Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guest Post: On Understanding (by Rachman Walker)

On Understanding by Rachman Walker

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help God. Amen” – Martin Luther
The hashtag stood out, and gave me pause. I knew immediately what it was and what it meant. #NotYourMascot, it said. I began to read the various Twitter posts –with that hashtag - from so many Native Americans, from all corners of this country, elevating their voices and forcing this country to acknowledge an inconvenient truth that was going to be have to be confronted. The truth, as I saw it was that the disparagement of Native Americans must and will stop. In the following days following the #NotYourMascot hashtag movement, I read so many posts from so many individuals; voices up until now I was not aware of, nor understood. 

The movement caused me to think deeply about the concept of identity, both from a philosophical and personal perspective. What is a Native American? What defines one as Native American, and what is the experience that defines one as such? These were the questions that I asked myself. It would be an act of intellectual dishonesty to apply my life experiences to those questions. 

The fact is, I didn’t know any of the answers to those questions I asked myself. 

I was born and raised in socially-and-politically conscious African-American family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My family had the benefit of two parents, who were born and raised in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. From an early age I recognized the disconnect that existed between this country’s democratic ideals and how they were extended – selectively - to this country’s citizens. My parents shared their individual stories of the humiliation of a being a ‘Negro’; forced to conform to social construct (separate and unequal) that – on paper – classified them as ‘American’, but refused to confer upon them the rights that white Americans were given, without hesitation or reservation. My parents’ upbringing and shared experiences were a major factor in their conversion to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam in 1960. This change in their lives was a revelation of sorts – there was a greater spiritual and education understanding of what it meant to be black. My parents – both avid readers – imparted invaluable knowledge to their children that our identity was not defined by our skin but rather our contribution and existence through the past several centuries. My parents taught us about Ancient Egypt, the untold history of the African kingdoms in Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, abolition, reconstruction, the long road we travelled for equal rights, and how the struggle for equality still continues. 

The public education I received was replete with stories of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and how this these men “valiantly” established independence from Great Britain and created a country in a new land. Subsequent leaders of this nation, from Jackson to Lincoln, to Grant spoke of making this country greater, a bastion of democracy. The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, liberty, freedom, and Manifest Destiny. Concepts indoctrinated in our collective memories. 

As an African-American, despite my education and self-awareness of my own history, my understanding of the aforementioned Native peoples was non-existent; they were names attached to our schools (I attended Iroquois Middle School in Grand Rapids; the Iroquois ‘Braves’), counties, teams, and the ugly caricatures created by Hollywood. TV shows like F-Troop, Daniel Boone, Go-Go Gophers , created an image of the Native American as uneducated, innately violent, silly, and incorrigible. I had no interaction with any Native Americans during youth and adulthood. Upon further reflection, in all honesty, I knew nothing about Native Americans, their existence, and their history. I knew of one reservation in Michigan – Isabella – but beyond that, there was no exposure. Therein lies the problem with our society. We live in a culturally diverse land but know so very little about the people who lived within.

Our nation’s history books – as presented to us in this nation’s public education system – avoid discussion of Native Americans and the inescapable facts are that there were thriving civilizations already in existence, on this land, at the time of this nation’s founding. Chippewa, Ottawa, Powhatan, Wea, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Wahpetan, Mohican, Choctaw, Osage, Iroquois, Umami, Algonquin, Montauk, Cherokee, Shawnee, Sioux, Navajo, Tillamook, Cree, Apache, and others. This nation’s history books whitewashed the existence of these peoples – their unique cultures, and most importantly, their history. As humans, we are the cumulative collection of where we have been, what we have been exposed to, and what we have learned – or have not learned. One discernible undercurrent in American society, in particular, is the poisoning of the mind through cultural stereotyping. 19th century literature promoted the idea of Native Americans being either noble or ignoble, and the accompanying negative images legitimized concepts manifest destiny, which gave justification to the elimination of Native American “threats” to American civilization.[1]

In the current age of readily available information, via computer, social media, and other methods, the proliferation of stereotyping has accelerated. Our knowledge of these Indian civilizations must be preserved.
The preservation of their history is no less important.

And that brings this discussion back to the #NotYourMascot movement on Twitter. When I first saw #NotYourMascot, the Washington Redskins immediately came to mind. They are the embodiment of the whitewashing of the history of this nation and how this nation was formed. 

