potentially negative behavior as a virtue, so too does the coverage around Black Friday and Small Business Saturday allows consumers to take pride in a soulless, manic, go-into-debt holiday.

More often than such obvious examples of the Talliafero complex (to give it an unnecessarily weighty name), there is the subconscious tendency to promote and revel in what might otherwise be perceived as unfortunate ailment. What immediately comes to my mind is the strong current of anti-intellectualism in America. Interest in the world of ideas is seen as something inherently bourgeois and suspicius. As an Ivy league alum, I am aware of the commodification of knowledge and the adverse effect many academic institutions wreck on the outside world. However, despite this, I am not an enemy of academia or of the pursuit of mental growth for its own sake. I reject the belief that scholarship is an weapon against the common man. Unfortunately, many people do seem to believe this because of their identification with the principles of egalitarianism. Americans in particular are very mistrusting of anyone wielding power over them, including the power that comes from intellectual superiority.

Unfortunately this mistrust becomes just another soft spot for manipulation by Fox News and other conservative forces to keep people blissfully ignorant. I remember sitting in the Greyhound station watching as a Fox News anchor presented a chart detailing some aspect of the economic recession. In response the other anchor shook his head and said, “Well, gee that all sounds like pretty confusing stuff…” Anchor A then said, “You’re right, B, it is very complicated, but the bottom line is we’re hurting.” Instead of trying to make more clear a complex economic situation, the anchors simply assured the viewers that the situation was itself beyond explication. Such attempts to normalize ignorance, even in a news organization whose goal is supposed to be the illumination of information, actually reinforces hierarchies by making people believe they cannot access knowledge because they are not smart enough, not because there are big interests making sure people don’t understand how the system works. This is probably why people who watch Fox News actually know less about current events than people who watch no news at all.

I wonder what Orwell would have to say about this. His namesake adjective, Orwellian, has come to denote insidiously paradoxical names, usually given by and pertaining to the government, that operate on the level of propaganda. For instance, in his novel 1984, the Department of Peace is actually the department responsible for waging wars. Rather than acknowledging and embracing one’s own decadent immorality, the government of 1984 always tries to make themselves sound like the opposite, better side of their true nature. It seems to me then that America operates on a fusion of the Orwellian and Talliaferian approaches by embracing the worst side of their culture and insisting it is the best. It is a sick side of American exceptionalism: America creates a model of itself that is debase and simply stupid, and then insists that this is the model against which all others must measure themselves. I only hope the rest of the world has the good sense, and I think they do, to reject this atrocity and see it for the monster it is.

If you have any other examples of the Talliaferian Complex, please do tell.

In other news: All the books I put on hold at the library are finally ready for me! Get ready for a flurry of book reviews about Top Secret America, Juan Gonzalez’s News for All the People and my winter reading pick, Prague Cemetery.

Somewhat relevant postscript: Today I witnessed first hand a crazed holiday shoppers’ quarrel. What started out as a rude push spiraled into back and forth punches. Blood was drawn. As I was leaving the elderly husband of one of the women involved was trying to trap the other women in the revolving door and yelling for the police. The security guards made a circle and barked into their walkie talkies while a large crowd of fellow shoppers gathered to gawk. I left quietly out the side door. Then, just a few minutes ago, I decided to put on the long underwear I had bought earlier  The shopping bag says at the bottom, and I kid you not, “FASHION WORTH FIGHTING FOR.” Unbelievable. The store explicitly encourages force and aggression as acceptable modes of purchasing clothes, but also employs a small militia of security guards to quell any disruption…and to bring in the cops to send one if not both of the parties to bookings. Now that’s some mixed messages.

I mean I’m not gonna lie I might go to great lengths to have these long underwear in my life. They are really soft and snuggly. But fight an old woman for them? Probably not.

                                                                       -December 18, 2011  10:06 pm

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Walking The Floor Over You

Tonight I tried to finish a piece I have been working on and abandoning and working on since before Thanksgiving.  But I failed. So I thought I’d better say something before I disappear.

So I’ll just say this:

Saw this movie last night. Not too long ago I saw this movie. You’ll have to excuse me if I have bigger things on my mind than one little page tucked away in the infinity of the internet. (Like how many other artsy sci-fi informed movies about women with mental illness are there? Enough for a Netflix recommendation genre?)

No but really,  I started a job which, though only part-time, really cuts into my sit around all day reading and writing routine. First there is the twenty hours per week I am actually at the job,then the nearly eight hours spent in transit to the job, plus the forty hours needed to sleep in order to perform the job and lastly, at least one happy hour to get over the job.

But, I’ll be back. Don’t you worry. I’ll be back.





