My Optimism Wears Moccasins and is Loud: On Paris, Heavy Metal, and Chasing Freedom

Content Warning: sexual assault; Indigenous Feminist anger that cuts like the lead riff in “The Trooper

My optimism wears moccasins and is loud.

My optimism sometimes wears moccasins and is always loud.

As a Nehiyaw girl growing up in a small prairie city in Canada, I got into punk, hard rock, and metal music early on. My “rebellious phase” was spent at the local goth club between the ages of 13 – 15. Fortunately, the rebellion never involved drinking or drugs or sex. I didn’t have my first drink until I turned 19; my first kiss (with a boy…) a few months earlier. My vice was loud music. I grew up with other Indigenous kids who loved and lived metal music, and I have yet to outgrow that love.

Paris and COP 21

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On a bridge over the Seine for the #Canoes2Paris action led by Indigenous people

I spent December in Paris for the United Nations COP 21 climate conference. In the context of global climate catastrophe, metal is the only honest soundtrack.

“We’re standing here by the abyss / and the world is in flames”
– Ghost, “He Is

Hey Brown Kid!: You are inheriting a world that the powerful, rich, and greedy are fucking up. You have no money. You are told at every turn that you have no power, no chance: so you might as well have a furious soundtrack.

climate march poster

a half-removed poster for the Paris December 7th climate march in a metro station

Metal isn’t (necessarily) all about nihilism. The alternative to giving up is tending to the anger and learning from it. The alternative is coming to the realization that anger is the only humane reaction to injustice.

The trouble with cultivating anger is that it builds up inside your body, and it can rip you into pieces. Indigenous youth understand better than anyone that the cost of built-up anger with no outlet is drugs, self-harm, and suicide.

There is a stunning Icelandic film called Metalhead (Málmhaus), about a young woman who lives in a small rural community and embraces metal music as a way to confront death and hopelessness. The final scene is iconic, and will turn you into a puddle of melting corpsepaint if you, too, have headbanged in your room to Symphony of Destruction. The film’s themes translate well into the current realities of so many Indigenous communities.

I remember once, an old môniyaw professor asked me to send him an example of “your people’s music” after a conversation where he assumed the only instrument we used was “simple drums”. I sent him Biipiigwan (yes, that’s Anishinaabemowin).

Loud music is a fantastic traditional medicine.


The Show

ghost1

[Ghost at La Cigale]

On December 7th, I went to see a concert by one of my favourite metal bands, Ghost.

I have a history of traveling in the pursuit of loud music. Running away from the incapacitation of depression exacerbated by staying still – running toward loudness, speed, feeling, and life. I kept an eye out for other metal shows in Paris at the same time but was disturbed at the possibility of walking into a white supremacist metal show. Being a Brown or Black metal fan, anywhere (but perhaps amplified in Europe) means the risk of unwittingly walking into a literal neo-Nazi concert.

Ghost’s singer, Papa Emeritus III, adorns himself like a demonic pope draped in velvet (…stay with me, now) while the other musicians wear variations of dark cloaks and masks. The identities of the musicians are hidden.

The lyrics mock religion, wealth, and worship. Something about the ghoulish aesthetic resonates with me, unsurprisingly, given Canada’s legacy of church-run residential schools stealing Indigenous children from their homes. Metalhead has similar themes.

The concert was at La Cigale in the 18th arrondissement, a short walk from metro station Barbès – Rochechouart. The show had sold out months earlier, so I walked around the venue to find a ticket scalper, preparing to struggle through a shady transaction in a second language.

I first saw him standing on the street corner, texting on his phone. One of the guitarists, who I recognized by his distinctive hair and his jeans –  I think most musicians have that same pair of well-worn tour jeans. I walked up to introduce myself. Surprised that I had recognized him, we went into a bar nearby and had drinks.

I asked him how he was doing. He replied, “I’m fucking exhausted. We’ve been on the road for months.”

Explaining that I was in town for the climate conference, we talked about Sami politics and the environment. We talked about the similarities in landscapes and weather in Sweden and Canada; the isolation of small towns, the love of metal. Even in his exhaustion, he was kind and warm.

———

“It’s Paris, so they line up so neatly and always right on time.” No one in line for the concert recognizes him as he walks past; or if they do, they’re too Parisian cool to admit it.

