Monthly Archives: March 2012

Happy Birthday, Vine Deloria Jr.!

A striking man with venomous charisma to whom we raise our pens on this day of his birth. Source: News From Indian Country

This is the third in a continuing series of posts celebrating the birthdays of important Native authors. As today’s author indicates, I include authors of all forms whether literary, academic, or both (as so many of our finest Native novelists are). If you have any important folks you want to make sure I don’t miss, drop me a line!

How to begin to talk about Vine Deloria Jr.? The entire Deloria family, dynasty if you will, is such a force in Indian Country with their work in the church, the academy, the national pan-tribal organizations etc., that to speak of one you feel have to speak of them all and the work they have done with and for Native peoples. However, since it’s not all of their birthdays, though a national Deloria day may not be a bad idea, I will restrict myself to talking about Vine.

Vine was born in 1933 near the Pine Ridge reservation into a family of Episcopalian and tribal leaders of the Yankton Band of the Dakota Nation. Like the many professions represented in his family, Vine played around with a few career possibilities throughout his early life, going to school to become an minister, then completing a degree in science and later receiving a law degree. He published his first book in 1969 and has produced a fairly steady stream of writings ever since his death in 2005, while also having served on the boards of numerous Native organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians and the National Museum of the American Indian. Like I said the Delorias are not mere people, they are a force.

You can tell a lot about Vine Deloria Jr. from the titles of his works. The most famous of which is Custer Died For Your Sins:  An Indian Manifesto. This is the first book we cracked open in my Critical Indigenous Studies class and for me, as well as many others, it cracked up what exactly critical indigeneity meant. And that was just the first in a long line of thoughtful polemics and biting titles. There’s also We Talk, You Listen; Red Earth, White Lies; God is Red; and Genocide of the Mind. As you might tell, he is quite a master zing artist interjecting his works with precise phrases that strike at the heart of White-Indian relations.

Some of his favorite targets are anthropologists, new agers, naive Americans (to be honest, the majority, believers of the Bering Strait Theory, and of course the BIA. He has also written extensive tracts on religion, philosophy and the philosophy of religion. The dude has a lot to say and he says it well. I was trying to avoid turning this post into a “Best Quotes of Vine Deloria” but I just can’t resist. Rather than blabber about what a good writer is, I will break the golden rule of good writing by just telling you what Deloria is all about instead of trying to somehow show you through my own inept words. I will say that the common thread throughout these quotes is Deloria’s mission to destroy the preconceived people have not only about Indians but also about the natural supremacy of Western civilization and American exceptionalism. He was not afraid to say that tribal methods of being

Deloria On Anthropologists:

Indians are equally certain that Columbus brought anthropologists on his ships when he came to the New World. How else could he have made so many wrong deductions about where he was? 

Deloria on the theory that the Sioux are natural warriors unable to survive in the modern day:

Some Indians, in a tongue-in-cheek manner for which Indians are justly famous, suggested that a subsidized wagon train be run through the reservation each morning at 9 a.m. and the reservation people paid a minimum wage for attacking it.

Deloria on the “plight” of Indians:

One of the finest things about being an Indian is that people are always interested in your “plight.” Other groups have difficulties, predicaments, quandaries, problems, or troubles. Traditionally we Indians have had a “plight.”

Deloria on the white man:

The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races and countries. Before the white man can relate to others he must forgo the pleasure of defining them. The white man must learn to stop viewing history as a plot against himself.

Deloria on Western Civilization:

Western civilization, unfortunately, does not link knowledge and morality but rather, it connects knowledge and power and makes them equivalent.

Deloria on the idea that “we are all immigrants”:

Yes, indeed but it makes one helluva difference whether you came 100,000 years ago, or just out of a boat steerage a generation back.

There are many, many more on the nature of sovereignty, harmful government policies, the civil rights movement, etc but we have to stop somewhere.

