by E.M. Lunsford
*First, a disclaimer. I call my series, “The New Indian Wars”, as historically, that is what conflicts between Indigenous people and settlers/the government were called. Yes, many of us call ourselves “Indians”, but generally, Native American or Indigenous is more appropriate.
This article can pertain to any marginalized group: LGBTQ+, Black/African American, Asian, non-neurotypicals, as there are tropes and stereotypes common to all, but for the sake of this article, the main focus will be Native Americans.
Are you an ally to Native American people and their issues? Are you really? We have a lot of battles going on, in many directions. It’s like stomping out forest fires: land claims, civil rights, treaty rights, costumes, mascots. Are you really an ally, or a part-time ally? Or maybe you think you are, when you’re really not.
When an issue comes up, do you speak up? Or do you only speak up when it’s convenient? Or if it’s an issue you agree with? Online, do you speak up, even if Native people are speaking, and then actually contradict them? Or do you defer to Native people? Are you an ally because it’s right, or because you want to look “woke”?
Let’s look at being “woke” first. Woke is not something you are. It’s an on-going evolution. We are all constantly learning, re-thinking. All of us. And it’s not something you do for “cred”, you do it because it’s right, because it’s respectful. Language is always changing, and we have to change with it. If a group says that certain words are no longer acceptable, you stop using those words. Many words used in LGBTQ movements may be used within that group, but are not acceptable to those outside those groups. You acknowledge, stop using those words, and move on. But too often, this is not the result we see.
Standing Rock was HUGE. Thousands of people from all tribes arrived to support the Standing Rock Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL). But it also drew a huge contingency of old hippies, wanna-be hippies, and hipsters, who were there for all the wrong reasons. Cultural tourism. So they can look over old photos with their grandkids and say, “I was there!” It’s not Woodstock. It is a life or death struggle of Native people to assert their tribal sovereignty over unceded lands—lands they never legally gave up. The government just told them they did. A fight to keep toxic bitumen oil from destroying land, water, and air. As for non-Native allies, we had Sophia Willansky, who nearly lost her arm to an explosive thrown by Morton County Sheriff’s deputies, who were also hosing people down with water cannons in 23 degree F weather. Near Thanksgiving. She put her body and life on the line. Meanwhile, back in camp, the “cool kids” were sitting in tents, with guitars, hand drums, and tambourines, singing, talking, laughing, complaining, and doing nothing for anyone else. They literally argued with “how things should be done” rather than listening to those in charge, let alone elders. They were told there was to be no alcohol, drugs, or weapons… yet they brought them anyway, sitting around fires smoking weed, getting drunk, and causing trouble.
I got into it online with one young man who was very angry. He went to Standing Rock, and didn’t get honored. Didn’t…get…honored. I asked him what he did to earn honors. Turns out, it was nothing. He didn’t haul water, chop wood, check on elders, help with food preparation, (or help with) cleaning up. What did he do? He and friends turned up with just the clothes on their backs, and expected to be housed, clothed, fed, for absolutely no reason. By people whose commodities were already stretched thin and in high demand. They came to hang out, because it was cool. And because I told him he didn’t deserve any honors… he decided he hated us, and he was “no longer an ally”. If that is all it takes for you to turn on Native people, you have zero understanding of all we’re fighting for, and you were never an ally to begin with. You expected cookies and a pat on the head just for showing up. And this is very common. People will be an ally until they’re corrected, or told they’re doing it wrong. Then, in anger, they stomp away, claiming to hate all Native people. “You just lost an ally!” No, we lost a phony. If you’re not willing to listen to Native people, to do the work, you’re fooling yourself. But you’re not fooling us.
Then there are the part-time allies, that are only allies as long as it’s something they agree with. Main points of contention? Mascots and costumes. Usually, these allies were never any sort of ally to begin with. They’re those who are “part Native” and think it’s fine, regardless of how many links you give them as to the harm these things cause, or (they are) non-Natives that find real advocacy too inconvenient. “But WHY? It’s not THAT big a deal!” You end up going around in circles until they start shouting racial slurs and telling you to go back to your filthy rez and drink firewater, because that’s all you’re good for. They want their mascots and costumes because they “love and respect Native culture”. (As stated in previous articles, we are many cultures, we are not monolithic). They love and respect the idea, the iconography, the romantic ideas, but not the people themselves. They hate hearing the voices, the pain, the details of centuries of oppression, theft, murder, disease, because that’s not fun. They just want to play dress up and be left alone, regardless of how it affects anyone else. That’s nowhere near close to being any sort of ally. That’s just selfish and ignorant. And they will get violent about it, if they have to, continuing the cycle of oppression, hate, and violence against Native people.
Now we have one of the more insidious non-allies: fetishists. Non-Natives who are drawn to Native people more for the aesthetic than for their humanity. “I LOVE NATIVE PEOPLE!” It can be wanting a Native friend (again, cred, and/or “permission” to use slurs/slang), or lover/spouse/sex partner. This is especially dangerous for our darker cousins, as they’re seen as “exotic”, like a pet, (and) not as a human. They’re something to be possessed. Objects. This is part of #MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women). When you’re seen as an object, you’re de-humanized. You’re something to be used and discarded at will, or someone you see as lower than you to reign over. And our disappearances and murders are considered, “Just another drunk/addicted Indian”. Thousands of Native people, women, men, boys, girls go missing and their disappearances and murders are investigated very little, if at all. And when a body is found, the body can show obvious trauma, but they’ll still say it’s “natural causes”, close the case, and move on. Bodies found beaten, often raped, wrapped in plastic, and thrown in rivers. They didn’t do that to themselves. One woman was found raped, beaten, murdered, folded in half, and shoved under a trailer. And the police determined it was “natural causes”.
Threats to Safety
Native women have the highest rate of sexual assault/rape. Official stats state three in ten, but in private discussion groups, you can rarely find a Native woman who has not been assaulted. Native women have the highest incidence of being kidnapped into sex slavery. Whether an interstate corridor, the Highway of Tears in Canada, or boats docked way out in the Great Lakes, Native women make up a disproportionate percentage of sex slavery victims. And often, authorities just don’t care. Sometimes they’re involved. They claim no one reported them missing. Meanwhile, their families and friends are reporting them, putting it out on social media, and organizing searches themselves, as police just can’t be bothered with “another missing Indian”. When stories about rapes and missing Native women was published in local papers, police in the area were quoted as saying they don’t bother with rapes on the reservations, because “they happen all the time”. When actress Misty Upham went missing in this same area, only close family and friends searched for and found her. Police practically refused to search, and after her body was found, had many excuses as to why they didn’t do more.
So when you, as a non-Native, claim you’re an “ally” to Native people, or any marginalized group, do the thinking: are you? Are you really?