Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reservations on the Reservation

Firstly, I realize that the following post will probably read a lot like the previous ones. I also realize that my entire life has changed between then and now; specifically, I've graduated from college, spent a week in Europe, and moved to Badlands National Park to teach astronomy. Graduated life is incredible so far, and I have been bent and stretched and challenged in many ways. The following text is my reflection upon visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.


Wednesday was a little bit ridiculous.

Let’s try something for a second. Let’s fold a bunch of different topics, feelings, facts, opinions, and emotional rollercoasters into one day. One single sunrise to sunset. Everything happened on Wednesday.

Imagine American Indians, the Vagina Monologues, a Latin American history class at MSU, imagined communities, imperialism, nationalism, bleeding hearts, ticks, dogs, a dead cow, chocolate with cayenne pepper in it, an awesome native depiction of Jesus, buffalo skulls, and Lakota rituals.

All of that happened on Wednesday. At least.

I am an incredibly spiritual person. As such, I tend to be quite emotionally involved in lots of different things. Consequently, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and not jump to conclusions. However, I found it difficult to separate fact from opinion during my visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The reservation is a broken place. It’s a broken place, but I’m pretty sure it’s largely the fault of US imperialism (at least from my understanding of history.)  However, even in brokenness, there are only so many fingers to point before you’ve exhausted all of your workable hands and have suddenly spun yourself a Charlotte’s web that spells “Jaded.” There are two sides to every story.

In the past, US troops have, for lack of a better phrase, royally screwed over the Lakota bands. In the name of Manifest Destiny, we denied the natives the very thing that our ancestors had pursued by leaving England: religious freedom. Because of course, especially in the Civil War era, anything new or different (or brown) was scary and inappropriate and had to be eliminated or made “civilized.” This has been the story of America from the minute the European settlers landed, and remains to be the story today. We justify it by believing in Nationalism to a fault, to the extent that it becomes not the fabric upon which we weave our patriotic passions but rather the ink pen with which we sign away the rights of those who do not appear to belong in our homogenous American community. This seems quite extreme, but it’s absolutely true; and the most dangerous part is that it’s impossible to see from the inside. The most radical of patriots forget the cost of the thing that passes as freedom here, or worse; they ignore the casualties and flippantly wave them away as necessary collateral damages. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: I live in a nation of self-indulgent thieves. Our legacy is littered with fear-driven decisions and catastrophically impulsive actions, but even so, I think I’m realizing more and more that the USA is the home of the brave. Just not in the sense that we universally believe. 

The brave ones are the ones who can see past all of the screaming flag-wavers and can rather hold their own American flags in their hearts. My America is the one in which I am given the opportunity, as a woman from a small town, to have an incredible education. My America allows me to travel wherever I please, purchase whatever I please, speak however I choose, and work wherever I am qualified to work. But I also know that my America is not necessarily the truth. I am privileged, but that privilege came at a great cost to somebody else. So, I give back. I listen, I talk, and I help whenever I can. I try to restore some balance to all of this chaos that we’ve caused. And I am not interested in pointing fingers or dancing around the truth.

On the reservation, our tour guides were adamant about a few things. Firstly, they made sure we understood the differences between their ways and the ways of the white man. Secondly, although the Lakota are a warring people, they professed a love for peace within the community. After all, “Lakota” literally translates to “friend.” But, wait a minute. How can one profess a love for peace and then dance around the details of a troubled relationship with the white people, with a rather detectable bitter tone? And how can one proclaim that there is very little violence in the community when I have heard specific stories of severe physical and sexual violence perpetrated internally? Now, there is probably a reason behind such violence, namely PTSD from sexual abuse of Lakota children in the mission schools by white evangelists, which is the worst and how dare they and not again, but it’s the truth. It’s a classic case of soul-loss. The Lakota have a ritual where they call their soul, their “nagi,” back to them. The Lakota Warrior Society has been formed for just that purpose: to heal the generation of Lakota men who have suffered from sexual abuse so that the cycle can be broken. I have to believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I have to believe that things will get better eventually, and that I and the folks at V-Day won’t have to feel so broken up over the fact that after everything that the Lakota people have endured from outside oppressors, the women in particular now have to deal with internal oppression. It’s pure madness, at least. I don’t know what to do about it, and I’m not sure if anybody does.

So, I wasn’t sure what to believe. This isn’t mathematics. I can’t just find one counterexample and negate the entire proposition. But a lot of things disturbed me today, as they should have, especially the obvious ones like Wounded Knee which never should have happened and I am ashamed of the US military for exercising such poor judgment during that time, to say the least. But the subtle contradictions made me the most uncomfortable. Mostly, it was the attempt to make the reservation appear friendly and hospitable to guests, as some delightful festival of colors and love and harmony…but then the veiled confession that due to past abuses, the tribe may be experiencing a cycle of violence internally…but there are organizations that have been formed to offer help…but then nobody really has any funding…but then…it’s all terribly complicated. Yes, there were some facts, but mostly outcomes. Mostly dancing around a point. Mostly the inability to tell it to me straight. I don’t like that at all.

But again, as I mentioned: being a spiritual person allows me the tendency to give the benefit of the doubt. So instead of spitting out my own facts and truths for the most part, I simply felt. And to be honest, I felt a whole lot more spirit in those spaces than I have felt in quite some time, and I had been hungry for it. My miniscule amount of native heritage perked up a little, because for some reason, I’ve always wanted to be serenaded by a native in his native tongue. That happened, and I am happy!

I can’t figure out how or why we as a whole have allowed things to become so messily irreparable. So instead of focusing on the whole, on the imagined Nationalist community of America or the United States of Delusion, I will focus on my America. This beautiful land with which I have been blessed. The individuals that weave actual unity instead of imagined homogeneity. People, like me, who were born to repair. The land of the free-spirited and the home of the brave-hearted. That America.