Speaking Up: Native Women's Voices and the Challenges of Putting Yourself Out There
“I was raised by my grandparents, along with my parents. What I learned from my grandmother is that we are not victims. As a proud Comanche girl, I thought I could do anything. I think some of our people have been trapped in a victimization mentality for generations, and they then unwittingly become victims of their own victimization and can’t stop the behavior. We are capable people who can do anything we set our minds to.”
“There are not enough young Native women getting their voices out there.”
This is what they tell me. I have been thinking about it.
I have only recently begun publishing my writing. It has been going well. I feel empowered when people offer positive feedback. I am happy to provoke discussions. I have learned to embrace criticism. I know that my thoughts are flawed. I am young and I have a lot to learn. I appreciate teachings.
When I was in journalism school, I realized that I am no good at reporting. I watched my classmates receive praise and encouragement from our professors each time they were able to get a quote or a photograph from an unapproachable situation. The pushier, the better, it seemed.
Her son just died? Knock on that door. Ask questions. Take a pic.
Their apartment was just destroyed? Get the shot. Go in there. Step on stuff. Peruse.
His heart is broken? Make him talk. Pry. Produce tears. The audience loves a good cry. Don’t forget about audio. Put the mic in his face.
I could not do these things. To me, this behavior is audacious. I do not like to pry. I do not like to interrupt. I understand that I am too ignorant to comment on the lives of people who I do not know very well. I know that I am ill equipped to effectively interpret complicated issues from cultures or industries that I am unfamiliar with.
I could not be pushy. I was a bad reporter. My professors were unimpressed.
I have always been a writer, I guess. Creative writing. I used to write stories on our first PC, print them with a font that matched the theme, and distribute them to my family members. For example, The Lemonade Stand: comic sans, 14 pt., bright yellow. Grandma had trouble reading that one. Then, academic writing. In college, I double majored in History and Native American Studies. It was rigorous. I used to write 10- to 30-page papers on a weekly basis.
I never intended on writing for an audience. I am still uncomfortable with it. Each story I send to my editors produces immense anxiety. I do not want to offend anybody. I do not want to misspeak. I do not want to create negative thoughts. I just want to bridge understanding.
The only reason I started publishing my work at all is that I was asked. I found a mentor in a writer whom I respect. He asked me to write. So I did. He convinced me (and still reassures me all the time) that my writing is good and that my thoughts are useful. I am insecure. Putting my writing online for the world to see took a lot of encouragement, a lot of risk. But I was asked.
Now, other people continue asking me to write. So I keep going. Each time I get a message in my inbox or a comment on social media from another person who cares, who found some inkling of hope or insight or inspiration from what I said, I am reminded that it is worth the risk. But it took years of study and practice and thought and encouragement to get to a point where I finally feel comfortable speaking about complicated issues in Native country. Or about anything, really.
But I’m glad that I waited.
I still choose, often, to avoid certain topics or issues that arise. Sometimes, things should be left alone. Just because we know something does not mean we should share it. Other journalists might not understand why I would not expose every detail or jump on every scoop when the opportunity presents itself. This is a glaring cultural difference. When I write, it is not for my benefit. It is for my community. I am proud of that.
My elders taught me that it is good to be careful with words. It is good to be reserved. It is important to listen. Always listen. Then speak up, maybe, if it will help.
Native women everywhere actually are speaking up and getting their voices out there. I may be one of few who chooses to do so in a mass media forum, but that is alright. There are several reasons for this. One is that many Native women are often so involved in their local communities and families and careers that they would rather expend their energies and efforts toward communicating with those audiences. Two is that Native women often communicate in other creative ways: through art, songs, dances, stories, photographs, film… you name it, Native women are doing it. Let’s not discredit or forget about these other equally effective modes of communication in which Native women are perhaps disproportionately active and present.
I should acknowledge that there is some level of repression at work. It is true that big media companies often fail to incorporate Native female voices. (They do not know what they are missing.) And then there’s history. Native women have been systematically silenced and ignored for a couple of generations. This is why we only hear about Pocahontas and Sacagawea (white man helpers) in our history books. This is why we can rattle off the names and accomplishments of male chiefs and AIM leaders but we only know about a few women. In my own experience, the lack of female Native heroes in books and on screens has at times made me question whether or not my perspective matters as much or at all. It has at times made it more difficult for me to imagine myself in a leadership role. Thankfully I had my mom and grandmas to fill that void.
This history of oppression, however, is not what defines Native women. I believe that there are exactly as many young Native women “getting their voices out there” as there should be. It is a matter of choice more than circumstance. We have agency. We are strong. We are articulate and free. But we are careful, too. We do not always jump at the chance to be the voice or the face of our people because we are respectful of those who know more than we do. Native sisters are perhaps more cautious with their words and humble in their ways than any other group in the world.
There is nothing wrong with that. It is a good thing. It is really, really powerful.
Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota. She hopes to become a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for Indigenous health and wellness. Follow her at instagram.com/chelswhoelse or on twitter @CPLuger. (Photo: Eller Bonifacio.)
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