Month: February 2017

Impressions of Custer Died for Your Sins

cdfysThis week, I finished reading Custer Died for Your Sins (1969, 1988) by Vine Deloria Jr. My reading coincided with our newest presidential administration’s violations of land rights and first amendment rights in the #NoDAPL protest at the Oceti Sakowin camp. White supremacy is rearing its ugly head in the worst ways because of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and people of color are feeling it on every front. Deloria’s book gives me much to consider on how to fix these problems, and whether or not Deloria’s solutions, which he wrote in 1969, still apply today.

Deloria is quite the writer. I really appreciate his crass, part comedian-part philosopher style. He and Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian, which I reviewed back in July 2016, write about similar material in very different ways. These differences I attribute to a number of things, of which the first has to be sun signs. Laugh if you must, but that King is a Taurus and Deloria is an Aries is quite striking in their writing. King treats writing as an art; as I said in my post, he is like a poet. It felt as though he revered the process of creating the work almost as much as he did the content. His book also came out in 2013, a time when many of the predictions that Deloria made in his 1969 book could be evaluated. Deloria, on the other hand, unapologetically bashed the United States government, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), whiteness, white people’s accounts of history, anthropologists, and a great number of other things with a signature coarseness. His writing is more utilitarian–a way to clearly state ideas in a way that is credible and easily distributed.

King, while born in California, most recently resides in Canada, a nation of relatively liberal, friendly (albeit, super white) people who say “eh” a lot and are a lot more sympathetic to Native folks. Deloria resided in America during his life, a place where white people consistently tell other people to “go back to their country,” even though this land clearly wasn’t theirs to begin with.

To preface my analysis, I’m going to say here that there is no way in hell I will do this book any justice because there is so much in it that is so, so important. I’ll do my best with the parts I liked.

First off, I really appreciate how fucking funny Deloria is. His opening chapter is filled with too many good witticisms on the relations between American and Indian (Deloria uses the word “Indian” to refer to the indigenous people of America). Within the first ten pages, Deloria makes fun of both American values as well as old country music:

Like the deer and the antelope, Indians seemed to play rather than get down to the serious business of piling up treasures upon the earth where thieves break through and steal (1969, p. 6). 

The implication here is that perhaps piling up treasure in a capitalist frenzy is a folly after all, since all it does is attract thieves. Or perhaps the thieves exist precisely because there is an uneven distribution of goods?

Another gem was Deloria’s comment on the “paternalism” of whiteness.

Whites have always refused to give non-whites the respect which they have been found to legally possess. Instead there has always been a contemptuous attitude that although the law says one thing, ‘we all know better’ (1969, p. 8). 

Probably any non-white understands this sentiment. Deloria doesn’t say “the respect that non-whites possess”. Rather, they are “found to possess,” as though even the existence of the damn respect is dubious until white people say it is so. Thus white people think they are the arbiters of law, what people are worth, and basically everything and anything. In truth, white people know little to nothing of the lives of people of color and how different racialized minorities relate to one another.

I also appreciate how little Deloria does to shield the scholar-reader from poverty. For some reason, in more recent books, these descriptions are glossed over, though I can’t imagine why. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s to make sure Millenials don’t have a proper class analysis. Consider his description of the Wisconsin Menominees.

The Menominees had been so poor in comparison to other Americans that the only experience Watkins [a senator] could relate his reservation visit with was his visit to refugee camps of the Near East after World War II. (p. 68). 

This was in Chapter 3 on “The Disastrous Policy of Termination”. Termination was the process in the late 50’s (p. 60-71) by which the United States government tried to end government funding of Indian entities. This is not unlike the constant conservative backlash against providing welfare. The logic is, the government gives the tribes money over a certain period for things like healthcare, building schools, and constructing homes (p. 71) until the tribe’s economy stabilizes and it can support itself. It seemed an irony at the time that the United States was concerned with “keeping its promises” in Vietnam when it hadn’t kept even one promise to the Indigenous people of America (p. 76). If anything, it continued to break those promises.

Like King, Deloria talks a great deal about land. In chapter 5 on “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum”, he states,

Most mysterious [to the missionaries] was the Indian reverence for land. When told to settle down and become farmers, most Indians rebelled. For centuries they had lived off the land as hunters, taking and giving in their dances and ceremonies (p. 103). 

In Chapter 8, “The Red and the Black”, he continues,

No movement can sustain itself, no people can continue, no government can function, and no religion can become a reality except  it be bound to a land area of its own…So called power movements are primarily the urge of peoples to find their homeland…(p. 179).

