Thursday, October 31, 2013

redskins on the rippling fields of racism

A columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press contacted me about the whole Redskins name controversy in light of the protest against it which will take place next week when RGIII and his compadres play the Minnesota Vikings. Basically, he asked if the name was offensive or not. In response I got up on my high horse, dug in the spurs, and gave it free rein to bolt over the rippling fields of racism.

Damn straight the Redskins name is offensive. It's racially loaded at best and thoroughly racist at worst; it is degrading and dehumanizing both in the imagery it depends on and in the type of "savage" behavior it allows fans to engage in--and seemingly forgives. 

I'm not abusing Indian peoples,
I'm abusing white privilege
Though fans argue that the name honors Native people, what it really honors is the fans' (or more generally Americans') idea of what they wish, think, and believe Indian people were (not what Indian people are). Images like the "Redskins" and other mascots generally place Native people in the past, the one that the rest of America moved away from and embalms the idea of Indianness as a relic of a bygone age. Such images propagate the notion that Native people are only Native if they look and live like they did 150 years ago--forgetting, of course, that 300 years before 150 years ago, which is to say 450 years ago, those people looked and dressed differently than they did after European contact, which is to say that change in material life is constant even as the bedrock of cultural ethics is sustained. 

Worse still, those mascot images ignore who Native people are today and how they may be affected by being treated as objects of the past rather than as people who live down the street, shop at the grocery store, teach at universities, work in state and tribal governments, own coffee shops and art galleries, write for newspapers, star in movies, raise their kids, play for the Boston Red Sox (as Jacoby Ellsbury, who is Navajo, does), or serve as US Ambassador to Libya (as Chris Stevens, who was Chinook, did before he was assassinated in the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi). Why don't teams like the Redskins ever think about having their mascot enter the field in a suit and tie or in blue jeans and a t-shirt that proclaims "Native Pride"? Answering my own question, it's because the reality of Native life today does not accord with the fantasy that American culture has constructed of Indian people. While Native people know they are NOT relics, when it uses such imagery the larger society tells itself that the Indians it wants to believe in are relics. It's time that the larger society listens to the stories that Native people tell of their experiences in the world today, rather than listening to those same old mascot stories about headdresses, tomahawk chops, and tom-tom hey-how-are-ya drumming that puts Native people in the rearview mirror every time the Redskins play. Or the Braves. Or the Indians. Or...well, you get the point.

While many (most? all?) Native people feel this imagery is dehumanizing and rightly worry about the effect such images have on the members of their communities, we need to also consider that it dehumanizes those who use and defend the name. I believe any time any of us act in a manner that is derogatory towards a person or a people, we diminish our own humanity--we dehumanize ourselves. Even if our societies and the institutions those societies produce are often pessimistic and hold that racism is part and parcel of the human condition, I believe people are optimistic and want to learn about--and from--others. Back in the 1970s when NASA sent the  two Voyager spacecraft out into the universe, they put a record on each one in which people from all over the Earth offered words of welcome in their various languages to extraterrestrials that may or may not exist and may or may not ever intercept the record. But hopeful humans expressed a desire to hear from them. That idea of reaching out to others, with curious interest and a desire to say hello and break bread with strangers defines much of our humanity. In her wonderful book Dwellings, the Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan points out that a Chinese person on the record asks of the aliens, "Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have the time." That statement perfectly captures what I mean by the optimism of our humanity.

Hey, where are their feathers and tomahawks?
Oh, that's right we don't want the aliens to think we're xenophobes.
A racial epithet (and make no mistake, Redskin is an epithet) affects the humanity of both those it is aimed at and those who make use of the word, even if that use is a seemingly innocent part of the spectacle of a big Sunday afternoon (or Thursday night) football game. Racism and the tolerance of racism diminishes everyone.

