In following the Washington football team mascot controversy, I read with interest, Gyasi Ross’ latest article, “Hush Money and Ransom: An Open Letter to Dan Snyder, the Idiot”. Although Ross made some valid points about Dan Snyder’s foundation that I agree with, I feel the use of pejoratives and name calling undermines the validity of an already sound argument in a white vs. Native issue. However, Ross turns the issue into a Native vs. Native one when he stokes the fires of reservation vs. non-reservation rhetoric. Why was that necessary? What does that have to do with derogatory stereotypes and exploitation? He was writing about his feelings regarding a foundation, right? And as important as I believe the name of a football team is as an issue, I believe Ross has exposed an Achilles' heel troubling Native people – our own internal divides and prejudices.
I interpreted Ross’ message to mean there are more important Native issues that people who live off reservations do not understand; and therefore have no right to an opinion on the mascot issue. What Ross fails to realize is that his kind of reasoning is divisive rhetoric. It divides whole nations and alienates anyone wanting to do good for the people. If every Native did move to a reservation where there are insufficient jobs and housing for the people already living there, then what? You have effectively contained the Native population, something the dominant society could never do.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this opinion. I worked to encourage the people doing good things on my reservation until I voiced my opinion on a matter and was told by a Native man that my opinion didn’t count because I didn’t live on the reservation. I was told I didn’t know what poverty, alcoholism, suicide, etc. was like, as if those problems stopped at reservation borders. So I stopped speaking. I stopped encouraging. Feeling shut out and unwanted by a tribe that I by every right belonged to; I let one man’s opinion stop me. But I won’t anymore.
To say Indians living off reservations don’t deserve a say in Indian affairs, mascot or otherwise or cannot contribute to the community unless we first attain the proper zip code is a ridiculous belief that excludes and divides Nations. It invalidates every Native on and off reservations. It disrespects elders and children and discounts experience. It throws another obstacle in the road of keeping our Nations, cultures, and languages alive. The message to all off-reservation Natives and non-Natives who do respect us and only want to help, is that they are unwanted and unwelcome, that their experiences and work are worthless. If one would want to bring Native people down and keep them down, this is the way to do it.
So what contributions are deemed worthy? What is it that makes us truly Indian then? Dancing, writing books, having long hair, doing sweats, being a tribal attorney or council member, overall, living where the government first dictated us to live?
Referring to those complaining of the mascot issue, Ross made it a point to single out the “Natives who don’t live amongst other Native people or work in our communities." I don’t live on a reservation. I wasn’t born on one. My grandmother moved her children, including my mother who was 5 at the time, to Rapid City to work. Her husband, my grandfather, was in Germany, a veteran serving in the military. My grandmother had to work very hard to support six children on her own. Living in the 1930’s and 40’s Midwest, among so many white people, must have been very difficult, but she plowed the way for us and kept the Lakota way alive. She along with my entire family spoke fluent Lakota, the men served proudly in the military, all made beautiful beadwork and art, and passed down stories and traditions. I remember helping her dry meat, pick chokecherries, and us sitting side by side beading. No one ever carried tribal ID’s or talked of blood quantum. We had our struggles, of course, like all people do, but I never heard disrespect or judgment, such as that voiced by Ross. They lived and died proud of their Lakota heritage and I will not stand for anyone judging them in such a way.
Although having never lived on a reservation, I’ve lost friends to suicide. I know firsthand the terror and pain alcoholism and drug abuse can visit on a family. I’ve stood in the same lines of poverty. I’ve worn the bruises of domestic violence. If those things can only be experienced and appreciated on the reservation, then please tell me where my scars and bruises came from?
Don’t disrespect and invalidate my experience that way. Don’t disrespect the mothers who struggle to work to feed their children and protect them from all manner of pain. Don’t disrespect the struggle of children walking the halls of schools, bearing scornful looks because of their long hair or different names. Don’t disrespect the parents who, nevertheless, encourage them to be proud of a heritage that’s survived unfathomable upheaval, to hold on to their own identity, who tell them they matter.
I don’t need to see a utility bill to verify your address. I don’t need to see your latest works or accolades in Indian-ness. All I want to know is do you have a heart for Indian people? Not just for the community as a whole, but for the individual as well? No matter where that individual resides, be it within the boundaries of reservations or far beyond them; no matter what they do, as ambassadors spreading the good news of being Indian, doing their thing on the Pow Wow Highway, or working a 9 to 5; everyone has a path to walk and who is to say one journey is better than the next? If we do, shame on us!
We live and die with the same blood. Whether we run away from it or embrace it, we will always be Indian no matter what anyone says. Our identities matter, our stories matter, our collective experience matters, our opinions matter. They are good and valid and we must fight for them every day against racism, against profane mascots, even against our own divisive ideals. Don’t throw obstacles in each other’s paths. Don’t hold each other back from walking whichever road the Creator intended. Gyasi Ross has a platform he can use to bring good to Native people or divide them. Polarizing rhetoric and the alienation and disenfranchisement of a large group of Native people is not what’s needed. Whether we live on reservation or non-reservation ground isn’t the point. Find the common ground because it will always be our only solid ground.
Crystal Willcuts Cole, Mnicoujou Lakota and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member, was born in Rapid City, South Dakota and is an artist, writer, and poet currently residing in Big Stone Gap, Virginia with her husband and two children.