Heading into the venue, I thought of the times I walked through graveyards in the middle of the night, with friends and a flask of red wine, listening to his music. I thought about telling him. I didn’t. I tried to be Parisian cool. (Cree taciturn?)

The After Party

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“In the night / I am real”
Ghost, “If You Have Ghosts

The after party was at a bar called “The Mayflower” – the name of an infamous colonial ship. I cringed and laughed and complained. I drank absinthe and felt light on my feet, even though I had been dancing the whole night. Even though we were in a bar called “The Mayflower”.

That’s the thing about Paris.  No matter how much I wanted to lose myself in the beautiful surroundings, I was unable to fully relax in such a hyper-colonial space.

Paris is a city that once had human zoos – where Black and Indigenous people were taken and displayed for the entertainment of gawking Europeans.

Paris is a city that displays colonial conquest in its museums, refusing to return ceremonial objects and even human remains to the Indigenous nations from which they were stolen.

So, forgive me for the absinthe.

I said au revoir and skipped off into the night, dancing over cobblestones to catch the metro home.

In Transit, 1

I saw this poster in the metro stations: a government advertisement promoting travel to Canada. The photo shows a vast, snowy white landscape with huskies pulling a sled. The caption reads: “Explorez sans fin / Canada / Keep exploring”. An advertisement of terra nullius – the notion of unoccupied, unused land which was invoked at contact to justify colonization of North America.

keep exploring

When I talk about colonialism, extractive industry, and climate change as having direct impacts on the bodies of Indigenous women, I don’t mean any of it as a metaphor.

———

There is something about the intersection of patriarchy and colonialism that gazes upon us in our moments of freedom and decides it will try to steal that, too. Europe’s history of colonizing (the Indigenous lands now known as) Canada is not something of the past that has vanished. Empire requires constant maintenance.

In the metro station, I was sexually assaulted.

When the man chose to randomly attack me he did it while I was in transit – on my way home from a concert by one of my favourite bands.

When he chose to attack me, I had just finished a drink with friends. I wondered if my blood alcohol content would be printed as a headline if I went missing.

When he chose to attack me, he became angry as I repeatedly pushed him away and refused him access to something that wasn’t his.

As I push the unwelcome white hands of this man away from my brown skin in a European capital, I push back on terra nullius.

In my refusal / I am real

All those times I said NO, yet he still doesn’t seem to understand –  his doctrine of discovery is worthless on the surface of my skin. I was here first, and here I remain.

Yelling “no” in his face, the words hit my throat hard, the same way it would feel a few days later to yell “no” at rows of gendarmerie – French riot police – lined up with their rifles and shields to protect oil companies.

I ran up the steps and hit the emergency call button. I was too flustered to work my way through any intelligible French, so the man on the other end did not understand me. My attacker ran away. (Later, when I tried to report it to the police, no one spoke English so I was turned away. The next time I went back with friends who spoke fluent French, but the station was closed.)

I exited the metro station, expecting him to attack me again from behind every corner of the winding tunnel. I gripped my phone with its dead battery and thought about how best to use it as a weapon.

———

In response to the extent of gendered and sexualized violence we faced on the streets and in the conference centre alike, some members of our group suggest we do not roam the streets alone; that we implement a buddy system.

In response, I hop on a train to Belgium the next afternoon, alone, without telling anyone until I am across the border.

In Transit, 2: Antwerp

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[On the train from Paris to Antwerp]

 

You are cast out from the heavens to the ground
blackened feathers falling down

You will wear your independence like a crown

Ghost, “From the Pinnacle to the Pit

I am happiest when I am moving; something to do with the histories of migrations in my blood.

One of the hardest things to learn as a young Indigenous person is slowing down. How do I force myself to be patient in the face of constant devastation? Why would I slow down when I might not get the chance to grow older? So, the speed of the train hurtling out of France and that loud, fast music in my headphones feels like freedom.

Upon arrival in Antwerp, I realized I had absolutely no knowledge of the Dutch language. The sudden, total immersion was frightening and exhilarating.

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[Antwerp]

I navigated my way to the show at Muziekcentrum, where I was on the guest list. 13-year-old me would think I was so cool. I danced unabashedly, learning quickly that Belgian metal crowds are apparently very polite and barely move.

The show was magic; the loudness was medicine.

