Historical Rage: An Indictment of Providence

In Indian Country, we talk about historical or inherited trauma. But what about rage?

Black rage. This is what I’ve been feeling over the last few weeks as I’ve burned with resentment towards Providence, this oppressive city I returned to because I wanted to “make a difference” (whatever that means). I scoff when I think about martyring myself for a place built on the erasure, objectification, and exploitation of Native and Black womxn. Of course, the whole of this country is built – and functions – on our oppression. But I grew up in Rhode Island’s capital city and, for better or worse, I know it best.

For the other Providence kids, hear me: this post is not a complaint about “how small” this place is, or how shitty people are. I actually don’t find Providence as small or as shitty as we say. I do, however, know that it is far more racist and classist than most people are willing to admit. I know this because I have a degree in it (thank you, Rhode Island College History Department!), and because it is my experiential reality.

So what this post is, definitively, is an indictment of Providence. Never mind academia and businesses: every single social, religious and cultural space I’ve found myself here makes a regular practice of erasing Black people, objectifying us, and deploying our trauma for white consumption. This is nothing new. It is important, though, because New England anti-Black racism is insidious. It invisibilizes us. And the expectation is that I should be “grateful” for this “milder” racism.

But I’m not. I am enraged.

I am enraged that the Brown family made their fortune off selling my people, yet Brown University – the stepchild of the Ivy League – continually denies local Black students admissions while offering piddling college scholarships to a group of mostly Latinx kids as some half-assed form of reparations. I’m angry that the police terrorize the community where I grew up in South Providence; that the shitty school department staffed by white people from the suburbs doesn’t give a fuck about the Black and brown it supposedly serves; that the opioid crisis in Rhode Island only became a crisis when it started affecting them. I’m furious that traditionally Black institutions like John Hope have gone under while others are grossly underfunded. I’m mad that hipsters flocking to the West End want to talk to me about gentrification when they’re pricing out folks who have lived there long before the city was cool.

And I’m mad that people love to appropriate Black radical traditions around Martin Luther King Day yet project their anti-Blackness onto me. While well-meaning waumpeshau (white folks) in some of the city’s more progressive institutions objectify and deploy Black suffering and death as a way to pantomime activism, these same institutions expect me to stomach my own erasure for the benefit of white folks. This is hardly specific to New England. But the myth that racism does not exist north of the Mason-Dixon line is just that: a myth. After all (as I used to say when I worked at a museum), this state is called Rhode Island and Providence Plantations for a reason.

My rage does not function on an interpersynal level. In other words, I’m not mad at individual white people. I’m mad at whiteness, and how whiteness functions here, and how we tell ourselves it doesn’t.

My rage is historical. It is inherited from my parents and their parents and all their parents before them, all of whom this city denied, too. My rage dates back to the first slave ships that docked in New England ports and the Mayflower at so-called Plymouth.

My rage cannot and will not be reconciled so long as waumpeshau aren’t willing to reconcile with their colonial past and present. It’s not just about talking to that overtly racist, Trump-voting uncle; it’s also about taking institutions to task.

And ultimately, though white people love trying to shift the work, I cannot and will not do any additional emotional labor for them. Not ever, and especially not when I am working through the rage of being continually dismissed and denied on an urban plantation built on my land and at my expense.

Solange called it: got a lot to be mad about.

Geographies of Belonging (I Loved You)

I wrote this a while ago but felt like sharing it today. Here’s to editing less in 2018.

I loved New York, but I’m not sure New York loved me. Educated, multilingual, young, hardworking: the city stifled me. Too much space, too many avenues, not enough context, even though more Native people live in big cities than anywhere else.

Still, I couldn’t find myself there. In New England, I am a “city Indian” but, clearly, belonging somewhere. In New York, I was anonymous and ambiguously brown, without tribe or nation. I had come from a margin to the center, and yet, at the center, I was just another nameless nobody trying to make it, all without ever having defined this elusive “it” for myself. An apartment, a job, a boyfriend—the Sex and the City Trinity every young womyn who finds herself in New York is supposed to strive for?  I wanted to see myself in the streets and smog, the grime, cigarettes and self-important millennials, delayed trains and deferred dreams. But I couldn’t imagine the city as my own.

