I wish I would’ve thought of this title. Wow. From

The latest group to be caught up in and split apart by the monetizing of suffering and injustice has been American Indians, all stirred up about the Eloise Cobell case that will (soon, we hope) bring them some money. The lawsuit has been an attempt at compensation and closure to the admitted government raid on reservation assets, the profits of which were supposed to have been held in trust for tribal members. Instead they were thrown into the general revenues without earmarks and with such lousy bookkeeping (in some cases literally “ratty” records in substandard warehouses) that no one really knew who was owed what. The Cobell lawsuit had two goals. One was to compensate for the losses already due to mismanagement and the other was to reform the future handling of all funds in trust. The computer software alone was so hack-able that the judge closed down the Department of the Interior system until it could be fixed.

This is NOT a general award to all Indians everywhere but only those who benefit from trust status. Money that will be sent to the plaintiffs at this time is the estimated loss of money by PEOPLE WHO HAD LAND IN TRUST STATUS. Not every Indian has lands in trust status. Those who do don’t have access to their ownership but must “trust” the government to manage them for the most profit and send the owners the proceeds. In the Sixties there was a movement to return private-Indian-owned land to trust status in order to avoid county and state tax jurisdiction. Whether they are subject to county and state law enforcement has never been questioned from that angle. I suspect that the ultimate outcome of the Cobell lawsuit will simply be the elimination of government trust for Indian-owned land, an outcome some have wanted for a long time. One of the abiding controversies among tribal peoples has always been between those who want to manage their own affairs and those who would rather the government managed things.

Trust lands are not the same thing as reservation lands. There are residential lots in Valier (which is off the reservation), which are in trust with the federal government for the benefit of the legal Indian owners rather than being privately owned and managed. Land is taken OUT of trust status through action by the owner, maybe by petitioning for reclassification from “incompetent” (like being too young, not speaking English, or not understanding fancy legal categories and rules) to competence. This is called “patenting.” Some people patented their land simply because they did NOT consider themselves incompetent and thought the legal term had something personal to do with their intelligence.

After the Dawes Act, which divvied the tribal land up Homestead style, assigning allotments to individuals, the land was always first put into trust. Then some people patented their land. The accusation is that some people who truly WERE incompetent for some reason were “helped” to patent their land, which meant that it could be sold by them — maybe not at a fair price nor for a good reason — or attached to pay bills owed to local merchants, which the owners had not expected to happen. Whatever it was that happened, that’s an entirely different matter that has not been consolidated into a class action, at least not as far as I know. There are diligent and dedicated people accumulating facts and it may be that in the future there will be such a lawsuit.

Another kind of claim that distracts and confuses people is compensation for lands seized or overrun in contradiction of treaty assurances; for example, both the Black Hills and the Sweetgrass Hills, both of which were assigned to the Indians and then grabbed back by non-Indians because of the discovery of gold. These violations were eventually compensated by a government pay-out of a major block of money. On the Native American side a big part of the argument was that these high refugia hills were spiritually valorized places of enormous significance to the autochthonous peoples in the same way as European cathedrals. (A lot of white people also feel they are sacred.) The payout did not come to individuals, but to tribes as a whole.

A third kind of payout is the dividends earned by the tribal corporation. The tribal council operates on the model of a corporation in which each member is entitled to a share. The council is the same as the board of a corporation. Thus, at the end of the year, the dividends might be distributed as per capita checks.

A strong reason for monetizing society the way we do today is that it keeps order, but some people have figured out that it is a system that can be used as emotional extortion, among other things. It is in the extortionists’ interest to remain angrily “afflicted.” Since the situation of NA’s is already so confused in most minds, this tendency is easily exploited, if for nothing more than political and emotional self-righteousness.

Gyasi Ross, a lawyer and blogger associated with “Indian Country Today,” recently tried to make some points about these matters. On “Thing About Skins and Other Curios” he brought into the equation his grandfather, Percy Bullchild, who wrote “The Sun Comes Down,” an authentic Blackfeet-written book legitimately published. Right way there was a firestorm of criticism: that Percy was selfish, that he had it wrong, that he should not have told what he did, that he was a “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.” Almost exactly the same accusations as of Eloise. If you’ve lived on a rez, you’ll know this is predictable. Under it is the same demand: “Where’s MY cut?”

Said Gyasi, “. . . frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves. . .”

“In my estimation, this Native woman [Eloise] is a hero, a warrior.”

As soon as Gyasi posted this, he got another wave of flame, all of it anonymous, as well as some approval from people with real names, including me. As soon as my name appeared, the attacks turned from Eloise to me. That was predictable. I’m white. And I couldn’t help but note that the anonymous people were evidently hiding behind the door in English class. I don’t know how they managed to learn to keyboard.

So Eloise is a two-fold heroine, first for facing down the government and second for having to withstand illiterate attacks from her own people. The latter force is what makes so many people reluctant to stand up for what is right. Also, it reinforces the prejudices of people who have a bad opinion of Indians. And it makes heroes wonder what they were thinking.

I just don’t get why the critics comment anonymously. If they think they will get money out of their high dudgeon, how will anyone know where to send the check? Any anonymous person who sends an anonymous comment to this blog on this post will be deleted. I just hate to see them embarrass themselves.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 5:41 pm  Comments (2)  


Recently, I was walking around at the University of Washington’s First Nations’ Pow-wow with my 3 year old son holding onto my finger. He loves pow-wows and round dance music—when he rides with me in our car, he always asks me to turn off my Beatles or Journey or Run DMC CDs and put on the “new pow-wow music” (round dance music). Since I told him that there was “new pow-music” at this particular pow-wow, he wanted to see it and hang out with all of the hand drummers.

