5 Questions to Re-Frame How You Engage with Native American Heritage Month

Yes, it is still Native American Heritage Month.

As an Eastern Woodland person living in (so-called) New England, November is my least favorite month. Truly. I feel like I have to say this every year, but I am tired of non-Native people reciting the origins of the first Thanksgiving ad nauseam: we get it. You’re woke. Great. Now what?

All of that said, here are some reflection questions to help our non-Native friends navigate this month.

1) Do you only think about Native people in November? If so, why? Every time you interact with a Native person, do you expect to be educated, spiritually enlightened, exonerated? Consider that it’s (re)traumatizing and exhausting to recount histories of genocide. Be mindful of how much space you take up.

2) What do you do with your knowledge of the origins of Thanksgiving? Do you relate to the genocide of Native people merely as a fact to throw out at dinner with your problematic family? As a Pequot person, I not only know the history of Thanksgiving; I live with it. As a trained historian, I am interested in the process by which Thanksgiving was constructed. It also matters that we investigate what that process says about what it means to American — and at whose expense.

3) Do you uplift the voices of Eastern Woodland people, particularly Wampanoag and Pequot folks, in revisionist histories of Thanksgiving? If you are asking Native people from the Plains and Southwest to speak for Eastern people, as if we are not here to speak for ourselves, you are replicating violence and erasure.

4) Do you know about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Womxn and Girls? Indigenous womxn and girls are kidnapped and murdered at horrific rates all over Turtle Island, on reservations and in cities, and very infrequently with any consequences or media coverage. Consider how this violence is a continuation of genocide.

5) Does your Native American Heritage Month engage what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border? Are you aware that many people from Central America are fleeing U.S.-sponsored violence? That they are overwhelmingly Indigenous or of Indigenous descent? There is a relationship between what we are seeing and the violence of Thanksgiving. As Mark Twain (allegedly) once said, History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Thanksgiving Thoughts from the Land of First Contact

Thanksgiving Day in New England: always strange, convoluted, fraught with intersectional complexities.

On one hand, it’s a day my family gathers, cook traditional Black foods, and fellowship. Holiday dinners are some of the few times of the year, in fact, that I feel unequivocally Black in a way that no one can contest or take from me. Surrounded my by relatives, lots of laughter, and stories, I once again understand myself in the context of the Black community of Rhode Island.

But what lingers, too, is the sadness around this holiday for those of us who are also Native in the family. So before we gather, I’m holding space for my Wampanoag relatives, as well as my Pequot relatives and ancestors.

And in light of my own disconnection and reconnection from my Pequot family and lineage, that is very difficult for me to engage with. I resent deeply much of the way people talk about the brutality my ancestors endured: It’s a holiday that celebrates genocide, killing off all the Native Americans and kicking them off their land. Well-meaning folks have said this to my face as if I’m not still here, on my land, fighting to be seen. As if I do not carry a special, pointed sorrow at being 26 and just now becoming conversational in my language. As if I am not acutely ashamed of the ways in which I have been disconnected from community and culture.

These are layers I don’t expect everyone to understand, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing to become maudlin over. Far be it from me to police anyone’s tone. All I can do is endeavor to be as authentic as possible and offer loving suggestions when I think we can do better.

To my Wampanoag and Pequot family, I see you. To my non-Native friends, I see you, too; and I’d invite you to do your own work and not rely on Native people rehashing their trauma for your enlightenment. In telling “real story” of Thanksgiving, I invite you to hold space for the fact that living Native people in New England are still grappling with the effects of this particular act of genocide.

It’s not about policing; it’s about shifting your frame of reference. I say this in love. I say this because I think we can do better.

Happy Thanksgiving. Or not. Here’s to family, to friends, to remembering, to healing, to our futures.

Resistance & Revolution

Last week on the Fourth of July, I was asked to partake in Resistance & Revolution, an awesome program at the Robbins House in Concord, MA. In addition to participating in the readings, I was there to acknowledge that Concord is on stolen Massachusett and Nipmuc land. It was powerful to be able to bring the reality of Indigenous displacement and dispossession into the conversation about Independence Day. 

Also, the history of the house—and the free Black family that built and inhabited it after the Revolutionary War—is beyond cool. Go visit! The story of the site resonated with me particular because there is a myth that there are no Black people in New England. But the reality is that we’ve been here since the beginning, and our families have long and rich histories of resilience and survivance here. I feel very connected to the Robbins/Garrison family, the ancestors who once lived in this house, and grateful I could be part of the work we did at the Robbins House today 🙏🏽🌀

Wequashim Wóhsumóe

Full moon musings:

The moon is super important in many Indigenous cultures on Turtle Island, and particularly so for those of us who are coastal, given that the moon affects ocean tides. Part of my own (re-)Indigenizing and (re)matriation practice includes reclaiming ancestral knowledge and (re)rooting myself in the natural world—because everything is connected, and because the fundamental objective of colonialism is to break our connections.

