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Friday, February 28, 2014

BEING INDIAN AT AWP



I'm not naming names here, and I'm not picking on anyone personally.  But when non-Indian folks tell me glowing stories of the California Indian land their families OWN, complete with the grinding bowls and arrowheads and other artifacts they 'find' there, something awful happens to my stomach, my whole body curls up in a fist, and I have the sensation of baring my teeth in a snarl rather than smiling as I try to find the quickest escape route out of the room.  Inside I am pleading, 'please don't tell me this please don't tell me this please don't tell me this I am going to eviscerate you on the spot.' 

I don’t flee because I am afraid of conflict.  I don’t flee because hearing these stories hurts like hell.  I flee because I know there is only so long I can control myself.  I know that if I stay, my anger and my grief and my loss will literally throw itself at this person talking to me, and I will flay them alive.

This is being Indian in this country where we are artifacts, we are exotic, we are somehow here (so you can tell us these stories) and yet not here (so you can totally ignore the fact that you are talking about land stolen from us, taken from us, while we were being killed off or missionized or relocated or simply locked up). 

Yes, I am having a ‘primitive’ reaction.  In another panel, a non-Native used that word and said that he felt the land “like a primitive.”  Really?  On a panel with an Indian woman sitting right there, and he didn’t re-think the use of that word?


Here’s the thing.  Telling me about ‘owning’ that land, and ‘finding’ those ‘artifacts,’ is like saying, “Oh, you know that Mercedes my grandfather stole from your grandfather?  I’m still finding all of your grandfather’s stuff there – you know, his tools and his treasures, family heirlooms, stuff he meant to leave with you.  I really enjoy looking at them and knowing that it’s all mine.”


It feels like that.  Only worse.  

And don't get me started on writers from California who talk about being Native Californians.  Just don't even GO there.

I’m at AWP in Seattle.  Going to a large conference like AWP means seeing all kinds of wonderful people that I don’t get to see in my small-town, small southern liberal arts university environment.  Lots of Indians at AWP this year, more than I’ve seen in many years, and we are delighting in seeing one another at panels, in the hallways, having coffee, crossing streets.  It’s an Indian love-fest, that’s for sure.  And because I am rooming with Chickasaw Linda Hogan, a beautiful soul who has taken me in with her friendship and her deep kindness, I ride her coat-tails when other, more well-known Indian writers approach her to say hello.  Yesterday Kimberly Blaeser waved to us at the panel where Joy Harjo was reading, and afterwards we all stood around laughing and taking pictures.  Indians, as other Native people often say, laugh a lot more than we look stoic.  And I was total fan girl, asking folks to pose for photos.



Sherman Alexie's shoes: SHINY





Kim and John Purdy, a retired Native Lit professor who was one of the first to publish me (when he edited SAIL), invited us to have lunch with them.  As we walked out, John noticed Sherman Alexie checking in at registration; we hallo'd him, he turned around, and Linda immediately pounced; she told Sherman that he owed her an email, starting a hilarious comedic routine about porn and unusual sexual positions.  This is how Indians tease one another.  It was so much fun to watch.


So there are good, soul-feeding moments about being Indian too.  As I sit here in my hotel room drinking coffee, and Linda sits propped up in her bed across from me, working on a poem, I am reminded that Indians laugh, and tease, and cherish one another in fiercely alive ways.  We keep each other going.  We ease the sting of those small acts of colonization that find us at unexpected moments.  We connect across barriers seen and unseen.

Yes, we do.  Stolen land and all. 

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