As my son and I walked around looking for the hand drum contest (they had it hidden downstairs), he began to notice all of the vendors’ wares. I watched his eyes literally get bigger as he began pointing at all of the pretty Navajo jewelry, and the Kachina dolls. He was SO ready to buy SOMETHING when we passed the little Mexican dudes with the sweaters, flutes and “Made in China” toys that are at every pow-wow. While my son and I debated purchasing a squishy ball that lights up, a Coastal Native lady came up to me with her (presumably) grandson, who was slightly bigger than my son.

She gave me a side-glance, “Heyyyyy…don’t you write?”

I smiled at her, “Hi. Yeah, I write a bit.”

She looked up at me, “Yeah, I remember you when you were a little kid—your folks used to stay with us over at Treaty Days—I remember our dog bit you once. Your name is “Joshie,” huh?”

I nodded yes. Obviously she pronounced my name slightly wrong. But since all my cousins and aunties and uncles called me “Josh,” “Joshie” or “Gyas,” I guess I could let her get away with it too. I felt like Ted on “There’s Something About Mary”—“some of my best friends didn’t know my name.”

We continued talking and she continued mispronouncing my name—and that made me feel right at home. “I haven’t spoke to your mom in years, since she stopped dancing. Then one day I saw you on the computer. Your lips looked kinda chapped in that picture—cha!!! HA HA HA…Jokes…but I don’t think we’ve stood this close since you were a little kid. I never realized that you were this tall! And I never realized that you had wavy hair…y’know, I have a daughter who’s single… gawwwww.”

She smiled mischievously and raised her eyebrows, pointing at her grandson. Apparently this boy was her single daughter’s son.

I laughed my fake laugh. “HA!” Everyone who knows me knows my fake laugh, usually reserved for when I feel just a wee bit uncomfortable. “Thank you, but I have a girlfriend. But…how old is your daughter?? Ayyyyeezzz!!!”

She started laughing. Phew. She didn’t take me seriously. I really risked getting slapped just then.

She asked if I was enjoying the pow-wow, and whether I ever dance. “Yeah, this is one of my favorites. I dance sometimes. Not often. I’m honestly not that good.”

She asked if I was really a lawyer; said that I didn’t look like one. “Ain’t it a rule that lawyers are supposed to dress all business?” I told her that rule only applies only to the lawyers with money. I’m the new breed of lawyers—Section 8 lawyers who grew up between a trailer and small apartment units. We broke lawyers have a different rulebook.

She laughed again. Her son liked my red Yankees hat so I put it on his little head and it fell down over his braids and eyes. I have a massive head, and so it would’ve probably fell down over 99% of the population’s braids and eyes, but he had a particularly small peanut shaped head, and his thick braids barely added any radius to it. He smiled up at me.

After we talked for awhile, she paid me the best compliment that anybody’s ever given to me, “Joshie, I’ve never said this to anyone, but I’d like him (pointing at her grandson) to grow up and be like you. I’ve been watching you throughout the years—at this pow-wow, at basketball tournaments. You always had that same pigeon-toed walk and the same big head with a big smile—I can see that you’re a good man. And even though you cut off your braids, I still think that you are an incredible role model.”

I felt myself blushing—my big old head turning red like the Kool-Aid Man. I wasn’t sure how to respond, other than, “Wow…that’s so nice. Thank you.”

I was cheesing really big. I’m not the most modest person in the world, but this little old coastal lady made me embarrassed! I prepared to say more, but then I thought about her words a bit more. I smiled at her and said, “Y’know, I think that’s the nicest thing that anybody’s ever said to me. But you know what? Oddly enough, that title scares me. I mean, no disrespect—I’m flattered. But I’m not sure if I can handle the weight of that honor.”

She looked at me sort of strange—I think that she thought that I was joking because I was still smiling. She said, “Why do you think that you couldn’t handle that?”

I began to answer her, but I was more thinking out loud, “Well, it might just be me, but it seems like “role model” and “the public eye” is a dangerous place for an Indian to be. I mean, doesn’t it seem like we sometimes set people up just to see them fall? Not you, of course—you want me to succeed because you see your little boy in me. You want me to succeed because you want him to succeed. But it seems like our people have a problem with really rooting for our people. As soon as one of our people gets a little bit of success, a little notoriety or money, we start really looking for all of the flaws in those people.”

She started grilling me a little bit when I said that. I’m not sure how many of you know little Coastal women, but they’re focused! When they’re on a mission, they’re gonna get what they want! She asked, “Well, don’t we need Indian men and women who are going to stand up to that heat? Cripe, it sounds like you don’t want people to expect anything of you because you’re afraid you might fail. Don’t our children—my grandson—need leaders and role models who are going to stand up to the miserable people and complain about everything under the sun? My beautiful daughter calls those miserable people “haters.’”

I sighed. “Of course you’re right. But I think that most of the people who are trying to do good—whether it’s tribal leaders or pow-wow dancers or teachers—they’re just trying to lead by example. I don’t think that most of them are trying to make a deep political statement or save the world. They’re not, generally, religious leaders or spiritual. But people expect them to be perfect and the moment that someone sees them in a bar—it’s a scandal! Or the moment that someone hears a RUMOR that they did something in business that was questionable, our people jump to conclusions! Our people seem to love to see our people fail! I’ve seen that happen to so many people, and I’m just not sure how much that I want to be a part of that. Call me weak.”