Most beautifully, in Chapter 9, “The Problem of Indian Leadership”:

But when they attempt to articulate what they are doing so that the white society can understand them, unity dissolves into chaos…Indians simply cannot externalize themselves. Externalization implies a concern for the future. Indians welcome the future but don’t worry about it. Traditionally the tribes had pretty much what they wanted…The land had plenty for everyone. Piling up gigantic surpluses implied a mistrust of the Great Spirit and a futile desire to control the future (p. 221).

While each of these three quotes alone serve their own purpose in the chapters where they are written, as a whole they also put forth a philosophy on land. Perhaps more, even, than a philosophy. The way Deloria talks about land reminds me of the way Desis talk about Hinduism or Hawai’ians talk about their religion. They are things appropriated by white people that simultaneously, white people will never understand. Even if they study these things for years in their classes on anthropology and human evolution, even if they devote their lives to these things, white people will never be descendants of the people to whom these things belong. Deloria talks about land as though it is a living entity, one that should be developed, but not in the way that Americans think. It should be developed the way a child is nurtured to grow older. Dividing up land for different purposes is as futile as claiming your arm does not belong to the same body as your head. Function does not determine entity.

Custer Died for your Sins is organized into 11 chapters of which my favorites, without a doubt, are chpater 4, “Anthropologists and Other Friends” and chapter 7, “Indian Humor”. In the former, Deloria scolds academia for its futile attempts at being useful. In the latter, Deloria comments on the many entities, human or otherwise, that plague Indian existence, though he makes them sound more like mosquitoes bothering a large creature rather than the life-threatening things they are. Arguably, that is the beauty of humor. The unthinkable and inhumane can be reduced to entertainment that Americans then actually pay attention to, hell, even pay money for.

While Deloria undertook an important task in writing this book, he is not without his faults. Although he gives ample commentary on the relations between white and black people, he gives little in the way of how Indian men and women relate to one another. Gender is not given a chapter, a weakness that King incidentally does address in The Inconvenient Indian. Deloria also has a tendency to generalize, claiming that “Indians” all feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, or behave a certain way about a great many issues (see the last of the three land quotes above). I do wonder if this is not so much a fault of Deloria’s as it is a symptom of the times in which the book was published, when identity politics did not dominate so much of academia and people were not yet compartmentalized into their little individual tribes. In 1969, divisions were still quite simple: you were either a woman or a man, a person of color or white (yes, I am aware that that is a generalization as well). These days, you must specify that you are an able-bodied, black, cisgender, heterosexual, working class, right-handed, woman, or not. If you are a person with the same social identities but you are left-handed, academia now dictates you have nothing in common with your right-handed sister.

In addition, Deloria seemed to have been very optimistic about certain outcomes when this book was written. On the revival of religion in the Northwest, he appears to have been right (p. 115). Upon rekindling their connection to their ancestral religions, the tribes of the Northwest are some of the most active at the moment (at least, it looks that way to me. All the Native activists I meet on the East Coast are from there). On how whiteness has endured (and I apologize, I can’t find my tab for this citation), he  was rather optimistic. I do wonder, though, if that is also a symptom of the times. The end of the Civil Rights, while tumultuous, was also a period of great leadership and uprising among many marginalized peoples. While we also see activism today in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #NoDAPL protest, both of the current organizations seem to be throwing pebbles at a fortress, where perhaps in the 60’s, organizers may have had flamethrowers. The playing field is not as even. I feel the actions of the movement are not making as much of a dent in the machine as they used to. Then again, I am still just discovering the whole picture, and may not be fully informed.

 

In spite of its shortcomings, Custer Died for your Sins should really be a requirement for college liberal arts degrees. There is far more in there that I did not talk about (the challenges of uniting people of a single group! The commentary on how Black and Indian relate!) that provides so much insight into community organizing and environmental justice. I now understand why this is considered a landmark of a book.

Works Cited

Deloria Jr., V. (1969, 1988). Custer died for your sins. New York, NY: University of Oklahoma Press.

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On Healing

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Skies over Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, Late October. For some reason, all my good photos come from work.

CW: abortion

I have read so much bullshit on healing from trauma. So. Fucking. Much.

So for those of y’all who don’t know, I got an abortion about 14 months ago. It was difficult and sad. My partner at the time pretty much left me to fend for myself. With no one else to go to, I had to go home and tell my mother, which was neither pleasant nor something I really wanted to do. My mother is an anxious, overprotective Indian immigrant, and I knew this would break her as much as it broke me. This woman learned to drive just so she could take me to this middle school with a science program that I wanted to attend. She has never held it against me when I ate beef (we’re practicing Hindus) or got my father’s car towed (has happened twice) or done a number of other stupid things when I was growing up. Even though my pregnancy was an honest mistake, something that happened because I made a bad decision, even though it wasn’t rape, I knew the way she thought of me would fundamentally change, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it but allow her to deal.

