Obligatory and Important Discussions of Modern Indian Identity and Passing Privilege

By Casey

“If you walked into my office I would just assume you were White.”

That was what a man at a domestic violence conference in the Midwest felt the need to share with me while I was presenting at a conference four years ago. My presentation topic? The prevalence of domestic violence in Indian Country. It’s a good time to note that my entire (admittedly relatively short) career has been in domestic violence advocacy and prevention services. The overwhelming majority of research and writing I did in graduate school was on domestic violence in Indian Country. At that time I had been in my job for close to a year, working as a DV program coordinator in a Tribal community. Not to mention I am, you know, Native American. I wouldn’t venture I’m some sort of expert in much of anything, but I definitely know my shit well enough to speak with some sort of authority on the topic. Without a doubt I know way more than he ever will, yet he still felt the need to interrupt my presentation with that bit of White nonsense. I knew then, as I know now, that I shouldn’t let it bother me. I should be confident enough in my own skin, even if that skin isn’t what some people consider “Indian” enough. That the myth of the vanishing Indian keeps us stuck in the past—revered for our bravery, but gone the way of the dinosaurs, the dodo bird, and the black rhino. Yet four years and countless microaggressions later, I still cringe whenever I’m reminded of this moment.

Fast forward to June 2015, when Rachel Dolezal, a woman who had built an entire life and career around her Black identity, was outed by her very White parents as being White. Around that same time, the internet also caught wind that Cherokee scholar/activist Andrea Smith was not actually Cherokee, after a now-deleted Tumblr post by Washington State University graduate student Annita Lucchesi entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee” went viral. This last bit wasn’t particularly newsworthy. Andrea Smith taught at and was denied tenure by my alma mater in 2008. I took a few of her classes and was somewhat familiar with her from the Native community on campus. I was kind of under the impression we all silently agreed we didn’t think she was actually Cherokee, but decided to be polite and not talk about it. Both these incredibly bizarre instances of ethnic fraud gave me a lot to think about. Two years later, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the motivations for claiming (and ultimately profiting from) identities that don’t actually belong to you. What I find most galling about all this how it silences marginalized voices. For all the Pretendians out there, there are, doubtless, actual Native Americans, fretting over whether or not they’re “Indian” enough—whether or not they’re doing enough to preserve their language, protect Native families, learn their cultural teachings, make badass regalia, and if they can even be taken seriously doing these things because they don’t look, talk, or act “Indian” enough. White privilege is being able to float in and out of different cultures without consequence, while those within the cultures feel they have to fight every day to defend our rightful claim to that culture.

This isn’t to say those of us more phenotypically European Indians don’t experience some unearned White privilege. In order to hold others accountable, we must also be held accountable and called out from time to time. Thanks to my father, likely the most South Boston-Irish man to ever live in the Midwest, no amount of melanin from my olive-skinned Potawatomi mother will ever make it okay for me to go out in the sun without some SPF-30 on hand. Despite my penchant for back sassing strangers, it’s also highly unlikely I’ll ever be the victim of police brutality, get pulled aside for a random bag check by airport security, or followed too closely by retail associates in stores because I fit the profile of someone they think would shoplift. My skin tone wasn’t a barrier for me moving into the upper class neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past three years, and my problematic AF neighbors will likely never call the police on me for suspicious behavior. I also have a Master’s Degree from an elite institution. Based on how abysmal educational outcomes are for Native American students, this is kind of a big deal.

Identities are incredibly complex. The important thing to remember is how to be secure in your own without appropriating one that doesn’t belong to you.


Not My Patronus: Why JK Rowling is No One’s Ally

By Robin

No matter when you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance that JK Rowling has made headlines this week. Maybe she’s retroactively made another “dramatic” reveal about some side character in Harry Potter, or maybe she’s signed off on yet another spinoff movie, play, or textbook-turned-novel. Most likely, though, she just tweeted something. Oh, forgive me, JK Rowling never just tweets. She “comes to the defense”, she “shuts down”, she “slams”, “blasts” or “brilliantly takes down”. She’s “epic”, “perfect”, and a “savior”. Except, she isn’t.  Look, we all love a good Twitter burn. It’s satisfying, it’s funny, and I think we can all agree that Black Twitter is a gift from the heavens. But tweeting alone is not activism, and it is especially insulting from someone who has the financial and social means to create actual change.

As of this writing, Rowling’s net worth is unknown. We do know that she gives a fair amount of money to charity and that at in 2012 she dropped off of the  Forbes list of billionaires (although it was more due to taxes  than her charitable donations, and she was not, as was widely reported, the first billionaire to do so).  I will just take a moment to point out that paying one’s fair share of taxes according to the law is not heroic, but a fucking legal requirement. I don’t care that other rich people find shady ways to dodge their tax responsibilities, she’s still just doing what’s mandated. It’s “heroic” in the same way a man not cheating on his wife on a business trip even though all his coworkers cheat on their wives all the time and this hot woman TOTALLY flirted with him is heroic.  You know what? I’m not impressed that Rowling donated 16% of her fortune to charity. I’m not impressed because she made that money by refusing to stand up for her alleged ideals, and is now using Twitter as a way to pretend she’s down for the cause. I’m not impressed because she made that money by appropriating other peoples’ cultures and perpetuating stereotypes and keeping LGBTQ people and people of color out of sight.

