Late last night, after a long day of prepping for teaching, and teaching, I went online to check on a younger Native poet. She had decided to stand up and speak her truth when a memoirist ex, popular for her emotional eloquence and ability to embody the forbidden, misrepresented her. Some of us older Native women poets had warned her against doing this. To confront the memoirist would give more attention to the book, the story, and a confrontation would pit the word of one against the other.
To want to speak up is understandable. That’s what we do as writers, as poets. We are charged with being truthtellers. As Native writers we are aware of the responsibility we shoulder. We are often the only voices heard from our indigenous communities in the larger world, though we do not represent everyone. We are constantly aware of our history and place here, and of the diverse stories, poems, and songs that do not even break air. To write or speak is not a luxury. America does not have a story without us, yet we are often denied a place in the larger narrative. Without our voices, there is no real America possible.
When I went online I discovered that the younger Native poet had been censured on two native literary sites for speaking. I went next to her Facebook page. It was gone. I kept thinking about erasure, how someone can surface and then disappear beneath the weight of words, news and so-called news, and opinions. I kept thinking about how this happens in this constant swirl of celebrity and exploitation of words. If the memoirist, any memoirist had to tell the story in person, without words encased in a book, how would the story change? Would they tell the same story?
The memoir is the memoirist’s “coming out” as a Native. She is not a tribal member. Yet it’s possible given the history, a history of violence and erasure of Natives and Native place in these lands. Does the rumor of native blood several generations back make one a native? Even if a family rumor proves true, then how much authority do these souls have to represent native experience? The identity deception factor is high in this country, because of the disappearance policies of the U.S. These are often the writers the American public embraces, because they are approachable. It is often their books that get featured in the Native sections of bookstores, when there is such a section. I remember when our books could only be found under “anthropology”, and those shelves were crowded with New Age false shamans, teachers, and non-natives writing as Natives.
Once, the Blackfeet poet and novelist James Welch told me about a reading in Buffalo, New York of him, Simon Ortiz, and a well-known Jewish poet who “translated” traditional Native songs. (He didn’t know the languages, cultures or the peoples. They were literal translations. His book of translations became a major text in universities for the study of native literature for some years.) Simon and Jim read their poems, dressed in their button-down shirts and jeans. The Jewish poet sang and danced his translations and accompanied himself with rattles. Jim said that after the reading, the non-Native poet was surrounded by audience members who wanted to know about Indians, while Jim and Simon stood by themselves to the side. Jim and I laughed after he told the story. Laughter disperses what can harm beneath the words.
I was in a conversation with memories of becoming a poet, as I wrote my memoir Crazy Brave. I understand the workings of memory somewhat better after writing a memoir, but I still question: How fundamentally true are memories, and whose memory is the authority? Memories are fluid, and how fluid were my recollections? And what of the memory of the rental houses in which we lived in Santa Fe, Tulsa, or Tahlequah? Houses hold memory. Those memories can cause static or embrace for others who subsequently live there. What of the memories of the children, our ancestors, or the fly on the window sill?
The rule I kept was that I was not to cast blame. I continually kept an eye on the border between memory and imagination. I understood that I agreed to be in those moments of my told life, and took part in the story. As I wrote, I was aware of using memory to construct something different from it, a process like translation from one language to another. I kept to truth as I knew it.
Now I am working on an historical memoir and investigating memories of ancestors. That’s a complicated process. I go to historical sites, family sites, talk with people who know things, and read. Last night I read another account of a major massacre of my people, in a fight led by several tribal members, including my seventh-generation grandfather. It was a version from enemy tribal members (and some of our own…isn’t that always the case?) who assisted Andrew Jackson in the massacre. After they killed us, including women and children, those Natives who assisted Jackson went home to find that their homes were also taken by Jackson, though they were promised amnesty from removal from helping him. I have been to the battle site twice. I have also dreamed a memory of my grandfather in that battle. I am now living in lands that hold their shed blood, their/our memory. How do I tell these stories in a memoir form? What kind of form will hold them with integrity?
It disturbs me that this young Native woman poet could be so quickly erased for speaking her truth. It’s upsetting at so many levels. Where can we speak if not our own communities? Is erasure what happens, or what can happen when we go against the prevailing story, or a story everyone wants to believe because it is has the authority, an authority given by race, class, or association with other power structures? And what about cultural appropriation? And what about speaking up as Natives in a time when Standing Rock water protectors were shot at, had dogs on them for a peaceful demonstration against a monstrous wrong? Those old memories of massacre and silencing still live on in us. We exist in a kind of living memoir, with many witnesses.
Yesterday I reposted a well-written column by Mvskoke citizen Stacy Pratt. I went to Indian school with her mother Phyllis Fife, and knew her dad Patrick who worked at the school. She eloquently spoke of visiting the house of Andrew Jackson in Nashville. She thought that by getting to know him as a person might help her understand him. He became President of the U.S. from his war honors for the massacre of our peoples and was responsible for deaths and massive suffering by unlawfully forcing many tribal groups from our homes in the East, to West of the Mississippi. Stacy Pratt said, after the tour of his house, as she stood at his grave:
“Here I was, ferocious and unforgiving. Because standing at his tomb, I realized that only Andrew Jackson’s body had died. His spirit lived on in boarding schools and urbanization, in poverty and suicide, in court cases and unsolved murders. In a Creek girl standing at his grave, unable to explain herself in a language her ancestors would understand.”
As I reposted Stacy’s column on Facebook I almost introduced it with: Owen and I often drive by the exit for Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage as we go between Tulsa and Knoxville. I am afraid to stop because I don’t know what I will do when confronted directly with the grave of this man. I rewrote because I worried how an interrogator could use these words against me, to kill or torment me. It disturbs me to realize that I am thinking this way, but these are the times we are in, a time when we have a dangerous fool for a president who just a few days before, put a wreath on Jackson’s grave and spoke of how Jackson was a model for him. Hitler looked up to Jackson when formulating his extermination of the Jewish people. These times are born directly from the legacy of Andrew Jackson, and many of those who came before him to settle this country. These are the memories that any American memoirist must confront.
I am still thinking about the best way to handle such conflicts and still believe that direct confrontation will give tunwanted attention. There are many walking among us who profess to be Native, and are not. We know who they are—yet, to police identity would further detract us from our stories, and they would garner power from the attention. Even when tribes issue statements refuting someone’s false claim, the academic community usually continues to embrace the faker.
What about enlarging the purview of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 to include the literary? https://www.doi.gov/iacb/act
(We have those who are Native descendants who come from family members who were adopted out who have stories. They aren’t usually the ones exploiting identity. And there are those who have direct relationships with their communities but appear black or white, yet speak the language and participate…This identity question is one of the most controversial in our communities and will continue to be so until we heal of self-hatred and loss from colonization. This holds true, for all of us, as colonization is not just an “Indian problem”.)
We may not agree with each other as Natives on issues, problems, or even stories. There are as many versions as there are keepers of the stories and songs. We come from over five hundred tribal nations, different clans, bands, towns, and even within those, different families. We cannot be complicit in the erasure of our voices from the collective story, a woven field of words, songs, stories, struggles and accomplishments of humans, plants, animals, elements, and stones. I will not allow this young Native poet to be erased just because she spoke her truth.
We Natives have existed in the memory field of this place now called “America” long before colonization. The years of discovery are a millisecond in the immense time wave of eternity. These years are drenched with suffering, with loss, and yet lit with our peoples’ tremendous love for these lands, for good stories, for good food and company. Those years have come and gone in a field that exists even before the memory of stones. We will be here long after America.