"Redskin" is an offensive, pejorative, ugly term that has been historically applied to Native Americans. According to historian Alden T. Vaughan, "Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did most Anglo-Americans view Indians as significantly different in color from themselves, and not until the nineteenth century did red become the universally accepted color label for American Indians. Slang identifiers for ethnic groups based upon physical characteristics, including skin color, are almost universally slurs, or derogatory, emphasizing the difference between the speaker and the target”[2]. The #NotYourMascot movement, among others, has rightly targeted the Washington Redskins for their incoherent, indefensible defense of a racist name. Dan Snyder, the current owner, is following an organizational tradition of promoting racism, established by the founder of the team.

Their founding owner – the repulsive George Preston Marshall – was an avowed racist who, among other things, created a marching band of feather-bedecked musicians in ‘traditional Indian garb’ and is famously known for his steadfast refusal to sign a single black football player from his team’s inception 1932 (as the Boston Braves) until 1962, long after the team had relocated to the nation’s capital. Marshall’s racist will was broken 1962, when then-US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy threatened to revoke the team’s 30-year lease on D.C. Stadium (as it was called then); the stadium was built with federal government funding and was owned by city of Washington D.C. With no other viable option to retain a segregated team. Marshall was forced to integrate his team, and his first choice was Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis of Syracuse University, who was reported to have said “I’ll never play for that S.O.B!” [Marshall]. Marshall reluctantly orchestrated a trade with the Cleveland Browns, sending Ernie Davis to Cleveland, in return for the highly-talented halfback Bobby Mitchell, who went on to have a successful career with Washington. 

Marshall, however continued on his unrepentant racist ways; Mitchell was the only black player on the team’s roster for several years. Marshall experienced a debilitating stroke 1963 and throughout the late 1960’s his health continued to decline, until his death on August 9, 1969. Even in death, George Preston Marshall’s racism still lives – The George Preston Marshall Foundation, endowed with $6 million dollars, was instructed (in Marshall’s will) that none of the endowment could be used “for any purpose which supports or employs the principle of racial integration.”

This is the indisputable legacy of the Washington Redskins. To say otherwise is to ignore history and I’m am not going to do that. I say this now and I will continue to say it - the Washington Redskins – and other organizations, universities, etc., must embrace change and it begins with discarding the racist mascot names and rectifying the past that created this situation

An equally troubling issue is the silence in some corners of the African-Americans community regarding the name “Redskins”; some choose to ignore it, some choose not to repudiate it. This is disappointing when considering the fact that both the African American and Native American communities have been historically underestimated, undervalued, and marginalized. One only needs to look back to the beginning of the 20th century and earlier, to see how African-Americans were portrayed in print and film; vile images of us were used to promote many products from soap to hardware. I ask those African-Americans, who dither about the name “Redskins”, if they would be ok with this image on a billboard along I-495 in Maryland, or as the logo or mascot of a professional sports team?

Now is not the time to forget our shared histories. Our Native American brothers and sisters have also endured much pain and hardship for the last 400 years. African-Americans were stolen, enslaved, beaten, raped, murdered and lynched in the “New World”. The Native American tribes that I spoke of earlier were the victims of the one of the worst acts of genocide in this history of the world – murdered, captured, and relocated. 

Never forget that. 

Remember Manifest Destiny? The establishment of the idea American Anglo-Saxon race was "separate, innately superior" and "destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity and Christianity to the American continents and the world." This view also held that "inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction." This was used to justify the enslavement of the 'Negro' and the expulsion and extermination of the Native American peoples. 

Never forget that.

The uses of offensive imagery to promote a product or a service MUST STOP.
"Symbols of Hate & Oppression"

The #NotYourMascot movement has introduced me a great number of Native American activists, and in the process, they have inspired me to learn more about the history of Native Americans, and they way that they have been portrayed in American society. I am optimistic about the movement, and I am prepared of offer any and all assistance to ALL Native American peoples. We know that this world is lacking in empathy, but citizens of the world, engaging in the noble endeavor of movements that educate - have the opportunity to make substantive changes that will stand the test of time.

It is never too late to right historical wrongs. The first step is acknowledgement, and a determination among Native and Non-Native Americans to acknowledge, atone, share experiences and learn. We must build bridges to our Native American brothers and sisters, and understand their struggles, their dreams and aspirations. Our histories are intertwined, shared experiences have made us resilient, and our unity increases our strength. Individual activists are speaking truth to power. Our voices, too, must be added to the chorus of humanity demanding respect and dignity. I stand in solidarity with my Native Americans brothers and sisters, and I join with them in this common cause.

