It’s dusk of yet another day. It wasn’t an easy day, yet it was a blessed day. There were mangos from the mango tree, the sun came out to visit and give life, and the earth once again supported us and gave us beauty and a place to live. I did not have to leave my refuge here on the side of the Ko’olau’s overlooking Honolulu. No flight to catch, no insecure security, no possible TB carrying passengers coughing in my direction. And this house was surrounded by singers: all kinds of birds, clouds, plants and insects, each with their songs (most of them love songs, just like humans), and they overruled the neighbor’s noise. Her hearing is bad so she pumps up her music and television, which is everything from popular Hawaiian hits to Japanese pop to Korean soap opera. She often plays the same song over and over and over. We can hear everything up here on this slope. I’ve heard fights and breakups, love trysts (cats seem to be getting the most action in the neighborhood), family celebrations, and once a mother tending a sick child who coughed through the night.
It’s all here, and in a sense everywhere is here. We’re in the same story wherever we are, though the details might be different. I’ve even heard my children cry from heartbreak, though I have been a thousand miles away in physical distance, even as I have felt their joys. I’m convinced that the birth cord transcends time and distance, and that women are anchors and bearers of knowledge in a profound way, a way that scientists have not gotten around to study because most of their knowledge is pertinent only to the male body, and their knowledge is rooted in three-dimensional linear thinking. Most medical research is based on the male physiology. Most knee implants, for instance, are designed and manufactured for the male body, not the female.
I also think about how most of what we read or hear is through a European-male voice or point of view. Even when we go back and look over what we know to be Mvskoke history and story, as it appears in books or other accounts, nearly everything is filtered through this voice and point of view, and those who have been educated have learned to see through that lens. The first visitors skewed our story, or should I say, skewered? Our particular native female and male experience has no place here.
Years ago when I was in my fervent twenties I stood with Leslie Silko, the Laguna Pueblo novelist, outside her Tucson home while she tenderly watered a garden she had fortressed against predators. That morning I asked her why her protagonists, or main characters were mostly male. Tayo in her novel Ceremony was male, as were many of the characters in her short stories. Leslie responded thoughtfully. She has never been one short on words, yet her response stays with me all of these is years: “because males are more vulnerable”.
That our men are more vulnerable made sense to me, especially our native men. It’s difficult enough to be human, and hard being Indian within a world in which you are viewed either as history, entertainment, or victims. Our males are as sensitive as the women, and carry gifts forward that have difficulty finding a place in a world that does not honor them. It’s not an impossible test, but it wears away at the spirit. “Our men” is often a major topic of discussion among women. We must bear up with them, support them, and stand firm when they fail and want to take us down with them, yet continue to help raise them up. Without our brothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers we are people without a rudder. Men are under immense pressure in this system to disrespect their mothers, sisters, aunts, and to disregard the gifts of women and female power. We need both male and female power to create anything in this realm. We need both the Sun and the Moon. We are earth and water, just as we are fire and breath. We are each evidence of male and female power, all the way back to the very beginning. I remember when growing up in Oklahoma that the worst thing one boy could call another was a “girl” or a “woman”. And why is that? To disrespect women you disrespect your mother, your own source of life.
I was told a story by a friend who was at a gathering at a Maori marai, which is a community/spiritual house, sort of like the ceremonial grounds square and the mound complex combined. A young Maori man had gone out into the world, graduated from the university, had a high-paying job and a new car. He came back home full of ideas and ripe with his own sense of power and prestige. (They aren’t always the same thing.). During a discussion an older woman stood up to speak. He admonished her and told her women were not allowed to speak. They had no power in this place. She rose up anyway, and lifted up her skirt. “Have you forgotten where you came from?” she demanded. She spoke. When she spoke, she addressed him as son.
We continue to be imagined by those who know nothing about us, or imagine us as quintessential Plains warriors in the Wild West shows. And worse yet, we start believing that’s who we are, that tradition means wearing and becoming these constructed images.
I didn’t watch Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on HBO last week. I knew I would be disappointed, even angry. Hollywood can’t seem to get past the Calvary rushing in to kill everybody. Hanay Geigomah did watch the show and though he has been part of Hollywood productions for years has realized the brutality of Hollywood. In a response he says: “A feature article on the making of Bury My Heart titled ‘The Last Stand’ in the May 27 Los Angeles Times gives a brief, perplexing account of how Hollywood came to the view that American Indians can now be justly and fairly seen as co-agents of their own destruction. As a two-hour condensation of the book, "The film didn't have time to dwell on the spiritual, Earth-friendly image of Native Americans," says the article's author, Graham Fuller. "Nor does it offer a politically correct perspective," he adds. The Sioux, we're told, were "as rapacious as their white conquerers."
This view is scaldingly laid out with the portrayal of Sitting Bull as a baby killer, as a coward who hid in his tipi at the height of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and as a greedy buffoon who lusts for the white man's money and approval.
The scriptwriter, Daniel Giat, confidently tells The Times, "My primary objective was to fully dimensionalize these people. Sitting Bull was vain. He was desperate to hold onto the esteem of his people and win the esteem of the whites. But I think in depicting his desperation and the measures he took in acting on it, it makes it all the more sad and tragic, and I think we identify with him all the more for it."
To complete this grim, determined view, the film presents every Indian cliche imaginable in graphic, full-bodied images without context or explanation: brutal scalpings; stoic, saddened faces of Indian elders; sick, dying babies; herds of wild horses surging across open prairies; vast armies of Indian warriors mounted along high vistas; war ponies being ceremonially painted; desperate ghost dancers, and heartless Indian agents and schoolteachers. We've seen them all far too many times.”
Hanay goes on urge us to get out of Hollywood and get back home and work from our own communities. Hollywood will never get the story right.
This means we are going to have to get our own story right, and take charge of the direction in which we are headed. What kind of story are we making? Is it one in which the junk food corporations win and we all die of diabetes and other “food”-related illnesses? Is it one of name-calling and pulling each other down? Or is it a story of facing the challenges together, each of us? Are we telling the story in our own voices?
A cascade of military transport planes heads over my house on the way to kill in Iraq. In the predominant story coming from the country’s leadership, “we” are killing for peace, for democracy. It doesn’t work that way, for words without roots in honesty and respect can and will do things recklessly. Iraq is the new Indian country. The corporations want oil. Sound familiar?
Maybe if we take care of our own story of our people, and make a story of justice, honesty, with a vision of caring for all within the tribe, we might inspire the same in others. If I remember the story correctly, we had no need for jails, for institutions, for military transport jets. We had everything we needed. We took care of each other.
What a story.
Joy Harjo May 31, 2007 Honolulu