America, fuck yeah!
After I sent the above message to him, the columnist got back to me and asked what name the team should adopt when they finally detach from their blinkered love of the bigoted image. As he suggested the Washington Do Nothings, I knew he was comfortable with irony, so I offered this:

The Washington Monuments might be interesting and appropriate given the locale, dull to some degree, but there's definitely some interesting things they could do mascot-wise with the giant phallus imagery of the Washington Monument. It certainly would project a dauntingly macho image to their opponents, though sideline and half-time performances would likely not be appropriate for family viewing--but then neither is the continuing use of racist imagery.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

the beauty fringe

The North Shore of Lake Superior was among the first places in what is now Minnesota where the Anishinaabe people came to live after their centuries-long migration from the east coast of North America. Rivers, streams, and creeks rise from many of the inland lakes along the shore and flow over hard rock that is as nearly as old as any exposed rock in the world. Waterfalls cascade, some with roaring power and others with gentle humility, over this ancient rock, on their tumble toward gichigami as the Anishinaabe call Lake Superior in Ojibwemowin (their language). The Anishinaabe displaced the Dakota Indian people from northern Minnesota and the North Shore in the decades after their arrival there (sometimes through conflict but, just to give lie to stereotypes of always-warring Indian tribes, often through treaty as well). The association of the Anishinaabe to this area is so strong that the Dakota people call the Anishinaabe hahatunwun in their language, the people of the waterfalls.

I like to think, and often believe, that my Anishinaabe heritage draws me to the North Shore, and perhaps it does, as does its rugged beauty. Fishing, camping, and hiking in that area for over thirty years lets that sort of attachment blossom as well. Driving down the county roads, humming over pavement where they are paved, juddering over gravel where they aren’t, the trees press up against the road, harboring all manner of woodland life. 

A few years back, while driving through one of the state forests up there, I pulled over and stepped into the woods along one such road, thinking it looked like a nice place to hike, and found…nothing. The woods beyond the thin few yards of trees and brush next to the road had been clear-cut, taken away and pulped or milled I suspect in the nearby town of Cloquet. Timber company lingo referred to that thin few yards of trees at the edge of the road as a “beauty fringe.” Some might call the beauty fringe a sop to tourists who just drove down the roads looking for, um, beauty, never intending to get out of their cars. Others might read it more darkly and see it as an attempt to mask such scandalously indiscriminate cutting of all the trees in the area from unsuspecting drivers. Timber companies argue that such cuts are a crucial part of silviculture and a necessary part of timber regeneration, and perhaps they are in areas that were decades ago stripped of old growth forest, but as my exposure to American Indian literature and Anishinaabe storytelling carried along, I came to see this harvest as evidence that the windigo spirit persists in this area.

One might seek the Beauty Fringe, but still
may not avoid the Cannibal Spirit

Windigo is a spirit that enters a person when they are hungry, near starvation, and transforms them from a human being into a monstrous creature. Windigo comes to us from Anishinaabe and Cree Indian teachings where it is described as an emaciated figure that looks like the person it once was, but has now grown as tall as the trees and hungers endlessly for human flesh (the Cree, who speak a related language to Ojibwemowin, call this creature witiko). In eating human flesh, even if it is the only way to stave off starvation—that is, even if it can be rationalized as justified, a person becomes this voracious and never-sated monster, its lips chewed to shreds as it gnaws on itself until it finds prey. Its heart is hardened into a lump of ice as it eyes even friends and family with hunger. A person loses their name when they become one of them and they cease to be part of that community that bore them up in the world. 

Gone windigo, a person puts his or her needs above those of their family and community, they are selfish, acting solely in their own self-interest. John Wayne, the avatar of masculine American individualism, feeds himself on Native lives and lands and hides the fact from passersby with a beauty fringe of romanticized Western history.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

two is all numbers greater than one

In one of those moments that have helped me understand who I am as a person and teacher, and helps me explain what I mean by irony, I met the uncle of one of my students at the student’s college graduation party. Ben and I had struck up a solid friendship when he was enrolled in my course on American Indian Literature and we continued to work together on various projects after the course ended. Ben often spoke to me about what his uncle was teaching him about being Anishinaabe and how he wanted to bring those teachings into his academic work as well as into his personal life. He had spoken of his uncle so warmly that I eagerly anticipated meeting him at the party. His uncle and I ended up standing together next to a table full of food. Ben introduced us and then headed off to mingle with his other guests.