The days following my exposure to the #NotYourMascot movement has been part of a personal evolution – a rebirth - along with the realization that we must develop new social structures that develop wisdom for progress and fulfillment rather than destruction. These new social structures must link disparate groups who find common ground and understanding, from which flows a renewed solidarity. We must commit ourselves to this endeavor, as it presents so many tangible opportunities for growth, and most importantly – peace in the world. We must take these steps together, not only for enlightenment and understanding, but that we may create a world that is a gift to future civilizations.

As President John F. Kennedy articulated in his “Building Peace for All Time” speech at American University on June 10, 1963: “…and if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we both cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

[1] Ken Nolley, "John Ford and the Hollywood Indian." Film and History23.1–4 (1993): 49.
[2]  Vaughan, Alden T. (1982-10-01). "From White Man to Redskin: Changing Anglo-American Perceptions of the American Indian". The American Historical Review 87 (4): 918. ISSN 0002-8762

Last minute Bar Prep...

I'm locked away in the panic that embodies the last moments of Bar prep hell. The test is Tuesday & Wednesday, so I'm feverishly studying as much as I can.

Since I haven't been able to write anything for the blog, I am featuring a guest post, written by Rachman Walker. This is my first guest post, so be sure to comment & give him feedback. 

Also, make sure to say a prayer for me, or send good thoughts, or whatever you do. I'm really concerned about this exam & I absolutely need to pass. I guess, if I don't, there's always Burlesque, as a backup career...

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Always have a Plan B...&, if necessary, C, D & E

My dad has always called me "flighty" because I can completely change my entire trajectory if I think that it will create a better outcome. He, on the other hand, needs at least 6 months of preparation & multiple charts and figures to convince him beyond a shadow of a doubt that changing is the only possible way that the situation can be handled...and then he might consider it. I think being able to adapt to changing circumstance is probably the most important key to a happy & successful life. In fact, Darwin postulated that "It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change". Without this ability, I don't think I could've done half of the things that I have.

I've been asked so many times, since I started law school, "how do you do it all"? I really don't know, most of the time, to be honest. One thing is certain though, I've had to learn to be very willing to adapt & to be flexible. There have been many times that I had to change plans at the last minute. My smart phone & my appointment planner run my life.

I've gotten calls to pick up kids early from school & had to completely rearrange everything. I've taken kids to work with me. They've been to the law school with me for more than a few classes & meetings. In fact, the favorite story of some in the law school's recruiting office is the time I breastfed my infant while participating in an International Indigenous Peoples' Law class, while we were connected via video link to classes in Canada, Australia & New Zealand.

So, I guess I'm probably a bit non-conventional. But, I try to approach things pragmatically & in a goal oriented way. Whatever will accomplish the goals (because there are usually more than one happening, concurrently, because life is just complicated like that) is what I'm going to do.

In any event, the Bar Exam is coming up in 10 days. I'm honestly very worried about this because things have been so stressful & hectic lately. Given Lil Sis's recent incident, there suddenly arose cause for concern about how I was going to be able to study. Violent outbursts might not be such a concern if there were only children older than her. However, with a toddler, who cannot defend himself, it's a very serious issue. Normally, this would result in light-of-sight supervision at all times that she would be around the other kids. Clearly, that would make studying impossible &, since I absolutely need to pass this test, I had to find a Plan B.

So, that night, we went to my parents, so they could help supervise the kids. (The last second trip was disconcerting to my dad, which is what prompted the remarks about him in the intro. lol) Then, today, I left the baby with his grandmother so he can visit with her until after the exam. I miss him already, but he's having a wonderful time so far. Rest assured, there are also precautions being taken with the older kids who are at home with me, but they are not in the same type of danger as a smaller child would be in the situation.

Now, with all the kids in a safer situation, I'm going to lock down for the last bit of hard studying before the exam. If you pray or believe in positive thinking or anything like that, please send some my ways. Perhaps it's just 11th hour panic, but I feel like it'll be a freaking miracle if I pass this thing. The sheer volume of information is incredible. If I hear one more person, who has no one to be responsible for but themselves, complain about how hard this is, I may become violent. It really does suck, but I'm working hard.

