Sweat Lodge Out Back, Nintendo in the Den

Terese Marie Mailhot

As an Indian woman, I am asked many questions, like, “Do you pay for college,” or, “What's my spirit animal?” The question I find most abhorrent is, “Do you feel caught between the old ways and the modern world?”

This conflict seems like something a non-Native made up when they considered the romantic idea of an Indian, loincloth and all, venturing into a mysterious world of iPhones and flat-screens. Little did they know, my mother kept her pipe in the entertainment center, next to a portrait of Stevie Ray Vaughan. There was never a conflict. As a family of academics, theorists, and activists, we never vacillated between an old and new world.

My mother was a founding member of the Red Power movement and grew up during the cultural resurgence of sobriety and ceremony. As an adolescent, she experienced segregation, ran from boarding school, and developed into a bonafide Indian rebel.

In my adolescence I felt subtle racism in the classroom when my teachers talked to the white students about “tolerance,” and I witnessed many of my best friends being shuffled into special-needs classes for their rez dialects. My mother, the Indian rebel, forced me to confront racism at every turn if I wanted to call myself her daughter, so I did. I became a social activist by discussing the need for diverse reading lists in our classrooms, and talking about the difference between tolerance and acceptance. It was overwhelming, but it soon became the norm. I am now the resident “angry Indian” woman in every classroom and social gathering, and this doesn't bother me.

I don't mind telling my son's school to discuss culturally offensive costumes before Halloween, and I don't mind telling my co-workers that I don't, in fact, get anything for free. This discourse has brought about meaningful relationships and meaningful respect. The one thing I cannot stand, the one thing that even the most guilt ridden, liberal minded white person will ask, is if I feel conflicted between old and new ways. As if Natives never heard of cultural innovation, or appropriation, or development. We invented so much of Western medicine, and developed the most efficient irrigation systems, how could we not engage in cultural innovation?

I thank my mother for being an Indian rebel, but her Red Power is not my own. I don't engage in spiritualism in the same way she did. I study the Native teachers and orators of our past. I account for every story and theoretical debate I engaged in with my elders. In fact, the word “elder,” as my mother knew it, meant a person with wisdom and integrity. In my experience, I've found one should call all seniors elders and respect them, whether they are honorable or not. If they're Indian, and alive beyond sixty this is a feat considering all the statistics against them. I've met some ornery, morally ambiguous elders. Unlike my mother, I see wisdom in their survival, even if they did morally ambiguous things to stay alive. I'd like to think that my progress as an Indian woman is adding onto my mother's legacy in the Indian continuum.

I don't acknowledge the question of cultural conflict, because in my childhood we had a sweat lodge in our backyard and a Nintendo in our living-room. These things weren't incongruous, because they were a part of the same way of life. Instead of acknowledging this absurd question, I ask them if they ever long for the days of churning their own butter, or if they miss their Jim Crow laws.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island, a place bound by the Mariah Slough and the Fraser River. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work, “Heart Berries,” can be found in Carve Magazine, and her story, “House Party,” is forthcoming in Yellow Medicine Review. 

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derrico's picture
Wonderful column! Good points made with lively self-awareness. Very helpful... thanks.... I remember working with Corbin Harney at a Shoshone gathering deep in the mountains.... using the rental car I had and a rope he had, pulling stub growth away from the fire pit.... We both laughed at the scene... but his fire and drum brought me awake and warm every morning at first light.... The rental paper said, 'no off-road use'....