12.0: Saga of the unshaven armpit – skins and feminists

8/24/09

I went to a bunch of colleges in my time. My friends said that I was on the “Indian Plan.”

It wasn’t only a lot of schools, but there was also a wide variety of schools. All kinds. I was a Haskell Rascal, attended four community colleges, including my tribe’s Tribal College and a hippie school where the school uniform included Birkenstocks, dreadlocks (only if you were white) and patchouli oil.

One day – after a lot of false starts and bad grades – I started to take school seriously. I think that I realized that I may one day want to find a job. I was wrong – but I found a job anyway. Call me “traditional”; unemployment runs in my family, like skinny calves, flat feet and big lips.

Still, there were certain common themes at every school I attended. For example, I was broke at every school I attended (nutritious midnight snacks of Top Ramen and prenatal pills!). Also, at every school it seemed like every Skin student joined the schools’ “Native Student Association” groups the first few weeks – all with huge ideas to push a pow wow or political cause or something (“Buy Native!”). Then, like clockwork, the students would start complaining about how the other students in those Associations weren’t “really Skin,” and the group’s membership would dwindle from 80 to 8.

Photo courtesy Justin Finkbonner/We Emerge Photography

Gyasi Ross

Another trend at every school was that each school had some Short-Haired White Women Professors whose hair looked like Zac Efron or Demi Moore from “Ghost.” For some reason these Short-Haired White Professors always pulled me aside to talk about my Skin heritage and my people’s “matrilineality.” And although I wasn’t sure what “matrilinealality” meant, whatever it was, they made it sound dirty! I felt as if they were getting some strange perverse enjoyment at my expense. Shudder!

I have to admit, however, that their perversity was educational. Nothing like mine.

See, I found out that the mother/woman historically controlled many Skin groups’ respective clans/societies/bands. That control apparently caused strange excitement for many Short-Haired White Professors. Moreover, these Short-Haired White Professors saw that many Skin women take many leadership positions within Skin society. Plus, it just seemed like many Skin women were the heads of households.

The Short-Haired White Professors put these facts together and came up with a very strange conclusion: Skin women are the poster children for the western white feminist movement (what Rush Limbaugh refers to as “feminazis”). The Short-Haired White Professors taught this theory in social anthropology classes that I was silly enough to take.

I wasn’t convinced.

Still, I had to assume that what they said was correct, right? I mean, these women are very smart. Plus, I’m no feminist or woman. Still, even with my lack of proof, estrogen or breasts, I suspected that my Short-Haired White Professors were off a little bit. But how could I refute their theories? I mean, my family actually seemed to verify what they taught – in my house, my mom and sisters were the bosses. And it did seem like the women were always the bosses in my friends’ and relatives’ houses as well. My sisters beat me up if I didn’t listen.

My sisters = feminazis? Hmmm. …

I suspect that my Short-Haired White Professors wanted me to confirm their theory that women were the bosses in the modern Skin family. They wanted to find the link between everyday Skin life and their political theories. And I’m sure that 99 percent of the students in their classes paid more attention than me in class and were better qualified to answer their questions.

But instead of the kids who actually studied their feminist fare, they always wanted to talk to me – one of the few visibly Skin students who was weird enough to take their anthropology classes. Times were rough and the Short-Haired White Professors said “free lunch,” so of course I gladly agreed – to lunch, not their theory.

At lunch, one Short-Haired White Professor asked me, “Did your family matriarch set an example of strong oral communication?” I wondered, while chewing my free lunch, if they confused “matrilineal” with “matriarchal.” But the food was good and I didn’t want to talk too much, so I just kept it pretty short and honest.

Me: >chew, chew< “Well, mom yells a lot. But that’s just because we didn’t listen. Plus, she’s kinda hard of hearing.”

Short-Haired White Professor 1: >Smiling smugly< “Did you listen to the women figures in your life? And was your upbringing more woman-friendly?”

Me: >realizing that this vegetarian food isn’t half-bad< “Woman-friendly? What’s that? Er, well, mom and my sisters told me what to do. And I listened. I don’t know if that’s what you mean, but yeah. … that happened.” >chew, chew< My sisters could fight – much better than me. And my mom spanked us. So >chew<, I listened >burp<.”

SHWP: >squealing with joy< “Women were the unquestioned leaders in your society then? You simply accepted their authority?”

Me: >wiping crumbs from my face< “My society? Huh? Maybe? I’m really not sure who else could be leaders. There were no men around.”

SHWP: >looking disappointed< “Oh.”

Years later, I had a moment of clarity about the conversation with my Short-Haired White Professors. It happened while I watched the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” There was a quote: “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

Repeat:

“The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.”

Wow. That quote articulated, in a way that I could not, my disagreement with the Short-Haired White Professor’s theory.

I mean, yeah, the women were the bosses in my family. But being the “boss” was a little different in our house. The bosses scrubbed the floors, did the dishes and took care of us. The bosses served us and other people who came to the house. The bosses raised me – the man – to be the head of the house. And hopefully when I took my place as the head of the house, I would remember the teachings, instruction and compassion that the women of the house – the neck – gave me. Hopefully I would bring some womanly wisdom to my natural “alpha male” leadership style.

To my mom and sisters, being the boss did not mean that you ran amuck and dominated others. It meant that you had more responsibility to raise other “bosses.” It meant that they worked to raise strong and responsible Skin men to make sure that the next generation of Skin women wouldn’t have to be the boss all by themselves. My guess is that my sisters and mom would’ve loved to have had a man in the house to help lessen their immense responsibility. But men weren’t around. So my mom and sisters raised me to be the loud and vocal man. They grew comfortable being the neck that guided me – the head.

Looking back, I think that my Short-Haired White Professors – and white women in general – are simply “looking” for something. Since they have historically been so oppressed, they crave an example of strong womanly leadership. Like many Skin women. These professorial white women presumably love the idea of powerful women in a “man’s world.” So they attached a fantasy image of Skin women and societies – that may have been accurate at one time – to current day Skins.

Simply put, the Short-Haired White Professors think that Skins’ gender relations are somehow better than napikwons’ and napiakis’ simply because Skin women have a history of being influential in Skin society.

Sadly, that’s not the case. Not even close. My Short-Haired White Professors paid attention to the theory and history, instead of the everyday reality of Skin women. I’ve watched many Skin women become leaders by default, not because they wanted to be. Skin women’s leadership positions are not because Skin men recognize Skin women as a source of authority. If Skin men really recognized women as the unquestioned leaders at home, there probably wouldn’t be the ridiculously high percentage of domestic violence against Skin women, for example. But there is. And it shows that Skin men have had serious issues with treating Skin women respectfully for a long time.

In fact, one could argue that Skin women are successful despite Skin men, not because of us. Therefore, my Short-Haired White Professor’s theory that Skin society was more “woman friendly” was pretty much bullpucky.

Having said that, thank God that there are women leaders! There are Skin women who climb to positions of power and elected office. From what I’ve seen, those women were oftentimes simply better at their jobs than the men that they beat to get into those positions, tougher than those men. They had to be, because men – Skins included – don’t give them an inch.

My suspicion is that Skin men didn’t just roll over and give the women leadership positions in the old days either. Those women were probably tough as nails – like my sisters – and Skin men had no choice but to listen to them. My guess is that the women had to fight and claw and battle to get and stay in those positions of influence.

What do you Skins think? E-mail me at gyasi.ross@gmail.com.

Gyasi “Fancy Skin” Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, “Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice.” E-mail him at gyasi.ross@gmail.com.

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