I think, if I pass this thing, I deserve a medal...or a crown...or, better yet, each one of you should buy me a drink, because I'll have earned every damn one of them.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Deep breath

Around here, we have good days & we have bad days. Sometimes the shift is moment to moment.

Sometimes I have to stop & remind myself that I am parenting hurt children & a lot of what I deal with is to be expected. Doesn't mean that it's not overwhelming, at times, though.

Yesterday, I had to go pick Beautiful up early from school. She was complaining of a stomach ache. Ever since she has been angry with her dad in recent months, any time she gets upset she has somatic symptoms like that. Turns out a boy had pushed her on the playground. When she got upset, her stomach started hurting. Instead of helping her calm down, the nursing assistant told her she had to call me & go home. *sigh*

I've gotten a recommendation for a therapist, but I'm waiting on an intake to get her back in therapy. Hopefully that can happen soon.

Lil Sis has been improving a lot, lately. We had court on Thursday for her case. They found that "Active Efforts to Reunite Have Failed", which means the DA will now petition to terminate her mother's parental rights. Her mother apparently has at least two more years before she is able to be released. They said, though, if her behavior doesn't improve, she will not get early release & will have to serve her entire sentence. Unfortunately, the Judge pushed our next court date all the way back to the end of June. So, it looks like they aren't in any hurry to get permanency for her.

Fortunately, I was able to get the Judge to order DHS to enroll Lil Sis in the tribe. I've been trying for a full year, with no success. There are services that the tribe can't provide her without membership, so I think it's important. Also, there are Indian education things that she would be better able to access as a member. Plus, I just feel like she should be enrolled in the tribe because she is Choctaw. The Judge told me, if I keep having trouble, to call his office & they will take care of it. I can only imagine how much DHS would love me for that...

As for her behavior...she's been doing so much better. I had been giving glowing reports for weeks. I have been so very proud of how much work this small child has done in therapy & how well she has learned the techniques that her therapist has been teaching her. Today, though...she got angry & threw a knife at her sister. *deep breath*

Friday, February 7, 2014

Dinner with Sandra D.

Last night I had the amazing opportunity to attend a "Dinner & Fireside Chat with Sandra Day O'Connor".

I was accompanied by a friend who is also a professional, Native woman. A university professor, to be more precise. We were both ridiculously excited to hear the former Supreme Court Justice. I think we both spent more time getting ready for this event than we would have for an actual date. She commented "I'm more nervous than if it were prom."

O'Connor is an engaging speaker and answers question sincerely and directly. It was incredible to hear her speak about being unable to find employment upon graduation from law school, because she's a woman. As a woman who recently went through law school, I remember many conversations about the difficulties that woman can sometimes face in the profession. However, at least we don't have to worry about calling every job posting & having each one refuse to speak to us about an attorney position, simply because of our gender, as she did. Even the county attorney's office that finally hired her wanted to hire her as a typist, rather than an attorney. Thank goodness she didn't type that well.

She spoke passionately about the importance of the autonomy & integrity of the court. It is so important to have a system where judges are appointed & retained in a way that reduces the influence of money and politics. This is vital to maintaining the checks and balances in our three branch system and allowing judges to base decisions on law, rather than being open to being bought by the highest bidder.

When asked how she & other judges make decisions based on law, regardless of public opinion, she said "There's this thing that runs down the middle of your back. It's called a backbone..."

Perhaps my favorite response was to the question, "what advice do you have for woman considering pursuing a career in law." She said "Go for it!" and went on to encourage everyone to use their skills and position to make a difference in their community. "Don't be selfish about it." you all have gotten the same sermon that I preach regularly, from the first woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court. Do something useful with whatever success or privilege that you have. Make a difference in this world because, if you aren't part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.

Monday, February 3, 2014


{NOTE: I know it's a bit link intensive, but it's worth it to take the time to go through them.}

Growing up, I was conditioned to take racist mascots & other negative racial images that appear in popular culture for granted. When I asked my parents if people really thought that Natives are like those mascots, they dismissed it by telling me that "Indians have more important things to worry about" and that "they'll never change those anyway". I suppose their attempt at redirection was the only way they knew to answer a child, when trying to explain a practice that has no legitimate justification.