Happy Birthday, Vine Deloria. You are very missed here on the Red Earth.


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On Liking Country Music

I may not believe in God, but I go to church every Sunday. It is a church filled with idols but with no altar, save perhaps a turntable. It is a church made not with stone and glass but airwaves and music notes. This church is called country music, my priest is 89.9 WKCR, the sermon is the Tennessee Border Show, and my cathedral is the radio.

When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go/Come and see me baby, and bring along some dough/And we’ll go honky tonkin’, honky tonkin’/We’ll go Honky tonkin’, Honkie Tonkin/We’ll go honky tonkin’ ’round this town.

No matter how late my Saturday night, no matter how bleary my eyes, I will leap out of bed as if with wings to rest my head near a radio and listen to hours of old-timey country music. It is amazing that the act of essentially doing nothing has taken on the weight of ritual. I cannot bring myself to shower, I cannot even dress myself until the country prayer has passed.

Well, I used to walk stooped from the weight of my tears/ But I just started laying my burdens down/I used to duck bullets from the rifle of fear/ I just started laying my burdens down

My faith is one, fortunately, which allows for doubt. Every Sunday I look into my impure soul and ask “Why, oh why, Lindsey, do you love this country music so?” There is a gnawing sense that this is not my music, that I am akin to the kids who wore Blink 182 shirts and thought they were true punks. In short, that I am a poser. On top of that anxiety is the glaring question asked by many, why would I even want to be a country music follower?

It is a music dominated by white voices, co-opted by the Republican party, and capable of morphing into the most ridiculously bad songs ever heard and the worse haircuts ever seen. At its worst, it can be abrasive, offensive or just plain dumb. Yet, it is also music imbued with the voices of poor souls, adopted by working folks and lonely hearts of every overlooked corner of this nation, capable of making a grown man weep and a broken women burn the bed. At its best it is a universal language of longing, defeat and pride.

Livin’ is full of misery and pain/Somebody called you a dirty name/Keep on walkin’/Keep on walkin’

There aren’t many people my age who have faith in old-timey country. Most of the young folks who claim allegiance to the genre have a strange blindness when it comes to the age before Country Music TV. But, for me, it all started with Hank Williams. Hank is perhaps the Shakespeare of country, not in the sense of being a revered figure of the ivy tower but in the sense of the visionary wordsmith who revealed the human soul to itself. Hank did so, but not through the stories of kingdoms and rich merchants. Rather, he told the the stories of smokey honkytonks and family farms, places at the heart of American mythologies.

If Hank can be said to be the bard, country music is most definitely the poetry of America (just exactly whose America that is we will to approach later.) It is an efficient poetry that depends on using the simplest of statements in the most clever and heart wrenching ways. It is also a form that demands a sense of humor. Country people know how to make a joke, and often at their own expense. Take these words from the Man in Black which cleverly twist the pathos of a spurned lover into a satire of the too-cute metaphor-sodden country tune:

From the backdoor of your life you swept me out dear/ In the bread line of your dreams I lost my place/At the table of your love I got the brush off/At the Indianapolis of your heart I lost the race

Perhaps it is this ability to speak of hardship and loss with tears in your bear and a wry grin on your mug that speaks to the soul of Indian Country, where country music is immensely popular. When I learned my grandfather loved Hank Williams and Creedence Clearwater, I felt only too pleased to claim I was carrying on a Navajo tradition. It’s curious that music so closely associated with the white working class of “America’s heartland” also speaks to those whom America has sought to destroy. Summing it up to internal colonization, or more lightly assimilation, would be wrong. We would do better to point to the ways in which country music has been whitewashed just as the country it stands for has. When people think of country they might think only of that rugged, white American individual, but I know that is so much more than that. And people may conflate country music with some pure idea of America, but I only have faith in the former:

This desire to define country music as America’ s music through the lens of whiteness is also tied to define what makes a country (American) man. These days the image of a country man is cut from the same cloth as Toby Keith: aggressive, angry, obsessed with Ford diesel engines and George Bush. Much like the idea that country music is white music overlooks the contributions of black musicians and non-white fans everywhere, the country image of masculinity overlooks the men of country who deny macho expectations. These men dress up in sparkly costumes and sing openly about their feelings. You will find them crying, crumpled in the corner burning love letters with grain alcohol, tortured over the question of how to be a better man. What is so piercing about this country man is his vulnerability, the quiver in the yodel rather than the graveling grunts that pass for singing today.

