#nodapl

In museums we position the objects of our past, the pots, tapestries, war spears and carved planes. From behind the glass, we survey the yellowed pages and raveled canvases of peoples from humanity’s long-gone eras, moving placidly along the timeline of brief historical summaries typed on cardstock squares. As children we are taught to make our way through the past with a similarly dispassionate gaze. We are introduced to gallant pioneers of the West, kindly Founding Fathers, intrepid pilgrims, and nature-loving Indians, crafting America’s narrative in a collage of crayon shades, Thanksgiving stickers, and feathers.

We exit our museums and classrooms with our crafts and leave the interred histories behind; they have no place now among the progressive, the young, the living. But what if the peoples of those histories are still among us? What if the spaces between lines of history lesson worksheets point to peoples who necessitate not only our gaze, but our movement towards them? What if those we internally classify as distant, dead cultures are unable to thrive now because our ignorance of their living acts as a silencer?

Who have we left behind in our efforts to look towards the future and placate our past with indulgent handwaves?

I visited a Navajo reservation last summer in Arizona, and the answer found me. My family and I toured with our guide, a slender Navajo man in his twenties. As our jeep tumbled over the rocky terrain, glazed red in summer sun, he told us of the names of the stone monuments–both the English names from movie directors who filmed in the area, and the names the Nez (the local name for his people) give them. This tour was off the hotel brochures because he and his father had dared to question hotel encroachment on the native lands as companies circumvented federal land policies to build more commercial enterprises on Nez land. He feared that foot by foot, the reservation would shrink, and no one but the people squeezed in would notice…

His story joined that of other accounts I have had the privilege of hearing over these past few years. I attended a pow wow on Randall’s Island last fall and listened to the stories of indigenous groups from across the U.S. as they shared their peoples’ struggles to bring attention to the economic, political, and geographic abuses against them. One older woman was reunited with kin from Hawaii for the first time in years, and they sang together, weaving themes of loss and loneliness. Afterwards, another woman stood on the stage and her voice shook with anger as she told us about how indigenous persons were being arrested in the Midwest for trying to pray on their sacred mountain. Apparently the U.S. government believes that it owns that mountain now, and the people who once communed upon it are restricted from accessing it.

The anger and grief I felt in hearing these stories is not enough, and neither is it the focus here. I can easily grieve hearing about sad things and yet do nothing in my power to help those in need. I can grieve and still have the privilege of warding off the full ache of injustice because I am not a native body.

Now, with indigenous peoples and their allies being arrested for protesting the building of an oil pipeline in North Dakota that would encroach upon 17 miles of land claimed by the Great Sioux Nation by federal treaty, we must act (see more of the historical context here). We are being invited to participate in a movement of justice for those we have forgotten in our neglect and giddy embrace of the future. They are not artifacts, nor the spiritualized romantic figures of an old American West. They are living, growing communities molded by a pattern of negligence and apathy on our part.

When was the last time you heard someone from your school, your church, your peer group speak up about the challenges facing indigenous peoples in this land? For me, it wasn’t until college; it didn’t even ping my radar, despite visiting the Miccosukee reservation in Florida and speaking with the much-alive people there. My indigenous framework was formed by watching Pocahontas and and standing within recreations of Iroquois longhouses in the Hudson River Valley. These peoples always felt relegated to a different category, caught in the void between the past and present, and not quite fully accepted in either. Once I was introduced to other stories, local stories of the relationship between my country and its indigenous peoples, I was faced with a choice: hide from an agonizing past or walk into the tension.

We need to embrace the First Nations of this land as part of us, as modern and relevant to our present livelihood as a nation created from hasty border-making and border-breaking. They do not have the privilege of distancing themselves from the shadows our inaction casts.

My faith in Jesus demands that I seek out the hidden and bring it to light, whether that be the histories beneath the carefully cultivated account of my nation’s sins or the peoples still directly harmed by those sins. I repent on behalf of my nation for the ways we betrayed, persecuted, murdered, and forgot the First Nations of this land. This is one step in the journey of cognizance and lament; then it is time to evaluate how one must step boldly in allyship, not contained solely in the realm of pleasant, poetic words or posts rimmed in trendy #hashtags.

