Patricia Heinicke Jr.
In recent months I’ve been talking with friends about the idea of a press that would publish American Indian authors, designed in part to bridge Indian and non-Indian communities. One question we’d have to wrestle with as a press is why should Joe and Janet Middle American care about their American Indian neighbors, especially when they have their own woes to attend to?
Part of the difficulty, I think, lies in the fact that caring for each other is no easy matter. We generally don’t know each other, and if we do, we often don’t trust each other. There’s a pervasive and thorough-going ignorance among most American adults about U.S. history as it relates to Native Americans and about contemporary Native issues and experience. And the way Native Americans are presented (or not) to kids—through Scouting, camp, holiday, and school activities and curriculum, not to mention toys and media—is neither accurate nor respectful, on the whole. So it’s safe to say that the ignorance and misinformation start early.
Not long ago at a gathering of Native Christians I felt myself both welcomed and shunned. The welcoming I experienced in the usual way one does at workshops and conferences: while at meals, chatting during breaks, etc. The shunning was entirely self-generated and internal: the residue of long-past shunnings; imagined, projected reactions (“You don’t think I belong here, do you?”); the deep-seated “knowledge” of all that my whiteness represents.
It took awhile to sort through all this, to toss any projections as futile and presumptuous, to acknowledge that an alternative might be to think of myself in terms of the history of allies and alliances between our peoples rather than the history of conflict, to comfort myself and move on. By that time the meeting was over. (LOL)
At first I was dismayed with myself: “Why, after all these years, can’t I just be?” But now I’m thinking that in our interactions, in our talking and listening as Indian and non-Indian, rez and urban, enrolled and not enrolled, etc., perhaps we need to be open to this sort of discomfort. We have a lot of baggage to sort through collectively; we shouldn’t expect everything to be “fine now that the casinos have taken care of everything” (which is something I hear now and again).
Non-Native America can be especially oblivious to this baggage and to our need for dialog because we think we can afford to be. As a visitor to this website, you are probably not oblivious, so I won’t preach to the choir on that issue. But you can help by thinking for a moment about the question of how we listen to Native experience so that it is meaningful and powerful, so we can then take responsibility (as distinct from guilt) for our history, for our privilege, whatever that looks like, and move toward action.
* * *
Let’s take as example stories of radical suffering. This kind of suffering can be the result of war or domestic violence, systemic poverty, racism, or chronic illness. It steals humanity; it degrades; it can’t be fixed by “doing the right thing.” Radical suffering also steals people’s voices; it’s got many layers that are hard to disentangle.
If there is any place of radical suffering in the United States today, it’s Indian Country. As Montana writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain said recently in an interview, “Writers write about things they’re conflicted over. … And so people from Indian Country tend to be haunted by things that are pretty dark—things like alcohol and abuse, and political and social dysfunction, etc.” (Cory Walsh, “Native writers cross over boundaries in Off the Path,” Missoulian, April 11, 2014). So suffering is not all that we will hear from Native America, but it is certainly part of what we will hear.
So how do we respond to stories of radical suffering? Rather than feeling guilty, rather than trying to solve the problem, to minimize or normalize the situation, maybe we are called to sorrow and grieving. Or maybe we are simply called to listen carefully.
Some years ago my husband John and I went to a screening of Older than America, a film by native filmmaker Georgina Lightning about the American Indian boarding school system and the suffering it caused and continues to cause. It’s a difficult story, and one that’s not very often heard in mainstream America. During the Q&A after the film, a young white woman came up to the mike. Crying and shaking, she said something about how sorry she was and asked what she could do. She was a wreck, and no one really knew what to say.
This kind of outburst can make us uncomfortable; behavior like this can seem wacky or unbalanced. When faced with the story of the boarding schools and then with this woman’s response, some might respond, “Sheesh. Why can’t we just let bygones be bygones? Wasn’t that all like a hundred years ago?” The deeper question often is, “Why should I feel guilty for something that started before I was born?”
Well, we shouldn’t. Guilt about the atrocities of the past, on either side, is a wasted emotion; when we feel guilt about such things we might end up feeling virtuous (“Someone should feel sorry for me—look how tortured I am about it!”). We might be distracted from compassion and action by our own discomfort. Guilt can also put us on the defensive, and guilt places people in conflict because it requires either punishment or forgiveness.
The easiest way to avoid guilt and make sense of things is to move it onto the other party. In the face of an undeniable problem, it’s comforting to look at those who aren’t like us—whoever “those people” are for us—and ask “How can they live that way?” or “Why did they do this to us?” But that doesn’t work, either.
