Are You Native?

Tiffany Wismer

Photos by Gray Warrior

8-minute read
Under the dawning awareness of systemic racism, one group remains in shadow.

Imagine with me, if you will, a future society. 

It's the 27th century. Our world is now overrun by an alien race that destroyed their home planet several generations ago and, in need of a new place to live, invaded Earth. Their ancestors conquered our ancestors and took over. We know it was unpleasant, but most people don't remember the details. 

Today, there are many more of them than there are of us. But contemporary society is peaceful. They pretty much look like we do and are generally friendly. We all get along.

Of course, they brought their language (which we’ve been forced to learn) and a different religion (which we’ve been encouraged to adopt). In private gatherings, we still chat about the old world and speak the dead languages: English, French, Japanese, Spanish.

None of our traditions have any relevance in the modern world. It’s not even called Earth anymore. They renamed it after the dead world they left behind.

They took over New York, London, and Beijing. They took our farms, our museums, our ballparks. Everything has been repurposed to suit alien society. Humans (Native Earthlings, as they call us) were relocated to specified areas. We don’t get much say in what happens in their government. 

The aliens are amused by us. Our deep memories have become their trinkets and toys. They’ve named a few sports teams after us. We put up with it. 

One day, you hear your alien coworker conversing with another alien, a new hire. He asks the new guy a simple question. 

“So, are you native?”

The new guy says no, and explains that he’s originally from the East coast. And you say nothing because you’re tired of trying to educate aliens. They’re not bad people. They just don’t get it. 

• Human Dreams •

“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other… that every beating heart is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it.” - Charles Dickens

I met Felix Sanchez not long ago, who until just recently was Assistant Vice President for Communications at Colorado College. Felix grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. He has advocated for indigenous people since the day he walked out of his 6th-grade math class in protest, tired of hearing abusive, racist comments from his teacher.

We were talking about that bumper sticker that showed up in the 90s. You know the one.

“Me and a lot of native friends and natives that I work with were like ‘hey, have you seen that bumper sticker?’ and we had our own critique of white people using that word but also like “oh, I’m gonna get that bumper sticker because I am native and I am from Colorado, so I’m gonna have it be true in more than one sense.”

Felix laughs. He knows this won't even occur to most non-natives. He’s accepted it. 

We discuss raising awareness about the problems indigenous people face. Have faced. Will continue to face.

I ask whether land acknowledgments are helpful.

“For me, land acknowledgments are problematic,” he says. “We give a land acknowledgment, and now what? If you say it enough times in these spaces, it becomes rote. It becomes sort of the thing we have to do. Earnestness exists in the beginning, and the fact that this is respectful, and we should do this. But as time goes on, it becomes just another thing we have to do.” 

He pauses for a moment and then continues in a gentle voice. “I think also raising awareness about what is possible following a land acknowledgment. It’s really a hard thing to describe what that is because, you know, I can dream about what could happen.” 

“What do you dream about happening?” I ask.

“Give land back. That’s the biggest dream.”

• Birth and Belonging •

I moved here from California in the 90s. So, I remember that Are You Native? bumper sticker well. I don't remember the sticker spurring any thoughts about indigenous people.

But I was a white kid in a primarily white community, and obliviousness was my privilege. The problem wasn't even on my radar. Why fight for change in a world that suits me so well? 

I’ll admit I had a knee-jerk negative reaction when first presented with the idea of systemic racism. I automatically rejected it. That isn’t a thing, I thought. It can't be. After all, I'm not a racist. 

Like all trauma, this idea carries shame. Deep down, we know there’s some truth in it, or else we wouldn’t be so defensive. The first line of emotional defense is avoidance. Denial. 

The plight of indigenous people is like a trauma in our collective consciousness. We know something bad happened a long time ago, but we just want to move on and forget it. Problem is, in this case repressed memory translates into the functional erasure of a whole group of people. 

