art · graduate school · memoir · Native American Studies · personal · Writing

Emerald City Nostalgia and Red Dirt Revelations

I wrote this piece as part of an application to a writer’s residency. It’s a new kind of writing for me, but it’s the kind of writing that I want to do–intellectual work informed by personal experience. My intellectual pursuits makeup most of my life, and I always feel as if my academic projects contain a great deal of memoir, even when the personal is masked for the purpose of the genre. This piece is strange. I alternate between loving it and thinking it’s not nearly good enough. But, it’s going out into the world either way. 

Gray sky, evergreen trees, salty-seaweed air, and the pungent smell of fish. In the air, moisture that’s too heavy to be mist, but too light to be rain. At times it’s difficult to tell whether it comes from the sky, the ground, or is simply the residue of some past time trying to hold its shape.

My clearest memory of these childhood excursions to Seattle is the totem pole.

The city prides itself on its Native American heritage. Along with the totem pole, there are orcas and salmon, bears and wildcats, in the traditional styles of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, embedded in the tiles of the SeaTac airport floor and walls, in the pavement of the Seattle Center pavilion, by the Science Center. The totem pole, to me, was ancient. As a girl of six or seven, freckle-faced, big-eyed, running into people as I stared, entranced by the gaze of the animals, stacked on top of each other, reaching, what seemed, to be hundreds of feet into the air. The colorful wood contrasted with the green and gray of the emerald city skyline.

All I knew of this totem pole was that Indians made it. In my mind, Indians wore feathers and buckskins. They had helped the pilgrims on the first Thanksgiving. They had powwows, tomahawks, and tom-toms. They said “how.” And, as far as I knew, there weren’t any in Seattle.

Twenty-year-old me found herself on her way to Oklahoma. I knew little of the place. I expected oil wells, tornadoes, and open, rolling prairies. Oklahoma used to be part of Indian Territory, part of the “west” in old cowboy and Indian Westerns I loved watching with my dad and my grandpa, and it was the end of the Trail of Tears.

Over the years, the Oklahoma prairie winds stripped the salt smell from my skin, and the moisture from the air, leaving me parched, thirsty. Red Dirt Country, that’s what this place is called. Red Dirt Country, because of the iron-rich, clay-based soil. Red Dirt Country where, during my first couple years of residence, a “Red Earth Heritage” exhibit opened at the Oklahoma Science Center. I walked through, looking at artifacts, photos, and maps of the Trail of Tears. My stomach swooped when, on a map, I saw that some of those forced on the grueling march came from as far away as Washington. My state.

The exhibit evoked other memories. The Pacific Science Center’s exhibit, showcasing longhouses, and the traditional tribal life of … I can’t remember whose. I’ve been unable to find the details about this exhibit. Maybe it wasn’t at the Science Center; maybe it was elsewhere. I remember a life-sized longhouse, so I think perhaps the featured people were the Duwamish. The only local tribe I knew of as a child, however, was the Macah, and all I knew was that they wanted to kill whales. I never heard about how the Duwamish worked to build the city, or how the urbanization of the area and the local indigenous populations’ willingness to provide labor created a complex ecology that later led to the high rate of homelessness among Indigenous Seattleites.[1] I never knew that the homeless I passed on the street, offering my peanut butter sandwich to, were likely to be Native Americans.

In the final stretch of my doctorate in English, I’m studying constructions of ethnicity in America. I’ve learned a great deal since I was that little girl staring at an “artifact” of a “lost” culture on the Seattle streets. In Oklahoma, I’ve learned something about the truth of my hometown. As a transplant, in this strange, dry-clay soil, my home has transformed into a not- quite sparkling Emerald City. My academic education recalls vividly blurred memories that lack in the definitive clarity and fact-based detail academic writing requires. The hidden past lurks in the mist, under the waves, in the sour-sweet salty air, and it attempts to obscure the present and control the future.

