Believing the Worst
There was recently a mean-spirited article questioning whether or not the dearly departed Russell Means was Oglala or not. The article repeated a lot of gossip and innuendo and presented it as fact in a way that had a very obvious agenda: smear. Discredit. Dishonor. I won’t cite the article; if anyone wants to find it, they can look it up themselves. I don’t know the brother who wrote it so I cannot judge him;
I certainly know the temptation to pick fights with those around you instead of those who oppress you. I hope he realizes that Native people do not have to be adversarial with each other despite white supremacy teaching us otherwise.
The fact is that Russell Means was a servant that did a lot to benefit ALL Native people. He was human, just like all of us; no one is above reproach. Yet, cheap shots, gossip and personal vendetta should not be a part of that critique.
But cheap shots, gossip and personal vendetta become a part of the critique when white supremacy causes the oppressed to “always believe the worst about themselves.” White supremacy causes oppressed people to attack each other and magically turns gossip into fact and cheap shots into irreparable harm and none of it benefits the oppressed people, in this case Native people. In fact, it harms us.
We’re seeing a lot of that right now.
We’ve all watched as leaders within the #NoDAPL movement were accused of stealing money. Almost all of the leaders, at one time or another, accused of impropriety by other Native people. I’ve seen as some of my sheroes and heroes have been accused of being Tiger Swan and ETP operatives. Ouch. I’ve watched as Cornel West has pounced on Ta-Nehisi Coates in public instead of giving him a phone call.
Now public debates can be a good thing—they can be very healthy when it’s not simply a part of the toxic call-out culture. But the problem is that when members of oppressed groups get along, it’s not newsworthy. But as soon as there is a disagreement, those separations are given a special prominence because in a voyeuristic, capitalistic society, white folks love to see brown and black folks fight. Modern-day Mandingo Fighting. It reminds me of Derrick Bell’s “Third Rule of Racial Standing,”
Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The usual exception to this rule is the black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other blacks …”
We’re oftentimes given the platform specifically to tear each other down. It’s not an accident.
We oftentimes don’t realize we’re being used, that we’re doing the work of white supremacy when we air out our grievances in public. We oftentimes do not realize how easy it is for us to attack each other because of we’ve seen Native and brown and black people being attacked for centuries.
It’s not our fault we attack each other. We’ve been conditioned. We do not realize the reason anyone cares is because it is entertaining for outsiders to watch the weirdo family squabbles and internal dysfunction. Gives people a sense of normalcy. Why do you think The Jerry Springer Show and Maury are still on the air after all these years?
So we just have to be careful that it’s not us on the world’s Jerry Springer or Maury show.
On Blood Quantum
The article in question was actually framed as a book review of a book entitled Russell C. Means: The European Ancestry of a Militant Indian (1939-2012). In the article, the author alleges that Russell Means was “was mostly Wasicu, and he has not one drop of Oglala blood.” As a result, even though he “was able to cast himself as a genuine Lakota warrior…Hagan has the research to indicate he was not what he claimed.” That’s the premise of the article. He was not born Oglala, so he couldn’t be Oglala.
Obviously, this notion reeks of destructive white man definitions of who’s Native and who’s not. Many Native Nations have been having intense conversations about this very thing—“Lower blood quantum? Move toward language and/or residency requirements?” The conversations are intense, necessary and encouraging; it is a part of self-determination, that Native Nations actually control the question about “Who Belongs” ourselves. Citizenship.
I don’t know the answer. I believe that biology has something to do with citizenship. I think that making citizenship only about biology is short-sighted; it can’t just be about ethnicity, I don’t think, because it was never only about biology before. I think that language and residency also have something to do with it. I know that to be a citizen of any nation in the world, you have to take some language competency test and also pay taxes. Perhaps those things have something to do with it? Either way, it’s obviously up to individual nations how they define citizenship.
Those are just one person’s opinion. The only question that really matters is not “Do you claim that Nation?” but instead “Does the Nation claim you?”
I don’t know a ton about Elder Russell Means other than his service to Native people. I’m not sure how productive it is to posthumously question his status as an Oglala citizen; Ogala claimed him. Who the hell are we to tell a Nation that they were wrong? That seems to reek of the worst kind of white supremacy in the world. Even assuming that the white woman who wrote this book was correct that he was not born Oglala, if the Oglala Nation says that he is Oglala, then that tells me that Oglala does not accept white man notions of who’s Native and who’s not.
That seems like a good thing.
There’s no quick answer. Native people have been under attack for a long time so it’s easy to just replicate that behavior ourselves and think that it is normal. It’s not. But it will take some time and dedication to get to a place of healthfulness—it’s a choice. We will get there though because Native people can peacefully exist together. And believing the best about ourselves is an important step in that.
Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and a storyteller. He is a member of the Blackfeet (Amskapikipikuni) Nation and his family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is the co-host of the Breakdances With Wolves: Indigenous Pirate Radio podcast. He can be reached at Instagram and Twitter at: @BigIndianGyasi