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[Ghost]

I wanted to stay and say thank you. Thank you for your music. Thank you for helping me find freedom and anger in the face of devastation. But I had to catch a train back to Paris.

Just keep moving.

Travelling Home

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[reclaiming transit: in the République metro station – thanks to Katie for helping me with this photo]

“I can feel the thunder that’s breaking in your heart /
I can see through the scars inside you”
– Ghost, “Cirice

As Indigenous women, how do we talk about sexual violence in a way that allows us to own our vulnerability?  How do we prevent our stories from becoming consumed by colonial voyeurism in nations that thrive on making us vulnerable? I want to confront how violence against Indigenous women is presented as disconnected individual narratives, blaming women who put themselves “at risk”, rather than as a systematic necessity for the maintenance of settler colonial states.

Just as understanding histories and impacts of colonization is relevant to understanding Indigenous people, sexual violence is a devastatingly usual story in the lives of Indigenous women. But it is never our only story. Iskwewak (Indigenous women) are not reducible to narratives of conquest.

I read an interview where Henry Rollins says, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” My optimism wears heavy boots, sometimes moccasins, sometimes bare feet, sometimes skipping on cobblestones, sometimes on the prairies; my optimism is fucking loud. Raining Blood loud. War Pigs loud. Forever My Queen loud. Am I Evil loud.

I dream of Indigenous women and girls being safe & free in our own bodies and wherever we go in the world. But “safety”, in the context of global climate catastrophe, means cultivating enough anger as motivation to destroy extractive systems that will kill us unless we kill them first.

Surviving as a Native girl, daring to walk down the street alone at night: that’s a revolution. Listening to heavy music and dancing and drinking and being angry and loud, refusing to let violence rob us of wanderlust: that’s my revolution.

One day we’ll get that freedom. Just keep acting it out until it’s real. Just keep moving.

Care of: the void

TW: mention of suicide, overdose

I’m writing this post as part cathartic time filler, part explanation. It seems easier to write about personal topics when it’s aimed at the void rather than at any one person. This is probably similar to being able to speak to a crowd of 1000 with ease, but struggling when in a conversation with one other person.

For the past couple months, I’ve been dealing with a relapse of depression. I say “relapse” because it’s not that I was ever 100% healed, but because certain periods of time are easier to live with than others. I’ve already come to accept that this is something I’ll deal with for my entire life. In my experience, mental health is a constant balancing act, back and forth between waves of clarity and fog that I can’t control, but can sometimes anticipate if I’m careful, observant, and gentle enough with myself. I think I am just coming out of a particularly dark period, and I’ve been stable for about a week, but after this morning, I am a bit doubtful that it’s over.

After sleeping for 10 hours two nights in a row, I woke up today, bright and early – I showered efficiently, dressed neatly, and did one of the best jobs of grooming my eyebrows in recent memory. Unfortunately, the eyebrows went to waste because after putting on my boots, coat, scarf, and mittens, I sat down on my bed for a minute. Three hours later, I was still sitting on my bed, slumped over, skimming Hegel After Derrida, fully dressed. (It takes me awhile to admit when I’ve been defeated, okay?)

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(image via soundness)

I’ve been hospitalized a few times in the past month and put on suicide watch, which is a funny-sounding term for a funny process, in a dark way. It’s absurd to think about having to drag oneself out of bed, get dressed, and walk over to the hospital, and in the moment when the nurse asks “and the reason you’re here?”, force oneself to say “Uh yeah hey, I kind of want to kill myself right now, can I just chill out for awhile so I don’t?”

(I’m trying to stifle my sarcastic tone but it just comes so naturally to me, and additionally, I am very aware of how exhausting it is to non-depressed people to hear about depressed peoples Daily Adventures in The Depths of Despair, so I’m trying to make this shit readable for you, Void.)

Mental illness is often near-invisible, so no matter how desperate I am, there is usually a bit of fear when I go in that they will reject me. Imagine a nurse saying “You, missy, are clearly not missing any limbs or organs and you just need to stop feeling sorry for yourself! Go home! There are people with real problems in the world!”

Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet.

The first time I was put on suicide watch was in grade 8, and then, most recently (before this month), in my third year of university, which is a clearer memory in my head.

Part of my mental illness has involved becoming irrationally irritated with small things in my daily life – missing the bus, sleeping through my alarm, having to walk into a classroom late (which I touched on in an earlier post) – these things feel like unacceptable failures, and it takes a lot of work to not let one ruin my day.

