Indigenous Internalized Oppression: Let’s talk about it already!

During my work with the Indigenous Theological Training Institute, especially in my role in leading the national Episcopal Church’s anti-racism program “Seeing the Face of God in Each Other” among Native American communities, it was always joyful to see Native American individuals who would suddenly have a name for what they had experienced for so much of their lives.  It’s an “a-ha!” type of moment when we finally figure it out.  It is multi-generational.  It comes from earlier generations and we simply continue the cycle of internalized oppression in an altered way and pass it on to the next generation so that they can see how it morphs into their lives.

So how has internalized oppression wormed its way into my life?  Some of my first memories as a child are the parties that my mom and dad had in the basement of the public housing unit that was part of the McDonough housing projects on the northern edge of the St. Paul city limits. There were drunks everywhere.  I remember playing Ants-In-The-Pants with completely drunk strangers. I remember making my own breakfasts while all those people in the house were asleep.  I would crawl over a passed-out guest in the living room to get to the couch so that I could watch my morning cartoons. Eventually, this became my normal idea of how life is. I remember the fights that my mother and father would have. Once she gave him an undercut with her right fist that sent him sprawling across the kitchen floor and knocking off the metal handle of the broiler on the lower half of the oven. I remember crying and being so fearful because of the violence.  Eventually, I learned that parents steal each other’s money from each other when the other passes out. I started finding solace in being alone in my room with my yellow bookcase of books and toys.  When my father finally left the household altogether to find his own way in life, my mother sobered up and spent the rest of her young life trying to fill my life with things in an attempt to placate her own guilt.  I see that now and wonder what it would have been like to have actually known her.  She died too young at the age of 44 when I was 15 years old. She pushed me academically and sent me to a private college preparatory school, sacrificing much of her life to work in the chemical dependency recovery field. She was determined to make my life an improvement on hers.

Today, I still cringe when I see a Native American man or woman in my neighborhood who is clearly drunk and begging for money or trying to wheedle a free ride on the bus.  I look down into my book and hope that no one on the bus will notice what is going on in front of the bus at the cashbox.  I certainly don’t want to have the person see me, recognize me as another Native American, come over and start a conversation trying to find the relationship that exists between us.  “Please,” I think to myself, “don’t see me. I am not like you.  I am not a drunk Indian.”

Now, I can’t think of many middle-class Americans who especially go out of the way to make contact with an inebriated individual.  My internalized oppression has taught me to fear those moments when others may (unrightly) judge me based on my common ethnicity with the Native American person who stands before us in dirty clothes with his hand out.  My retreat into myself and my book is based all on my own internalized oppression: I’m worried that the stereotype of the drunken Indian is correct.  If I see a white or black person who is drunk, I don’t have the same “flight” response.  It’s something I continually have to live with and, when I am brave enough, face head on.

So much of what I have heard from the world around me about what it is to be Indian is, I suppose, accepted by those who are not Indian.  We are stoic, strong and very spiritual (so the stereotype goes) when sober but dirty, drunk and debased when not sober.  Of course, I’m ready to fall into line with the first set of characteristics…I can use them to get by in this American society of individualism. I am not stoic: I am wildly emotional. I may be strong, but it is because of a life of adversity.  As for spiritual, many cultures have definitions that try to make sense of reality. Perhaps indigenous understandings have some enduring strength with which individuals in American society are sometimes enamored after finding something lacking in their own culture.

Lastly, I can think of how intellect has become so important to me and the need to constantly set higher standards for myself and never quite being satisfied. It’s as if I have learned that I have to do better than anyone else to prove that Native Americans are not worse than others.  It’s somewhat of a double standard in a way, I suppose.  To fight those stereotypes and other negative perspectives, we strive harder at fitting in and surpassing the norms of the dominant society around us.

I have at times wanted with all of my heart and spirit to “fit in” with western, white American society. I have a relative who constantly says, “It’s not easy being Indian.”  No, indeed it is not.  I have wondered if it would be easier to be a white person and have come to realize that that would be even harder for its own reasons.  For now, I need to continue looking into the mirror and seeing who I am and how I am related to that drunk on the bus.


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