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Prison Stories and How They’re Told

A telling representation of the oft-inevitable route to prison. Source:

Into the Abyss was rushed to theatrical release on November 11 by director Werner Herzog because he wanted the film to ride a surge of coverage around the death penalty and gain a greater sense of relevancy (or controversy) with the public. The movie peers into the story of two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett of Conroe, Texas, who were convicted for the murder of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson. While Burkett received a life sentence for his role in the murders, Perry was executed  eight days after being interviewed by Herzog.

Two months before the film’s rushed release two events brought America’s fickle political attention to the death penalty (and Herzog hoped his film, as well). First was the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia despite new, possibly exonerating evidence and nation-wide protest; second was the audience applause that erupted during the Republic national debate when Tom Brokaw made mere mention of the 234 executions that had occurred during Rick Perry’s governorship. So, while some were donning “I am Troy Davis” signs to condemn state sanctioned murder within a racist justice system, others were dancing on a government approved mass grave.

As I arm wrestled with writer’s block these past couple weeks, I became worried that my review of Into the Abyss would no longer be relevant. That concern has diminished inversely with my desire to sabotage Herzog’s plan* by extending the discussion, albeit in my very minor way,  two and half weeks past when most reviews came out. The issue of how our government punishes people needs to be a constant one, more than a “hot-button” issue or chance for free publicity. It also seems simply disingenuous to create pretenses of political engagement, as the early release of Into the Abyss did, without real intentions to follow through.

Eschewing the responsibilities of a political film, Herzog has said that his real concern is with “the abyss of the human soul.” The abyss, as you might expect, is a murky place full of sad sentiments and a debilitating sense of helplessness. Perhaps that is why it took me so long to write about it. In the meantime I read When the Prisoner’s Ran Walpole by Jamie Bissonette, a decidedly more grounded and optimistic story about the movement towards prison abolition in Massachusetts during the early 1970’s. Immediately, I was struck by the very different approaches to exploring case-studies within the American criminal justice system. While Herzog focuses on the personal stories, Bissonette relies on an acronym-dominated narrative of political maneuverings. Herzog seeks the melodrama; Bissonette seeks the argument.

Herzog pulls his melodrama from the intense interview sessions that comprise most of the film. In his role as interviewer, he plays the musing Bavarian mountain man antithesis to the Texan working class subject. These interactions can often feel exploitative or just simply snobby. Shortly into the interview with Michael Perry, a death row inmate convicted in a triple homicide, Herzog implies that he doesn’t like Perry but likes capital punishment even less. This could serve as an important ideological point: nobody, not even creepy looking murderers, deserve to be executed. But judging by the laughter in the audience after Herzog’s zinger and further lack of an ideological argument in the rest of the film, I think Herzog was really just establishing himself as the higher moral person at the expense of a man who very few people in the audience could relate to, let alone like.

While introducing the film at the documentary festival, DOC NYC, Herzog says one interviewee he did like quite a bit was Jared, an acquaintance of Jason Burkett. Jared impressed Herzog with the large callouses on his hands, the result of working at an auto body shop. Yet despite his professed esteem for Jared, Herzog spends a lot of the interview jibing the guy, to much audience delight. The crowd was well engaged when Jared tells a story about being stabbed with a screw-driver through his side and going to work despite the puss-filled injury. Herzog’s focus on the gory details make what could have been an illuminating look at the flippant attitude towards violence in Conroe into just another strange story. Though Herzog tries to draw out his own image of the uneducated Texan (hammering for instance on Jared’s until recent illiteracy), Jared is no man’s fool. When the director asks what he will do to the tatoo, “Bailey”, if Jared and the woman it refers to break up, without missing a beat, Jared replies, “I guess I’ll just have to get ‘Bailey Sucks’ right there.” This interview is definitely the most lighthearted of the film, and perhaps for that reason by the end, I had almost forgotten why it was there at all.

During that same DOC NYC introduction, an Into the Abyss producer joked about how the people interviewed in the film had never heard of Werner Herzog and had “no idea who they were dealing with most of the time.” That comment really got under my skin. Not only did it reveal a Hollywood arrogance, it also implied a manipulation of people whose lives have already been profoundly messed with by poverty, prison and violence.

Ironically, my problems with When the Prisoners Ran Walpole are almost the exact opposite of Into the Abyss. Bissonette, in her aim to be as politically and socially responsible as possible, doesn’t turn to the human story nearly enough. She seems more concerned with retelling documented details of the prisoner’s attempts to create a union than on capturing the personal histories of the multiple parties involved. Her supposed “co-authors” are Ralph Hamm, Robert Dellelo, two prison leaders during the Walpole reform period and Edward Rodman, a priest and prison abolition activist. The book begins with their recollections and personal statements but after that, they are brought in only as block quote elaborations of Bissonette’s own points. It is unfortunate, because I think allowing prisoners to speak on their own terms is one of the most powerful tools in prison abolition work. The public needs to hear those voices and their inherent moral argument for dignity and freedom.