My annoyance with Rowling as a self-styled ally began way back when she first amazed her loyal followers by announcing that she had “always thought of Dumbledore as gay”. Well, cool, but she didn’t write him as gay. She didn’t share this headcanon with the actors portraying him, or with LGBTQ fans desperately looking for representation in mainstream media. And this was in 2007. Harry Potter had been a cultural force for years. The fifth movie was out, and Rowling already had a massive fortune. To say, long after the fact and only after you can be reasonably sure that your personal finances won’t be affected, “oh yeah, he was always gay, totally” is not being an ally. Rowling did the same thing in 2015 when she responded to a woman of color being cast as Hermione in a play by implying that she intentionally left Hermione Granger’s race unspecified in the books. Again, it’s great (I guess?) that she accepts a WoC take on Hermione, but there’s a world of difference between saying “well, I never said she HAD to be white” and actually writing a black character. Oh, and where was she when it was time to use her considerable clout to have a WoC cast as Hermione in the MOVIES? Where was she when Lavendar Brown was recast as a white girl after having been played by two black actresses? Rowling could have used her influence to demand that the casting of the movies match the incredibly progressive image she supposedly had of these characters (Neil Gaiman recently did so for the adaptation of American Gods). Hell, she could have at least insisted that a known abuser not take a major role in the film adaptation of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”. Instead, she quietly took her money and declined to say anything on the matter unless someone else said it first and it proved popular. This is not what allies do.

I could go on with countless examples of how Rowling contradicts her actions with her tweets (like when she denounces sexism but signifies silly, stupid, or evil women in her books as liking pink and being girly, or when she “comes out against fat-shaming” but continues to use being overweight as lazy writer’s shorthand for being cowardly, sloppy, or greedy), but I’d rather discuss the more concrete ways she enriches herself at the expense of others. The most egregious example of this is her recent foray into straight up colonialism in her webseries “History of Magic in North America”. When informed by actual Native American writers and activists that her representation of their cultures was offensive and inappropriate, her response was SILENCE. Silence, from a woman so ready to troll the president of a country she doesn’t live in, so ready to say “sure, why not?” when others read a radical agenda into her work, so willing to tweet to her 10.8 million Twitter followers about definitions of a travel ban in another country (which conveniently allows her to ignore devastating immigration policies where she actually lives), rather than do anything concrete to help the estimated 65 million refugees and displaced persons in the world. This is not an ally. This is an opportunist looking to maintain a certain public image without doing the work of an ally.

I could go on, but I think this is a good summary of my biggest beefs. So, what’s the takeaway? Why do I spend my energy and time ranting to anyone who will listen about this? Because everyone needs to be held accountable. Because it’s exhausting to see “Dumbledore’s Army” used as a rallying cry for resistance to injustice while knowing that the mind behind that literary resistance doesn’t actually care about the things she preaches. It’s exhausting to hear my peers fawn over their latest Pottermore personality quiz results without knowing or caring that their entertainment comes at the expense of Native communities. And it’s exhausting to see someone whose primary weapon lives exclusively in a tiny bubble of social media be held up as a shining example of activism. If you’re going to be an ally, look to actual marginalized communities for ways to help. Fight for others’ rights all the time, not just when it’s convenient. Listen to the perspectives of women of color, queer women, poor women. Make sure you are actually being helpful, not just preserving your own image. Look to anyone but yet another rich white woman.  And, maybe, don’t join Dumbledore’s Army. Resist in a way that includes everyone.

Why a blog?

By Casey

Welcome to Migwetth Kvetch (#migvetch for the young and social media savvy, or those among us who enjoy word play). Robin asked me if I wanted to write the introductory piece, explaining why we decided to start this blog. Self-important asshole that I am, I naturally jumped at the chance.
Recently, I was bemoaning the lack of mainstream Native American writers and noted that what the world really needs is a Native American Roxane Gay–someone who could write about privilege, intersectional feminism, race, class, and popular culture, from an indigenous perspective. There are plenty of excellent Native American writers, (more than just Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich, though both very talented), there are plenty of women of color writers, but I have yet to find any author whose work spoke to me the way Roxane Gay’s does. From this, Robin and I decided to embark upon this journey in blogging to help fill in some of the gaps in intersectional feminist blogging. We spend a lot of time bemoaning the present state of the world and figured we’d put those words to paper (well, virtual paper. Virtual paper? Sure, we’ll go with that). At the very least this will be our chance to bitch to a larger audience. Here’s hoping this is as entertaining for you as it is for us.