Cultural Loss: White People at Powwow

11 05 2010

In the process of retracing one’s history, the intimately personal as well as the broad cultural history of one’s own people, we move through many stages of experience; from awe and phenomenal grief, to acceptance and gratitude, to fear and simmering rage, everything in between, sometimes many at once, sometimes all of them in a day. Anzaldúa speaks potently of these movements, sometimes related to loss of cultural self, sometimes to the little deaths of the personal self that knock at our door each day and invite a deeper knowing.

In this moment, though I’m just tired. Not in the exasperated, “I don’t want to deal with it anymore” sense we mean when we say, “I’m just tired,” since that wouldn’t account for my fierce desire to know what’s real. I mean tired in the way where your body aches a little though not anywhere in specific and a damp sadness seems to saturate your skin, though you haven’t been out in the rain. It pervades your being. I guess you could call it existential, but even that seems too rational a description of the subtle fatigue that creeps. I also just came back from a three days of a truly awesome powwow, spent with some of my best friends who I haven’t seen in quite some time, so the prospect of sitting down to write about loss feels like a buzz kill.

And yet, maybe the heels of powwow is the perfect time to talk about loss. Inevitably, Stanford Powwow (in particular, since it’s in the middle of Palo Alto) attracts a wide audience of natives and non-natives. Some are at the beginning of their seasonal powwow trail that will last for months into the summer, an annual ritual of dancing, singing, and contesting at each venue before heading out to the next venue with your family. For others, this is their very first powwow, having come at the invitation of a friend or seen a bumper sticker on their drive down el camino, intrigued by the word and its many “Ws.”

I spent most of the weekend walking around with Marlon whose astute sense of “between the lines” people-watching makes for great conversation. Early on Saturday, he commented on a white lady’s outfit- a sarape and blue skirt with suspicious leather sandals- and asked “do you think coming to a powwow makes people conform their dress to what they think looks native?” (Marlon was wearing slacks, a nice grey (designer) sweater, a matching Coach scarf, brown designer shoes, and black Prada sunglasses; most of the host-drum singers sit in hoodies or powwow tee shirts with back-turned caps on). We looked around us and quickly took note of the (presumably, because you can’t really tell for sure) non-native people and sure enough, there was a decidedly composed indigenous feel to most of their dress. We spent the remaining two days counting examples: “one, sarape,” “seventeen, Uggs and beaded earrings,” “forty-five, walking stick wrapped in tan leather-lace,” “sixty-six, eagle feather he probably shouldn’t have and a stuffed bobcat slung across his back” and so on. The white people are always indicative of the general quality of white peoples’ relationship to natives in the United States, like little thermometers that tell you the many temperatures of how dominant culture relates to Indian country. Sitting with Steph Tsosie at powwow two years ago, I remember a white guy coming up to us and asking if there was a list of all the tribes at powwow. All of them? Like, in their totality? Another white guy came up to the front tent and said, “I heard there were a bunch of important chiefs here. Do you know where I can find them? I saw one guy wearing some feathers on his head- I think he’s one of them- but I wondered if you knew where the rest were.” Sorry, buddy. They just valiantly rode off into the horizon and you missed them. Better luck next year. Early Saturday morning, five white girls from Paly High across the street came dressed in war paint, mini skirts, and moccasins, like they were attending a Pocahontas convention.

The assumptions of spectacle that white people bring to “cultural” events like powwow is, to choose a diplomatic word, instructive. On the one hand (the most important hand), powwow isn’t in the least concerned with white people and what they think. On the one hand, powwow is useful to highlight the vibrancy of Native Americans culture(s), their persistence even in the face of a mainstream society that sees them as (dead and) historical. On the (other) other hand, the incredible sense of voyeurism and consumption that white people bring to powwow is mind blowing. After the jingle dress special today, I was standing next to my friend Lauren (who was still wearing her dress), chatting about the contest, and over the course of ten minutes or so several (white) people stood off about ten feet, pointing and focusing their cameras, taking pictures, moving around her to try and get a better angle. Some had the courtesy to ask, but most didn’t. Some carefully placed their child in the frame- still avoiding actual contact with the Indian object (Lauren)- and told them to smile. Lauren and I stared at the ground as we continued our conversation and tried to position our bodies away from the camera.

You can tell it’s important to these people that they get the right photo, to document that they saw a real Indian before they fade back into the obscurity of their Media-mediated imaginations, or actually die off altogether, like a Lion they see on Safari whose tenuous existence is only protected by the institution that “compassionately” houses them.

More than a little uncomfortable, she turned to me and asked, “Do your people think this is a zoo?”

