I remember looking out the window of my mother’s car as she drove me home after school. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “I was Indian before it was cool,” on a curiously pristine 1982 black Datsun with the tacky neon decal scribbles on the side. I instantly imagined the driver riding a zoomorphic horse version of his awesome truck. No saddle. Stereotypically ribbon-like Native hair blowing in the wind. The fantasy Native is easy for anyone to imagine.
And despite being a rather naive 14 years old, I had an inkling of the kind of person the sticker referred to. Having grown up closer to a reservation than a college town (i.e., hundreds of miles away from anyone who’d wear a headdress for fun), I knew it had to be an earthy variety of white person almost foreign to me. I’d occasionally see them at powwows – sore, pale thumbs wading dumbly in a crowd of melanin, interested in soaking up all the culture the Southwest has to offer. But where did they come from? Surely if my people had homelands, they did too. (Or maybe they didn’t and that’s why they colonized the world.) I became accustomed to the tannic variety of white people; the reservation border town white people who would try to convert me to Christianity and wave confederate flags (sometimes at the same time, like a Spanish Inquisition color guard), not ones who’d ask me questions like, “Wow! Like, yeah so have you been on a vision quest?” or casually don a pair of dreamcatcher earrings in my presence. Because that’s what dreamcatchers are for, wearing on your ears when you’re awake.
I can almost detect sense of disbelief at my presence when people tell me I’m the first Native they’ve ever met. There’s a tinge of disappointment in some people’s voices that tells me they weren’t expecting me and I’ve somehow ruined the fun. It’s as if they’ve spent their entire lives with this image in mind of what an ”Indian” is like and in comparison I’m profoundly disappointing with my wavy hair, shifty eyes, indifference to alcohol. The only chief I know is Chief Keef (bang bang). The real life “Indian” spoils the fantasy and crashes the appropriation party. She tells you your Minnetonka moccasins look stupid, spends her Halloweens wishing someone would walk past her in a headdress. She thinks Dan Snyder should keep his blankets, but not his football team (and their losing record). She won’t be your mascot and she’s not your sexy squaw.
Fall of my sophomore year of high school my uncle and my aunt died, leaving their son and daughter (ages 12 and 7 at the time, respectively) orphaned. The family gathered in the kitchen to break the news to my cousins while I sat in the adjacent living room. After a few moments I could hear muffled weeps through the walls, then silence. Silence for a long time. Time moves pretty slowly right after people die. And then laughter. At first I thought they were the high energy cries that sound like laughter, but no. This was actual something-funny-made-me-laugh laughter. And then time sped up. You see, my family, like a lot of other Native families, can’t be serious for too long. Push aside those stoic “Indian” stereotypes in your mind because we laugh a lot. Even after people die. This isn’t to say that racist mascots, Pocahontas, and Tonto don’t have real negative psychological consequences for us, because they sure as hell do (exposure to them is correlated with a lower sense of self esteem and community worth in Native American people). But we all would have keeled over long ago from broken hearts and broken treaties if we didn’t sneak in a laugh or two (usually at the expense of white people). Laughter is a form of medicine. Laughter doesn’t buffer us from harm; it takes that harm and turns it into something beautiful.
So when I pass a girl on the main green in a crop top from Urban Outfitters with a Navajo rug design on it, on the most basic level, yes I am hurt. I am hurt because she probably doesn’t even know it’s a Native design. She probably doesn’t know that my mother’s parents would have had their mouths washed out with soap and been beaten with a cane if they dared to wear that same pattern to boarding school in the 40s. She probably doesn’t know that this pattern once told a story woven by a Navajo woman on a loom that rested on the earthen floor of a hogan. But that story has long since been lost, white-washed and beaten out of her children. This girl in this crop top doesn’t know that my culture exists, that I exist because in the mind of the American consciousness, Native Americans are dead. We’re costumes to put on when one feels like getting in touch with nature, we’re mere tools of “artistic” expression and not living, breathing, feeling people. It hurts when you’re nothing but a drunk, sexy, stoic, freeloading — but above all — defunct symbol to an entire continent that rightfully belongs to your people. We’re not vanished, but this girl thinks I’m more interesting when I’m dead. Her oblivion is so blatant and in such direct contradiction to my existence, it’s hilarious. So hilarious that I have to make eye contact with her and giggle in her face as I pass her.
I am alive and I am Indigenous and I am laughing at you.
By Myacah Sampson, Contributing Writer