Fast forward to 2000-2001, when I was a university student, carrying my first child. I took my role as a mother seriously &, like many expectant parents, I started looking at the ways I wanted to raise my child. It was clear to me that I would do some things differently than the way I was raised, but that didn't feel like enough. What I really wanted was a better world for my children to live in.

See original tweet HERE
So, I became more politically aware, educating myself on issues that affect humanity as a whole, not only in our nation. I began looking for opportunities to get involved whenever possible & began using the Internet to network with others. When my son was an infant, I had been looking into issues that impact Native children specifically and ran across research about the negative consequences that racist imagery & stereotypes has on them. So, I joined the fight.

At that time, the only really convenient way that we had to connect people from all over the nation was through an email group (I'm still part of that group, actually), but I also got mailed information for sources like the National Coalition on Racism in Sport & Media. I remember writing a lot of letters to legislators, school districts & newspaper editors but mostly people just dismissed us as overly sensitive and labeled our efforts as "political correctness", just as they often did the ones who had been working on this for decades before. At least I was never threatened with violence, as many others were.
See original tweet HERE

In more recent years, though, I've started to see some change. We are starting to see some acknowledgement that there is no real debate here. Names like R*dskin are inherently racist & only serve further marginalize, objectify & commodify an entire ethnic group. The demeaning behavior that mascotry produces are simply microagressions that desensitize people to racism and ongoing genocide.

The call for an end to racist mascots has been getting louder. The American Psychological Association passed a resolution, in 2005, that all such mascots be banned. Many media outlets have ceased using the R word, because it is patently disrespectful & demeaning. The National Congress of the American Indian recently produced and released this incredible video which, while it does have it's own issues, definitely makes a statement.

I also want to refer folks to this video, because I think it's powerful and, it's my blog, so I can:

Even with some progress, though, here we are in 2014 & we are still having to see racist imagery, as if it doesn't matter. Those who speak out are often censored. So, what does one have to do to make a statement? 

Well...this is the age of social media...
So, a Twitter Storm, it is...

Participants tagged their posts with #NotYourMascot & it gained quite a bit of momentum. The tag even started to trend. At one point, my photo was showing in the top tweets for the #NotYourMascot tag, which felt a little odd for someone who likes to stay somewhat anonymous.

The caption of the photo read:

Single mother.
Foster parent.
Not a stereotype.

EngageLife Radio even did a segment about the negative ramifications of racist mascots & the #NotYourMascot trend.

So...what does this all mean?

Well, I don't think any of us have any delusions that things are going to change overnight. However, it shows that we can work together to make a statement.
See original tweet HERE

It also removes the argument that Natives don't care about, or even like the mascots. Yes, there are some individuals that have no issue with it. However, just as was retweeted countless times over that last couple days, "don't even tell me about your one Native friend who likes it because tokenism is racism too."
See original tweet HERE

The reality is that race based mascots, no matter the group they target, are harmful. There's no real
See original tweet HERE
debate to be made. Those who feel there is remind me of the "young earth" crowd who find creative ways to explain away every dinosaur excavation because the fossils aren't compatible with their religiously based theory of how the earth came to be. The level of absurdity is both arguments is pretty comparable.

And, to the Natives that say that we have more important issues to worry about, here's your reality check. We can never hope to be taken seriously on the other, very serious issues that we face, if we are still seen as caricatures to the larger society around us.

So, the real question is whether those who support these mascots are willing to change or not. I understand the "tradition" argument. There are many who have an emotional attachment to the teams they grew up with & don't want to see them change. However, is such a high societal price really worth the comfort of a familiar name? If you have children, don't you want to leave them with a better tradition than racism?

I know I believe that my children deserve better.

See original tweet HERE
See Jen's original tweet HERE
My children are routinely faced with racism from peers, who's only knowledge of Native people is the stereotypes that these mascots perpetuate. Even worse, they are faced with inaccurate representations of Native and downright false teaching in history, while in school. This will NEVER be acceptable to me & it shouldn't be to you, either.

Additional note: I really wanted to post a photo that I retweeted, but I don't have the rights to it & didn't want to cause any issues. It's called "Natives in Time Square", taken by Levi Blackwolf. It shows two Native men, dressed in shirts by Native Evolution & was just so perfectly relevant to the #NotYourMascot trend. Go check it out HERE & don't forget to follow & support the talented artist.

Click HERE to see some more of my favorite tweets from #NotYourMascot.