Monday, October 14, 2013

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus came to massacre you" (or, Why Storytelling is Still Important, and learning to Analyze stories is even MORE important)

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It’s tempting to post and re-post all the wonderful anti-Columbus memes going around the internet today.  Columbus with a big bloody “X” scrawled across his face.  Cartoon Indians on the shore watching the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria looming on the horizon, saying to each other, “They better have their documents! No illegal immigrants here!” and so on.

But when I walked in to my office this morning, all I could see was this poster.

I found it in a local antique shop years ago, but never had the guts to hang it in my office until this year (maybe being a full professor has something to do with that).  After all, I teach first years; what would they think, walking into Professor Miranda’s office for the first time and seeing a full-blown massacre of whites by savage Indians?  Any chance of them taking Native Lit with me somewhere down the line would probably go straight down the tubes, I figured.

Now, I’m not so sure.  I’m not so sure first years would run screaming from the room (no one has yet, but more on that later), and I’m not so sure I don’t want to have a conversation with any of my students about this incredible poster.

For one thing, most students never seem to actually catch on that a massacre is happening at all.  They see the Holy Fathers rising beneath the IHS starburst (first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus Christ, which the Latin Church has traditionally rendered IHS as Iesus Hominum Salvator) surrounded by blond-haired, blue-eyed angels, and seem strangely comforted.  


True, the “massacre” (and by now I hope you realize I’m using this word sarcastically) is at the bottom of the frame, and much darker, both in coloring and in tone.  Easy to miss, to mistake as just foundational mass, nothing important.

If my students looked more closely, they would see these images:

A wooded settlement out in the wilderness.  Log cabins.  A beautiful lake.  And angry, nearly-naked, tomahawk-or-club wielding Indians cracking Catholic priests’ skulls open, burning one priest at the stake (with a handy iron kettle nearby, presumably to make Priest Stew afterwards).  Across the lake, more Indians set fire to what looks like a primitive church, with another Priest standing outside, arms outstretched, beseeching heavenly intervention.

Funny how we are in the fifth week of the semester and not one of my students, first year or otherwise, has noticed the juxtaposition of these two scenes, or at least, never commented on them.  Maybe my students are more concerned about the difference between a skeleton outline and a rough draft.  Maybe they think, Professor Miranda is REALLY religious!  Maybe sitting next to this poster, framed on my office wall, makes absolutely no impression on them at all.  Yet these same students comment on other artwork in the office – a student broadside of “Ironing After Midnight,” a Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow poster, the photo of Robert Latham Owens, first (and only) Native to graduate from Washington and Lee (Valedictorian, 1877; Law Degree, 1908), my collection of chapbooks and handmade books and so on.  Even the actual steel shovel with Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging,” hand-lettered on it by a creative student, which is tucked away in relative obscurity, gets an appreciative nod now and then.

Why not this picture?

I warn my students that if they aren’t uncomfortable or disturbed by the materials we cover in my class, I’m not doing my job.  In fact, it is my job to bring this material to their attention, help them engage with it, learn how to read it in multiple ways, and figure out the significance of both the material and their discomfort.  Over the past 13 years I’ve been teaching at universities, student evaluations have raked me over the coals for this, but they have also thanked me.  At this point, the “thanks” are beginning to weigh in a little more.  I must be getting better about being, as one student accused me, “A Native American Feminist!”

Oh, besmirch my name!  I love it!

So on Columbus Day, I am looking at this poster with new eyes.  I am trying to see why the righteous resistance of Native peoples to colonial and religious invasion is so hard to take.  I am trying to see why fighting back against a terrorism that was grounded in greed, racism and fear is so damn hard for people to recognize as resistance, rather than “massacre” by “savages.” 

Surely, the way 2/3rds of the poster is taken up by the priests being elevated to sainthood – all that light and glory, angels and rays of heavenly beneficence – has something to do with this unusual blockage of vision.  Whoever painted this poster – and I don’t know the origins or artist – knew what they were doing.  They were telling a story we all know by heart.  In short, the poster is meant to serve as a visual metaphor: the colonizers as goodness, rising above the savages even when the savages seem most likely to resist, and crushing that resistance with the sheer weight of a story told over and over again in the dominant voice, using all of the power gained by believing in that story, no matter how false.  No matter how self-serving.

The poster tells a story full of heroics, sacrifice, and lies.  My job is to point out the holes in this story.  Starting with this one:  resistance to terrorism is not a massacre.  Innocence is not always represented by the guy in the white hat - or, in this case, the halo.  And anger is not always a bad response to injustice. 

Once again this year, I will post anti-Columbus memes on my FaceBook page.  Once again, I’ll lose “friends” or get comments like “get OVER it already!” from people who consider themselves otherwise sane human beings. 

I’ll deal with it all.  Just more “microaggressions” to fuel my Bad Indian engine.

But this year, I’m going to look over at the poster next to my desk, and smile.  They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I say, resistance is in the voice of the storyteller.  

Hello, my name is Deborah Miranda.  I'm not just a storyteller.  Counter-narrative is my game, and if you send your children to the university where I teach, they will not emerge unscathed.  Beware.  Critical thinking happens here.