November is my annual season of ambivalence.
Although I love autumn, its poignant air of loss and the promise of renewal, it has the bittersweet distinction of also being Native American history month, writes Mary Annette Pember.
Every year, for as long as I can remember, editors of the legacy press, as well as church and school groups, have asked me to regale their audiences with Native American history. These requests seek to frame Indigenous peoples as denizens of a long-ago past, as occupants of a fantasy world that has almost nothing to do with our lived experiences.
This annual exercise has taken on a wearying sameness: It’s the month of explaining Indians to white people. Typically they tell me they want to know more about Native people, our lives today, how to honor our culture and be allies. But almost always this means they want me to present generic versions of Native dance, crafts, spirituality; to help them participate in ceremonies and drumming, identify their power animals, and become shamans. In short, they want to celebrate an Indian who never was, one who soothes their settler souls.
I often relent and offer up a few words encouraging folks to read pertinent books and conduct a bit of research on their own. Such presentations are far more mindful of white fragility than I’d prefer. Nevertheless, what I say can be shattering to them, like watching a 5-year-old’s face crumble as she’s told Santa Claus isn’t real.
This year, the requests have been especially fraught. Prompted by discoveries of hundreds of children’s graves at the boarding schools that Native children were coerced into by the governments of Canada and the United States, white people want me to describe these atrocities and my own family’s experience as survivors. For reasons that are difficult for me to fathom, this is a new story for White America. They are shocked, horrified, and weirdly eager for appalling details.
Native people, myself included, are shocked that it’s taken so long for non-Natives to acknowledge this grim history, one we’ve been hollering about for decades, only to be met with deafening silence or denial.
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📸: Library of Congress