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.

Open Letter to the White Woman Who Tried to Take My Photo Even Though I Asked Her Not To

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I know we’re poppin, but like, yall (non-Native people) need to chill.

Dear Random Settler,

You’re lucky I was dancing jingle this weekend.

Why? Because the jingle dress is a medicine dress. Not that you know this; not that you were listening when the MC explained our dance; not that it occurred to you that our regalia has any sort of meaning.

I say you’re lucky because, had I not been wearing this medicine dress, I would have definitely cussed you out.

You’re not the first white person to run up on me like you did yesterday afternoon, brandishing a phone camera, ready to do a cultural drive-by. You are, however, the first  to try to take my picture after I asked you not to.

Your actions were beyond disrespectful, but they were not surprising. Unfortunately, my people know your colonial gaze all too well. In the paternalistic traditions of Roger Williams and John Eliot, you extended settler violence by objectifying me.

I know exactly what kind of white liberal New Englander you are, showing up at the powwow as if that absolves you of your investment in colonialism. And I’m sure that you “mean well.” Don’t you all? I’m sure you knitted a pink pussy hat when your president got elected; voted for Elizabeth Warren; cheered at Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace. But I’m willing to bet that not once at the powwow did you think about consent. And when you accosted me yesterday, you decided your cultural voyeurism was more important than respecting my culture. And me.

Hence I’m tired of white folks who “mean well.” Your people’s “good intentions” are, more often than not, burdensome. And it seems like whenever you come into our spaces, all you want to do is take. Appropriate. Steal.

Here’s the thing, sis. Not only is your patronizing fascination with Indigenous cultures burdensome, it is an extension of settler colonialism. At the core of your forefathers’ lively experiment called genocide was the belief that my people are sub-human. You felt entitled to take a photo of me, without my consent, because at some fundamental level you believe I am sub-human.

Whether or not you actually walked away with a photo is besides the point. I hope at the very least, your interaction with me jarred you out of stereotyping my people as docile, silent, and obedient.

Indigenous people are not attractions. Powwow is not a freak show. We do not exist solely to satisfy your colonial fetishes. That’s not how any of this works, and none of us owe you an explanation for the fact that we’re still here.

Signed,

A Jingle Dress Dancer  Who Refuses to Engage in Your White Nonsense

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Yes, we look presh. No, you can’t take our picture, sit with us, or make us buy into your dehumanizing settler lies about who we are as Indigenous people.

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.

Kukunoonumun: On Coming Back

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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.

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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

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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.

America Was Never Great: Fourth of July Thoughts from Providence Plantations

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On the Fourth of July, it’s a special kind of uncomfortable being brown in New England. After all, this the land on which this misadventure called America started. I’m writing this from Providence. Across the bay, on ancestral Wampanoag land now called Bristol, the waumpeshau (white folks) staged a parade and now a display of fireworks for their country. These are the same people who come to powwows wide-eyed, asking me “how much Indian blood” I havea Narragansett grandmother, perhaps? Or maybe Cherokee? But you are 16/16 settler. Your people have more Indian and African blood on your hands than I do in my whole family.

Leave it to settlers to show up uninvited and ask all the wrong questions, I say to myself as the fireworks erupt in the night. Is this what King Philip’s War sounded like? Is this what Gaza sounds like? I didn’t make any plans for the Fourth because I hold this truth to be self-evident: America was never great. It was never intended for me insofar as it was built on my ancestors’ suffering.

But maybe I’m thinking too much. No white people approached me at Mashpee, probably because I wasn’t in regalia, or more likely, because I had resting bitch face after getting stuck in Cape traffic. An hour west and a day later, in Providence, the fireworks are still going strong even though it’s approaching eleven o’clock. I’m sitting in the living room of my childhood home watching TV with my family. When the Celtics game ended, my dad turned the channel to a show about men fixing up old cars.

“This is stupid,” my sister said, wrinkling her nose at the TV. “It’s like a Normal Rockwell painting.” America, America: would Normal Rockwell have painted Ferguson? Are people going to think I was shady for being in Providence and not going to anyone’s cookouts?

Or maybe I’m not asking the right questions. Either way, my legs are still a little sore from yesterday, but I’m glad I came back. My clothes still smell like outdoors, sage and bug spray: after all, sometimes the strongest medicine is just coming home.