His uncle was not a rabbit, but
might have been if you
wenebojo my meaning.
art by jim denomie
After an awkward few moments of silence, his uncle asked, “So you taught my nephew t’ be Ind’n?” He had that rez accent that elided unnecessary vowels and didn’t look at me when he spoke, just kept his eyes fixed on the table on the other side of the yard where his sister and nieces and nephews sat. He didn’t gaze off into the far horizon like Indians in the movies did; he looked instead at his family.

“Good lord, no!” I wanted to say, but he spoke with such a lack of emphasis that I felt I should as well. “No,” I said flatly and slightly defensively. “I teach American Indian literature.”

He looked at me, unconcerned with literature. “Did you teach him to see two things at once?” He held up two fingers as he said this, showing me the back of his hand and then flipped his hand around. Still the two fingers, but now the front of his hand. He’d multiplied the two by itself in this action I later realized.

That was an unexpected question. I stammered something vague and noncommital until it occurred to me that that is exactly what we did in the lit course. We looked at what happened in the story and we looked at what the story meant. We recognized that words might both describe the sky and also symbolize the internal states of characters, and we sought ways to see how that story in the book might help us think about situations in our personal lives as well as how they might help us think about situations we saw in the world around us. Realizing that seeing two things at once is exactly what we did, I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

If I were some kind of New Age faker (fakir?), I’d lie and tell you that he shook my hand at that moment and said, “Then, my fellow human being, you taught my nephew well to be an authentic Native American and I give big thanks unto the Great Spirit that Nephew had the great good fortune to be your student.” He’d have taken out the sacred pipe then (he was sure to be a pipe carrier as all Indians in all New Age faker stories seem to be). “We shall smoke the sacramental tobacco, Friend, and extend the good blessings of that wisdom to all and send our thanks up to our Father the Sky.” Then he’d give me an Indian name, Newsmans Smirk of course, and after writing a bestselling self-help book, I would open a retreat for the worried well who’d flock to attend week-long seminars where I would draw veils over their eyes (as New Age fakers do) while relieving their bank accounts of thousands of dollars in spiritual development fees.

Newsmans Smirk (not his real name)
offers healing to people who have money
and reveal varying degrees of cleavage
What really happened after I agreed that I had taught Ben to see two things at once, I don’t recall. I’m sure I ate something and then later headed back home, but Ben’s uncle’s words stuck with me, as did that particular multiplying gesture he did with his hand. He could have gone on ad infinitum multiplying two by two just by flipping his hand back and forth. Thinking about that gesture I came to realize by my own private reckoning, of course, that two needed to be understood as all numbers greater than one. Two was multiplicity, two was multitude. Maybe Ben’s uncle intended me to arrive at this point but he sure didn’t offer me any direct instruction.

Irony is the same as two being all numbers greater than one. Irony is the ability to see through one thing to gain a sense of what else it is—of all the other things it might be. Irony does not allow the world to be opaque, impenetrable, singularly meaningful; it resists such fundamentalism. It treats everything as a window opening on to something else.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Years after escaping Bigfoot and at the other end of Minnesota from Grandpa’s mink ranch, I sat one afternoon in a long line of cars that were trying to move from the county road we were on to the state highway. Traffic on the highway was unremitting; weekenders heading from their north woods lake cabins back to the Twin Cities made a steady stream that cars in my line could only break into at the rate of what seemed like one every ten minutes. Time dragged there in the car.
This photo can be found on the website
of David Locky whose last name sounds almost like
the Norse trickster Loki's.
A coyote sat on the embankment at the side of the road in the long grass at the edge of the treeline watching the cars with a newsman’s smirk. As my car inched forward—wait, scratch that. As my car millimetered forward I stared at the critter there, thinking he didn’t have it half bad and his ears perked at my thought and the smirk broadened into what I could have sworn was a human smile. The teeth seemed wrong for a canine, but before I could really be sure, he turned tail and bolted for the bush. What struck me at first as dog-like yipping seemed to morph into a cackling burst of undeniably human laughter. I found myself wondering if what I’d seen was a man dressed in a coyote skin or, even better, maybe he’d been a shapeshifter, a person in coyote form. Even cooler, what if it were a Coyote in person form dressed in a coyote skin. 

