Native Americans are the largest non-white population in my northern Minnesota county, coming in at just over two percent. Even though they are the largest “minority” population, in my experience, the “majority” community still struggles to remember to represent Native Americans on decision-making and natural resource committees. But I recently participated in two events where natives were remembered and asked to take part. However, the events reflected poorly on us white folks.
The first event was a journalism panel for a project (One River, Many Stories) that’s trying to bring journalists together to write about a major river that flows through our community. The river, which has been a dumping ground, is being cleaned up and is the focus of major restoration and community planning efforts.
The three journalists on the panel were speaking about collaboration for this project. One was Native American and the others were white. Granted, getting media types — who have been trained to compete with each other — to cooperate is a tall order to begin with, but as the discussion and Q&A session progressed, I felt increasingly chagrined. The native journalist was giving the audience tips on how to find story sources through old records and by talking to people. The white journalists were spouting the corporate line and jumping on chances for exclusive stories. Hello. The whole point of the discussion was collaboration, which the white journalists just didn’t seem to grasp.
Even the audience (mostly white from what I could tell) ended up grand-standing and sniping about which media outlet was the better storyteller. I left the event embarrassed by the blatant blindness to the benefits of collaboration by the white folks.
The second instance was an open mic poetry/prose reading last night at a local coffee house. Although anyone is welcome to read at these sessions, each features an established writer who is given extra time to showcase their work. The featured reader last night was a Native American. His reading concluded with a song he sung in Ojibway. Once done, he invited a lady on stage to read, who also looked native.
Their poems were moving and heartfelt, raw and sentimental. They worked for me. What didn’t work was the lady who read last. She was a blonde older woman who ended her set with a song from a play she wrote. She said she decided to sing in appreciation of the featured reader. But as she belted out several times that she was a “full-blooded Indian” and had endured repression as a native, I began to squirm.
Now, I know that Native Americans come in all colors, but this lady was definitely not native. And I understand that she was trying to honor the culture in an artistic fasion. But I don’t think she realized how farcical it is for a native to see a white person trying to “be” native. It made about as much sense as a Nigerian singing onstage about being Swedish, even if that Nigerian really digs and honors Swedish culture.
I’m sensitized to this issue from recently reading Alexie Sherman’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” but also because over the years I’ve spent time on reservations around the country, in kiva ceremonies and at pow wows, and with Native American medicine men. Besides, don’t forget that I am a whopping 0.4 percent Native American myself (smirk).
I realize I’ve opened a can of worms with this post. I guess what I am trying to say with it is, please, please, please white people – there are better ways to honor Native American culture than by trying to pass yourself off as something you are not. And please learn how to collaborate, a trait that seems to come so much easier to native peoples. I worry about white culture’s ability to survive on several levels unless we do so.
A good blog post about Native American cultural appropriation can be found here.
As I left the coffee house last night, the two native poets happened to walk out behind me. I casually held the door open for them. It was the least I could do.