Then she told me something that made me rethink my position. She pointed to the beautiful little Native kid wearing my oversized red Yankees hat and said, “What you’re saying is true, Joshie. But…If my grandson isn’t looking up to you—doesn’t see you as his role model, who is he going to look up to? Whether or not you choose to accept it, you ARE a role model for him. For better or for worse.”

I’m still not convinced that she’s 100% right, but I had to concede that she had a point. Although I still wonder why our people love to tear “us” down, she forced me to also wonder who is willing to stand up as strong examples of “us” if we’re not.

Any thoughts?

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 8:29 pm  Comments (24)  

Smokin’ Hot Fridays–Beautifully Weird White People

Sorry–it’s been a couple of Fridays with no “Smokin’ Hot Fridays.” Lots going on, but rest assured that it’s mainly because of being EXHAUSTED each and every friday. Sometimes…the week seems so long. Good weeks, mind you–I’m thankful for being able to say that I’m “busy.” Still…some Fridays, I just want to come home and do my little hellos, smooches, smooches, watch Family Guy and pass out.

That nowithstanding, here’s something special. These folks are amazing. I wish I had their audacity (and fruit!!) and singing ability…

At work they’ve had to deal with my singing “Squish Our Fruit Together” for the better part of two weeks now…amazing.

Published in: on April 2, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Comments (2)  


“No good deed goes unpunished.”
Clare Boothe Luce

I was just a little kid, but I remember when my grandpa wrote a book called “The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It.” I remember looking out the window of our trailer over at my grandpa and grandma’s trailer as my uncle helped him load his and my grandma’s suitcase. I remember my smiling sisters throwing their bags into the trunk of my grandpa’s little Ford Escort—my beautiful little grandma Rose in the passenger seat—and me crying because my playmates/heroes were going to be gone for some time (my grandpa didn’t want to take me because, rumor was, that I was an especially rotten kid).

That book was a big deal, and it seemed like our people were proud of it. It came from the pen/typewriter of a Native man—a Blackfeet man—who wanted to see our stories told forever. The Native man was uneducated. He ran away from boarding school in sixth grade, therefore the grammar was imperfect and sentence structure left much to be desired, admittedly. Still, he was wise in Blackfeet traditional ways and he also understood certain things about human nature. That is, he knew that our Native ways—like all ways—will inevitably change, and that if young Natives are going to acquire the knowledge from our elders, the elders are going to have to employ different means of teaching. In fact, my grandpa wrote that the reason he wrote this book is because:

“All history the Native learns by heart, and must pass it on to the little ones as they grow up…It’s these days that the younger generation of every nationality do not have ears for such things. These young people are just too busy being smarties, radical, militant, with no respect for their elders. They do not want to listen to anyone except themselves…From all of this, our oral prehistory of us Natives is dying away and being forgotten.”

I think that history shows that my grandpa (and many other elders) was right. Now, many tribes preserve their languages by CD-ROMs and DVDs. Native languages are taught on-line. Although he was not a great writer and his plan was not perfect, my grandpa took the initiative to do, in his opinion, the right thing.

And he was punished for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, to this day, thankfully, many people still speak about my grandpa with respect and some even with reverence. But there was a substantial minority of people, a very vocal minority, who made their displeasure known. This vocal minority did not like the fact that my grandpa put our Creation stories and language into print so that all nationalities could see. I remember uncomfortable talks, conversations and whispers that said “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor.”

The criticisms hurt my grandpa deeply. He knew that he wasn’t above reproach. Heck, he expected criticism where he didn’t tell the story as well as he could have, or where he used bad grammar. That was fair game. But to question his intent or motivations seemed unfair; after all, he thought that he was doing this for our people. And frankly, it seemed somewhat cowardly for someone to criticize a person for doing a good thing that they were unwilling to do themselves.

It seemed like he deserved better than that.

Now, I am not a little kid anymore but I see that the same very vocal minority wants to punish every good deed in Indian Country. I paid close attention to the Elouise Cobell litigation and settlement and am amazed at the meanness and anger of the comments directed at her. Like my grandpa, she recognized that there was a need; she recognized that the U.S. took advantage of Natives for a long time and was not making any effort to make things right. Therefore, she proactively took steps to fix that situation—to right wrongs and address problems. Seems like a good thing.

Still, were her efforts perfect?

Not by a long-shot. I’m sure that if one was to ask Ms. Cobell, she would tell you that there were things—legally, administratively, and personally—that she and her team could have done better. She, like my grandpa, is not above reproach, and we should always think critically about our leadership. In fact, I’ll bet that she can probably point to a million mistakes that we’ve missed and don’t see, but she sees because she’s been looking over these documents for many years. My guess is that she’s probably her worst critic about this lawsuit and welcomes legal and administrative criticisms.

Still, it seems somewhat cowardly when people charge Elouise with the same criticisms that my grandpa faced: “sell-out,” “opportunist,” “traitor,” “colluder.” She deserves better than that. For example, suggesting that Miss Cobell colluded with the government is silly and should be insulting to our collective intelligence. In the Cobell litigation, federal officials working on behalf of the government were charged with contempt of court twice for not producing documents that would help paint a clearer picture of the mismanagement. I think—not being an insider on the proceedings myself—that the government utilized every single procedural mechanism not to allow a settlement to happen.

But somehow she was working with the government?

In my estimation, this Native woman is a hero, a warrior. She is a hero because she was willing to do something that nobody else was willing to do—man or woman, Native or non-Native. She was willing to take initiative and take tiny, frustrating steps to actually solve a problem while most of us were just complaining. She is a warrior because she put her words into action, when most of us were content with just words; I mean, really—if she hasn’t brought this lawsuit, would anybody else have? I doubt it.

She’s a warrior.