Instead, I kept my frustration to myself. But it was clear New York was not meant for me. My first winter dumped snow over my block in Queens, burrowing me in for days. It didn’t melt for two weeks. The second winter was dry and gray uptown, where every day Dominicans barked at me in Spanish and I stared back at them, incredulous. I didn’t know any insults in Narragansett––only the few words my elders had taught me, because outside of that, I hadn’t asked. And so I burned with silent resentment.

In the spring, I met someone who I thought I could love, and yet, he was beyond help. He loved the idea of our people too much and himself too little. It was pathological, but I wanted it to be better. I wanted him to be better. What was I supposed to do? He left at the beginning of May, maybe to Los Angeles, or the rez where he never felt accepted, or the moon. Who knows? He left.

Those were my longest days and worst nights. I didn’t drink; I had struggled with alcohol before. My grandfather died of cirrhosis when I was small, and I didn’t want to repeat the pathology. At times, in the hazy twilight above the city that did not see me, I smudged. I wept to my grandmother who walked on before I was born. How do I get better? How do we get better? I wept for my family, my trauma, my hopeless almost-love for a hopeless fool full of hope for our people. And he loved New York. Everything he treasured about the city, I hated. It was a riddle I couldn’t figure out.

As the spring nights thawed and eventually stretched into an airless summer, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Other millennials, it seemed, were having the time of their lives in Harlem, downtown, Brooklyn––anywhere but where I was. When I crossed paths with them, they seemed exuberant to leave their old selves behind. The city, they told me, was a place where you became new. You didn’t bring who you were when you came. You didn’t weep for your ancestors or the land you left behind, and certainly not for the people on whose stolen land you now inhabited. They told me to walk the streets like a runway, but I longed for the woodlands and shores my people have inhabited since the beginning of time. They didn’t understand me, but the fool who left me did. Wherever he was, he carried with him secrets I hadn’t told anyone in New York: my sadness, shame and stigma, my pathologies, my pain. Maybe, at best, we commiserated. We saw each other in our sorrow. We wanted to believe in each other’s come-up story. It was fucked-up and, clearly, ill-fated.

And somehow, life went on. Or not. During the day, from my air-conditioned office forty floors above Midtown, I watched the resistance at Standing Rock unfold. He appeared from the flood of posts and hashtags and retweets. I was angry and concerned, disoriented, afraid. At night I smudged for, and because of, him. I worried for the Standing Rock community, for the earth, for our sovereignty, and for us. Both of us and all of us.

During the day, I watched my people being sprayed, attacked by dogs, shot at and mowed down; and in the dead of a New York City summer, I walked to the train ice-cold to my bones. The revolution will not be televised, and it certainly won’t be advanced by a sad, lonely Narragansett girl moping in an office on 34th Street.

But I didn’t tell anyone that I’m Native. I ached silently for my people and the pathology called America––a pathology we didn’t ask for or perpetuate on ourselves, at least not willingly. If Standing Rock was a start, I wondered how I could do better for all of us, living a half-life on a cruel concrete island I wafted over like a ghost.

I loved New York, but I was lying to myself. So I left at the beginning of September. I came back to New England and held my breath for several months. In the emerald forests of Arcadia, on the breezy shores of Narragansett, I listened to the wind at sunset and thought of nothing. Maybe a pukwudgie would get me after nightfall, or even worse, maybe I’d catch up with myself. Either way, I didn’t dare cry, or talk about my stifling days and sleepless nights.

Space, avenues, context, belonging: I learned that margins and centers are relative. There was so much I thought I could love, and yet, none of it loved me back. Standing at various points in the middle of nowhere, I heard the wind and thought of spring. What does the thaw feel like in North Dakota? If I ever saw him again, would I have anything to say? It was an overwhelming silence, a hole in my heart. I began learning Narragansett. I wore my knees out praying because I wanted to get better.

Even still, I don’t yet have the language for what happened: heartbreak. Rage. Rupture. Who knows, and at this point, who cares?

In New York, I faced my sadness, shame, pathologies, and pain. I decided to lay my trauma to rest, and for that, I feel grateful. I learned that, for now, I need to be in my community and on the land my people have inhabited since time immemorial. And ultimately, I left because I’m bigger than the city. I left because you never asked me to stay.

Kukunoonumun: On Coming Back

img_0172

Some incomplete thoughts about language reclamation. Spoiler alert: I don’t have all the answers.

