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“I’m Your Elder!”: Using Tradition as Oppression

In many societies, especially tribal societies, elders are often revered and cherished for their experience and accrued wisdom. While some more industrialized societies have a habit of hiding “seniors” and “the elderly” away, others (including more and more industrialized societies) have traditions of keeping elders nearby to teach and train younger people, to pass on the collected stories, and to share their experience and wisdom in what it is to exist. In my Native American culture, is it overtly expressed in the teachings that I have received most of my life.  My mother used to make me stand up for elders during city bus trips. Of course, as  a young boy, I found it tiresome and annoying, but after many years, am so glad that my mother taught me this important lesson of respect.  The elders of most Native American tribes are honored as leaders in the society–their collective wisdom is essential to the ongoing survival of the nations.  The respect towards and honoring of elders is a central value of most–if not all–tribal societies. 

So, what then has gone wrong?  When did some elders become bullies?  A few years ago, during a heated discussion at a meeting of church leadership, an older Native American woman said to a younger leader, “You need to listen to me, I’m your elder.”  Now, generally, I would agree: we all need to listen to our elders.  In thinking back to that particular conversation, however, the particular “elder” was using her status to discontinue conversation of an issue that was important to everyone around the table.  The young woman to whom this was directed demurely backed away and nothing more was said to the satisfaction of the “elder.”  The young woman’s response was typical of that of many other Native Americans who back away in order to save face, i.e., to not show disharmony or contradiction. This, too, is a common tradition of at least Dakota people.  We would rather not be involved in direct confrontation. If there is not implicit and explicit agreement on something, no action will be taken. This particular “elder” knew that this would be the response, so she was effectively able to shut down the whole conversation.

When did disagreeing with an elder become “disrespectful?”  We have confused some things in our understood values. We need to better understand what it is to be an elder in our tribal societies, both on the reservation and in the cities.  It is a difficult task to delineate when an individual Dakota adult becomes a Dakota elder.  It is definitely something  that is not claimed by the person, although later they may simply silently acknowledge it by receiving a prepared plate of food at their table from younger people during a powwow or other community event.  I often hear individuals stating that they may be “an elder-in-training.”  Elderhood is something that is conferred upon an individual.  It is something that is humbly accepted.  It is then celebrated over the years when finally the individual begins accepting the gifts, the responsibilities, the accountability and the leadership that has been placed upon them by the community. So, it shocks me to hear individuals say that I need to respect them because they are my elder. That individual has claimed elderhood.  Have they earned my respect? Have they shown me by the example of their life that they deserve to be listened to and waited upon?  Generally, if I see a physically older person, I show them some deference and respect. However, to hear “I”m your elder” used to cow an individual or group generally informs me that the individual is NOT spiritually mature enough to be an elder.  Sometimes, physically older individuals are just old people.

Some elders are younger: they exhibit the traits of an elder but generally would never claim elderhood and might deflect the honor of being called an elder in humorous ways.  In Native American societies, humor is often used to keep the attention away from one’s own individual achievements or individuality, in general.  In opposition to this, too many “elders” are claiming the spotlight and accepting accolades by their cronies in less than honorable ways.  When a medicine man or any grass-root revolutionary begins chaiming the public spotlight to make an appearance, then they have given up any claims to being an elder.  Humility is a driving force behind what it means to be an elder.  Using the power of tradition to oppress others is not a value to be held in esteem.

As tribal peoples, still trying to hold on to valued traditions, we have reached a time when we need to cling to the greatest and most useful of these traditions and their associated values. However, we need to be aware that these traditions do not always have the expected results within a society in which they were not originally intended.  Some have come to use our own traditions and values against us in order to fulfill their own desires and selfish goals. These are  usually the same ultra-Indians that I have written of elsewhere.  It is time to reclaim our true traditions and values.  Being an elder is hard work: it involves giving away yourself to others in order to be filled up by the love of others.  It does not involve using your status as elder to enforce your own view of things on others.  I give thanks to God for the many elders in my life.