What can we do? Others are already blazing the trail in solidarity. Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, posted this call to action:

  1. Sign on. Sign the Rezpect Our Water petition and the Pledge of Resistance initiated by the campaign to stop the pipeline.
  1. Donate. The Sacred Stone Camp is fundraising for legal defense in the face of police repression.Contribute today to help support indigenous land defenders. The Rezpect Our Water campaign is funding Native youth to join the camp. Contribute today to bring youth leaders to block the pipeline.
  1. Spread the word. Share information from the Camp of the Sacred Stones and the Rezpect Our Water campaign, as well as news from the frontlines, on social media using the hashtag #NoDAPL, and ask your organizations to express their support.
  1. Join solidarity rallies and actions in your own city or area to stand with Standing Rock and the campaign to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  1. Join the camp. Travel to North Dakota to answer the call of the Standing Rock Sioux for indigenous and non-indigenous people to join the struggle on the ground.

Black Lives Matter activists have traveled to North Dakota to stand with the protesting communities and bring needed material resources. Those with an intimate relationship to oppression know the urgency vital to dismantling it.

What can we do? We can speak out so no one ignores what is happening. We can protest in the spaces we are placed. We can write to our political leaders and petition them to garner support to halt the pipeline construction. We can challenge companies who would benefit from the pipeline. We can donate funds and material resources to the affected communities. We can pray for wide-scale repentance of these abuses and challenge the silences in our midst.

And we can go, move ourselves geographically and live out Jesus’ call to compassion–to suffer with those who suffer and advocate for their welfare. We can show them by our actions that, like our God, we have not forgotten them.

Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.                                                                                                                         Isaiah 1:16-17

 

interlude

It’s been almost a month since I last posted on this blog. It hits me on the train ride home from work, the sky already wrapped in pitch at only 6pm, and I feel the haunting prickle at my neck because it’s been a month

Settling into a new job and season of life has set more hurdles for me in terms of writing and working on other projects, despite my commitment to using words to examine the world I’ve been placed in and impact it for the better. Sometimes my words are carefully mapped and revised over several days; sometimes, like today, I let the words run and ramble but hope they will say what is burdening my heart. And I think that black and brown people, my minority brothers and sisters of Asian and indigenous descent, we should not be ashamed of the interludes where we don’t have everything together–where we are messy and unfiltered and simply trying to recuperate and process all we are doing and desire to do.

We need to prioritize our mental and emotional health, despite the demands placed on us by our own sense of responsibility and our broken world.  I have to remind myself of this all the time, especially a few days ago when I found myself stressed out by the idea that I wasn’t doing enough to help my people.

The thought gnaws at me in waking and sleeping hours, the question of authenticity (am I woke enough-Black enough?) and the question of empathy (do I care enough?) present with the doubt, especially when the evidence of my country’s racial toxicity stains the air of each breath. The problem in many cases is not my apathy or negligence, but rather my caring so much that I end up extending well past my emotional and physical limits. It’s found in the taut, trembling lines of my arms, the tension twofold as I deal with being conscious of racism everyday and with my perceived responsibility to respond to that along with all the other wrongs of the world brought to my attention.

The counterpoint to white fragility may be the insistent pressure upon people of color to endure racial discomfort without complaint or concession.

Yes, I should challenge racism (easy enough to answer–next!). Yes, I should keep pushing for racial reconciliation even though it involves grueling effort and a high emotional toll. Yes, I know I can’t get desensitized to suffering. I know this. But while God enables me to love others and advocate for them (and myself) far better and far more than I could do alone, His infinitude reminds me in whispers that I was not the one to die on the Cross for the world’s atrocities. I am limited in what my heart can hold in any one moment, and that is no error–it is a blessing.

I think of the way JRR Tolkien designed the race of Men in his fantasy works. Eru the Creator (delving into serious nerd territory here) designed humans as the Secondborn Children after the immortal Elves. Humans were created with a multitude of talents and gifts and with ambitious, persistent spirits. They were also created mortal–and they hated it. Tolkien called it “the Doom of Man,” but in this case, “doom” carries two layers of significance. Humans viewed their mortality, their “doom” as tragic and unfair, especially when they compared themselves to those O so wise ancient Elves that had millennia to be heroes and fight great battles and do generally amazing things (not that the Elves had it easy either). However, their Creator viewed their “doom” as His greatest gift to them; because they were finite, they would treasure the lives they were given and achieve great things even while striving within the boundaries of their shorter lifespan. Their acceptance of their weakness, their finitude would simultaneously inspire their dreams to improve their environment and help them prioritize their day-to-day actions. Their limitations were meant to play a special role in the shaping of Middle-Earth and its destiny; their limitations helped them clarify the things that mattered most.