My sweetheart is gone and I’m so lonesome/She said that she and I were through/So I started out drinkin’ for pastime/Drivin’ nails in my coffin over you

But more than the soul-baring, sensitivity of country crooners, it is the serious ass-kicking ladies of country who really get me going. Some literally kick ass, such as Loretta Lynn who once punched her husband’s two front teeth out after he got rough with her. Her and Dolly Parton embody for me what it means to be sassy, a fierce mix of femininity, smarts and toughness. Men may break their hearts but they’re strong enough to get over it and get their revenge. Though there are a number of “woe is me” tunes, country women refuse to play victims for long. They speak honestly of how it feels to be a woman, specifically a poor woman with few opportunities outside of child-rearing and husband-pleasing. In doing so they show a model for refusing to live a lie.

When you left you thought I’d sit /An’ you thought I’d wait/An’ you thought I’d cry/You called me a dumb blonde/Ah, but somehow I lived through it  

While Loretta and Dolly twist expectations by singing tough words with sweet voices, Wanda Jackson and Lucinda Williams completely obliterate the constraints of being a saccharine-soaked female singer. Jackson, often called The Rockabilly Queen, was a devilish fox who took the stage with  scandalizing hip swinging, masculine swagger and a deep growl of a voice. Williams, one of the most woefully under-recognized performers today, also challenges the pretty woman model with her songs of hard traveling told in a voice that reeks of smoke and drink. Their songs are full of gravel and velvet, anger and tenderness, grit and grace.

Both these artists also show how difficult it can be to talk about blues, folk, country and rock n roll as if they were completely separate entities. For me to love country is to love what made it possible and what it made possible. Most importantly for me to love country is to be constantly alert to its paradoxes and its problems. Despite all of the ones I find, I am still a follower. If you don’t know why yet, no words can explain. You just have to hear those sounds and understand. Listen, really listen to the bent steel guitar note like tear drops in a glass of whiskey, and the drawn out fiddle in the middle of a song like a horsehair saw slicing away the splinters of a broken heart, the hard-drivin’ lead guitar like crazy blood coursin’ through your veins and of course the bared voice of a soul who knows joy and sadness are two sides of the same song.

 Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery/Make me a poster of an old rodeo/Just give me one thing that I can hold onto/To believe in this livin’  is just a hard way to go

Afterword: Week before last I had the chance to make the pilgrimage required by followers of my religion: a trip to Nashville, Tennessee and naturally to the Country Hall of Fame and Museum. A lot of what I have written here was inspired by that grand ole’ place, a true monument not only to the most beautiful music ever made but to the power of monuments in general. While there were noticeable gaps in the history as it was laid out in displays, placards, archival films and old 45’s, it accomplished what most museums attempt to do and fail: a true feeling of having accessed the inside of something and an unquenchable desire to learn more. I recommend a visit to the fan and foe alike. And keep it country, ya’ll.


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Happy Birthday Leslie Marmon Silko!

Who's that looking so happy on their birthday? Leslie Marmon Silko, that's who!

Leslie Marmon Silko, a mixedblood Laguna Pueblo, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on this day in 1948. She, along with the author from our first birthday profile post, is another old faithful when it comes to Native American Lit. 101. She also wrote a book that changed my life… but let’s back up a bit.

