Don’t Wait for the White World to Catch Up

Terese Mailhot

Indian life is full of incongruences. The sacred lands we live on, the land our ancestors cleared to make our lives livable, is the same land our youth blasts their bass-ridden, misogynistic lyrics on. Granted, it’s not all misogynistic, but I distinctly remember attending a sweat lodge in my mother’s backyard, only to come inside to feast with Westside Connection playing in the background.

My own kitchen was a place of juxtaposition. Our kitchen was barren. We barely made it on social assistance, and when my mother wasn’t jobless, she was working in social work, which paid worse than the assistance. Non-Natives like to criticize that we’re so lost from our ways, but I don’t think any of those people ever lived a day on the rez. We had a lawn full of blueberries, plums, raspberries, and wild strawberries. We picked, canned, and froze our berries, and received fish from our uncles after every salmon run. But our natural diet was so low in caloric intake, we needed MacDonald’s hamburgers to supplement our energy after the amount of work it took to be below the poverty line, living the struggle the majority populous ignored. We were tired, poor, and often turned to popular culture for solace. On our old seventies countertop, next to the fridge, my mother had a small shrine ode to Stevie Ray Vaughan. An empty video cassette of Stevie Ray Vaughan: Pride and Joy was surrounded with bark and sage she picked herself. She rubbed the video cassette for good luck, and nobody can tell me this wasn’t an ancient pastime, only a new type of iconography many Indians saw in their homes. How many of our places had AC/DC posters in our living rooms, or images of Che Guevara in our libraries?

It’s like when white people tell us, “If you don’t like cultural appropriation, don’t go to our hospitals or read our books.” White people like that carry no dynamism to see living is full of cultural exchange and incongruences. Native people are too dynamic to simply follow one path, though some of us try. We can’t go back to our oral tradition in the old way after reading Poe, nor can we ignore Poe’s inherit racism. We live outside of the binaries, in the margins, taking in what we can, while having conversations with ourselves on how to approach the outside with a keen eye for exploitation and degradation.

We can only laugh at the craziness of Indian life. We’re not holding on to our old ways like some white people hold onto the good ol’ days; we’re retaining the culture while allowing it to remain potent, not stagnant. Most of our nation’s governments are unnatural to our political bodies, but we manage: write grants, make schools, carry language programs, and sing our songs out loud at every community function. Bureaucratically, they can’t break us, but they never stop trying.

My grandmother spent much of her elder years teaching nursery. She de-wormed children on the rez by giving them laxatives and letting them squat in her kitchen. The process is horrible to imagine, but I know if she was here now she’d be in favor of vaccinations, treatments, and preventative measures to help the children in our communities.

Our people are inventive, exploratory, and downright genius. We live beyond the binaries, picking up books of theory while regarding our elders as divine rhetoricians. I’m not waiting for the white world to catch up to us anymore. I simply want to revel in the beauty of our crazy culture and its future. They’ll catch up, but maybe by then it will be too late. While they’re trying to keep our books out of their classrooms, their students will seek us out. While they’re disregarding the science behind our practices, behind the idea that I can feel the pain of my great-grandmother, they will only bring shame to their own great-grandmothers. Let us revel in our contrary natures, our juxtaposition, because, as they try to kill us off with blood quantum and bureaucracy, we’re waking with the day (or night) with the knowledge that they’ve done everything in their power to break us, and we’re still here with our stories, laughter, and revelry.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Burrow Press Review, and Carve Magazine. She studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts and is an SWAIA Discovery Fellow. 

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Sammy7's picture
Can we ignore the wisdom of a quarter of a millennium gifted to us by our ancestors? Can we ignore the darkness of Christianity and become Christians? Can we ignore the path of death that is American Culture by immersing ourselves in it? Can we ignore the beauty of the Earth Mother by destroying her? Can we lose our hearts to modernity and rationalize that we are Indian?
Ohoyo Chahta's picture
This is beautiful, and so deeply true. Thank you. Yakoke.
Ohoyo Chahta
FreeRadical's picture
Dear Terese, thank you for your expressions of Native Indian life on a reservation. I am a white person but feel very aligned to the native culture. The main connection I sense through your culture is the closeness to nature. My heart weeps for the tragedies your people have suffered by the white man. I am so sick and tired of white people pushing their violence into everyone's faces. I want to learn about the Native Indian culture and my journey has just begun. I recently watched "Thunderheart" and attended a meeting to free Leonard Peltier. However I have always felt a strong admiration for the culture because of its grace and respect for others and particularly for nature, which is as we know, our life source. What I cry for your culture about is the general adoption of the same white policies that have defiled and perverted the white culture. They are sick policies. The idea of money, centralized government, working for a living, asking for permission, guns, killing, control; these are all disgraceful ideas. I hope to read more of your work and learn more and be involved more with Indian culture. I am excited to have come around to this direction in my life. In my heart and in my mind, I know we share our humanity and want to create another way, for people who love nature and love people of all cultures.

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