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Changing the Story

I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.

Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.

So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)

Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.

Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.

STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.

Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.

STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?

Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…

Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.

Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.

STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?

(end scene)

Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?

The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.

But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.

And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.

Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.

But I Don’t Have a Culture…

…so why can’t I borrow yours? Yours is so cool. I’m so fascinated. I’ll give it back. I promise.

Half-awake this morning I had a dream that I was speaking to a large group of women of various ages, sizes and colors. I talked about culture, identity and history. I had a U.S. History textbook as a prop. I talked in fragments. None of it was cohesive but it was exactly what I needed to say. Since I didn’t completely understand it, I thought I’d share it with you here.

I said that I was curious about why some people take spiritual traditions and symbols from other cultures. Culture and spirituality are strongly connected. Many white people feel they have no culture, so they are fascinated by indigenous culture and want to “incorporate” it into their life. Yet African-American, Asian-American and Native culture has been systematically attacked, disabled and erased. So “borrowing” cultural spiritual traditions is never without consequence.

My Maternal Great-Great-Grandparents

I am a first-generation German-American immigrant. I can trace my ancestors on my father’s side back three generations. I do not know the names of my paternal great-grandparents or where they came from. My mother’s people come from the Lowlands in Missouri. They can trace their line back to the American colonies, and before that, Scotland and England.

This United States history book has pictures of people who look like me. But it does not tell the whole story, or the true story, even though it pretends to.

At times I have been jealous of my Native and African-American friends because they have ancestors to talk to, a culture of stories and proverbs, symbols and prayers. Much has been lost and destroyed, but the connection is still there. This moment of envy is when I begin to reach towards tokens, toward taking/owning/possessing.

I believed I didn’t have any ancestors. Then I said the word Nazi and they showed up. They do not want me to use that word. Then I said the words poor white trash and they showed up. They do not like those words.

When giving a lecture, one ought to be organized and systematic. Organization is something the system depends on. “Alles in Ordnung” is a common saying among my people.

My people have often been afraid of chaos. We believe that organization keeps us safe. Organization also makes us superior.

The system that wrote and approved and published and distributed this history book organizes people easily. On the one hand are those who work hard. On the other hand are those who are lazy. Those who are good. Those who are bad. Those who are honorable. Those who are devious. Those who are white. Those who are not white produit equivalent au viagra.

This is why my lecture is disorganized. Because I am trying to reach for a different way of being in the world that is not organized. I am trying to speak from my belly.

My envy of those with ancestors makes me uneasy. I know that I have ancestors and a cultural identity and a history. My history is not a good one.

Among my ancestors are oppressors, murderers and thieves. Many of my ancestors are harsh and indifferent, selfish and cowardly. Some days I think that if I could disown them, I would, but I can’t. So I envy others their suffering. There is an idea among my people that suffering is somehow noble. It is a very bad idea.

I stop the lecture and I look at everyone. Somehow we have to find a way outside this organization, I think. Somehow we have to talk to each other.

Please say your name, I tell those listening to me. No one says anything. They are at a lecture, after all. I have to repeat it and finally people start talking. Everyone says their name. I can feel everyone start to show up in the room.

Now please say your grandmother’s name, I say, and this time the names come quicker. I say “Elizabeth” and “Phoebe.” I can feel everyone’s grandmothers start to show up in the room. It is starting to get crowded.

Now please say your great-grandmother’s name if you know it. I say “Charlotte” and “Mabel.” I don’t know if Charlotte is the right name, but I *think* it is, so I say it anyway. Now the room is getting very noisy, with all these ancestors talking to one another.

I am supposed to be giving a lecture. I do not want to freak anyone out with my woo-woo stuff because I can see and hear these ancestors. But we are onto something, I think, we can’t stop now. So I say If anyone has a message from her grandmother or great-grandmother, can she please stand up and share it. After a person shares we will answer with “We hear you.” I sit down.

It takes a little bit, but the people start talking. One woman says she is very tired and her whole body hurts all over. We hear you. Another says we ought to be ashamed for ignoring our ancestors. We need to listen up! We hear you. Another says she is sorry and starts to cry. We hear you. Someone else says she thinks this is a stupid exercise and wasn’t this supposed to be a lecture? We hear you.

The talking goes on and on, and we go over our allotted time, and I am glad. I wish that this wasn’t a dream I was having but a real-life chance where I could hear everyone’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers talk.

Eventually we are done talking, and we have a moment of silence. Then I ask everyone to hold hands in a circle and even though it is not usually done, we do that. Some people have left early and some people are confused or sad or smiling. I say a blessing in the language of my people which ends with “Go in peace.”

Part of me is wondering what just happened, because something DID happen, but it wasn’t planned and fairly unorganized, so I am not sure what it was. But it seems important, so I remembered this dream and I am writing it down here for you now.

Spiritual Theft & Soul Sickness

Stealing has always seemed fairly harmless to me. I don’t mean bank robbery, I mean filching. You know, sampling from the olive bar at New Seasons, running a red light, stealing second base. Breaking the law just a little; seeing how much I can get away with. I suspect that my attitude has something to do with my white entitlement (no one would seriously accuse me of lawbreaking, right?).

Today I’m noticing this kind of thievery of spiritual beliefs and practices. If something spiritual resonates with me, I don’t usually stop and ask: Where specifically did this symbol, sacred story, word, legend, image come from? Who does this story belong to? On what authority does this spiritual leader teach?

Last night I attended a workshop on Native American spirituality. As his primary text, the facilitator used a book by Hyemeyohsts Storm. Researching the author this morning on the internet gave me a massive headache. Not only is Chuck Storm not Native, but he is popular among non-Native people who don’t care that he’s a fraud.

One of the ways racism hurts me as a white person is in fooling me that my actions are harmless. If I make a mistake and accidentally appropriate Native American culture and religion, I can just apologize. After all, I mean well. No harm, no foul, right?

Except that three white people died in 2009 in a fake “sweat lodge” built by a white man who stole and twisted Native American spiritual beliefs and traditions. (This man’s trial is due to conclude this week.) Being purely selfish, death seems like a pretty good reason to pay close attention to what spiritual practices we “borrow” and who we elect to follow for spiritual wisdom.

Every time non-native people hang a dreamcatcher on their rear view mirror, pay to go on a vision quest or sign up for shamanism training, we perpetuate genocide against indigenous people by desecrating and distorting their faith traditions…and we compromise our own authentic spirituality. Stealing is a serious illness and an exercise of supremacy. If we don’t respect the sacred beliefs of another culture how can we truly cultivate lovingkindness and compassion?

For my own part, this morning’s research convicted me to take responsibility for the spiritual practices, symbols and images I put on my altar. I want my ways of knowing and celebrating the Sacred to increase justice in the world….both for others and for my own wholeness. Otherwise my spiritual practice is not merely empty but ultimately destructive.

What do you think? Is it okay to adopt a spiritual practice from a culture/faith which is not yours?


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