I wrote earlier that voyeurism is the ignorance of colonial consciousness writ large. It denies what’s true- that we are present- but you can tell in most white people’s composure that they see themselves and function as distant observers, not participants. They show up, get the experience, catalogue it, chronicle it, then slide back into the comfortable soma haze of their lives until the urge for commodified sustenance takes hold of them again. I use the word “commodified,” because the way they relate to the world- and especially identifiably “cultural” experiences- suggests they see a petite package of experience they can ingest in order to make them more…“something.” The something is undefined, but the frenzy of it all, the excitement of witnessing the ethnic other in their native habitat, is so indicative of their relationship to reality: they see themselves as outside of it, separate from it. Powwow isn’t the only place this happens, obviously, but it’s one of the most blatant and egregious.

Lauren asks me why. Why do white people do this? The only thing Indians show up to powwow to consume is fry bread and coffee, she says. Consumption as a task is marginal to the primary task of singing and dancing and sharing a good time with your family, maybe you place in a contest if you dance/sing well. But white people show up because they think they’re going to get something, something authentic (whatever that is), something genuinely cultural, since their own sense of culture is so irreparably depleted and they desperately long to fill the void. “We don’t have a culture, so we’ll just come and watch yours and we’ll feel culturally sophisticated while we maybe buy some bead work, then we’ll go back to our culture-free world where we live and…well, God knows where you’ll go. Do they even have reservations anymore?” seems to be the underlying narrative. You can see it in their innocent quixotic eyes.

This is such an old, old story.

And it makes me tired. Today, I gave myself the privileged indulgence of just wanting to hang out with my friends without the constant violations of white peoples’ eyes and cameras and thoughts. I didn’t even care that I was white and hanging out with my native crew as I might have years ago; just so long as these white people weren’t so violently entitled in their voyeurism and exotification. It was a moment of weakness on my part, but I was tired. Mar could tell so he joked and told me to keep my relatives in line.

You can get to a place in your vision of the world where everything white people do (almost everything) is an attempt to recover their lost cultural selves. I don’t sense the pull in my own heart as much as I used to; that pull to belong because you know where you came from that white people lack. The truth is I don’t belong and now that I know why, I don’t have to try any more. It’s not a resignation so much as a realization. In a way, this gives way to a deeper sense of belonging, one not rooted in the endless search for contrived validations that never fully satisfy. The (invisible) culture white people have set up for themselves is premised on the notion of who does and does not belong. I partly wonder if it isn’t an unconscious response to that suppressed experience of invaders; we know we don’t belong so we’ll make it seem like you don’t belong in order to make ourselves more comfortable in our continued violations. Then, in your marginalization and distance from us, we’ll observe you to remind ourselves of what we’ve given up while we pretend that we have it all and that you’re worse off. This is the irony of their own incidental self-othering, and the violence of it in all directions.

And it’s tiring sometimes. I don’t mean that in a quaint way. It’s not quaint. But from this place, it’s rare you meet a white person who isn’t saddled with the unconscious grief of loss, and it’s tiring to bear witness to it constantly, now that I know what I’m actually seeing. I used to think I was just seeing patriarchical assholes whenever a rich white guy condescendingly flaunted his affluence or paternalized his wife in plain view, but now I know I’m seeing unfathomable loss and its pathology beneath the facade. It may not be apparent at first, but it never takes long to reveal itself in their speech, in their posture, in their gaze. Now it’s a sense that just registers in my body before thought. Marlon calls it “picking up faxes.”

Sometimes it’s easy to have compassion for the white experience of loss, usually when it’s acute and you see them searching for an answer they’ve hidden away from themselves- it was my experience for so long (and still is sometimes)- but in those moments when the mechanism of the colonial mind is running the show, the mind that sees everything as available for consumption, sympathy is more difficult to muster. Not when my loved ones become the object of the white void’s hunger. Not when instead of seeing a whole and complete human being, they see an image in their mind of the docile domestic native performing a nostalgic ritual dance that they can capture on digital film. At the very least, it hurts my friends’ feelings (and mine). And it utterly fails to acknowledge the fact that she just danced her ass off for 30 minutes and looked damn good. It fails to acknowledge all the hours of work that went into making her dress, all the hands and hearts that were involved, all the hours practicing her side step, all her life.

A (white) woman walks up and asks, “Is your tribe here?” Lauren just furrows her face in confusion. Like, all of them? What kind of person would ask such a ridiculous question? Someone unbelievably lost.

Today I wanted to enjoy powwow with my friends; friends who are dear to me. And I did. Tanaya came in from Boulder, Mar came down from the city and stayed the whole weekend, and Lauren was there to dance and help her dad out with security. We laughed all day, Mar gossiped enough for all of us, and the weather was almost perfect. I spent more time watching the contesting than in previous years, because the dancers were so exceptional, especially the jingle dress dancers and the fancy shall dancers. All the singers were on point too, especially the host northern drum, Swift Cloud. So, I let myself play for once in a long time, in this little time out of “real” life when powwow is all that exists and my best friends are all with me and it’s really beautiful. And there’s a lot of love. And there’s a lot of loss too. I’m sure more could be said, more eloquently, but there it is.