I moved back home to Rhode Island a year ago and have been learning my people’s languages, Natick and Narragansett, ever since. I know – shocking. I’m sure that many Natives from elsewhere on Turtle Island are stunned that the failed first line of defense actually knows anything about our cultures.

Well, we do; and just like any other Indigenous community anywhere else, we are working to maintain our languages, oppressive vestiges of colonialism notwithstanding. My own process has difficult, complicated, and extremely emotional process. If decolonization is not a metaphor, I’m convinced one of the most radical acts is putting your own words back in your mouth. When I speak Natick or Narragansett, it feels violent to shove these beautiful, long and complicated words down my throat just to draw them out again, slowly, intentionally. What the hell am I doing? Why did it take so long for me to come back?

This is the paradox of simultaneous proximity and distance, familiarity and foreignness. Ten generations and four hundred years later, when I put the words back where they belong, I am exhilarated to return to myself. But I am also ashamed that, in my family, we haven’t spoken these languages proficiently in many generations.

img_0175

I’m also frustrated that so few tribes in New England prioritize language reclamation. And as it were, the issue of language exposes political fault lines in our communities. Too often, too many of us are hellbent on convincing waumpeshau that we still exist and are “real” Natives. It’s a scarcity mentality and, truthfully, an extension of Native erasure. But it is a mentality we have internalized nonetheless, and we frequently weaponize it against each other.

Obviously, this has deep historical roots. The Treaties of Hartford (1638) and Casco Bay (1678) were some of the earliest instances of the criminalization of Indigenous identities in this country. And those are just the first I can name––never mind the slew of colonial legislation that followed for centuries and the myriad of ways Indigeneity was stigmatized, othered, and marginalized.

Really, the fact that we are still here with our cultures intact – to whatever degrees they are – is a testament to our survivance. But we are too preoccupied invisibilizing each other to give a fuck, frankly. Who is federally recognized, who was left off whose tribal rolls, who gets what grants, who was asked to perform at what event, who knows (and therefore, feels more ownership of) the culture, who looks more Indian? These are the political fault lines. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, language factors in when folx are trying to prove how Indian they are. 

All of this has factored into my frustration with my people in my own journey towards proficiency. I wonder how we re-imagine language reclamation past our politics of exclusion. I for one don’t know. But I do know that I know that I learn what I can where I can. I know that nobody – no individuals and no individual families – owns our languages or all the knowledge of them: both the Natick Dictionary and Narragansett key to the language are still in print. I know there are elders in our communities who still speak the languages and young people who want to learn them better.

Learning Narragansett and Natick has been a radical act. I’m not a historian, linguist, sociologist or aspiring politician. No: I’m an Indigenous womyn who is empowered, and affirmed, by learning her languages. It feels like subverting these shallow political structures and identities and getting back to who I really am. It feels like coming home.

This One is For Us

img_0965
Shoutout to Native Americans at Brown (NAB)!

We celebrated Indigenous People’s Day on Monday, but it was today, October 12, that Columbus and his armada of goons first washed up on Taino land in 1492.

This past weekend was bittersweet. It was a reminder of indigenous resistance, but also, of how much we as a people have lost. I was in Providence on Monday, and as such, I couldn’t help but think of all the Pokanokets (Wampanoags), Narragansetts, and Pequots whom the English slaughtered during their various wars against us. I think of how Pokanoket identity was criminalized: under a colonial-era Rhode Island law that wasn’t repealed until 2006 (yes, 2006), one could be legally killed for claiming to be Pokanoket.

And yet, here I am—a Pokanoket in 2016, writing in time in which it’s controversial to say my Black life matters, in which riot police brutalize indigenous people protecting the waters at Standing Rock. How much has really changed since the Santa María?

img_0938

Not much. Including indigenous resistance to colonial violence.

On Monday, I woke up to gorgeous sunshine. I prayed, thanking the Creator that I’m here and the ancestors for having been here. And then, if we’re being real, I plugged my phone into the nearest speakers and started playing Solange’s “F.U.B.U.” Because the waumpeshau holiday for Columbus is about settler colonialism and settler identity. Because my people were here first, and we’re still here. Because this is for us.