I’ve been in a season of unlearning harmful, self-destructive ways of being and understanding myself. Still feeling the illuminating, healing energy of last night’s wequashim wóhsumóe, full moon, as I move into a new season of building a new foundation of the old ways: Sankofa in practice. Grateful and continually growing.

I’ll Always Come Back

It’s counterintuitive, but Newport is the only place in Rhode Island where I feel totally comfortable. My great grandmother lived and died here, and while I was growing up, coming to see her and my great auntie was always special. And so now, every time I’m here, it’s like I’m returning back to Nana – and to my true and highest Self. Here’s to this beautiful island that has taught me so much about myself over the last 26 years of my life; and to the less glamorous but infinitely more beautiful Newport on the other side of Bellevue Ave. Like I’ve said before, no matter where life takes me, I’ll always come back.

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.

Nashāuonk Anóme

Note: when I use Church with a capital C, I mean all Christian folks er’where, similar to the Muslim concept of umma (community).

My upbringing was conventionally Christian in many ways. Church every week, vacation Bible school and Christian camp in the summertime, being subjected to the Left Behind series…yeah, the whole nine. I taught Sunday school for several years and got involved in campus ministry in college, and even now, I read books on Christian theology and secretly love Hillsong.

All of this is to say I have been socialized such that I know how to operate in evangelical spaces. And I can do so without people knowing, necessarily, that I have lots of problems with the Church. Like, serious problems: theological, ideological, and historical problems.

For me right now, the most glaring of these is that most white evangelicals don’t understand that their understanding of what it means to be Christian is decidedly modern and Western; that contemporary Christian identity only congealed in the last few centuries. And when I show up in evangelical spaces, by and large, people don’t understand that Blackness and Indigeneity are not new. Now, I am a New World phenomenon; but on both sides of my lineage, I come from ancient, pre-Christian people. People against whom the West continually weaponizes the faith. What’s worse, most white Christians aren’t even aware that the West co-opted Christianity and codified the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth—a poor Jewish mystic crucified by the power structures of His day—into narrow, exclusivist, and oppressive religious doctrine.

Like I said: serious problems.

The worst of it is that I actually really dig Jesus. Ugh! If only Christians listened to what He had to say about enlightenment, radical love, humility, and service! If only I could be a Christian and not feel like a traitor to my ancestors who suffer at the hands of white Christians and their kkklancestors! I mean, really: is it possible that I pray to the same God as Roger Williams did? And did he pray to that God as he captured and sold my people into slavery?

The short answer is that the work of Christianizing Europeans the world over is blasphemy of the highest order, a horrific perversion of Jesus’ ministry. But by and large Christians don’t know the history of the Church’s complicity in all manners of wonderfulness such as colonialismmuch less that Jesus would flip many tables if he were to see some of the hot messery in the Church today.

Many Christians in America are just beginning to grapple with these difficult histories. This sounds good in theory, but in praxis the conversation tends to be as reactionary as it is remedial. Such work around race tend to be ahistorical and couched in feel-good, fandom Jesus colorblindness. To claim that the Creator doesn’t see color and loves everyone (but hates queer people??) is a decidedly American cop-out entangled in a web of nasty ironiesnamely, that the construct of race is the default modality in this country. To add insult to injury, after engaging in half-baked conversations about race, Christians usually go right back to espousing ideologies straight out of the Dark Ages. And we wonder why so many marginalized groups want no parts of Christianity.

When I am in evangelical spaces and the topic of race comes up, I’m mindful to not take on the emotional labor of white folks. People of color did not create race. And every time white folks profile us, marginalize us, and kill us with no consequences, they make it about race. I do know for sure there are several tenets of Western Christianity that I just can’t get down with: patriarchy, the demonization of queer folks and people of other faith traditions, mission work in the 10-40 window as a vestige of colonialism.

So what does it mean for me, unequivocally Black, unequivocally Indian, to show up to church on Sunday morning? What does it mean for me to navigate evangelical spaces that normalize cishetero whiteness while othering everybody else? I’m still sorting that out. But I do know that I will not forfeit my cultural identity in order to be read as a good Christian by white folks.

Ultimately, none of this is easy, and I’m very blessed to be part of a supportive church community where I can wrestle with these questions; and in so doing, I realize there are no neat answers, at least not on this side of glory. I may well not be able to reconcile all of my issues with the Church as an institution. I may always feel caught in this nexus of history, assimilation, and colonialism. But it is precisely in that tension that I encounter grace. The Lord is working it out and making a way. I’m reading Richard Twiss. I pray the Lord’s Prayer in Natick after I smudge. Am I a cooning NDN, a heretic, the type of acculturated Black hoteps in Harlem rail against? Probably not. Just a Providence kid full of nashāuonk (Spirit) trying to find space for herself. Axé.

This One is For Us

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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?

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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.

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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.