ÜberIndians, UltraNatives and Authenticity

One aspect of indigneous internalized oppression is something that I like to call the “ultraIndian effect.” At some point, all Native Americans meet someone who is sure that they are “more Indian or more authentically Native” than anyone else in the room. This elephant in the room is hardly ever spoken about because of individuals being unsure of how to respond to those who charge around like rhinos asserting that to be “a real Indian” one must do things or not do things in certain ways. There seem to be a lot of unwritten rules which are never quite absolute and seem to waver, wax and wane as the situation, environment, and mood change. To be honest, I cannot stand such conversations, games and challenges which  are used to assert one’s own identity in dismissing another person’s identity as less or as inauthentic. It’s a hurtful thing that many Native people do in trying to find and assert their identities–the very identities that were often taken from our ancestors by policies and programs enacted by schools and churches on behalf of the Federal Government.

In various discussions that I have facilitated, I have asked Native Americans around the table a very contentious question: “Who is a real Indian?” Of course, everyone has a different answer based on their own experience of working through the many transparent and conjoined layers of self-identity. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of this question: it opens the slues of definitions and sources of Native American Identity. According to the United States Federal Government, an “American Indian or Alaskan Native” may identify themselves as such based on the measurement of “degree of Indian blood” that is listed in their official document “Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood.” Yes, that’s right: Native people carry around such documents to prove that they are members of a federally recognized tribe. Is that, however, a true answer to the question of identity?

I have an aunt who grew up among our Lakota relatives. She was brought up in the Episcopal school system that was, in part, supported by the U.S. Federal Government. While she initially grew up using her Dakota language at home and during Episcopal church services, she was not allowed to speak Dakota while at school. She, like thousands of other Native American children, were forced to learn English and, in certain localities, punished for speaking their mother tongue. Like my own mother, she left the reservation to become a productive American worker in a major urban center as encouraged by “urbanization” policies fostered during the Eisenhower administration. Like my mother, my aunt turned to various unhealthy ways in order to cope with a society that focused on individualism and productivity that do not reflect Dakota values. For my mother, it was alcohol which helped her escape the oppression she felt. For many Native people, as well as many others, who have experienced this type of oppression, substance abuse is a way to escape and a way to cope with the daily realization that they “do not fit in” in contemporary American society, especially within urban settings.

When I asked my aunt who she thougth was “a real Indian,” she immediately replied that she knew them to be the individuals and families who had suffered on the reservations: those who lived almost “off the grid” and survived despite their poverty. As I helped her to reflect on her definition, it was a stony silence I received when I pointed our her own inference that she and I are not  “real Indians” since we both live in large metropolitan areas and do not face the severe poverty that “real Indians” would face if her definition is correct.

Finally, there are those who in healing take on a zealotry of projecting their own developing Native American identity towards others in hurtful ways. Suddenly, having faced the hard reality of anger and hurt that our peoples have survived, they become an über-Indian. They know that the only true traditions are those that they have learned or been taught by others. Even within the Episcopal Church, I see individuals who insist that to be a real Indian, services must be done in a specific way or with specific prayers that they remember from their childhood church, even though Christianity was not originally a part of any Native American cultures. They insist that Native American “ways” or “systems” are not only to be preferred to those of white America, they are superior in any way and that anyone who would disagree with them cannot possibly be “a real Indian.” “Oh, you’re from the city” means “you are not an authentic Native American who has held on to original and traditional systems of belief and action. “Oh, you’re a Christian” means you are a sellout to your own people and culture.

What is then left? If I cannot emulate the exact lifestyles and beliefs of my ancestors, even those just three or four generations, according to the ultra-Indians, then I am not authentically to be considered an Indian. Perhaps, at most, I am just a member of the “Wanna-be Tribe.” Their onslaught of backhanded remarks, unqualified assumptions (especially as they relate to authentic traditions and beliefs) and simplistic political attacks against any disagreement leaves them to stand with drum in hand, feather in hair and a disregard for the true challenges of what it means to be a real Indian.

