Maybe it all started with Kevin Costner, or Marlon Brando, or the missionaries, or that guy who got off a boat and said, “Man, these people need pants.” Either way, Indian country has seen its share of Great White Hopes, and all those hopefuls have failed miserably. Damn you, Costner!
There’s a long history of people who come into our communities to save us. Diane Sawyer came in on her white horse to showcase our plight on 20/20; the New York Times came in to pity us, and others have come in droves to protect us from our own destruction. The worst of these are the people who have so much difficulty navigating in our communities as outsiders that they claim Native heritage to ‘better help us.’ We don’t want any Kevin Costners or Rachel Dolezals or Mark Yanceys. The White supremacy of American culture has alienated Natives from our rights to justice and equality, and we need allies, so here’s a list of ways to help:
— You don’t need to tell us you know an Indian to fight for Native justice. We see this in the comments section of Indian Country Today Media Network’s articles all the time: the admission that you aren’t Native, but you’ve spent time with such-and-such Indian community and you’ve seen our hardship firsthand. I call this ‘the Kevin Costner.’ Spare us the admission that you’re white; there’s no cultural capital in knowing an Indian, and there’s definitely no cultural capital in being an Indian within activist communities. Let me generalize: we are collectivists, and our kind of activism is beyond ego, and about grit and hard work. It’s your capitalist, individualist culture that invites the idea that knowing an Indian gives you ethos in our meetings, so check that at the door.
— Don’t approach our groups like sociocultural anthropologists. You don’t need to know everything about our practices, people and rituals to help us gain autonomy within institutions and communities. When you come in asking if you need to bring tobacco to the elders, or if spirit animals exist, or if you can sit in on a ceremony, you’re showing your hand as a cultural enthusiast who will exploit us. You don’t need to ‘know our ways’ in order to help us gain equality or create avenues of assistance for people in need. Just know to let the elders be served first if there’s food, and don’t make any bad jokes, because Indians run the gamut on humor.
— We’re not caught between two worlds. We know how to use the Internet and relay the lineage of our origins and myths. I can use a tablet to Google beadwork patterns. Welcome to 2015. I’m often asked if I miss the old ways of my people. The question is absurd. Imagine if white people were asked if they feel caught between two worlds? Do you miss pilgrim outfits and outhouses? Colonization might have wiped away nations and languages but we are not a lost people, absent of culture. In the words of my brilliant aunt, Lee Maracle, “One does not lose culture. It is not an object. Culture changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but it is constantly changing and will do so …”
— Respect that we have directives and ideas of our own, and that we are authorities on our own well-being. If we say the problem isn’t funding, it’s utilizing funds differently, listen to us. If we say the problem is funding and educational development, listen to us.
— Let us be our own voices. Too often we see an article, feature segment, documentary or political pundit speaking on behalf of Natives. If the media, or the allies, were truly down for our causes they would let Natives be their own talking heads. If someone invites you to a workshop or panel to discuss Native education or Native social justice, decline and recommend a Native person with first hand experience. The idea might seem radical, but Natives who are working towards equality and social justice have a more vested interest in progress than you do. Our impassioned articulacy has been shut out of dialogue regarding our betterment for far too long.
I feel empowered with a sense of belonging to a tight knit community of activists and intellectuals. I can see how Rachel Dolezal felt despair about her whiteness at Howard University, and how she might have had a loneliness that was unbearable as she witnessed her peers empower themselves with a pride in community. She probably felt like an outcast, that her voice didn’t matter, and that she was invisible. To her I say, that’s only a glimpse of what it feels like to be brown in a white world. We’re on the margins and our rights and concerns are often dismissed because we’re just an inconvenience to the ‘bigger picture.
After Rachel Dolezal, many of my friends said, “Race is just a concept,” and, “Why can’t we just unite and be one people?” I’d like to believe race is a concept to dismiss, and I wish we were equally identified in the world, but unfortunately I get followed around in pharmacies because I’m brown, and I’ve been mistaken for the help at lunches and businesses many times over. I’m being too generous in empathizing with Rachel Dolezal. Really, her story is that of Red Ridinghood, with people of color playing the naïve girl. On our journey to equality and justice she disguised herself and we asked her, ‘Why must you kink your hair? Why must you tan your skin?’ To that, she replied, ‘All the better to help you with.” She’s the wolf, and we’re the prey. Whether or not her intent was malicious, she damaged our politics and goals with her deceit. The media is more focused on her hair than on the blood being spilled by actual people of color.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and Fraser Valley. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review and Juxtaprose Magazine. She's also an SWAIA Discovery Fellow.