I Got My Life at the 7th Annual Native American Culture Week in Providence

Yesterday concluded the 7th Annual Native American Culture Week in Providence. The events were open to the public, so naturally, many curious waumpeshau wandered through. What else do we expect when we try to make space for and about us? But that’s a different post—and trust me, it’s coming, to be filed under “Stop White People 2k16.”

Colonial gazes notwithstanding, it was refreshing to be surrounded by my people again. Because wherever and whenever Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Pequot people gather together, I feel validated. For sure, I roll my eyes when the white people show up in our spaces and claim the mythical Cherokee princess great-great-great grandmother. And I don’t think I’ll ever get over Pretendians at powwows who feel bold enough to get into the circle, dollar store feathers and all.

Plenty of those people were at the powwow yesterday, and they were trying their settler best to feel indigenous. Meanwhile, my family and our relatives from neighboring tribes got together to laugh, tell stories, bring updates on a cousin who’s away at school or an elder who just had surgery. I’ve been away for the better part of the year, so being around my family, on our land, was just what I needed. I could not be bothered with white nonsense; I was truly just happy to be home.

Mood.

No, I’m Not Spanish, and Neither Are You.

img_0620

For the last time, New England, the absolute last fucking time: I am not Spanish. Bilingualism notwithstanding, hair notwithstanding, stop pigeonholing me and policing my identity. When I tell you I’m Black, be as offended as you need to be; because I’m unapologetically, unequivocally Black, like most Dominicans and Cape Verdeans, even though many of them don’t want to admit it. Stop measuring me against white America’s idea of what it means to be indigenous, because the image you’re working with is a vestige of colonialism and, at that, grossly inaccurate. Despite what the history books say, we here after the wars waged to kill us off; we were here before the casinos. I picked up Spanish in school, and like many Black and Native folks of this land whitepeople named New England, I am multilingual and multicultural, but always, a defender of my heritage. Stop asking and start decolonizing, because the answer isn’t going to change. I’m Black, I’m Native, I’m smart, and I’m here.

I Am (Not) My Hair

IMG_0406

I was born ten days after my due date with a whole lot of hair. As the family lore goes, my parents kissed my face and called me papoos, Narragansett for “baby,” and marveled at my unruly, glorious curls.

Since that morning, my hair has been a point of constant contention and speculation. I wore it in braids growing up, as most Black and most Native children do. But I was never sufficiently Black and never sufficiently Native; and so my hair caused people to wonder out loud about my ancestry. What are you mixed with? Which one of your parents is white? Are you Spanish? You must be Spanish.

It sounds fucked up, and it was: but this is Providence we’re talking about, the “Creative Capital” brimming with immigrants from all corners of the world. And so “Spanish” is how people branded me without my consent. It’s how they pigeonholed me and fit me into the limited, historically selective narrative of our city.

They probably didn’t know that before Providence was Providence, it was a colonial settlement uneasily brokered on Narragansett land and a major slave port of the seventeenth-century Atlantic world. But above all, Providence has been the crossroads where my people have come together for refuge and survival: Black people who were supposed to be chattel and Natives who were supposed to be dead.

My mane of curls was telling this inconvenient history long before I knew how. But before I understood how revolutionary my hair is, I secretly hated it for the constant barrage of questions it prompted—questions to which I never had sufficient answers. After all, according to America, Black girls don’t have long hair and Indians don’t exist anymore. You’re just Black with “good hair,” people decided for me, rendering my Indigeneity erasable, my Blackness a condition I should be reluctant to accept.

After I graduated college, I chopped my hair shoulder-length and left my ancestral land. I wasn’t looking for an identity, but rather, to be more of myself. In New York, the extent to which we have politicized hair is even more apparent than it is in New England: people treat me differently if my hair is pulled back or teased out or straightened.

These days, though, if you look at my hair and then ask me what I am, I’ll tell you, Black and Native, and Not for Consumption. Whether I have a middle or side part or braids or not, I won’t accommodate anyone’s fetishizing, colonial gaze. My hair resists categories. Sometimes it cooperates, sometimes it doesn’t. 3B, 4C, who gives a fuck? My curls are like plants: they need to be watered and loved. They like African oil. They are wild, shiny, untamed.

I’m thinking India.Arie as I write this, Lady Gaga as I try to find the words: I am, and I am not, my hair. I am the shores of what is now called Africa, the shores of what is now called New England. It’s an identity borne of and complicated by colonialism; an identity both of my communities are yet to fully accept.