Canis Latrans is what naturalists call the coyote, the laughing dog, and as quick as that laughing creature turned to the woods, I had a sudden, though ultimately unacted on, desire to escape my life and lead his. A long boring line of cars millimetering forward seemed an apt analogy for what was wrong with the modern world and I could turn from that and be coyote free—just abandon the car and take up with carrion. He laughed at me for a reason. He was telling me that one of us was free to run off into the woods and its many delights—tall trees, sweet berries, skittering chipmunks—while the other of us was stuck in his car listening to the engine idle. I can see the narrow track he disappeared down more clearly in my memory than I can see the color of the car I drove in those days. But I still can’t recall his teeth all that clearly.

Wenabozho is not a coyote

He was the first coyote I’d seen (in coyote form) since committing myself to studying the work that tricksters were doing in the work of American Indian writers like Gerald Vizenor, Thomas King, Louise Erdrich, and Leslie Silko. I was a graduate student in American Studies in those days and Coyote, I had learned in my research, is the trickster in dozens upon dozens of tribal literary traditions ranging over most of western North America from the high plains in the north to the desert Southwest and over into the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest (where he surely shared some turf with Bigfoot). Covering that range of territory, it was clear Coyote got around some and while it would have been more tribally appropriate in the woods of northern Minnesota for me to see Wenabozho, the trickster-culture hero of my Anishinaabe Indian ancestors, I was happy to see that coyote on that day in alien territory.

Tricksters and the stories about them existed in part, I’d learned, to help us understand what we value in life. Tricksters teach not with words, but by the direct example of their actions. The stories about them don’t have morals, because morals are just words we can mouth and in mouthing them without reflection we hollow them out, reducing good stories and their inherent ambiguities to empty cant—dogma, when what we need is coyotema. Instead of morals, trickster stories contain teachings. We learn from the stories not by what they tell us, but by thinking about them longly, deeply, quickly, fleetingly—however we need to think about them at any given juncture in our lives. They form a type of critical consciousness and the story of that day teaches me that I should laugh at what’s wrong with the modern world, the one that sees more power in millimeters than in coyotes. It also taught me that, despite the temptation of the woods, at the end of the day I should always head for home.

Friday, August 9, 2013

bigfoot heading my way

The story was one that a newscaster relates with a knowing smirk and the slightest wink, as if trying to subtly dislodge a gnat stuck under an eyelid, yet what he said terrified me that night and the next day. The reds and greens of the early ‘70s color TV, slightly off and slightly too intense no matter how often Grandpa fussed with it, gave the anchor an extraterrestrial pallor that, coupled with the helmet hair favored the nation over by newspeople, made it seem like he was beaming a message to us from some orbiting starship.

Not how the logo looked back then
Really though, he was just a few miles away in Mason City, Iowa. One might call the TV studio a cornfield starship I suppose, a high tech machine used to transport world and national news to the farmers in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, as well as the daily ag reports by which the locals could chart the future health of their economies, but this story concerned something anomalous, a word I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know back then.

I can’t remember if I was sitting on the floor between Grandma’s and Grandpa’s chairs that night, or if I was flopped on the nearby couch watching the news. I was not all that old, maybe ten or eleven, and so I might even have been snuggled in the chair with my little grandma (as I called the four-foot something Berget Kennedy; my other grandma, Phyllis Meland, was a comparatively towering five-foot two-inch tall woman I called Big Grandma, unaware in my youthful, perhaps male, naiveté that one should never call a woman “big”). Grandpa hired me every summer for a week or two to help him on the mink ranch—strangely, or perhaps not, there was rarely any news concerning the fur market on the ag report—and in the evening, after a hard day’s work, he’d take Little Grandma and I out for milkshakes and then we’d end the evening in front of the TV watching the news. It was a great life there with Little Grandma and Grandpa Milt, even if the TV wasn’t as good as that back home on the crabgrass frontier of the inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis where I grew up. Watching the news, really? How dull, or at least it usually was. That night differed. What the newsman reported sticks with me still; it’s the only news story I ever remember watching down there.