We need to protect our heroes and encourage our warriors to take bold steps to help our people, like protecting our traditions or bringing lawsuits against the government. And while “protecting our heroes” does not mean that we shouldn’t critique them—they need to be questioned just like anyone else—those criticisms and questions should be “within family”–not in mainstream publications and in front of TV cameras. In short, we must not allow this small and very vocal minority to shoot down our Native warriors publicly. Moreover, while questioning the work and methods of our heroes is fair game, it seems somewhat cowardly to assault our own warriors’ integrity and question their honesty simply because we disagree with their work.

If we do not protect our heroes, at some point the small and very vocal minority is going to create a situation where no Native wants to take initiative to help our people. In that situation, no Native will want to be a warrior because they understand that no good deed goes unpunished and everyone only pays attention to the flaws. Pretty soon, the only do-gooders will be white folks and non-Natives who want to “save” us. At that time, all of Native peoples’ most noble will be in corporations quietly achieving success without the stress and disrespect of constantly pointed fingers. Whether we agree or disagree with our warriors’ battles, in my humble estimation, we need to support our warriors and our heroes, like Elouise Cobell. We need to ensure that that all parties—Natives, non-Natives, and the mainstream media—know that we truly appreciate the efforts of our warriors and, although we might disagree with them, we will not tolerate personal attacks against our warriors.

Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:05 am  Comments (31)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 3

Interviewing folks for this “Hair” series reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Usual Suspects.” “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.”

Similar to “The Usual Suspects,” there seems to be a subconscious (or unconscious) awareness of hair amongst many Natives. Obviously that’s true of certain folks–some wear our “Hair Awareness” on our sleeves (or scalps). For example, there are some folks who place a specific significance on Natives’ right to grow our hair—a right that was not always guaranteed—that is similar to our other rights that were forcibly taken away at one time, like language and ceremonies. As reader, Yvonne Meyers, articulated:

I’m Native to the core and first and foremost and that is the essence of my being and spirituality and I will never surrender my spirit which encompasses and supercedes the regular five senses. They are still trying to kill the “Indian” in Natives but with most they will never succeed. I’m so proud that my tribal family still does whatever they need to do to keep the Native spirit and ways alive and they are succeeding. We speak our Native tongue, practice our spirituality, keep our ceremonies and traditional ways alive to this day. And we will do so.

Still, the more interesting point–to me–is that that the Hair Awareness even goes for those Natives who do not subscribe to a particular spiritual or political belief about the significance of our hair. Perhaps the Hair Awareness is a subconscious response to the years that our immediate ancestors weren’t allowed to express themselves and/or follow their tradition? Or maybe they simply look good with long hair and play it off as “cultural?” Maybe the long hair is to ensure that people do not confuse us as being something other than Native–a badge of courage, boldly welcoming discrimination? Or maybe it’s something as simple and as beautiful as simply “wanting to be like dad,” who also has long braids?

I introduce you to some brave and proud souls–generous Natives who were willing to 1) grant me some time (I can be quite annoying) and 2) answer some questions, 3) be photographed and share their thoughts on a public stage. I am thankful for them and their thoughts and images–please share the gratitude. The cool thing is, all of these are contemporary adults and kids, doing contemporary stuff–these aren’t staged pictures, where these guys walk around as white people all week and then, Clark Kent-style, turn into Indians during the weekend. These are impromptu shots and interviews, and fittingly, most of them have substantially different notions about what hair means or doesn’t mean to them.

Although I do not try to be an objective journalist, I will try to stay as close to their words as possible. Also, I am probably the 2nd worst photographer in the world (right after anyone who takes a picture of me), so please forgive the odd lighting and thumb prints on the lens. So without further to-do, first, the “long hairs“:

Bearon Old Coyote

Bearon is a 16 year old singer. He sings with the Eagle Warrior drum, and also does Coast Salish singing. He is a member of the Suquamish Tribe. He didn’t offer a whole lot of explanation for why long hair was important to him–nothing religious, per se. Yet, he did feel that it’s important because “his power comes from his hair,” (he didn’t clarify exactly what type of power he got from his hair, but he’s 16 and at a pow-wow. Lots of distractions there.) but he did explain that he got that explanation from his dad. More on that later. More importantly, however, he said that he wanted to grow his hair “just like daddy.”

Who is “daddy,” you ask?

James Old Coyote

This handsome fella is a member of the Mandan tribe. He is the “daddy” largely responsible for Bearon’s Hair Awareness–the one who could provide an explanation of the “power” line of reasoning for not cutting off their hair. James told me that, realistically, he knows that his strength would not miraculously disappear if he were to cut his hair off. He’s cut it off several times, for various reasons. Still, he explained that he received his first haircut when he was in second or third grade and he got really sick. His dad, as dad’s are sometimes wont to do, told him that the reason it happened was because he chopped off his locks.

Lesson learned.

Amanda Benally

Amanda was kind enough to give me a very informative interview. She is Navajo (if you couldn’t guess from her last name), and is one of the new generation of Native leaders working in education at a tribal school. She explains that her “ts’eyeel” (hairbun) holds memories–that it not only has symbolic value, but also functional value. In fact, the ts’eyeel helps to keep her thoughts together, keeps her centered and is a source of wisdom. She was never allowed to cut her hair as a girl, and one time she did get it cut–without consent—and she had to explain it to her grandmother. She feels–as a matter of her opinion, as opposed to her teachings–that she would be “less Navajo” if she cut off her hair. It is a integral part of her Navajo (as opposed to Native/Indian) identity.

