Muscogee Nation News Column for December Joy Harjo

Hensci, We’ve finally landed in winter after a long summer and fall. Here on the Rio Grande flyway geese and cranes have been passing over. Only thing is they aren’t always headed in the right direction. I’ve watched several layered vees of birds head south, then turn back north. Others fly east or west in a confused manner. Strange. I never saw this growing up in Oklahoma. In the fall, birds flew south. In the spring; they returned. Since the hard freeze of the last few weeks they are definitely and quickly flying south. No question. At least the Sun still comes up from the East and sees us through until nightfall, and returns again. A mvto, or thank you for the Sun.
We just survived Thanksgiving. Most people don’t know that it’s a holiday based on a fabricated story of a sit down dinner with Pilgrims (a mispronunciation of the word “pillager”) and Indians. The Pilgrims weren’t too friendly, were rather grim, not the sort to hang out and eat with Indians. The holiday was an invention fostered by the writer of the poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, Sarah Josepha Hale. Maybe the poem should have been, “Mary Had a Little Turkey”. Did her family own a turkey farm? Of course, most of us enjoy any kind of excuse for a day off, for eating lots of good food with family and friends, and for some (not me) an afternoon of football games. And it’s always good to take time to express gratitude, and even better to make it a habit every morning before getting up, or before sleep. I take issue with the compromised premise, and with all of those people dressing up as fake Indians. For most of the world, turkey feathers in the hair and buckskin, equals Indian.
Once years back in a class we studied images of Indians. One of the students took sheets of paper and markers to a preschool class in Boulder. She asked the children to draw an Indian. They all drew one of two images: a warrior on horseback brandishing bloody tomahawks, or delicate princesses, most of them on horseback. They weren’t human beings, rather symbols, and the children had already internalized them.
When my daughter was three, just before she went into Head Start, we went to sign her up at a preschool in Iowa City, (where I was going to graduate school). The children surrounded us and danced around doing that Hollywood war whoop, you know the one. Their teacher was embarrassed. I was amazed that children that young had already taken in that false image that had nothing to do with being Indian, or Mvskoke, or Acoma, my daughter’s other tribal affiliation.
We’re still mostly portrayed in those flat images in art, literature, movies, and not just by non-Indians or three-year-olds. The worst culprits are often our own people. Of course, we do have warriors on horseback, and I saw a little tomahawk brandishing in my early days, and most of our princesses aren’t so delicate. They like to eat.
A few years ago I carried a fussy grandson, accompanied by his older sister for a stroll around the Santa Fe plaza, while their parents (and the rest of the diners) finished dinner in peace. Desiray, who is Mvskoke, Acoma, Navajo and most decidedly “Indian looking” paused in front of a Plains headdress displayed in an Indian jewelry shop for tourists. “Look Nana”, she said. “Indians.”
Identity is a complex question. How do we see and define ourselves and how do others define us? What do governments have to say about it and what does the wisdom beyond the foolishness of small-mindedness have to say about it? I understand there are many in the tribe who believe tribal membership should be made up of only full-bloods. Yet many of these same people sing hymns and espouse a religion that isn’t Mvskoke in origin. There’s a contradiction here. I have no issue with people talking with or worshipping God in whatever manner or form. Diversity in form describes the natural world. And I’m convinced we all carry a part of the vision. No one person or culture carries the whole story.
What I take issue with is the rigidity and hurtfulness of an exclusionary vision. Such a plan to limit tribal membership, is not only racist, it’s genocidal. It’s what the makers of the Dawes Act had in mind in the first place, like a sustained release genocide pill. And many have bought into it. Self-righteousness stinks, no matter how it’s dressed.
Behind this are some real issues and concerns about what it means to be a real Mvskoke person, about our responsibilities, and about having some say in the shape of the future of our nation. Who is taking care of the spiritual, mythical and familial center? Who is carrying forth the stories, the songs and making new ones to fit the needs of the time? Many of those who know are dying off.
Our experiences have been different and race figures greatly into how one moves about the present world. Consider that we didn’t define ourselves by race before the coming of the Europeans. We must remember where we came from as a nation, and have a shining idea of our direction. A fearful approach doesn’t work, in governments, societies or our individual lives. We bring about what we fear as surely as we bring about what we love. Both carry the same charge. Let’s try some common sense and compassion. We need to be open to hearing each other.
I’ve talked to many of our tribal members in Oklahoma and elsewhere in the country who have expressed concern that their children and grandchildren are being denied a place in the family, our Mvskoke Nation. Is this who we want to be, a people who throw their children away? If we look with the mind of the vastness and complexity of the viewpoint of the stars, then we will see and know wisely.
As I write this I am on a late flight to Albuquerque. We were delayed from Tulsa missed the connecting plane in the Dallas Fort Worth. Alfred Berryhill, our second chief was also on the same delayed flights so we had plenty of opportunity to visit. I was impressed by his cultural knowledge and his love of our Mvskoke language. Ask him sometime about how to get from “aerodynamics” to “arrow dynamics”. Mostly we talked the need for a refreshing vision for the people. We agreed we need to see ourselves as who we are, not in that false mirror of misrepresentation that has been forced on us. When the Europeans first arrived they were amazed by the way we lived, by our democracy, our lack of a need for prisons, for our social systems, our finely crafted homes. In a relatively short time we have forgotten our true legacy as Mvskoke people. It’s still here, within us.
Finally, a few closing words from poet Louis Littlecoon Oliver who always had a wise word or two, and a sense of humor. He was a full-blood, born of Koweta Town, Raccoon Clan. In his book, The Horned Snake, he says: “I asked the oldest of my old ones what his opinions were of the white man’s supertechnology: his flight to the moon, his atomic weapons, his present status in the Middle East. He stared into the fire for a moment, then looked up at me with a faint smile and said: ‘We look upon the white man’s world of wonders as trivia—and short-lived.’ “

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