I missed my bus one morning and had an anxiety attack and decided to go back to bed (anxiety attacks are exhausting) and try to make my second class in a few hours. When I woke up, I wasn’t feeling any better, so I decided to take some Dilaudid (very strong opioid painkillers) to relax and make the experience a bit “easier” on myself.

This wouldn’t have been a horrible decision on its own, except that over the course of that week, I had doubled my dose of Wellbutrin (antidepressant) because it wasn’t working, so I was taking (2 x 300) 600mg a day. This day I had taken an extra pill on top of that. (For anyone keeping score, the max daily dosage is about 450mg.)

Even this probably wouldn’t have been a horrible decision on its own, except that these drugs build up in your system.

Within about 10 minutes this cocktail took effect, and the room began to spin. I was lying on the bed, and when I tried to move to stand up, I couldn’t. My body felt so heavy. I didn’t feel peaceful though – this wasn’t the feeling I was used to from Dilaudid, and I could tell something was wrong. I remember thinking “I will die if I stay in this room” (I’m sure I wouldn’t have, but the thought was pretty traumatic), so I rolled myself off the bed and collapsed on the floor. I could hear my mom watching TV in the living room, but it sounded like she was at the end of a long tunnel.

At the hospital, I was given activated charcoal and a saline drip was put in my arm because on top of everything else, I was dehydrated and hadn’t eaten anything substantial in days. I was kept under surveillance for 24 hours and then released.

I remember walking into class the next day, and the professor, an amazing Cree woman, poked my side and said “well where have you been!” I responded that I had slept in. I wonder if she saw through it, and if not, I wish that she had.

One of the most painful things about depression for me is when it renders me unable to write, read, and concentrate. Since I was very young, I’ve always kept journals, and generally, I have write constantly throughout my life. I have binders and boxes full of writing on scraps of paper and in notebooks. When I try to write while I am depressed, my thoughts come out incomplete and unclear, not at all, or all at once, like a sputtering fountain pen. This post is an example of the latter. When I have a window of clarity, it usually lasts 30 min to half a day, where I try to accomplish as much as possible before I lose it again.

I’m trying to think of a way to end this positively, or with some sense of closure, but there’s not really a moral to the story. I could say, “Don’t Take Drugs, kids!” but that would be disingenuous. Since that episode, I have a mark on my record that means I can’t have potentially addictive drugs; this means that I have to cope with anxiety attacks as best as I can on my own. Usually, trying to sleep is the only option, next to reaching out to my amazing partner of 6 years, who is such a bright and unconquerable beam of light that he usually has me laughing within 10 minutes. But it’s not fair or healthy to rely on him to stabilize me every time.

Generally, I try to avoid talking openly about my struggles with mental health too much, because I don’t want it to define me in the eyes of my friends and colleagues. Over the past weeks, however, as I’ve found myself returning to my friend Jae’s online journals chronicling a chapter of his journey, and reaching out to friends who have been vocal about their depression, it reminds me how important it is to be open about how many of us struggle daily, for the sake of ourselves and countless others who face the exact same thing.

I talked to a good friend about my hesitation in posting this, and she reminded me that “a lot of the time, we don’t talk about it until it’s too late”. So talk about it. Write about it. Scream about it. Any embarrassment or awkwardness you feel is nothing compared to the cost of staying silent.

I hope the next time the fog creeps in, I remember to read this. Maybe I wasn’t really writing to the void, after all.

Uses of Anger: Reflections from the Indigenous Frontlines of the People’s Climate March

This past weekend, I was invited to speak at the People’s Climate March and beforehand, at the New York City Climate Convergence, to discuss Indigenous peoples resistance.

The beginning of the march itself was huge and exciting. It is powerful to feel united with hundreds of thousands, and even more powerful to feel that we are here for the same reasons. pcm

Halfway through the march, a man of color wearing glittery red underwear danced through the crowd past the Indigenous bloc. Disappointingly, some marchers began to boo him. Behind me, I heard a teenaged boy say “Oh, that’s a man! That’s disgusting!”, and some women shouted “For shame!” (Apparently, you cannot be a srs climate activist if you’re wearing glittery undies. Or you know, queer; because queerphobia/misogyny are the roots of ‘disgust’ and ‘shame’ comments.)

“Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject. For the colonized subject’s last resort is to defend his personality against his fellow countryman.”
– Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (p. 17)

We stopped and had a minute of silence in Times Square. I imagine that everyone in attendance filled that moment with their own meaning (isn’t that why these sort of mass movements are so popular?).

For me, it was a moment to stand wrapped in the arms of my partner while we held our fists in the sky. A moment to feel the ground beneath my aching feet, breathe the exhaust-heavy air of the city sitting deep in my lungs, to be bombarded by the blindingly-bright, hundred-foot-tall billboards, and still feel thankful for the centuries of resistance (and the privileges I have) that allowed me to stand there at that moment.

“The colonist’s sector is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed-of leftovers. The colonist’s feet can never be glimpsed, except perhaps in the sea, but then you can never get close enough. They are protected by solid shoes in a sector where the streets are clean and smooth, without a pothole, without a stone.”
– Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (p. 4)

Reaching the end of the march route is when the whole thing crumbled. As others have pointed out, the march ended in the middle of relative nowhere – in a street with no space for a large crowd to remain gathered, no benches to sit, no water fountains, no subways to transport us home, no closing speakers. 300,000 released back into the world to go about our business as usual, separately. A flash mob round dance broke out, but it was impossible to include more than 100 dancers because of the space restrictions.

How frustrating to realize that this march had turned into – or forgive my naïveté, perhaps it was this way since the beginning – an event organized by liberal elites and corporate funders as a way to provide a non-threatening, controlled outlet for the anger of millions. A small steam vent for a pot on the verge of boiling over.

The endpoint of the People’s Climate March was chosen specifically to render further congregation and discussion impossible; to facilitate quick dispersal of the “largest climate march in history”. A security guard even told us “You’ve reached the end of the march, put your signs down now”.

Over the weekend, I gave 4 different talks to sizeable crowds. One of the problems of speaking over and over again is being careful not to repeat myself to the point where I sound like a bad standup comedian with one joke. There were hundreds, if not thousands of speakers, panels, presentations during this weekend in NYC alone. These events are important, but after hours upon hours of speaking and listening to speakers, all of the words blur into obscurity; a series of catchphrases like “climate justice” and “we have to change the system”. Presenting/lecturing is also emotionally and physically draining – I had no time to go to organizational meetings because I was simply too exhausted at the end of the day.

I become tired of empty words, more quickly and more frequently, now. Tired of pre-written speeches and tired of essays, tired of feeling forced to live within manmade and colonially imposed languages. This tiredness comes partially from my immersion in academic worlds that value the written word above all else as epistemologically legitimate (think Derrida’s phallogocentrism) and the push for academics to prove themselves useful by churning out endless articles and books.

An Indigenous scholar I admire (and hopefully will soon work with… ahem) told me that above all else, he is accountable to the people of his community, and if his work isn’t saving lives, what is the point? This ethic does not prevent us from delving into theoretical or semantic concerns, but rather acts as an overarching guide for moving forward with consciously directed efforts. A reminder that our first purpose as academics, as human beings capable of intelligent interactions, is not to treat our ideas and words like a capitalist system of endless production and consumption.

There are still very real uses for words, especially for those who have been consistently denied the use of our voices. It’s important to create (and seize) opportunities for marginalized voices in these spaces – especially within environmental movements, who have historically excluded (essentialized, tokenized) the voices of those on the frontlines of climate battles – Indigenous communities, migrants, people of color, women, the poor). The problem occurs when words become our only way of operating within the world, and the only way we are taught to believe we can bring about change.

After chanting things like “We Are Idle No More”, “Keep the Oil in the Soil” and “Respect Our Lands, Honor Our Treaties” (someone holding a banner with me suggested “Indigenize, Decolonize” but that was dismissed by the group as too aggressive) for hours, we all began to lose our voices (quite literally), and ultimately dispersed.

Paparazzi pushed us out of the way to get to Leonardo DiCaprio, who along with other celebrities, showed up to support the efforts of Indigenous communities. Which is not to say we were ignored – the mainstream media did snap many shots of those wearing full regalia and headdresses, which I have not yet seen accompanied with quotes or even names. A friend joked, you know the headlines tomorrow will say “Leo is in NYC! (Subtitle: marches with some unknown people for some unknown reason)”. I left feeling too tired to care, and got on the bus all the way back to Harlem. We walked past a small candlelight vigil for a young Black man named Johnny Elliott who was repeatedly shot in the back that morning, a few blocks from where we were staying. No media were present here.