The Aspiring Long Haired

Lawrence Miguel

Lawrence is Cree, and has kept his hair short for quite some time. He doesn’t necessarily see any religious/philosophical significance to hair, but he knows that a lot of Natives do. His reason for starting to grow his hair out is because he is “starting to dance again,” and just got a new roach. The roach “sits on his head better” with longer hair. Short and sweet explanation.

The Happily Short Haired

Joe Price

“Navajo Joe” is actually “Navajo and S’klallam Joe.” Upon first conversation, Joe concedes that he really doesn’t have any spiritual beliefs about hair. After a few minutes of talking, he started to realize that perhaps there IS some spiritual component to the way that he takes care of his hair. First, his father always cut it; his father still cuts it to this day. Moreover, his father always burned him and his brothers’ hair–never let go in the trash. The reason why, according to Joe, is that his dad didn’t want anyone to “put medicine on them.” He said, “I never really thought of the spiritual significance of my hair. I thought only people with long hair thought like that. I never had long hair.”

In sum…there really is no general rule about Native people’s thoughts on hair (thank God) other than that hair does carry SOME significance. Obviously pretty much any Native movie–even those made by Natives–tend to put a long black ponytail or braids on every single one of us, that’s thankfully not the case. We do have individuality!!! In fact, at any particular pow-wow there’s mohawks and braids and bangs and mullets and crew cuts.

The folks who DO have long hair–as shown in the comments of previous posts–do sometimes implicate tradition. Still, you’re just as likely to find a tradition that requires a shorn head as one that requires long hair. However, it seems like MOST Natives do give some special meaning to hair. It’s just that sometimes, it seems, that we’re not quite sure how to articulate the rule or tradition that we’re to follow–we just know that there’s a tradition there. Similar to The Usual Suspects–we still see value in our parents’ ways, even if we can’t always necessarily articulate them.

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 7:58 am  Comments (9)  

Repost: Stop the racist attacks on our children

From Indian Country Today.

By Valerie Taliman, Today correspondent

Story Published: Mar 10, 2010

Story Updated: Mar 10, 2010

Just as we think we’re making progress, another hate crime rears its ugly head. And this time, it’s against our children.

Last week the Web site ran an advertisement headlined “Native Extraction Service” with a photograph of three young Native boys. The service offered to round up and remove First Nations youth like wild animals, and “relocate them to their habitat.”

The text of the ad read: “Have you ever had the experience of getting home to find those pesky little buggers hanging outside your home, in the back alley or on the corner??? Well fear no more, with my service I will simply do a harmless relocation. With one phone call I will arrive and net the pest, load them in the containment unit (pickup truck) and then relocate them to their habit.”

They’re talking about our children.
It’s a classic hate crime, carried out for the sole purpose of inciting racism and hate against indigenous peoples.

The message is clear: Native people are like pests or vermin, and can be disposed of by simply calling a free service to have them “extracted.”

It was the cyberspace equivalent of a “Wanted” poster, reminiscent of bounties once paid for Indian scalps in the old West. And in my view, it’s a classic hate crime, carried out for the sole purpose of inciting racism and hate against indigenous peoples.

First Nations leaders from Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak said they want police to investigate the ad as a hate crime. They are joined by an outcry from Native leaders in Washington state and Indian country at-large who know that hate often translates to violence.

Ironically, the photo that posted on its site was stolen from Longhouse Media, a nonprofit arts and media organization based in Seattle, Wash., with a stellar record for making quality films about Native people by Native people.

Those three minors labeled as “pests” actually won awards for their first documentary film, “March Point,” which tells their poignant coming of age story in a Native American community near Seattle poisoned by industrial pollution. The photo was part of a copyrighted media kit created to promote the film, and clearly showed their faces.

Tracy Rector, Longhouse Media executive director, said the use of their photo in such a “hateful and demeaning way was deeply hurtful to these young men and their families, and to the Native community as a whole.

“This ad could intimidate and incite violence against indigenous youth in North America, and we are joining with Manitoba chiefs to call for an end to hate crimes such as these. We want to see the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Author and poet Sherman Alexie, a founding board member of Longhouse Media, called for collective action. “As much as the world has changed for indigenous people in good ways, there are still many violent and hateful folks out there who seek to harm us, and we must condemn them in print and in action, and we must do this together.”

While the legal rights of these young men were violated, is protecting the identity of the racist person who placed the ad. The online publication admits that while they monitor their sites, “this ad slipped through the cracks.”
Not a single person thought there was something horribly wrong with this ad? No one?

As a former newspaper editor, I can tell you that’s a shoddy excuse. Does no one read the content before it is published? Sales representatives, copy editors and managing editors are responsible for their content. Not a single person thought there was something horribly wrong with this ad? No one? Clearly, the editorial staff needs some cultural sensitivity training.

People who minimize the impact of the racist ad are ignoring the fact that hundreds of Native women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada. The Stolen Sisters project, with the help of Amnesty International, exposed this dark side of Canada’s human rights record in 2004 with a scathing report.

More than 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 20 years. A Native woman in Canada is five times more likely to die a violent death than a woman of any other race. In the U.S., one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, according to Justice Department statistics.

Yet Canadian officials have done little to help. If 500 white women had been kidnapped and brutally murdered, you can bet there would be a national outcry.

Walter Lamar, a twice-decorated FBI special agent and former national director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said it was hard to imagine why a news organization would publish such a sinister advertisement.

“Those willing to demonstrate their hate publicly are equally capable of violence,” said Lamar, who now owns a firm that specializes in helping to reduce violence and drug abuse on reservations. “As a former FBI agent and Blackfeet Nation citizen, I have seen firsthand the carnage left by those consumed by racist hatred. History can produce example after example of racist hatred being translated to violence.”

