Saturday, May 15, 2010


This came up because someone asked me what I thought of PETA the other day.

My paternal grandfather moved to Massachusetts from Sicily. I seem to recall that he was a firefighter or something, but because he and my paternal grandmother were both married to other people, there isn't a lot of information about him to be had. My biological father reconnected with his half-siblings after his father's death, and I heard that this was kind of done in a... sort of crass manner. Knowing him, he probably walked in with a big sense of entitlement to the family he never had so everybody start loving him, damn it.

My mother's side is more complicated, and it's more interesting because we have more detail about it.

She did some geneology tracing, for which I am grateful. Means we have records of a lot of cool stuff now. Her great-grandfather (whom I remember, though he died when I was very young) was half-Kennebec (a tribe which was absorbed into the Penobscot, which was part of the Eastern Abenaki confederacy, for those of you who are curious in the whatnots and whyfores). He was a "half-breed" at a time when you DID NOT WANT to be of mixed-race. I guess he didn't like to talk about it, but I think my mother managed to make some connections anyway. I have a small sweetgrass basket and a silver and turquoise (and porcupine quill?) necklace that she was given to keep for me until I was old enough, and I do indeed still have them.

That was actually the source of my first little "a-ha" moment, the beginning of whatever racial consciousness I can claim. We were there for some kind of circle dance, and I remember being aware that it was important not to break the circle, not to leave, but I REALLY REALLY REALLY HAD TO PEE AND OMG I HAD TO PEE and I was a little girl so they laughed and said it was okay and I went back to their trailer to use the bathroom.

They had towels drying on a rack in the tub. There was a Barney towel. This blew my mind. INDIANS HAD BARNEY, TOO. It was then that it hit me. This world of beautiful jewelry and skilled crafting and dancing and reunions was actually the same world I lived in. Their kids watched the same television shows, whined in the store for their parents to buy them the same sorts of TV-inspired towels I owned (Power Rangers bath towels REPRESENT).

My mother traced her grandparents' ancestors back, and found that we've basically always been New Englanders. A ship came to our Eastern shore in the sixteen-hundreds (though I don't recall the year), and on that ship was an ancestor of my great-grandmother, and of my great-grandfather. New England is a small small world. When my great-grandparents met, did they realize that their ancestors might have known each other? Stuck on a boat for weeks or months at a time, how could they not?

Then things get fuzzier, and there may have been a union between a French royal and his favorite whore in there somewhere, but who knows. Makes a funny story, but I don't think there's good evidence to be had on that one either way.

As a nod to my Italian heritage, I took four semesters of Italian in college. It was the language that my grandfather's family spoke, and I wanted to know some of the rhythm of the words that would have seemed so familiar and automatic to them. I wanted to know how my grandfather's parents told each other that they loved each other. I wanted to know what they called their son when he was a boy.

My Native American heritage requires something a little more complicated. It requires that I at least learn SOMETHING from what European colonists did to Native American nations living in North America, doesn't it?

My lesson is this: Oppression matters because it's always closer to you than you think. You think you're a white New Englander whose ancestors didn't even own slaves like those bastard savage southerners? You think being from New England, where we fought in the Revolution and refused to own slaves, means that oppression is something that other people did to other people? It's closer than you think.

When movies like Dances with Wolves and AVATAR tell us that everything would have been different if Native Americans had just had a white guy to lead them in every battle and every negotiation, their lives wouldn't have been taken over and run by white people, I boggle and think, "How the hell dare you?" Because you're not talking about people who don't exist anymore, whose fates are mere hypotheticals. You're arguing about people who are still struggling to own themselves and their own lives, who are still fending off white people who want to come in and gobble them up until there's nothing left but whitewhitewhite. You're not telling people who are totally unlike me that they don't think right, and need somebody who can think a little "whiter" before they can succeed; you're telling people like me that they don't think right.

When a bunch of rich white celebrities from PETA come in to tell Native sealhunters that their culture marks them as animal-abusing savages, and that if they want to be good people they should chuck their culture and use the land like white people do (and yes, there are people who miss the monstrous irony in white people telling Natives how to live sustainably), I can't say, "those sealhunters aren't like me." Because they are. They may not be related to me, we may never meet, and they'd probably not see me as kin if we did. But damn it, those are my people you're shitting on, PETA, and you knock it the hell off.

When museums talk about Native Americans like they stepped out of history in the eighteen-hundreds and into museum dioramas where they would be enshrined next to mammoths and mastodons for the rest of time, part of me shouts, "Damn you, we're not extinct, I'M STANDING RIGHT HERE." Why is some little millionth-of-a-percent white girl the only one in the place who gets angry? Isn't there somebody more qualified who notices?

I'm not "Native enough" to claim membership in a tribe, and I wouldn't try. But just being connected to the people in Maine who are related to the people who are related to the people who are related to the people that my great-grandfather was so ashamed of has impacted who I am, and taught me a great deal. Those people are mine, y'know? And there's only so much I can do for them without taking their lives away from them and being part of the problem.

There are efforts right now to preserve the languages spoken by the people my great-grandfather was related to. I'm so glad they're doing that, and I hope that when I finally get back to New England, they'll still be offering lessons. Maybe it's not my tribe, not really. Maybe it's not my language, not really. But if I can help keep their language from dying by being one more person interested in learning it and passing it on... maybe I can be some use to them, after all. I owe them that much for all that they taught me.

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