“And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not to wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets, that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.” -Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger”

Perhaps, events like this are organized by elites and corporations out of fear that all of the energy we spent chanting and marching over the weekend would’ve been directed right at them.

In marginalized communities, we know firsthand that built-up anger is often expressed laterally or internally – so things like a flash mob round dance or a march are useful and necessary for taking the edge off so the anger doesn’t kill us. But if we really intend to “change the system” and not just write and speak about it in tiny boardrooms while they are drilling holes into our lands and filling our lungs with smog, we need to keep our anger, and we need to direct it meaningfully.

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Our Revolution: First Nations women in solidarity with Palestine

Lately, I find myself frustrated by the way that women’s voices are still routinely silenced within activist circles on issues that directly affect us, and the gendered nature of roles we are pushed into during organizing (read: the background). This is certainly the case with Indigenous women and Palestinian women who work tirelessly at resistance, only to have our contributions undervalued and silenced; to be called divisive when we raise issues of patriarchy and misogyny that need to be obliterated, if we wish our movements to survive and thrive.

Rather than give a lecture, I read this poem on July 19, 2014 at a rally for Gaza in Saskatoon, Canada (and again in NYC in September 2014, at the Peoples Climate Convergence, alongside Immortal Technique).

We’re half the world
but carry the rest of it on our backs

We both live in occupied territories
But what can I know about you
Half a world away from me

You and me, we know violence
The pain of our mothers
The memories of this land

We share a history of being moved
removed
moved again
taken from our homes
and wondering if we’ll ever go back

We’re shared sleepless nights telling
retelling
telling again
the stories they tried to take from us
and trying to remember the ones they did

You and me, they see us as passive and weak
Disposable and unintelligent
Pawns and prizes in the politics of men

As if those boys simply sprung out of the ground

You and me
We’re the ones they run over on their way to the revolution
But we’re the ones who hold it down at home
Hebron via 20th Street
Because we know that even with guns going off in the background
Children still have to be fed

So this is for Amal1
a 17 year old girl shot by an IDF soldier
while reading a book on her porch
And this is for Einav
the girlfriend that solider went home and killed two years later

– Tell me again about your revolution

This is for Anna Mae,
A Mi’kmaq activist executed point blank on Pine Ridge
Her body left in the snow to freeze
The voice that had grown a little too strong

– Tell me again about your revolution

This is for the women in refugee camps
The 53%
forced to endure labor and give birth in the dirt

– Tell me again about your revolution

This is for the women who never left their houses
until the day they were carried out

– Tell me again about your revolution

This is for the women who are raped
and told that speaking out will dishonor their community
and abortion is a crime
So it’s best to suffer in silence

– Tell me again about your damn revolution

You and me
We’re the ones who lead the charge in the streets
Intifada and Idle No More
And we won’t fight only to return home as servants

So this is for the Arab women who fund girls schooling
And for the girls who have the courage to learn

– You and me

We’re the nation

And this is for the mothers and daughters
leading movements from Gaza to the grasslands

– You and me
We’re the resistance

And this is for the women
who are told not to speak
not to write or read
not to dream or feel
but do it anyway

– You and me
We’re the revolution

1. Simona Sharoni, “Homefront as Battlefield. Gender, military occupation and violence against women,” in Women and the Israeli Occupation: The Politics of Change, ed. Tamar Mayer. (London: Routledge, 1994), 121.

Other resources that inspired me:

The Women Are Marching: The Second Sex and the Palestinian Revolution by Philippa Strum

Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank, Ed. Suha Sabbagh

Women & Conflict in the Middle East by Maria Holt

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Change(d) The Name: Challenging “Savage” Stereotypes and Native Sports Mascots

Rez X Magazine
Change(d) the Name

(Originally published in RezX Magazine, May 2014 in a condensed form. Online now, print copies available soon!)

It has been a month since Saskatoon Public Schools voted to change the name and logo of my high school’s sports team, the Bedford Road Redmen. It has been nearly two decades since the last request for a name change was shut down in 1996. It has been only one week since I lost yet another high school friend who said she would be a “proud Redmen” forever, regardless of how many Native classmates found it offensive.