He ought to know – Lamar’s career includes working crime scenes for the 9/11 terrorist bombings, the hunt for Green River serial killer in Washington, the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, and the fiery siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Walt and I grew up on the Navajo Nation, where hate crimes have been commonplace for more than 100 years. In towns bordering our reservation like Gallup and Farmington, N.M., brutal crimes against our people date back to the 1870s when white residents used Navajos for target practice.

The worst of these crimes occurred in the 1970s, when three Navajos were found bludgeoned, mutilated and burned. They had been tortured with firecrackers in their noses and private parts by three white Farmington teenagers. The history of hatred and attacks on our people was chronicled in Rodney Barker’s book “Broken Circle.”

In 2006, yet another Navajo man was beaten to death in Farmington by three white men in a racially-motivated hate crime. They were eventually convicted, but most often we do not see justice for crimes committed against us.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recognized the problem and proposed a large-scale investigation of racism and hate crimes in border towns of seven states in 2003, but the Bush administration refused to fund it.
More than 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada over the past 20 years.

In response, the Navajo Nation recently formed its own Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and is moving forward to document these crimes, and to foster greater public awareness and improved relations with border towns.

Everyone who believes in human rights must speak out against hate crimes and demand an end to the racism, hatred and violence. Our silence is our consent.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm  Comments (1)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 2


I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in his sight. It is not necessary for Eagles to be Crows. We are poor..but we are free. No white man controls our footsteps. If we must die…we die defending our rights.
Sitting Bull

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.
Capt. Richard H. Pratt

The truth is, this whole “Politics of Native Hair” thing is not new at all. In fact, Native hair has been cursed to be a political hot button for at least the last 139 years.

Those politics continue.

See, this beautiful little Native boy, Adriel Arocha, and his parents were some of the most recent people to discover the political nature of Indian hair–the 150 year old curse for Native people. His parents discovered the curse that broke hundreds of thousands of Indian hearts and crushed many Native parents. They were hit with the same curse that caused Native children to be strangers in their homelands, as well as in the schools into which they were forced to attend. This curse vitiated Native parental authority and robbed so many Indian parents of the ability to even learn how to be proper parents. In fact, Native parenting suffers to this day because of this of the kids that were stolen away from them, that said “You are not allowed to raise your kids how you want them to be raised because your ways are inferior.”

It was the very first “big government,” but it was big government that intruded into the very most personal and intimate activity–how we raise our kids.

It’s the Curse Of Richard H. Pratt.

Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879, the first off-reservation boarding school for Native kids. Carlisle, of course, is famous for creating a high-speed form of football with an all-Native team, and later for Jim Thorpe, the greatest athlete in the world. The school is also famous for stealing many kids away from their Native parents and depriving a group of Native kids of their homeland. Homeless. Pratt, like many other white liberals since him, wanted to “help” Natives by telling us what’s best for us and our children. Oddly, we still allow those people who think that they know what’s best for us Natives affect our kids still. We put them in positions to teach our kids, some of them to write in our publications, and some of them infiltrate our ceremonies.

Adriel’s parents chose to fight Pratt’s demon and exorcise his curse. They were determined that Richard H. Pratt would not steal their child, nor dictate how they were going to raise this beautiful little Indian boy. We will discuss the actual controversy surrounding Adriel later–but still, before moving on, I think the most obvious first question that one might raise is “why?” That is, what is it about Native hair–in the eyes of those folks seeking to create conformity in Native people–that makes them see our hair as the key to subduing our spirit?

With that question, I defer to many of the informative comments (thanks for all of the great comments!) in the The Politics of Native Hair, Part 1. As the comments seemed to show, there’s just something about Natives’ hair that those who seek to “kill the Indian” need to get. They have to have it. And perhaps it’s as my big brother Brooklyn Baptiste pointed out, that if we “Lose too many of our attributes and we will be as common as the next population but in our own land and only a tribal card to show for it.” Maybe the goal is just as simple assimilation–to take away our Native characteristics one attribute at a time, until we’re just blended in with the rest of the consumer population. Americans.

Perhaps. I’m not sure I believe that. The historical desire to remove our hair from our heads seems deeper than that. Almost a spiritual longing that creates that need to have our hair. And although I disagreed with a decent portion of what commenter Jaime Perez said, I thought that the following was very powerful:

Saying that it’s “just hair” is adopting the oppressor’s way of thinking. This country is an assimilation beast. From Manifest Destiny to the cultural appropriation of the nuage (sic) hippy movement.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. Please continue to send your thoughts on “why?” Still, it seems fair to say that even if Native hair doesn’t have any significance to us, the Natives, it obviously has some serious importance to those who see it as a source of power/pride for us, and want to deprive us of it. Right?

Still, the point of this article is that General Pratt’s curse lives on to this very day. There are still those folks who see power in our locks and want to subdue our spirits by cutting our hair. Adriel Arocha (and yes, others around the Nation and in Canada) show that. Adriel was only 5 years old when the controversy started. My guess? He wanted to simply go to school and play with his classmates and play-doh and kickball. I don’t pretend to know Adriel, but I can almost certainly guess that this little Native kid did not want to be embroiled in a court battle over his religious beliefs.

But he’s a warrior. He’s learning at an early age. He’s never cut his hair; his father taught them that he should only cut his hair during major life challenges, such as the death of a loved one. Similar to the way that many of the commenters in Part 1 believe.

Adriel is expressing his religious beliefs–putting his faith into actions at a very early age. And what did he get in exchange for his strong faith–for walking his talk? Did he get congratulations and praise? Possibly rewards from teachers and principals?