I had to allow myself to deal as well, though my mother and I did not agree on how that should be done. I wanted to take a semester off from grad school to take care of my mental health. It did not bother me so much to think I might have to spend another year in graduate school. That seemed like a small price to pay for being healthy. I was distraught and incapable of concentration. My mother, on the other hand, was probably thinking of the amount of money it cost the family to support me while I was in grad school. My parents basically took care of rent for me because my assistantship wasn’t covering it. At the time, I selfishly thought she was being harsh, but looking back, her concern made sense because my brother was still an undergraduate going through school (with his own costs). My mother harangued me to the point that I didn’t want to be at home any more.

So I did one of the hardest things I, or literally anyone (I’d like to see anyone go through this level of shit and come out the other side with a master’s degree), have ever done. I went the fuck back to grad school. I went back to that place where enough bureaucracy goes on that even mentally healthy, hardy, and/or charismatic people want to leave. The best part is, I told almost no one about the abortion. There were maybe 4 people I trusted enough with the information. I told none of my professors, none of my co-workers, my supervisor at work, my staff, or my colleagues. It just didn’t seem like something they needed to know, though I know they probably noticed how tired I was, how lacking in emotion, how little I wanted to engage with human beings. Perhaps my entitlement is showing, but I think I ought to be given a medal of honor for having given enough fucks to finish graduate school in that condition.

My therapist has told me that people who are allowed to grieve openly usually have an easier time of overcoming grief. I wasn’t open at all about what I was grieving, so you can imagine the kind of complex shitstorm I am in now.

On healing from trauma, the one thing I might respect about the literature is that it consistently claims that everyone heals differently. That might be the only part I agree with.

The other things written about healing from trauma are so sugarcoated as to be irrelevant to my life. The literature consists of either Tumblr-tier, hippie, self-love bullshit that prescribe things like bubble baths, getting your nails done, and lighting candles (don’t get me wrong, if that works for you, do you), or it’s got this underlying narrative of “treat this poor, tragic person with kindness because they need it”. (My apologies for not being able to come up with examples at the moment. I might have rooted out all the offending articles from my newsfeeds and thus have none to show you).

The fact of the matter is, healing has not been some fun process of chillaxing and spoiling myself. It has been incredibly frustrating to feel as though I have to take time off from regular activities to heal. This is difficult to admit because it’s not as though I am some workaholic who drowns her pain in work all the time. Even before trauma, I was a person who liked to have fun. I would drop everything to hang out with friends. I would skip studying to go to a party or go on a snack run in the middle of the night. I would splurge on expensive shoes. I would buy plane tickets to some far off state at the drop of a hat. I loved the freedom of being impulsive.

But I find I am not impulsive any more. I have become cautious and guarded. While I think that has been a necessary process, I also know my life looks very different now as a result. I resent having to take time off from being social. I resent having to ask for help, and how weak it makes me feel to do that. We are surrounded by incredibly ableist narratives that dictate that a person in their mid-twenties should be at their physical peak, and should also be financially independent. Thus, it pisses me off to no end that I am not either of those things.

I am not enjoying my healing process. Perhaps this is due to a number of other things that coincide with this time, like the fact that getting a job takes forever these days, I am living with my parents again, my job pays me in bread crumbs, and I have enough bills that I have forgotten what life without debt looks like. Maybe I would fucking light a candle if I felt I had any time or energy. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to go through healing at this point in my life. In an ideal world, I’d have a community and financial support and a job that gives me fucking paid leave! But the fact is, I am healing, and I wish I didn’t have to. And that’s probably why this process is taking so long.

On the Lack of Compassion in Teaching Non-Native English Speakers

I feel my depression acting up again, and I think my job is definitely to blame. I know it will sound pretentious of me to claim this, but I think I suffer greatly from being a person invested in my humanity on a staff that seems hell-bent on being half-dead.

To give you all an idea of why I feel this way, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Last year, I graduated from a master’s degree program (Social Justice Education at UMass Amherst) that focuses on making educational settings less oppressive. One of the things I appreciated the most about this program is it’s focus on critical pedagogy, challenging the rampant hegemony of the education system. To give a crash course on critical pedagogy, it is the process of using teaching materials that do not center the narratives of rich, white, cis-heterosexual, English-speaking, Christian men (theorized by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). The purpose is to allow underrepresented narratives to be heard. So I was surrounded by people who encouraged multilingualism, who celebrated it, even. I was surrounded by people who were not afraid of conflict, who were not afraid of expressing their opinions. I was surrounded by people who used music, videos, and poetry in class as teaching materials, who liked getting students out of their chairs to talk, create art, demonstrate concepts. I was informed by authors like Laura Rendon (Sentipensante, 2009), Lisa Leigh Patel (Youth Held at the Border, 2013), and bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress, 1994), who argue that both teachers and students deserve to enjoy education. It should be a life-affirming process.