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.

Indigenous Identity of Indians

So much has been written about what it is to be a contemporary Native American person. There have been so many perspectives. One hopes that there will be much more written and expressed about it as so much more needs to be said, shown and lived out.  I want to use this blog to focus in on the fundamental issues that make up what it means to be an “indigenous” person or a “Native American” or a “First person.”  There are so many names that surround us and it can become confusing, especially when Anglo-Americans try to correct us when we are trying to express who we are.

I was born in 1965 in St. Paul, Minnesota to George Donald Fredericks and Phyllis Whipple Fox.  While both of them had their own admirable qualities, they met and brought their own problems of identity wrapped in alcoholism to the relationship. My father, George, was born to a poor rural family that allowed him a hard childhood without the gift of education and the hard back-killing work of local farms.  He may have made it through the third or fourth grade and knew how to count and had some rudimentary skills of reading, but generally his life would be one caught in the use of his manual strength to survive.  My mother, on the other hand, was born to a family of elite status among the Dakota (Sioux) people.  Her father, Christian Bennet Whipple, was an educated Episcopal priest and she and her brothers and sisters were brought up playing musical instruments with expectations that all would go on into the world with a complete high school education and ideally with college education, as well.

I think that my father’s life is probably better recognized by many others who know how Anglo individuals survived the Great Depression of the 20th century.  However, the story of my mother, her parents and her siblings is much less recognized and even less understood.  So, my personal story begins there on a Sioux reservation sometime with my mother’s birth in 1936.  Of course, that history is connected to an older 500+ year history of contact between Europeans and Native Americans who claimed their own cultures and connections to the land that they lived upon.

This history is integral to my identity as a Wahpekute Dakota man.  While white Americans seem to struggle with their own identity, having ancestors who specifically wanted to lose a national or ethnic identity in order to become part of the great “melting pot” of America, Native people were forced to assimilate to the “new” Euro-American cultures.  It’s one of those evils that was well-intentioned.  Think about it from an earlier white person’s experience: “Of course, they need to be like us, because we are blessed with prosperity, refined culture, technical skills, and anyone who is in their right mind should want to be like us.” Unfortunately, this would later turn a corner that was unseen and unintended: “They should be like us, whether they want to or not, and since we have the power to make this so, we will.”

There is much written about the assimilation policies enforced by the United States government through its well-intentioned (and often bigoted) representatives and policies. It is often painful for Native people to really think about what was done to them. It is the equivalent of cultural rape. “You will give up your identities as you knew yourselves and become one of us. You are less than us and should be as much like us as you can be. You must give up as much of yourselves and take on new identities that are better, i.e., like us.”  I’ll look at some of the formal policies later, but that is generally the gist of assimilation:  “be like us…you’ll like it.”

Assimilation was so effective, that our languages have been lost or are often on the verge of becoming extinct.  So many heroes are currently involved in trying to make sure that those languages with their distinct and unique concepts survive for future generations.  It is a worthy and noble work, indeed because our identities are tied up with our original languages and names.  Just look at the terms that I have used so far:  indigenous, first person, Native Americans, Sioux, Wahpekute, Dakota.  All of these words describe me.  In my original language, the word “Dakota” describes a specific relationship held by a specific group of people to one another.  We are “allies.”  Wahpekute means “shooters (of arrows) in the forests or woods.”  That was a specific band or clan of people within that larger Dakota grouping.  There are many other labels and names that can be used, but was is important is that I KNOW these meanings.  Many of my Dakota brothers and sisters don’t have that luxury anymore: they don’t know what it means. They have lost their distinct identity and while they may know that they are Native American or that they think they might be Sioux, they no longer know the smaller connections.  The assimilation policies tried on my ancestors have succeeded because younger generations no longer know their identity.  It’s lost, but hopefully can be found again.  That’s why I feel that those who continue to teach the Dakota language and culture are so heroically important.