Instead of relying on individual people as storytellers, Bissonette follows the inner working of government departments and grassroots organizations, namely the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the Walpole Guards Union, the National Prisoners Reform Association, and B.A.N.T.U. a black consciousness study group at Walpole. She studies the power play between John Boone, the first black DOC commissioner, the guards under his command and the prisoners caught in the middle. However, Bissonette takes such a birds-eye approach that the story becomes vague and ungrounded. I found myself scratching my head after her descriptions of guards’ riots and non-violent prisoners resistance, wondering how it had all happened and what the people involved had thought at the time.

In spite of this there are the seeds of a fascinating story in the book, a story of racism, a story of what happens when people get a free reign over others with little accountability and a story of men who refused to be pawns. Bissonette lifts the corner of a complex reality, revealing both horror and the hope that breeds behind bars.

While he may have posed the major issue of Into the Abyss as the death penalty or rather the human capacity to kill, I think it is this larger injustice of prison that is the most pressing message to be had from Herzog’s film. Nearly every person interviewed has been to jail multiple times or has numerous family members in jail or six feet under. I think this was one of the most shocking realities of the movie for people who have never encountered prison, whether first or second-hand: for many people in America (the majority of whom actually aren’t white, as everyone in this film is) the choice is very starkly between a life in the prison system or no life at all.

The interview with Delbert Burkett, father to Jason, was for me one of the most painful of the whole movie. Delbert is currently doing a forty-year sentence for eight felony counts. Before serving this sentence he had been in jail for two, five and thirty year sentences. When Delbert Burkett sat down with both his sons, all three serving serious time, in the prison chow hall he knew something, somewhere had gone horribly wrong. He tells Herzog that he believes it is his own failure, his absence from the family, that has lead to his sons’ imprisonment. What he doesn’t recognize is the gigantic failure of a nation and its penal code.

These unfortunate patterns, (escalating sentences, family dispositions for incarceration) reveal quite starkly how once people enter prison, it is an uphill journey out, a journey not many people complete. Bissonette claims the high rate of recidivism, close to 66%, is not a failure of the system, rather the system relies on it. There is way too much invested in the prisons for the focus to be on anything else but their perpetuation and expansion, especially for the thousands of people who make their livelihood, big or small, off the imprisonment of others.

Bissonette likens the prison industrial system to the industrial revolution  with its methods to control portions of the surplus population “whose existence does not increase the wealth of the elite– no matter how productively they are engaged.” Keeping prisoners in prison not only creates a whole underclass of state laborers but also creates thriving local economies and huge building contracts.

Herzog describes the human toll of this booming economy by talking not only with prisoners, but prisoner’s families, victim’s families and prison employees as well. I appreciated the inclusion of the latter more after reading When the Prisoner’s Ran Walpole, which has nary a word from a prison guard. Into the Abyss, on the other hand, ends with the former captain of a “death house,” Fred Allen. After participating in as many as two executions a week, Allen was finally overcome by guilt and weariness. He gave up his pension and quit. Having spent so much of his adult life participating in “the protocols of death,” Allen now struggles to reclaim a new sense of life for himself.

Unfortunately, that is a choice not many guards make. As Bissonette describes, many guards have become attached to their positions of power. Even more unfortunately, this choice to reclaim one’s own existence is one that seems barely possible to the millions of people in prison. Bissonette rightly puts self-determination at the center of her argument and at the center of the prisoner’s struggle. Prisoners currently live in a world where everything is decided for them. Not only are they told where they can go, how they can move, who they can talk to, how long they can talk to them, they are perhaps most harmfully told they are something they are not. Whether it be through the demeaning actions of a prison guard who hates his job or the good guys/bad guys framework of shows like Law and Order, prisoners are constantly made out to be violent people undeserving of the most basic freedoms.

The prisoners in Walpole were keenly aware of the stigma they carried, perpetuated in large part by the racist newspaper The Boston Herald,  and thus relied heavily on public observers inside the prisoners to counter that stigma with accounts of widespread abuse and corruption on the part of the guards. When those observers were kept out of the cell blocks, guards could manipulate the media into believing the fault lay solely with an uncontrollable prison population. And that is how the story usually goes. People believe what they are told and shown about prisons because there is a serious lack of access for ordinary citizens and responsible journalists. Not only access to the prisons but the prisoners as well, their feelings, experiences, dreams and solutions. That is why movies such as Into the Abyss and books such as When the Prisoners Ran Walpole are so important. I only wish they lived up to their revolutionary potential.

*To be fair, I got this information from the Into the Abyss Wikipedia page so it is also possible that it wasn’t Herzog but some producer or other higher-up who made the decision to push up the general theater release.

Suggestion for Further Reading (for myself as well!):

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The New Press, 2010.

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