When Felix told me his dream of getting land back, I asked him to paint me a picture. What would that look like?

“Well, a lot of tribes have been removed, you know. I think particularly for the Ute, who used to be in this area. We are sitting right now on land that they used, where they would camp.”

The word native comes from the Latin nativus, from nat- which means ‘born.’ Think of nascent or nativity. This is a word that means birth. The question “are you native?” is akin to asking “were you born here?” and is what the bumper sticker is about. Proudly declaring, “I’m special because I was born here.” 

It gets deep when you start to think about the birth of a race. Like the aliens in my imaginary society, we took this land by force and we think it belongs to us. We assume the stage was dark preceding our entrance.

“For indigenous people, people and land are one and the same,” Felix told me. “There’s really no separation, whereas, throughout white history, land is an object, land is property, it’s something to be used and taken.”

There is a basic difference in mindset here. And there may not be an objectively correct answer. Is land a commodity? Or is it linked, on a spiritual level, to the humans that live and breathe on its surface? 

In any society which has grown from Colonialism, land is something you can own. But what if the identity of a people is inseparable from the land you own? Do you own them, too?

Of course not. Because if you did own them, you could make decisions about their future. You could dispose of them as easily as cutting down a grove of trees. You could move them as easily as moving a pile of stones. After all, if you owned them, they’d just be part of your land.

And that’s clearly not the case. At least, not anymore. Right?

• Moving Forward •

Native or non-native, we’re all living in a world set up for us by others. And facing the truth about what's wrong–especially wrongs as deeply rooted as the ones we’re discussing here–can feel impossible. 

This level of change doesn't happen overnight. But with enough patience and pressure over time, coal becomes diamond. Here are a few things we can do. 

The first is to absorb the reality that indigenous people are here. They are still here right now. This is not ancient history; this is a contemporary struggle.

“The way [land acknowledgments] are written,” Felix mentioned, “may sometimes give the perception that these people are long gone, they’re no longer here, they no longer have claim, they no longer have rights. And I think for the majority of non-native Americans, if they don’t have close proximity to tribal lands, or if they have never met an indigenous person, that perception may feel true.”

The second is to realize that what you do makes a real impact. Even small shifts in mindset can make a genuine difference.

“What is the most tangible action that non-native people can take, in our area?” I asked Felix. “How can we change things, change our mindset, or effect positive change?”

His reply was more personal than I expected. “I think also being open to other perspectives, doing some self-work if you’re a white American in believing that not everything belongs to you, not everything is available for your taking in terms of spirituality and cultural aspects. You’re not honoring me by wearing that headdress. You’re not honoring me by using a spiritual practice that you don’t understand.”

Thirdly, pay attention to legal action (or legal apathy) that does positive harm. 

“And I think the biggest impact people can make, really, is to pay attention to new laws or bills or anything in the legal realm that will impact people in indigenous communities in a harmful way.”

Felix said one other thing that stuck with me. 

“I think this goes back to another dream idea. How can we learn about stewardship of the land the way indigenous people would use it? Take only what you need, give back. The sense of agriculture was different. There were a lot more sustainable practices, like making sure the soil was still viable, and there was enough to feed the people, without overconsuming a certain area. Right now, especially in American culture, use of the land is all about consumption. Let’s take and take from it until it is depleted or dry or not sustainable.”

This is not such a leap, really. After all, we're not aliens on this planet. Somewhere deep down is a connection to the land in every one of us. Coloradans have a romance with the mountains, Californians with the sea. People in the Midwest wax eloquent about the rolling hills. 

But like a lover who's all talk, we neglect the very thing we feel passion for. There is no reason why we can't each make choices every day to foster a healthier relationship with the land. So why don't we? A deeper study of Native American culture and practices would be a good place to start. 

Why fight for change in a world that suits you so well? Easy. A world that suits everyone well might be kind of amazing. It might even be better than what we have now.

Imagine with me, if you will, a future society.

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