Dear Indian Country

I’ll admit it. I have been neglecting my writing. But, this morning something happened to remind me that the ability to put pen to paper as an expression of my experience is a gift. And this gift has a purpose. And my purpose is to write. And write. And write. Whether or not anyone is listening.

This morning, my brilliant doctor friend and fellow creative person, Elizabeth LaPensée, posted a photo on Facebook. A photo that made me groan, roll my eyes, sigh, and hang my head. A photo that put my belly in a twist. Another photo in a long line of disturbing images turning Indigenous people into caricatures for other peoples entertainment (think Washington R*dskins, think Chief Wahoo, think Portland Winterhawks, think Johnny Depp’s Tonto, think Avatar, think “Indian Princess” Halloween costumes).

Elizabeth had been attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco (you see, she is a game developer whose work addresses Indigenous determination in video games, animation, and web comics) and witnessed this:

Glispa at GDC

Two beautiful young women dressed in brown fringe standing in front of a canvas teepee as a marketing ploy for a company known as glispa. Glispa, a “performance marketing platform for mobile and digital entertainment clients,” boasts on its webpage that it is a multicultural team representing 33 different countries and 23 different languages. A company this diverse ought to know better than to abuse stereotypes of indigenous people to make money.

I took a closer look at their website. It gets worse. They call themselves “your online rainmaker.” Their departmental teams are named after Native American tribes (Team Hopi, Team Cherokee, Team Mohawk). Their page has a silhouette of an “Indian” with feathers and a staff. And when a team member’s photo is not available for display it is replaced by another silhouetted image of the media favorite “profile of an Indian in a headdress.”

Do they really not know this degrading? Do they really not know this is painful? Does this multicultural organization really not understand the implications of images such as these?

So, I wrote a letter to the organization. Because words matter. I told them I am a Native American woman. I told them I found their “teepee and indians” display offensive, hurtful, and despairing. I told them these images perpetuate stereotypes, encourage racism, and make a mockery of Indigenous people. I told them the scene in the photo demonstrated ignorance and a lack of respect for Native people. I told them we are people not characters. I asked them to stop abusing Native people with stereotypes and racist portrayals.

It didn’t take long to receive a response. Only about forty-five minutes. And this was the reply:

Hi Melissa,

I founded the company in the US over a decade ago and this is the first time I have received such a complaint.  I am a Chinese-American and understand the sensitivities around race and culture fully.  I was born in the midwest and have many Native American friends.  The name glispa comes from Navajo mythology and we have adopted many of the values of Native American culture in our company philosophy.  In the beginning some of these teachings were the driving principles behind the company philosophy.  We had no intention of offending anyone and “racist” is a strong remark.  While the depiction may not be accurate, we all stem from indigenous people and cultures.  Our company currently has over 35 nationalities and teams recognize the tribes from where they were born.  We celebrate the differences as well as the blending of these roots.  I apologize if this has been misinterpreted and I wish you would have formally contacted us before spreading your complaint around.  I’m surprised that no one has complained about the other companies at this event who show scenes of different nations killing one another in war depictions – but I guess this is a gaming conference.

Gary (Gary Lin CEO glispa GmbH)

I thought about writing back to Mr. Lin, Gary. I thought about telling him how none of the Navajos I’ve asked have ever heard of “glispa,” but if it is a true element of Navajo tradition the company has no business using it in their marketing. I thought about telling him that Navajos lived in hogans, not teepees. I thought about telling him that there is not one Native American culture, but a multitude of vastly diverse cultures. With an “s.” I thought about asking why, if he knows the depictions are not accurate, is he using them? But, the words were stuck. I was saddened by his response. It felt dismissive. It felt like he didn’t hear me. It felt like another example of a non-Indian person telling an Indian person what should and shouldn’t be offensive about their own cultures. And he was using his own identity as a person of color along with his “Native American friends” to somehow make it okay. Mr. Lin, it is not now, nor has it ever been okay.

The day has progressed and I have been exposed to more of glispa’s misappropriations and ignorance regarding Native communities (for the masochists among you check out their twitter feed @glispa). And I thought again about writing a response letter to Mr. Lin and his company. But, the truth is I don’t want to write to them. I don’t want to expose myself to more unapologetic apologies. Instead, I want to write to Indian Country. I want to write to my community. And I want to say this:

Dear Relatives,

I love you. I love your courage, your resiliency, and your ability to endure. I love you because despite the onslaught of generations of stereotypical images of our people we persist. I love you because you are beautiful, funny, diverse, sensitive, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, strong, and caring. I love you when you are happy, I love you when you are sad, I love you in your successes and I love you in your failures. I love you in your advocacy, I love you in your passions, I love you in your desire to self-determination, and I love you in your day-to-day triumphs and disappointments. I love you when you suffer. And I love you when you are joyful.

I want you to know I love you because we don’t hear it enough. Because we don’t feel it enough. Because too often we find ourselves frustrated, angry, disappointed, and broken-hearted. Because too often, in this world where once we were the majority and now we are less than a minority, our voices are lost. In this world when we are enrolling, dis-enrolling, counting blood quantum, watching our children die, watching our languages slip away, drinking, drugging, gambling, ganging, abusing, but also writing, praying, dancing, singing, laughing, playing, creating laws to protect our children, creating programs to enrich our traditions, enacting legislation to support our resources, and speaking up WE NEED LOVE.

