BY DIANA PEREZ
“I think it’s a great day to buy a book by an Indigenous writer and tell another person about an Indigenous person who is making art that you love.”
Before I came to Ohio State, I spent a year in New York at Fordham University, figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. It was the year of the 2016 election–which was traumatizing in so many ways for so many people–so I spent a lot of time thinking about diversity and the representation of minority groups. When I finally got to Columbus, I deliberately chose my classes to help reveal the ways minority groups have been affected by our society, as well as to broaden my own list of beloved authors. So, in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 14, I sat down with my Native American literature professor, Elissa Washuta, who is a nonfiction writer, professor, and member of the Cowlitz tribe, to talk about writing, representation, and ally-ship.
Thinking a bit about community, what do you think are the differences between living in Ohio where there are no federally recognized tribes versus living in the Pacific Northwest where there is a lot of Native American visibility?
You know I’m still new here and learning, I definitely acknowledge that I haven’t been as active as I could be in learning where the other Native people are here. I’m connected with my Native colleagues here in the Ohio State system and Native staff and students. I don’t believe at all that federal recognition makes a tribe legitimate, but it does create a very real, palpable difference in Native presence in these states. I know where to find other Native folks, I know where to find other Cowlitz people, I know where my relatives are, and here it’s just a different context. It reminds me more of growing up in New Jersey where I didn’t know any other Native people living there. So here in Ohio, there’s definitely Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, Delaware, and other tribes’ history embedded in this land. People from those communities continue to have relationships with this place and there’s ancient evidence of other peoples’ relationships with this place who came before them in the earthworks. I am trying to learn piece by piece what relationships have been made with the land already and using those to inform my own relationship to the land as a visitor.
What do you think are the best ways to educate people on some of the kind of blatant attempts throughout history to erase Indigenous culture?
I only know small ways that aren’t necessarily the best and certainly aren’t the only ways. Because of the devastating effects of so much land theft and forced ceding of land, it’s really easy for non-native people to forget that this was all Indigenous land. That’s foundational to everything that happens here, it happens on Indigenous land. A lot of this land is unceded, Cowlitz land is unceded and there’s a lot of land that was straight-up stolen with no treaty documentation or anything. Everyday life is happening on stolen Indigenous land and there are hundreds and hundreds of sovereign nations within these borders that continue to be sovereign and always have been. I think there’s an ethical responsibility to, at the very least, recognize those sovereigns and their individual citizens. I see the ways in which we’re tokenized. Since our numbers have been so far reduced, I often see that people seem to think it’s sort of fine that we’re not really represented because of the reduction of our populations. I want to find a way to help adjust people’s thinking so that they recognize our presence.
Can you talk more to stereotyping in media and the ways that Native women are treated in fictional representations and how those representations affect the realities of Native women?
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the ways that representations of Native women in movies and TV have facilitated violence against them. Part of what has happened is that there is, repeatedly, again and again, this reinforced stereotype of Native women as docile and subservient and coy and quiet. Think of Emily in “Twilight.” With all of these representations, there is a reinforcing of this idea that this is a Native woman: she is docile, she is there to serve a man, she is pretty, she is compliant. Of course it’s a problematic and damaging representation because of the roles and responsibilities that Native women have had, there is a real power and sense of leadership that many Native women have been tasked and raised with. I think it’s absolutely set up for partner violence to have men looking for a fantasy of compliance and subservience, and look to a Native woman for fulfilment of that role. Violent men are going to be violent and I don’t want to blame Hollywood completely and absolve men of personal responsibility, but I’ve seen it play out.
How do you think that non-Native people can be good allies to Native Americans?
One thing that I notice and is very important to me is settlers really need to listen. And not listen in a limited way until they hear what they want to hear, but listen even when it’s uncomfortable and keep listening. Things that are hyper-palatable to white people, those are going to be the things that first turn up in a search, they’re easy to find. If a white person stops there, they’re going to [find] something that is not a great representation and not our representation. People have to keep going if they want to find more: read more broadly, watch more broadly, and keep digging and asking questions and listening to what’s already out there. I always recommend Twitter. I want people to listen and I want them to find ways to lift up the work that we’re already doing and facilitate the production of our work on our own terms. I think that’s a really key thing.
Who are some of your favorite Native authors and artists that you think people need to know about?
All of the authors from the Anthology (Stephen Graham Jones, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Eden Robinson, and Kim TallBear, amongst others). Blackbelt Eagle Scout is an amazing band, Jeremy Dutcher is also doing absolutely brilliant things with music, I also really love Demian DinéYazhi’ who is a visual artist and writer.
Finally, are you going to be celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day in any specific way this year? What do you think is a good way for non-Natives to celebrate?
You know I never think about it because I’m Indigenous every day, but I think it’s a great day to buy a book by an Indigenous writer and tell another person about an Indigenous person who is making art that you love. I’m going to be in Coast Salish territory doing a talk. It’s a holiday that I definitely appreciate especially because I don’t remember seeing statues of Christopher Columbus in Seattle. Coming here, I was trying to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal, but then I let myself feel that this is one piece of many that is a constant reminder of Indigenous erasure and conquest and celebration of genocide. I think it would be great if anyone who wants to celebrate it can consider what they would like to do to undo a little bit of that Indigenous erasure.
Professor Washuta is just one Native American woman, shaped by her own experience and tribe. If you’d like to learn more about how to celebrate and honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, start by listening and reading, both broadly and wisely, this October 14. You can check out Washuta’s most recent publication, “Shapes of Native NonFiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers,” or research your own. (I personally recommend poet Tommy Pico!)