My study of American ethnicity began with a project examining the use and representation of Native American characters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That morphed into a study of nostalgia, and how nostalgia connects to race and ethnic representation, how it has been key in forming national ideologies. My most recent project analyzes the Chickasaw Nation’s self-construction of identity and sovereignty in digital spaces. This project was difficult to write in many ways, because a great deal of the groundwork involved working past frustration at the state of my discipline. There’s been a long-standing consensus that the literary canon, and the canon in all other fields, needs to be revised, to be more inclusive, to have more people of color, more women, and so on. In spite of this consensus, however, reached far before my entrance into the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, I went through my undergraduate career reading a canon comprised mostly of dead white men. It wasn’t until my doctoral program that I read a novel by a person of color. Yes, I read Native American “creation stories” (in translation). I read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life and Harriet Jacobs’s, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I learned about the horrors of slavery, lynching, the disenfranchisement of black Americans. I learned very little, however, outside of what was already commonly accepted in history and the canon. I did not read Sherman Alexie, or Louise Erdrich; nor Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin. No bell hooks, either, until I was a graduate student. Jodi Byrd, a Chickasaw scholar, argues that for the U.S. to be able to maintain the myth of its liberal democratic humanism, is dependent upon the Myth of the Vanishing Indian—that is, that the U.S., to maintain its false construction of its identity, depends upon American Indians being dead, or at least dwindling. It seems that academia is complicit in this quest to maintain myth. It’s no accident, not a result of faulty memory, that as a child, I was unaware of still existing Native Americans.

As I study the construction of nostalgia, race, ethnicity, identity, I realize that I’m studying my own nostalgia as well. My memories of my home are forever altered by Coll Thrush’s history of Native American contributions to the urban development of Seattle. The totem pole that held me riveted as a child is the Chief-of-All-Women pole, a former repository of the ashes of a Tlingit woman drowned on her way to visit a relative. The pole was stolen, her ashes discarded, in 1899 by a group of men visiting Alaska from Seattle.[2] The pole was erected in Pioneer Place Park and serves as one example of Seattle’s Native American heritage. My memories of first seeing this towering totem pole, fifty feet in height, shatter under the pressure of the truth of its theft; it is a memorial, torn from its place of origin, treated as a tourist attraction, and not honored or understood for its original intention.

This knowledge alters not only my childhood memories, but also twists and shifts my memories and beliefs about my field of study, straining at my personal construction of my reality. I believed academia was supposed to be the way to save the world. More than that, as a young woman struggling to overcome a life of trauma, academia was supposed to be my personal saving grace, and it had let me down. The nostalgic haze that surrounds my undergraduate and graduate literature courses tarnishes, losing the rose-colored tint.

Sitting at my computer, hostility welled up and spilled out through the keys. “Kennedy has the gall to suggest that Native Americans had no rhetoric prior to European contact.” A bit heavy handed. “Kennedy is a Eurocentric twit.” That’s worse. Delete. “The academy is too damned Eurocentric.” So what? This has already been said. Stale accusation seemed to be all I could produce. The problems had already been addressed, the need for action already proven. Yet, my research demonstrated that none had been taken, or at least not nearly enough.

The ecology of the academy remains conservatory in nature, preserving rather than expanding, reshaping, and growing. In her article, “Places to Stand: The Practices and Politics of Writing Histories” Christa J. Olson discusses the turn toward a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to the writing of rhetorical histories.[3] Olson discusses the need for a consideration of the entire ecology that makes up a given community: the intersections of history, place, politics, art, and religious practices all come together to create the ground in which rhetorical practices grow and develop.[4] This kind of ecological examination needs to be applied to the structure of the academy itself.

Reflecting on the ecologies of the academy, the material reality that conflicts with the ideals of the liberal arts education, I also considered the ecologies that make up my personal position of privilege. As a woman, an atheist (living in Oklahoma), and a person without an excess of financial means, I often feel marginalized. I am a minority in some senses. But, I could put on the right clothes and at least one of my marginalized positions (my economic status) would be hidden. I don’t have to be open about my status as an atheist and my religious upbringing means I can quote the Bible and fake a prayer. The fact that I’m a woman can’t really be hidden, so that’s a marginalized position I always have to inhabit. Still, though, as a white woman who can talk the talk of Christianity, the situations within the United States where I can’t put on the show of belonging will be few and far between. As long as I cover my tattoos, I am unmarked. So I’m not going to pretend that I can fully appreciate or understand the positions and experiences of people of color, people who identify somewhere on the spectrum of sexuality and gender that is not hetero-normative, people whose worth and humanity and right to live as the unmarked live, goes questioned every day. I’m not going to pretend I understand that. Even though I’ve experienced discrimination, harassment, and violence, it’s been on a different scale. Like I said, I can choose to go unmarked.

