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Pray For Paris: The Confusing Politics of Native People Mourning Tragedies

The Thing About Skins: Why is everyone paying attention to Paris? BROWN and BLACK folks die around the world every single day.
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“When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he'd say, "What's the matter boss, we sick?" His master's pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself.” - Malcolm X

Honestly, I get confused. 

In the days since the horrible terrorist attacks in Paris, there has been a mix of reactions. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know—the news has been on a constant loop of more terrorist threats, outrage, grief, outrage over the grief, policy promises. Of course never to be outdone, Donald Trump had the policy idea that he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS”; under normal circumstances that might sound crazy as hell, but given the brutality of the terrorist attacks, heck, the Donald actually made some damn sense. I see my friends—mainly Native people—on Facebook and other social media expressing deep and profound sympathy for Paris. We’re compassionate people—we know tragic loss. We’re intimately familiar with tragic loss. We hate to see other people dealing with tragic loss because we’re so close to that feeling at all times. 

It really doesn’t matter what color the people were who got killed; the violence was evil. And unnecessary. The sign of reprobate minds.

But then there’s another view. And it actually also makes a lot of sense. Some folks say, “Well why is everyone paying attention to Paris? BROWN and BLACK folks die around the world every single day and it didn’t get a special Facebook status photo setting. BROWN and BLACK folks die are killed in unnecessary and evil violence all the time both within the United States and in other nations…no one seems to be praying for Lebanon.”

And it’s true—there definitely seems to be different scale for tragedies depending upon where they happen and who they happen to. Obviously September 11th is a watershed moment within American history and the attacks on Paris are kinda like France’s version of September 11th. The New York Times quoted Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor as saying, “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag. When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

It seems like we’re comfortable with the deaths of brown and black people. It happens. It’s not a big deal.

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I’m not sure that there is proper or a wrong way to mourn. I mean, I get the politics—Native people have definitely been on the Lebanese side of national mourning; it seems like no one ever cares when we die. And that makes me stingy with my mourning—honestly, I tend to save it for when my folks die because I know that nobody else seems to care about it.

But I don’t know if that’s right either. I mean, when a child loses her/his parents because of some unnecessary and evil act, it’s terrible. The color doesn’t matter. When a child gets killed for whatever reason, of any color, it should hurt everybody’s spirit. It’s easy to simply act militant without much thought, “Screw them! Our people were killed and nobody cared so I’m not gonna care about anybody either!” You know the rhetoric.

But that’s stupid. And dishonest. At some point, we’re all just humans. And that’s cool. Because Native people show, by virtue of everything from our exemplary service in the military to our continued participation in this system that continues to give us the shaft that we’re willing to be part of a larger team. 

America. To see everyone as human beings. Justice for all.

There is no wrong way to mourn these tragedies—please don’t let anybody shame you into thinking that you have to mourn all tragedies equally. You don’t. None of us do. As compassionate human beings, it’s beautiful when we feel empathy for people outside of our tribe. That’s what Natives do—that’s why the first European immigrants to this country were able to survive here. Yet to simply always come to the aid of hurting and sick without there ever being any reciprocation to see if we’re hurting or sick seems masochistic.

Or confusing.

Lina, a Syrian refugee, comforts one of her children in Lebanon. Photo courtesy

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi