rt-plague-of-poverty-feat

‘Poverty Porn’ Is Manufactured; Stories of Struggle Are Real

My grandpa Ernest used to listen to people a lot. He’d get phone calls, he’d visit over lunch at the Kiowa Elders Center or people would drop by our house to talk with him about what was happening in their lives. 

People often shared their struggles with him. Some would ask for money to help them through an emergency but most of the time they were looking for empathy and understanding of what they were going through.   I can’t recall hearing him lecture anyone. Instead, he’d patiently listen to them and when they were finished, he would sit quietly for awhile before he spoke. My grandpa would give them money if he had it but he also would give them words of encouragement, advice or even a prayer.

I recall my grandfather's acts of understanding whenever the discussion of poverty porn and Native peoples occurs, usually following a heavily viewed story on mainstream or social media. There are different definitions that Natives use to describe poverty porn but whatever the definition one uses, the reasons given for why it’s a threat to our well being as a community usually goes like this: We are showing the world the worst of who we are as a people and these negative images then set the standard of what it means to be a Native to our youth. For those born in bad situations, they are learning that it is ok not to overcome the obstacles in their lives and not to live up to their full potential.

What follows is usually advice to struggling Natives by which they are told to gather their inner strength and believe in themselves and in that way, they will no longer be victims but victors.  Another solution put forward is that we stop telling negative stories and focus only on positive depictions of strength in our communities. By focusing on these  positive stories, those who are struggling in our community will find new role models to emulate instead of the dead end stereotypes they see in  the media, and in turn dance to the drumbeat of victory.

This has a nice ring to it but how then do we account for all the tough conditions that still exist in our communities despite the plentiful positive stories that are already told in the media and are also visible in our communities? The end of the year top 10 stories in Native Media this year will likely feature positive achievements by Native athletes, professionals, youth, elected officials, entrepreneurs, etc, as well they should. Both Rez and urban communities this past year also had their fair share of successful stories, gatherings, events, personal achievements which most who live there are aware of or participated in. There are many local and national meetings where the accomplishments and growth of Native communities is stressed and communicated to the media and mainstream society.

Again, why are so many of our people struggling if we have an abundance of positive stories for them to draw strength from? Could it be that the economic and political disparities that afflict some Native peoples are rooted in history and existing systems/institutions which makes them especially hard to overcome?

For me the answer to that last question is Yes, which is why I find value in many stories of struggle and hardship as they happen in our communities. Rather than feeling shame when I see another Native coping with some adversity, I feel a sense of connection, a recognition of similar experiences at different times in my life. It leaves me thankful for what I have and for those who helped me through tough times because, unlike the self made Natives, I and many others had help along the way from countless people, a good deal of whom were struggling as well.

If we are to  hear from many voices in our Nations and communities, we need to allow that not all of them are going to have happy endings. Not all of these stories will come with  easy solutions nor do they need to. Most of our people have achievements and losses thoughout their lives. The good stories are easy to hear and many will gather around to listen to them. The stories of  losses are tougher to take in and often  go unspoken not because there isn’t a desire to tell them, but because often people don’t want to hear them. My grandpa understood this, and that’s why he listened to a lot of people.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. 

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