In American education, it has become normalized for students to be unimaginably bored, stressed, or anxious because of the antagonistic standards and mechanical schedules of people who call themselves educators. Frankly, I think teachers themselves become mindless in this process. How can teachers maintain their humanity when they are basically asked to bulldoze students into submission?

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The Library of the Dale Mabry Campus, which houses the Learning Resources Center

So if you can imagine, at my current job as a writing tutor at Hillsborough Community College, I am surrounded by either young professionals who think they need to conform to current standards for educational professionals (and thus, are slowly losing their humanity in front of my eyes), or old white people who have been teaching for so many years in an outdated manner that they have forgotten what living feels like.

Furthermore, over half of the students at this campus are students of color (HCC Factbook, 2013), and over half of them are also not native English speakers (HCC Factbook, 2013). This demographic is not reflected by the staff, who appear to be mostly white, with the exception of the rare woman of color who has been co-opted by the institution to reinforce problematic standards. Honestly, students are treated with nothing short of dehumanization on this campus. Just today, I was looking over an essay with a student, and I could tell she had a lot of anxiety around turning in this paper. It was a simple 5-paragraph narrative essay. She asked me at least 5 times throughout the session whether or not she had any punctuation errors (the answer was no. I assured her again and again that I did not see punctuation errors). She was also terrified that the teacher would take points off if she did not get her title and heading just right. (And I thought to myself, when some students have never even been to school before now, and some are learning English for the first time in their lives, what kind of person takes off points just because they don’t like the place where they put their name on the paper? Why are teachers allowed to be so anal-retentive in this manner? Is their entire day, their entire life so thrown off by something as small and insignificant as where a student puts their name on the top of a page?).

I think the last straw for me in this session was when the student told me her teacher wouldn’t read an email if it seemed too much like a “text message”. The student asked me if I could help her word an email, in which she was asking the professor whether or not he wanted their work in MLA format. Honestly, if this was Harvard or something, perhaps I would allow a comment like that from a teacher slide. But this is not Harvard, it is a community college in a predominantly Spanish-speaking, POC neighborhood. This student only sees her teacher once a week. She is expected to turn all her work in online. The teacher apparently doesn’t take much time to answer questions, and clearly exercises absolute authority over his students to the point that none of them feel comfortable approaching him. That is literally why this poor student (who clearly knows how to use a computer and writes with enough clarity that any person who is not an asshole can follow) was sitting in front of me asking me whether or not they are writing an email correctly. This professor’s comment seemed excessively ageist, xenophobic and elitist to me.

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The writing commons, where writing tutoring occurs

Sessions like this one are not unusual for me. I get students in the writing center who come to me with all manner of anxieties about things that, in my opinion, don’t even matter that much to writing. Sometimes, I feel I am more a counselor that assists students in building confidence than I am a “tutor”. Such endless rules these professors pummel their students with: no contractions, no passive voice, no first person, no second person. Again, in a context like a private college where all the students have received 1550s on their SATs, perhaps this is a reasonable standard. But this is not Harvard. It is not the University of Florida. It is a community college of predominantly people of color and immigrants. How will a student ever feel confident writing in a place where everything they do seems wrong in the eyes of their professors? How can a student approach writing with anything other than the utmost fear if they are never given any compassion in the learning process?

This is not even the half of it. Many of my staff members criticize people for mispronouncing words like “subtle” or “often” (which are pretty difficult words for a non-native English speaker, considering the number of silent letters in English words). A few times, I have observed the professors who teach non-native English speakers (the classes are referred to as EAP on this campus: English for Academic Purposes). Most of them patronize their students egregiously. For presentations, I am frequently told to “speak slowly” so students can understand (as opposed to, I don’t know, try speaking Spanish?). At least one of the professors speaks to her students as though they are small children with low intelligence. This same professor believes in teaching her students by telling them to “assimilate” to American culture, and to only speak English in her class so that they can “master English,” to the detriment of keeping their native language alive. To my knowledge, not a single one of these professors has ever learned a second language, yet they condescend to know the best way to teach students English. How can a person know anything about teaching language if they have only ever acquired one?

For perhaps the third time in a month, I am sending out an SOS to all the radical educators. What do you do about a workplace environment like this, besides leave? What power do I have to change things? How will I go about it when I feel like I am the only person who sees the need for change? Please help me. My sanity is at stake.

Works Cited

Hillsborough Community College. (2013). HCC Factbook 2013: Institutional Research. Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, FL.