No, instead the curse of General Pratt struck Adriel’s family–the curse that tells Indian parents that they cannot raise Indian children as they see fit. The curse that wants to kill the Indian and save the man.

The parents recognized the curse–they were educated and tried to take preemptive actions. They didn’t want to be involved in a court battle either. Instead, they understood that the school district’s policy does not permit long hair for boys, so they applied for a religious exemption before the school year started.

When Adriel came to school with two braids, this little 5 year old was forced to take classes by himself. The Needville Independent School District tried to force him to stuff his hair into his shirt collar. They tried to force him to meet privately with his teacher, away from his classmates, because of his hair. The school district said that he had to wear his “hair in his shirt during recess, on field trips, and on the school bus.”

The Needville Independent School District said–just like was said 139 years ago–“You are not allowed to raise your kids how you want them to be raised because your ways are inferior.” It took a federal Judge to tell Adriel’s parents that their ways aren’t inferior. That judge told Adriel that he wasn’t strange for wearing his hair as his religious beliefs said that he should. The judge ruled that the School District’s policy violated state law and the U.S. Constitution by punishing the American Indian kindergartner for religious beliefs that require him to wear his hair long. The Judge said that he would not allow the curse of General Pratt to kill this particular Indian boy’s “Indianness.”

Still, make no mistake about it, the curse is alive and well. The political nature of Native hair is not going anyplace anytime soon.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 7:34 am  Comments (17)  

Smokin’ Hot Fridays–Blacklodge

Just some good music. Blacklodge rocks, of course. They’re my cousins, so I’m a bit biased–but I think that even if they weren’t I would rock their music in my car and fake-Ipod. Their pow-wow songs are incredible–everyone knows them for that. Still, I’d take their handdrum/rounddance music over their pow-wow swag anyday. In the handdrum (not just with Blacklodge, but with everyone), you can really hear their voices. (oh yeah, nice flip flops Elgin).

Shawn is a lot less “out there”–he tends to stay out of the spotlight. In fact, he’s kinda a hermit these days. But he’s doing well, raising kids and a working man! Still, as the video shows, this guy has an amazing voice…

A little FYI about Blacklodge:

Although these guys are the cats me-wow in pow-wows and rounddances and such, their true gift was always in–you guessed it–breakdancing. Back in the day, ALL of them were nasty!! Best breakers in Browning–and that was saying something. When you learn how to breakdance on a dirt road, you REALLY REALLY know how to Breakdance. Turbo didn’t have anything on them.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm  Comments (1)  

The Indianness of Curling


We’ll take a brief break from talking about hair and braids/whether carpets match drapes/mullets hairstyles for a brief second to discuss the Olympics. Specifically, I want to briefly (and I do mean briefly) discuss the fine and demanding sport of curling at the Olympics. I sit–late at night, between episodes of King of the Hill and Family Guy–and marvel at the physical specimens that are curlers. Buff. Lithe. Virile. Powerful.

Now seriously, I’ve actually watched the curling exhibitions with bated breath. Granted, I only recently (e.g. yesterday) learned that there are a few people in countries other than Canadians who curl in this world. That was surprising. Still, I do not doubt the level of skill–as opposed to athletic ability–it takes to be a successful curler (call me a “purist,” but I tend to see stuff like bowling, pool, curling and poker as slightly more “gamish” and really so “sportish.”) Yet, despite recognizing the required skill, similar to bobsledding in Jamaica, it’s fair to say that curling is a novelty sport to the vast majority of the rest of the world. I imagine that’s why our friendly Simpsons spoofed the sport last week.

Curling is fun to watch. It’s entertaining. People love the novelty of it. Still, nobody really understands it (how, exactly, do they score??). More important, however, than the fact that nobody understands curling, is that most people simply do not want to understand curling. They want to laugh at the funny pants. They want to laugh at the Fred-Flintstone-Bowling-Approach. They have no incentive to understand curling whatsoever. After all, why invest all this time into understanding curling if we’re only going to pay attention to it once every four years–if that??

In fact, it’s safe to say that the only people who truly care about curling are, well, curlers. And maybe, MAYBE the non-curling families of curlers. And occasionally voyeurs/weirdos like me who cannot sleep late at night. But even though people don’t really CARE about curling, the Olympics NEEDS curling–because a lot of voyeurs and weirdos and true lovers of sports and games strangely love curling.

And even more strangely, the curlers seem fine with people’s ignorance about the sport. They seem comfortable knowing their game is competitive and requires a high level of skill. They know that the average person could not do what they do. All these other winter sports–figure skating, skiing, the luge–get all the attention. But you know what?? The odd, quirky and novel sport of curling is right there–on exactly the same platform as all those other sports.

I see some similarities in Natives.

Native people certainly have compelling stories–if any ethnicity’s narrative deserves to be told, it is ours. As our people’s prospects progress from “nearly extinct” to “stabilizing” to “surviving” and now to “thriving,” it seems natural that other people’s interest in our people would grow. Why wouldn’t it? It seems like reporters and scholars and poets would rush to tell the story of these amazing resilient people who had everything stripped from them–yet continued. And got better. And stronger.

Yet, that story remains untold and our culture remains a novelty. No one cares. Except us. Like curling, truthfully, non-Natives do not want to understand us. They want to occasionally pop into our pow-wows and have photo opportunities with us and tell their grandchildren that they knew a Native at one time. But they do not want to understand us. Just like curling.

And the non-Natives who DO want to join up with us? Some of them have good intentions–those few who just believe in the humanity and beauty of all cultures. But then there are the voyeurs and weirdos–like me with curling. Vultures. They do not want to contribute anything to the culture–they just want siphon off and feel accepted someplace. We know who those people are.