When I sit down to write about John Steinbeck’s use of Native Americans in The Grapes of Wrath, or the Chickasaw Nation’s ability to maintain their status as a sovereign nation, I am hesitant because I am concerned about the power of my voice. I don’t want my voice to drown out those who have been and are still silenced. Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety of influence that writers feel, when they think about failing to surpass the talent of their forbears.[5] I feel that anxiety, and it is indeed an anxiety about doing the same things my forbears did. But I’m not worried that I won’t be able to surpass them, because, frankly, that’s a narcissistic concern. I do worry, though, that I won’t break free of their habit of silencing voices, and that I will further the perpetuation of oppression and the dominance of white supremacist, hetero-normative, patriarchal, capitalist, imperialist colonialism.

Consider Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd’s assertions in “In the City of Blinding Light.” Byrd explains that the success of the United State’s liberal democratic dream depended upon the extinction of the indigenous population of the North American continent. The fact that Indigenous Studies is often marginalized, or treated as a “special interest” project, and that racism against indigenous peoples is still perpetuated in the national ideology, is symptomatic of the unwholesome fact that the United States, as a colonizing force, is founded upon acts of genocide. Hardly surprising, then, when it remains popular to think of Indigenous Americans as vanishing (or vanished) and in need of continuing colonial protection and governance. The liberal humanistic vision depends upon the belief that we are post-racial. Byrd emphasizes the treatment of Indigenous Americans as if they are gone, and the anthropological nature of much of Indigenous Studies. Scholars like Phillip Deloria and Scott Richard Lyons both thoroughly establish the ways in which indigenous peoples are parts of living and growing cultures, rather than stagnant and unchanging artifacts that must be preserved. The fact that the argument must be made that Indigenous Americans are still living speaks to the ideological and political construction of indigenous peoples within settler-colonial discourse. Essentially, ideologically and politically, the United States has applied a screen of nonexistence and death to indigenous peoples. If they are treated as if they no longer exist, or if they are soon to pass out of existence, there is no need to respect political rights, sovereignty, or even to treat Indigenous Americans as human beings equal to and deserving of the same rights as the settler-colonists. In light of this, the often “anthropological” nature of Indigenous Studies becomes even more disturbing. While it is necessary to do historical work and look at the past, Indigenous Americans are continually constructed as if that is the only place they reside. For Byrd, Indigenous Studies is treated almost as a footnote, or an appendix, not considered part of the main body, and certainly not at the center of cultural studies or even at the center of our national story.

In light of this colonialist ecology, and in light of this ecology that exists within the humanities, I realized that my voice is needed. My position of privilege can be used, not to conserve but to redeem. Rather than working to include texts by finding a way to make them fit within the existing framework, my goal is to break and rebuild the framework, to find a way to clear the tarnish of faulty nostalgia and reconcile constructions and memories of the past with the reality of the present, and the goals of the future.

The Chief-of-All-Women pole stands in Pioneer Place Park disconnected and divorced from its original purpose, symbolizing the unique spirit of Seattle in a once-foreign but now familiar ecology. In Oklahoma red dirt, my skin barely remembers ocean breeze and mountain air. This once-foreign ecology is now familiar, shedding light on my past and reframing the future.

[1] Coll-Peter Thrush, Native Seattle: Histories From the Crossing-Over Place, University of Washington Press, 2007.

[2] Thrush, Native Seattle, pg. 113.

[3] Christa J. Olson, “Places to Stand: The Practices and Politics of Writing Histories.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric. 15.1 (2007): 82.

[4] Christa J. Olson, Constitutive Visions: Indigeneity and Commonplaces of National Identity in Republican Ecuador. Penn State University Press, 2014.

[5] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1973.

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