The alien newsman, his redly glowing smirk and greenly winking eye, wrapped up the newscast that night with a story about a Bigfoot sighting along one of the highways or county roads near Mason City. At that point in my life, like many others at that point in the mid-1970s, I was an avid consumer of all manner of literature concerning UFOs, the Abominable Snowman (who I’d not yet learned to call Yeti), the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. The pocket-sized paperbacks that contained these stories were so cheaply produced that the spine cracked before you were even halfway through them and the pages, which had begun to yellow the moment light touched them, drifted loose and it was something of a frustration to keep them in order. I remember having rubber bands holding many books together. That’s the kind of kid I was, orderly. I wanted to read each word on each page in the order they were written, trusting that the truth in the stories concerning these anomalous phenomena would become clearer as each chapter wound to a close.

The newsman’s Bigfoot story, which I now can’t help but think of as having a greenish-reddish tint (there’s no tin-type sepia tones in my treasured memories), was an odd one compared to all the others I knew. Nowadays all manner of theories abound concerning Bigfoot and how he might be a humanoid or a human-primate hybrid, or even a transdimensional extraterrestrial being, but in those days most everyone thought of him as an animal, a big bipedal ape, and what the newsman reported this Bigfoot animal to be doing was something no animal ever does (except the dogs on about half the farms my grandpa took me to visit). He chased the car of those who spotted him and they, rightly frightened as my younger self understood, gunned it, pressing the car faster and faster and still the Bigfoot peered in their window and hammered on the roof of their car. They finally got the car up to sixty and left the creature behind. The newsman ended the story with a warning. “When they last saw him Bigfoot was heading north. Our viewers in the Albert Lea area should be vigilant.” That green wink.

Grandpa’s mink ranch was just ten minutes outside Albert Lea and let me tell you I had trouble getting to sleep that night. I didn’t hear or see anything out of the ordinary, but still I suspected Bigfoot was likely nearby. I was in the Albert Lea area, and so he had to be heading my way.


While the phrase “mink ranch” calls up images of vast herds of mink roaming over open plains, tended by horse-riding “minkboys” who had to be, given the tiny necks of the not-so-large mink, extremely accurate in their lassoing abilities, the reality of Grandpa’s ranch was much more mundane. What we called the mink yard was a few fenced in acres of good southern Minnesota real estate, kind of woodsy with lots of trees under which sat row upon row upon row of mink pens. Grandpa’s herd ran to about ten thousand head of mink and that pretty much meant ten thousand mink pens as mink are not really herd animals, and prefer to live solo rather than in packs.

The pens looked kind of like this, and yes
it was cruel, but at the time, it was just
what Grandpa did

 The pens were about three feet long with a box at one end for the mink to sleep in and a galvanized tin cup at the other that needed to be filled with water twice a day, three times when it was really hot. That was my job. Watering the mink. I moved down the rows, a hose that seemed a mile long looped over my shoulder to gain a little leverage on the weight of the mile’s worth of water I dragged behind me, and splashed water into the cups. Sometimes a mink would peer at me out of the hole in the box at the other end of the pen and some of the more aggressive ones might occasionally charge out at me, but mostly nothing happened. It was a long job watering mink. Not a lot of stimulation, nothing to really go wrong, plenty of time to think. As a ten-year old boy I’m sure I was thinking about the Minnesota Twins a lot as well as about whether I’d get a milkshake, a malt, or a root beer float when Grandpa drove us to town that evening, but that day, the next day after the reddish-green Bigfoot transmission, I thought about Bigfoot and how he must be coming my way.