When Silko was still a child, there was a legal battle between the Laguna people and the State of New Mexico over six million acres of land wrongfully stolen from the tribe. This legal battle was formative in Silko’s budding political consciousness and later inspired her to go to law school in order to fight for the land rights of her people. However, after becoming disillusioned with the American judicial system and its ability to uphold Native sovereignty, she “decided the only way to seek justice was through the power of stories.”

And thank goodness she did because the world needed her literature a lot more than it needed another lawyer. In 1977, Silko published Ceremony. On the surface, the plot seems a lot like House Made of Dawn, except that Ceremony is the book that changed my life, and House Made of Dawn is just a book I like. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a fellow mixedblood who returns to the reservation after World War II suffering from serious PTSD and a heavy conscience due to the battlefield death of his cousin whom everyone held high expectations for. The black sheep of his community, Tayo drifts through his days in a hallucinatory haze becoming more and more alienated from a toxic world full of substance-soaked illusion and forces of destruction.

A turning point in the novel comes when Tayo visits Betonie, a strange kind of Navajo medicine man living amongst the drunk and the homeless on the outskirts of the Indian Capital of the World, Gallup, New Mexico. During their brief encounter, Betonie urges Tayo to re-evaluate what it means to live a sacred life. “At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies…things which don’t shift and grow are dead things…Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it.” I think of Betonie’s words often, especially when thinking of how we indigenous people are not only going to “make it,” but how we will also overcome.

From that point on, the reader comes to realize that the act of reading this book is in a sense a ceremony, that Silko has turned to literature to, in her own way, fight the witchery of Modern America. I have read few if any books that have the poetic force and transformative vision of Silko’s Ceremony. I have not done it justice in this short space. It must be read and then read again and again until it has been absorbed and can be recalled like the sacred stories it weaves.

In doing my background research for this post, I learned that Paula Gunn Allen, a fellow Pueblo poet, criticized Silko’s use of Laguna stories as an inappropriate divulging of tribal secrets. While I mostly agree that tribes have a legitimate reason to protect their knowledge from outsiders, I truly believe Ceremony was in a sense written for Indian eyes only, though it has became adored by the mainstream literary world.To conceive of Ceremony without drawing on the Pueblo stories would be to render null Silko’s entire project: a new kind of literature that is grown from the old in order to fight for the future.

Other criticisms I have heard leveled at Silko pertain to her 1991 opus Almanac of the Dead, which many say contains homophobic stereotypes. I have yet to crack open the behemoth, which my Native American Literature Professor once described as a literary attempt to undo colonialism, but I am very disheartened to hear that such a great writer would commit such an ugly act.

But, on this day, her birthday, I will think of Ceremony and how it convinced me, as Silko herself was convinced as a child, that one of the most powerful ways to seek justice and healing is through stories.

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An Inspiring Evening for a Student in Search of Her Studies

On a night two Fridays ago in a strange little room called Sulzberger Parlor on the third floor of Barnard Hall located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a few things happened that you don’t see all too often. There was a panel as if often founds in the hall of academia, but this panel, Colonizing Bodies: Sexual Violence in Colonialism, consisted entirely of women of color, from the speakers to the chair. Like all panels, this panel opened up time at the end for questions, but most uncommonly the questions asked that night led to practical discussion of student activism and movement building strategies and tactics.

Columbia Anthropology Professor, Audra Simpson chaired the panel and talking to me before the event compared the panel to a concert of “three Madonnas.” The three super-star speakers included Jasbir Paur, professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University and author of Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times; Andrea Ritchie,a police misconduct attorney and member of the National Collective of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence; and Andrea Smith, a fellow member of INCITE! And Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside.