If you listen, if you stop pigeonholing me, my hair will tell you this story.

The Swamp

IMG_1136

Technically, the clearing could also be a swamp. It’s less of a metaphor than you think, meaning, the land now called Providence used to be an emerald green, leafy woodland of brush, water, and sky.

Then the English came. They stole my land. They stole my ancestors. And finally, they named this non-island swamp Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

South of my swamp, an (actual) island whitepeople stole named Manhattan, I constantly have to problematize assumptions about place and identity. I’m not trying to get a rise out of anyone or, God forbid, make the wide-eyed, quinoa-loving gentrifiers of Brooklyn think too hard. “Oooooh, I just love Providence,” they say when I tell them where I’m from. “My brother-in-law went to Brown. What is that thing they do downtown—WaterFire? What a charming little city!”

That’s one way to put it. Turns out, “Where are you from?” is one of the most pointed and  political questions someone can ask you in New York. It’s usually not the first, because the assumption is that you came here looking for an identity. So it’s very uncool to claim where you’re from, much less insist on the most concise, decolonial, metaphorical, truthful answer to that question: a swamp.

Blank stares. That it’s a caustic reply goes over most people’s heads. The nuances escape them. But they definitely think it’s lame of me to say that, particularly since I’ve been in New York for almost two years. “You’re a New Yorker now,” insist the gentrifiers, but I’m not. Not every tall, poised woman in this city is aspiring to be a model or an actress. There’s not a lot of poetry to why I’m here: I got into grad school, and the work is important to me.

But the belonging? Not so much. People here will go out of their way to pigeonhole you, particularly if your very existence problematizes their sense of history and identity. In other words, not all Indians are from reservations. Some of us come from plantations called Boston, New Haven, Providence: New England slave ports, post-industrial renaissance ghettos. Anyway, as it were, most Natives live in cities, and the city with the largest Native population is New York.

God bless these hapless five boroughs, this stolen Lenni Lenape land on which Indigenous people from all corners of Turtle Island negotiate belonging. Some days, it really sucks. I don’t see myself in the concrete,the steaming masses at Columbus Circle, the smog, the uppity college students sunbathing in Washington Square Park. The promises of this emerald island called Manhattan are evasive. New York, more than anywhere I’ve ever been on Earth, is a nexus of intense digital voyeurism and collective social anxiety, all against the dizzying backdrop of the sleepless white capitalist beast. Money, competition, alcoholism, vanity, Tinder: it’s exhausting, and I don’t see myself in any of it.

But I’m here. I’m brown and unapologetic, caustic, sometimes funny, always technical. This blog is my digital clearing and New York is my metaphor. It goes over most people’s heads. “Did you come here to model?” ask the gentrifiers eagerly. “To act? To be an Instagram star?”

No: I’m from a swamp, and I came here to work.

Hokule’a Comes to Mashantucket

It was a gorgeous day in Mashantucket for some badass “for us, by us” environmentalism and unapologetic indigeneity yesterday as Hokule’a, a Hawaiian sailing society that has been traveling across the world for 40 years, came to visit the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. 

This is one of many stops on Malama Honua (“to care for our Earth”), a voyage the crew embarked on in 2013 to connect with coastal indigenous communities in a global dialogue about climate change and sustainability. Hokule’a made a stop here in New York City for World Oceans’ Day before heading up to New England via Shinnecock. Yesterday afternoon, the Mashantuckets sailed down the Mystic River in a mishoon to greet Hokule’a and begin a weekend of cultural exchange.

The East Coast leg of Malama Honua couldn’t be more timely.  As politicians in the U.S. continue to debate the veracity of climate change, though 2015 was the warmest year on record, the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues concluded last month, resulting in little more than talk about improving the conditions of indigenous communities. In other words, national and international discourses on climate change, particularly as it relates to the world’s coastal indigenous people, are lacking at best. So as far as I’m concerned, the conversations on and inspired by Malama Honua demonstrate how indigenous people are organizing by ourselves for ourselves. Yesterday’s meeting was not for or about white consumption: it was solidarity.

Hokule’a will be in Mashantucket through this coming Monday, June 27, after which they’ll continue up the coast of northern New England. Keep up with the crew’s travels here!