I think Tolkien was pointing to something compelling about our own human lives, and it is especially relevant to people of color who can feel the pressure of too much to do, too much to overcome, too much to grieve, and with too little time. Our limitations do not restrict our movement–they give our chosen movements greater weight. Our investment in what we choose to prioritize reaps more fruit when we submit to this truth. I can and will choose to mourn and pray about my government’s betrayal and negligence of our indigenous peoples. I will use my typing fingers to declare with each press of the keyboard that Black Lives Matter. I educate myself about my own Latinx and black histories to work through my internalized racism. I will feel the weight of each step refugees take beyond the lands they once called home and call attention to it.

If I am given the opportunity and conviction to act on behalf of others and fail to, that should weigh on me. However, it is also my responsibility to exercise honesty when I sense myself hitting the emotional threshold and act upon that awareness to keep myself healthy. This is where I throw out my good-intentioned savior complex, surrender the crushing weight of national sins, and acknowledge God’s sovereignty over what my hands can’t reach.

I spoke of racial trauma in another post, and I believe it’s a reality for a lot of us. Sometimes when I watch the news or read comments on an article about racism, it triggers this aching sadness or this twisting anger in my gut. When I get overwhelmed by how divided and hurtful this world is and how many people are suffering, I don’t always know what to do with it. I am weighed down, and tears are close. My impulse is to do more, do more, do more, sometimes propelled by the guilty knowledge that I have failed to act in the past, sometimes by the rightful urgency these problems require.

But I have not been designed to weather every storm at every moment, nor should I blame myself for seeking shelter when my body is rain-ridden and weary. I throw words at God (and He can take it): THIS WORLD IS SCREWED UP!!! I HATE how I feel and why is there so much racism God, so many deaths WHY and WHY do I feel too much and WHY does it hurt and I don’t know how to hold it…

….help me.

In those moments, mortality comes crashing down on me. I think of everything I should be doing–articles to write, protests to show up to, books to read, people to speak to and I’m overwhelmed by a paralyzing sense of failure because it feels like I’m not doing enough and because of that, I’m just perpetuating the problems.

We have to stop blaming ourselves and castigating our limits when our limits keep us from choking. I can’t think or do everything, even though there are projects I want to take on and things I will need to do in the future–I’m not neglecting that. But right now, in this moment, giving weight to my need to laugh, giving weight to learning at my job, giving weight to celebrating my friend’s birthday allows me to find my bearings. I am freed to do a few things with full attention and love and clarity and see myself flourish rather than strain myself, tear muscle and exhaust bone to either appease the historical demands of Whiteness and endure-purge my tears- or attempt to drain myself of life to give it to others in need. That will help no one, and it is not sustainable.

Sometimes all the suffering I am exposed to is beyond my coping ability; I shouldn’t feel ashamed of that. I should be able to turn off the news for a moment and look out my window and watch the sun simply pour into my bedroom. I should be able to remember that I am not a summary of causes and tasks. When I focus on transitioning into a job or new friendships or positions of leadership, when I choose to eat and cry and dance and watch bad Netflix movies and go to therapy, I am not dismissing the other burdens on my heart; I am allocating space to all the things that should matter–including my mental and emotional health. I am choosing to see value in the numbered things I can process and do within the span of each day.

Are interludes a privilege? Perhaps. Some people do not have the luxury of a moment to simply breathe amidst the chaos around them. Should they still be encouraged? Yes, and our society needs to work at valuing the mental and emotional health of people of color and acknowledging that we are indeed finite and cannot fix America’s problems. We cannot be on-call 24/7 on race duty when there are also bills to pay, homework to finish, weddings to plan, vacations (yes vacations) to set off to. Those viewed as squatters must be given a room of their own and allowed to live rather than expected to just survive.

For myself, I must move towards trusting God to mourn and act transcendent of my limitations; in fact, I must depend upon it. My Doom is to be a woman of color who doesn’t have to save my race or be defined by tasks unchecked. Thank God for that.