A half-hour before the speakers began, the event had become standing room only. People prepped their smart phones for live tweeting and conversation was aflame with excitement. I was in disbelief. At two other panels I had attended as an undergraduate with both Prof. Smith and Prof. Simpson present, there had been less than half the number of attendees and most of them were in the anthropology department. The sad reality was that there was little recognition of indigenous issues and the importance of looking at settler colonialism in the American context. And yet a mere year later, with sponsorship from a number of groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine to Peer Men’s Health group and Radical Cunts, it seemed the conversation was finally opening up. The past and present realities of America’s genocidal practices against Native peoples have for too long lingered on the fringe of academic and activist discourse. I was glad to see on Friday that this sad fact may soon be a factor of the past.

Talking with Prof. Simpson before the panel began, I told her how long I had been waiting for Native studies to come into the fold, for radicalized students to finally start talking about settler colonialism IN AMERICA and connecting it to struggles that are somewhat more talked about (such as the Israel-Palestine conflict). She told me that this was just one event in what she sees as a larger trend developing at Columbia: the broadening awareness not only of critical indigenous studies but also the intersectionality of sexual and racial oppressions.

It may be a matter of years before a strong, independent Native studies department forms at Columbia, but it starts in rooms like Sulzberger parlor. Columbia University may not be the educational institute we perceive as liberating, but it at the moment it is one of immense influence. A flourishing Native studies program at Columbia and other universities of its stature could lead to a greater recognition and understanding not only of Native peoples but also the processes of settler colonialism which they fight against. If we can introduce what I see as inherently anti-establishment departments into the establishment and reach as many students as possible with as many ideas as possible, the hope of changing that establishment might have a chance.

Some people may want to believe that politics and the production of knowledge should have nothing to do with each other, but the fact is that they do. And often those who push a politics uncomfortable for the university are punished. Andrea Smith knows a little something about this from her experience at University of Michigan where she was controversially denied tenure. Despite the universities’ obvious displeasure with her work, a large coalition of students organized to protest the decision. I cannot be sure of Smith’s feelings around the unfortunate denial, but I think if it was me seeing that my work had upset the university but rallied the students and gave them something worth fighting for, I think I would have seen that as something of a victorious failure.

However, overcoming anxieties about turning into an ineffectual tweed-clad egghead or fighting the academic industrial complex are only a part of the problem. The other half is finding your discipline. I know what I want to study and I have known for some time now, Native studies, plain and simple. Only thing is my discipline of choice is barely represented at the PhD level in this country, which gives me fewer options of places to go spend the next half-decade of my life than if I were to major in anthropology or even the similarly radical discipline of gender studies. So what I am to do? Adopt one of these accepted disciplines while carving out a space from the inside for critical indigenous issues? Is that what it will take for Native studies to some day have a department its own and how is important is that? How long should we be willing to wait?

During the Colonizing Bodies panel and the Q&A session, there was a lot of discussion about the politics of recognition. At one point Andrea Smith held up a very sophisticated doodle chart on the back of a piece of scrap paper. It depicted a pyramid scheme of sorts in which the big pyramid represents the dominant power ruling over and imposing a hierarchy on a handful of smaller, separate groups. Smith argued that in trying to be recognized by the big pyramid as worthy of survival and rights and dignity, the smaller groups replicate the hierarchical pyramid structure and distance themselves from other groups also involved in a similar struggle. Smith then, metaphorically speaking though I wish I wasn’t, took that chart, chewed it up and spit it out. Dismissing this structure excites people because it allows us to imagine a different fight where marginalized groups stop trying to have power bestowed on them because they are suddenly enough like the dominant group to deserve it and start making power on their own, together.

So, what does this mean in the context of my desire for Native studies to be recognized as a stand-alone discipline? It certainly helps me understand why Native studies is not currently a commonly accepted field of study: because it is a discipline, as Smith demonstrated, that pushes back against adopting the hierarchical structure of the dominant culture. Native peoples, nations and scholars offer an alternative to the idea of hierarchical structures and disrupt almost every narrative of American legitimacy, so it is no wonder that even the most liberal of colleges would shy away from educating people in those alternatives. It certainly makes me wonder what is worth more, being the gadfly on the academic ass or being just another turd.

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