He found me in the mink yard, at the far end of it, alone. Grandpa had a whole crew of men to help him feed and tend to the mink; men who gladly forfeited the watering job to me when I came to visit. The last task of the day was to feed and water the mink one more time and given their superior manpower, Grandpa and his hired men always finished long before I did. Meaning I was alone out there, a few hundred yards away from the safety of the farmhouse, meaning I was alone with my thoughts, meaning Bigfoot was there with me. The woods at the back of the mink yard were not dense and the trees were not particularly towering, but it was dark back in there, even in the full light of day. The swampy muck of the forest floor made a green stink in the August heat, the musk of the earth blended with the humid stench from the hog farm on the other side of the woods into a thick cloud of yuck. Not that Bigfoot would notice. My books said he smelled awful and could I be sure, really sure, that what I smelled was swamp muck and humid hog shit and not Bigfoot. At that moment I wasn’t so sure, but rather than test the air I speeded up. Better to finish the job quickly than risk an encounter with that big hairy smelly something that had chased a car in Iowa.

The mink pens stretched in a long row in front of me and the sight line they made, there at the very end of the mink yard, pointed straight into the woods. Late afternoon sun cut through the dark at the top of the trees, spilling some of that golden farmland light into what was otherwise twisted and scrubby and dim. A blue so vague it was kind of gray shone in thin strips between the trunks of the trees, the sky over the field on the other side of the woods. In the space of about ten strides I shifted from a brisk jog into a full bore run. The newscaster’s report swelled inside me. They hadn’t got away till they hit sixty! Splashing water recklessly into the tin cups, I ran so hard that I couldn’t hear the creature I was now certain was there. I couldn’t hit sixty, but I would get as close as humanly possible.

Ostman told his story
 years later
Risking a glance toward the woods I saw nothing, but the stink was dense and he was paralleling my steps I knew, keeping just inside the treeline, just out of my sight, a clever hunter. The story of Albert Ostman leapt to mind. He’d been kidnapped by a family of Sasquatch back in the ‘20s and held captive for days or weeks, I couldn’t remember, and the length of his captivity didn’t matter when everything you wanted—good TV, orderly books, doting grandparents—was soon going to be lost to you.

I thought about ditching the hose and turning tail for home, but I couldn’t let Grandpa down. He had hired me, was paying me to do a simple job so there could be no quitting. I moved as quick as possible, damned if lugging a thousand-yard hose didn’t slow you down some, making my way toward the last few pens, right at the very back of the mink yard where one of the farmhands had scrawled “THIS IS WHERE THE DINKS HANG OUT” on the fence in grease pen, because it was there that the dinks did hang out when the guys stopped to take a leak. On any other day I would have stopped and taken a quick whiz just to sanctify what the real farmhands had long sanctified, but not today. What if Bigfoot caught you with your dink out?

I was almost done, nearing the end of the row. The stink was still thick in the air around me and I was still moving too fast to do a good or even adequate job, but damned if I was going to stop now—and then, quick as I thought it, I was pulled up short. Jinxed myself. The hose caught on the edge of something, not pinched because the water still ran, and I was left four or five pens short of the end. I was too scared to even curse and no matter how hard I tugged, the hose wouldn’t budge. The woods threw long shadows away from me and rather than running back and freeing the hose, I put my thumb over the end of it and arced a spray of water that managed, I believe to this day, to fill the last few remaining cups better than the previous couple dozen had been filled.

I dropped the hose as soon as I was sure the last mink was watered and booked for the house, slapped the spigot handle at the wellhead closed as I sprinted past, vaulted the gate rather than waste any time opening it, and ran straight into the kitchen where Little Grandma asked me what I was doing.

“Just running,” I lied. She knew I liked to run and it was the easiest way to explain why I was panting and flushed and sweaty.

Evidence was crucial in those Bigfoot and UFO books, a plaster cast of a footprint or a blurry photograph added a layer of authority to an experience, and I had nothing but my own labored breathing to offer in testimony to what had taken place, to Bigfoot’s presence in that swampy woods. Little Grandma might believe me if I told her, but grandparents believe things of their grandchildren that rational people never would, and if I were to call the TV studio my story would become a good night tale for sleepy farmers.  A green smirk and a red wink at the end of a long day.

“Just running,” I said again, my breath still coming in quick gasps. The lie, I knew, was easier to believe than the truth.