So if it’s not about guilt, what is it about? How do we, a multicultural people, an after-the-fact people, how do we deal with the wounds of the past that still lie open on our land? Are we “innocent” bystanders, coming upon the scene of a crime, yet like the Good Samaritan, responsible, and touched by the suffering because we live in it?
When the young woman at the screening heard the story of radical suffering that the film told, she wept bitterly. This is more grief than guilt. Thus when we say, “I’m sorry,” maybe it can mean not “I deserve to be punished” but “I sorrow; I grieve—and bitterly.”
Especially in a more intimate context than a movie theater, this kind of listening and grieving can allow the suffering person to grieve also; it calls out and names the suffering that they’ve been living with. It’s a start. This com-passion, this suffering with, also makes the suffering something that we share; it brings the sufferer and the listener out of isolation and into a community of fuller awareness with and of each other.
This is not a recipe that requires falling apart, sobbing on the shoulders of the suffering person. But if you stay present to the story, each other, and yourself, then grief and sorrow may very well follow. It’s not easy, listening like that. You have to shut up first. You have to stop yourself from trying to solve the problem. You have to stop yourself from running away. It takes guts, and patience, and practice.
The young woman also asked what she could do. I can’t remember if anyone answered her; it wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t an answer. It was maybe not the time or the place for such a question. “What can I do?” is a crucial question, but it may have to be repeated until the time and the place are right.
Another challenge is that even those of us who are good storytellers or good listeners are often best at telling or listening to people who look and act like us. When we try to tell our story to someone who is different from us, we are faced not only with all of our own baggage, but also the misconceptions and prejudices and even ill will, perceived and real, conscious and unconscious, of the listener. And for listeners faced with the stories of people who are different, it’s easy to get distracted—we’re barraged by inner questions, judgments, and defensiveness. Niggling thoughts enter into our listening (Do you live in tipis? Can I touch your hair? Why didn’t you just go to therapy/start an AA group/call the police? Why aren’t you like me?) The immensity of our heritages lies between us—the wealth of our cultural richness, from the surface things like hair and housing to beliefs and values and the preconceptions we both bring to the table. It’s all there in the room with us.
Of course, stories of suffering are only one example. Another kind of story that comes out of Indian Country is the story that runs counter to our experience of Indians or that addresses our lack of experience. This is bound to happen, since most non-Indian people’s images of Indian life and experience are pretty limited, and so stereotypes tend to trump real life. Thus many stories present a world that subverts the stereotype, perhaps a world that is anything but anachronistic or bleak, helpless or hopeless. These stories reveal, uncover, and surprise, even celebrate.
How do we respond to stories that conflict with what we “know” about Native American people? (We might also ask ourselves how we would answer this question about our own people, and sit with the answers a bit.) How do we respond to stories that tell us things we didn’t know, sometimes inconceivable things, sometimes awe-full, sometimes hilarious things?
Again, we listen deeply and see what happens. Maybe we gain humility and admiration, maybe even a growing sense of solidarity, responsibility. How many of us non-Indians have in our family lore apocryphal stories of Indian great- or great-great-grandparents? If we do, then our neighbors are our relatives for real. Maybe if we hear enough stories, we can begin to learn how to wear that complex family tie.
* * *
We can all do some more practicing here at Postcolonial Networks. With heartfelt thanks to Joe Duggan and Jason Craige Harris, I’m pleased to say we’ll have an opportunity to listen to some Native American voices in this space, writing and presenting on topics important to them. I invite you to return in the coming months to listen to our first presenters, Adrian Jawort, Northern Cheyenne; Frederick Olsen, Haida; and Cinnamon Spear, Northern Cheyenne. With more to come after them!
Adrian is as a freelance journalist who writes for outlets across the United States, including Indian Country Today, Cowboys & Indians, and Native Peoples magazines, and he is the editor of Off the Path: An Anthology of 21st-Century Montana American Indian Writers (2014). Fred is an award-winning filmmaker (see Gásáan xaadas guusuu and Surviving Sounds of Haida) and chairman of the South East Alaska Regional Health Consortium, and he wears many hats in the Native Village of Kasaan, Alaska. Cinnamon is an author and documentary filmmaker (see Pride and Basketball) who is often called upon to speak to groups of young people—from her home in Lame Deer, Montana, to her alma mater at Dartmouth. The four of us and others are working toward the goal of setting up a small press for Native American authors.
I can’t wait to hear what Adrian, Fred, Cinnamon, and future contributors have to say. If you would like your contributions to be considered for this space, please contact me at the address below.
Patricia Heinicke Jr. works as a freelance editor and lives in Sacramento, California. She grew up in Seward, Nebraska, and on the Northern Cheyenne and Quileute reservations in Montana and Washington State, respectively. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.