Indigenous people are not the only groups subject to the mascot treatment, but it certainly seems a bit more absurd when other groups are the focus of the “honor”. Take for example the Coachella Valley “Arabs”, or the Pekin “Chinks”. Why do these seem so strange, while hundreds of Native mascots in North America are normal?

1971Chink&Chinklet

The Pekin Chinks 1971 “Chink and Chinklet”.

One argument our group dealt with countless times was: “It’s just a name, it’s just for fun. Don’t you people have bigger issues to deal with?”

If it were only about a high school sports team name, the backlash against us would not have been so violent.

When the University of Regina cheerleaders took pictures of their “Cowboys and Indians” party, one depicting the girls dressed as “cowboys” playfully aiming their fingers as guns at the girls dressed as “Indians”, it was about more than just a party.

When you walk into a store at Halloween and see overpriced costumes like “Sexy Squaw” and “Indian Princess”, while Indigenous women remain the group most likely to face sexual violence in the US and Canada, it is about more than just a costume.

And, far from being just a name, the Bedford Road “Redmen”, Washington “Redskins”, Moose Jaw “Warriors”, and Chicago “Blackhawks” are products of white supremacy; stories told about us while excluding our voices. While it seems like a small issue on the surface, challenging inaccurate depictions of Native people is a big step toward a better life.

At Bedford, the Redmen logo was used for sports, while a diamond-shaped emblem was used for academics. This is why I don’t accept the claim that Indigenous people are only “warriors” or “braves” to be an honor. The relegation of Indigenous people to the realm of the physical has its roots in centuries of European philosophy.

The use of Indigenous people as sports mascots is frequently justified by using so-called positive stereotypes: Indigenous people are brave, they are warriors, they are skilled hunters, and they are in touch with the land – the sort of characteristics possessed only by non-human animals and primitive groups of humans. The sort of characteristics that make the best sport mascots.

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The thing about “positive” stereotypes is that they are still stereotypes, and thus, still function to deny individuality to members of marginalized groups and keep them marginalized. Thought of as lacking any individual agency or autonomy as slaves to our genetic predisposition as animalistic, savage warriors, we are unable to transcend the physical and denied access to rationality. We are turned into “beasts” – unable to self-govern, non-industrious, and dangerous. Perpetuating this view of Indigenous people insures that the invasion of land and assuming ownership of resources is justified. Residential schooling is justified. Injustice, cruelty and disregard for our lives is justified.

Refusing to put up with racist sports team names, mascots, and logos is a declaration that we are more than disposable stereotypes with tomahawks in John Wayne stories where the injuns always lose. We are teachers, students, lawyers, writers, artists, musicians, workers, and activists. We are capable of doing well in schools and universities while still holding on to our traditional knowledge – recognizing that the two are not incompatible, and that Indigenous knowledge ought to be (and already is) present in Western academic institutions. We are members of unique communities and we are individuals.

The hardest part of this work is listening to the stories of Aboriginal youth who dare to speak out against stereotypes, and faced ostracism as a result. In January, a student from Oskayak High School (and a dear friend of mine) stood up at Bedford Road’s basketball tournament with a sign that said, “We are people, not mascots” (I painted that logo, by the way, and cringed while doing it). He was booed by hundreds of Bedford Redmen basketball fans before being escorted out of the school, demonstrating that there is a certain type of “red man” that is acceptable (a cartoon) and one that is not (a living person with a voice). To me, that is a real warrior.

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On May 31, Bedford Road will be having a sale of Redmen memorabilia. In response, a teacher said, “Isn’t it sick that they are profiting off of this one last time? That logo is like a swastika to me. It is a symbol of hate.” It would be a nice gesture if Bedford uses the proceeds of the sale toward Aboriginal educational initiatives. The name and logo are gone, but the damage is not undone.

I still have my Redmen gym clothes. I will not sell or destroy these little pieces of racism, but keep them in a drawer as a reminder that as Aboriginal peoples, we still face stereotypes from those who refuse to see us as individuals, but there is always a way to overcome. That there has to be a way. We convinced Saskatoon Public Schools to change the name after they realized we wouldn’t give up, âhkamêyihtamowin: perseverance. Even after so many have predicted our demise, we are still here. Now it’s time to tell our own stories.