Here’s the punchline: so what if no one pays attention to us? So what if mainstream society eschews our customs, music and story? We are strong. Resilient. Brilliant. Beautiful. We are currently creating structures and institutions within Indian Country–things that will not require a stamp of approval from outside of Indian Country. The average person and race could not do what we have done–we took bad situations and made them beautiful. We made took nasty commodities and made wonderful stew. We took religions forced upon us and melded them with our own and made incredible hybrids. All these other ethnicities get all of the media attention and perks–just like curling has to defer to skiing and slalom and snow angels. Still, we’re right here with them, creating our own destinies.

And we are not supposed to be here.

Think about this: this Nation needs Natives just like the Olympics needs curling. No one else can tell the story that we can tell–the story of this land from the dawn of time. We are crucial to this country’s destiny. Like curling, we do not need the outside world to validate our importance.

Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 9:00 am  Comments (5)  

The Politics of Native Hair Part 1


She couldn’t even say it with a straight face. She tried though—had to give her an “E” for “Effort.” She desperately, passionately wanted me to believe that she believed what she was saying.
“No, I really liked you better with long hair.”

>Dead Silence<

I sat back and smirked. I didn’t say anything because I enjoy awkward pauses. By the way, I wouldn't dare call them “pregnant pauses.” You see, I’m a Blackfeet man and she’s an Assiniboine woman—therefore there actually is a chance that a mere conversation between us could result in procreation. I have nieces and nephews who were conceived by email (in fairness, it DID have an attachment) and a cousin who once got a pretty little Dutch girl named “Klazina” pen pal pregnant with a birthday card.

What I’m saying is that we’re fertile people.

But I digress.

Anyway, the prolonged silence prompted her to continue talking—you know, the way people talk to fill empty space. “I mean, yeah, sure it looks nice short. You look clean cut. But I prefer Indian boys with long hair. There’s just something really, really hot AND ‘cultural’ about Indian boys with long hair.”

That was an Interesting thought, so I figured I’d delve a little deeper into that, “What if I weren’t Native? Would I THEN look better with my short hair?”

She conceded, “Mmmmmmmm…probably, yeah. Other people—non-Natives—generally do not look good with long hair. Jonny Depp does, and Brad Pitt in “’Legends of the Fall’. He looked really yummy. But he always looks yummy. But no, if you weren’t Indian, I’d say keep your hair short.”

Now I was really intrigued, so I was obligated by law to keep digging deeper. “What if you didn’t know that I was Indian? Would I instantly become better looking with this particular shorter haircut?” The possibilities started rolling in my head—this could get good. “Or what if I was of Native descent, but not enough blood to be enrolled? Would you still consider me ‘Indian’ enough to have long hair?”

She thought about it. Obviously she didn’t want to say “yes.” But she looked resolute, like I couldn’t shake her from her principle. “Yeah—if I didn’t know that you were Indian, I’d say that I’d like you better with short hair. But you cut your hair short, and I know that you’re Indian. So yeah, you got uglier. In a loving way, of course.” She smiled.

Ouch. “Of course,” I grimaced.

While I felt vindicated that she realized her logical inconsistency about Indian men and their hair, I had to admit my dismay that, in my friend’s eyes, my attractiveness was vasectomized with a few snips of the scissors. Call me “vain.”


Like pretty much any other topics amongst Natives, the topic of “hair” is fascinating and doesn’t lend itself to just one viewpoint, even amongst Natives. There are, of course, historical issues connected with Natives’ hair; we weren’t always allowed to choose the way we styled our hair. Those historical issues will be discussed later on in this series.

But hair is not only a “historical” thing for us, right? I mean, many Natives revere the past, but we’re also fashionable, contemporary people–it can’t be just about “history,” right? My nephews have all kinds of haircuts, mohawks, faux-hawks, mullets and buzz cuts; my nieces love to color their hair from their stereotypical jet black hair to more, let’s say “vibrant” colors. And every single one of those nephews and nieces also has pictures of them with braids and bushy morning hair. This is a series about hair–we’ll have time to talk about more contemporary AND historical issues.

It’s interesting. I wonder about the perception(s) of hair within our Native societies. I remember in college, when a Native had long hair, there was a presumption that the long-haired Native was “traditional;” I think that there’s usually a perception that a Native with long hair IS, in fact, somehow more Native (or Nativer) than a short-haired Native. In that school context, sometimes the long-haired Natives in school would play into that perception that they were, in fact, “traditional” so that they could spew off some pseudo-religious babble and make the giggling little hippie girls think that were “deep.”

Interestingly, the vast majority of the older “traditional” people that I know tend to have very neatly cut hair. Of course, some have braids, and some have mullets—business up front, party in the back. Many women have the hair hanging down and parted in the middle, straight out of a Cher video, some of the serious “rez” bangs and some have more contemporary hairstyles. Point is, there is no one style—fortunately—that defines Natives. Still, in some people’s eyes, the hair makes the Native.

Does it? Is hair more important to Natives than to other ethnicities?

I’m collecting hair stories. Specifically, I want to know about the significance/lack of significance of hair to Native people.

Please send me your hair stories AND pictures–whether it was a fight that you got into because someone teased you about your hair or it was a man who liked you specifically because of your hair. Or maybe you LOVE your new mohawk. Or possibly you’re just really proud of your mane and want to tell people WHY you grew it out or cut it off. Whatever it is. Please also let me know if I can cite these stories in future writing projects–I think that Indian Country, and OUTSIDE of Indian Country is curious about these stories and photos.

Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (72)