And I love you. I love us. I love who we are as a vibrant, multi-faceted, dynamic family. A big one, with lots of cousins.

And I wanted you to know that in this big, messed up, hurt-filled world where companies like glispa, organizations like the R*dskins, and even our favorite actors don’t listen to us:

‘Ée hete’wise. I love you.

~Melissa

 

For more discussion on glispa’s misappropriations in marketing:

Simon Moya-Smith, Indian Country Today Media Network

Jean-Luc Pierite, Gaygamer

Audra Schroeder, The Daily Dot

Renee Nejo, M for Mature

The Trouble with White-Washed History

I have been thinking of banned books.

On January 10th, the Tucson Unified School District voted to eliminate multiple books and essays by Mexican-American and Native American authors from it’s curriculum. They did this because they were afraid to lose money. Only one person on their governing board was against the ban. The others fell to the side of greed.

Let me tell you about my own white-washed high school education:

  • I was taught that slavery was “not really as bad as people think.” My history teacher told the class many slave owners were kind and gentle to their slaves and treated them like family. We didn’t need to believe it was so terrible.
  • I was taught that Native Americans were a primitive people whose only contribution to the world was providing the technology of arrowheads and mortar and pestle. And provided squash and corn to the Thanksgiving menu.
  • I was taught that the Americas did not become populated until after 1492.
  • I was taught that the Mayan and Aztec people were long extinct.

All the while my own identity as an Indian woman was invisible.

We only hurt ourselves and our society when we white-wash history.

Take, for example, my weekend at school. As a religious studies program, intensive class weekends begin with a student-led ritual. In the three years I participated in these rituals I have been deeply moved, inspired, and filled with the presence of the Holy. I have also seen rituals that fell absolutely flat. Generally, these sessions stem from the student leader’s personal faith tradition, sometimes they are more interfaith.

On Saturday, I entered the ritual space to find a table with name cards, hemp rope, and beads. I put my school items on my desk and walked back through the ritual space to get my morning cup of tea. As I walked past the altar I noticed that it had a few feathers and, it seemed to me, someone was taking great effort to offer a “Native American” flair to their set-up. I shrugged it off and procured my tea. When I came back into the room the handouts for ritual had been placed on the chairs and I saw more feathers. Uh-oh. I thought. I read the handout. It was a list of so-called “Native American Prayers.” A long list.

Now, this may seem harmless to many, but white-washed education denies us sensitivity to other cultures.

To me this list of so-called prayers was painful. How does anyone know the prayers are actually Native American or even indigenous? They were printed in English. Are they the badly mis-translated quotes of some antiquated anthropologist who “studied” Indigenous people as though they were not human? Are they quotes gathered up by some new age hipster editor who calls him or herself a shaman in some make-believe fantasy of Indian people? I looked around the room to see if other people were having a similar reaction.

No. At least they weren’t showing it. My hand was shaking while I held the paper. Shaking in anger and grief and sadness and hurt.

I knew I could not be there. I went to my desk and grabbed my phone. My tea. And headed for the exit. On the way out, another glance at the table with the beads and the hemp rope and the names revealed a dream catcher. The kind you can buy in any new age bookstore.

I left the room quietly. Burning inside with grief and pain. Another example of non-Native people taking the pieces of my culture they think look pretty and leaving the rest, including its people, behind. I took myself to the student lounge to wait out the half-hour it takes for ritual when another wave of grief grabbed me. I knew that when I showed my face again I would be confronted with the voices of my colleagues, Melissa! You would have loved it! A Native American Ceremony! Because these people, who I love dearly and who I know have good-hearted intentions, do not understand how inappropriate and un-Indian their so-called ceremony really was. They cannot possibly understand the grief in my bones.

And, of course, this is exactly what happened. I told those who said the dreaded words to me that I chose not to be there because it was inappropriate and untraditional and had nothing to do with my culture. Some people heard me. Some did not. I wanted the day to progress, for class to start, to move on from the pain, but there was another wave of grief about to hit.

Someone told me this had been a “naming ceremony.” Oh, Melissa, What name did YOU get?

WHAT?!?!?!

Among my people, according to the small amount of teaching I have received from one of my auntie’s, the naming ceremony is a deeply sacred and precious gift. For some families it can take years of preparation and commitment. To receive a name in our own indigenous language is, for me, a way to know God and the way in which God would know me. For my people, names have been lost because of white oppression. Creating a bastardized version of something so sacred is devastating.

The woman who created this ritual meant to do no harm. I trust that her intentions were to inspire and uplift, I trust that she has a genuine interest in my culture. The problem is she did not know any better. Because no one has ever taught her anything different. For too long our classrooms, school districts, teachers, and parents have allowed for a white-washed version of history. The book ban in Tucson is only one example of taking away our story. And I do not only mean our Native story or our Mexican-American story or our African-American story, I mean our AMERICAN story.

If you would like to sign a petition in response to the book ban you may do so here. The letter attached to the petition reaches directly to the members of the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board.