Indigenous Scholar

Soul Shaking: Reflections on A Wrinkle in Time

Different from my "normal" routine yesterday morning, I decided to listen to The Breakfast Club  and happen to catch Ava DuVernay's interview, particularly some of her thoughts about her movie opening yesterday,  A Wrinkle in Time - she said:

"Young people...they inspire me because I look at them and I say if we can get it right with them, then by the time when we are old and we need some taken care of as a country, as a family, as a community we have got some kids that will understand the legacy that they uphold and understand the things that we need, you create empathetic, solid strong kids now...that is what this film is, it really is a love letter to our kids - to focus on the things that matter..."

I thought to myself well that was dope - the universe saw it fit for me to listen to Ava's interview  before going to see this movie with one of my best friends.  When I tell you that this movie was so amazingly-beautiful - it shook my soul and being to my core. There were a few times I was beyond emotional - I only held it together because I was in a theater with other people, but could very well have broken all the way down (like ugly-breaking down-cry). I know you are probably thinking, this is a Disney movie targeted towards children and not full grown women.  People that know me, know that I truly believe in the universe and a divine purpose, and that we have a journey already charted out for us, and that it is up to us to be accepting of it.  Last night, this movie provided one of those divine moments for me, I walked away feeling all types of emotions...but ultimately truly inspired and motivated.

Without giving away too much (because with any piece of art, I feel like people should experience it for themselves and take away from it what they are supposed to), when I tell you Miss Ava encapsulated a lot of the things I have been thinking about when it comes to community, love, and healing within this very amazingly-beautifully crafted film. While I was experiencing (because its was an EXPERIENCE for sure) the film, I felt like she had interpreted all of my recent work and thoughts, and crafted them with so much love and intent into this film.  I felt so in tune with her message (hence - almost breaking down) of working to spread light and positivity to heal a world filled with so much hurt and violence. She mentioned in her interview "you have to put positivity in the world and people will find it, people who are looking for it..."well Miss Ava I found it and so much more. 

This movie reminded me of my time at Lawrence University  - my ultimate message was around "just being a good person" - and recognizing that there have been systems built as a result of colonization that have significantly impacting and shaped our experiences. I have been wrestling with this idea of "community" and using it has a tool of empowerment, and as I processed more, I connected it to ideas of decolonization - and re-envisioning our lives past our colonization. In particular using Indigenous knowledge to do so, connecting social justice to "our" seven sacred teachings of living a life full of compassion, kindness, generosity, respect, strength, gratitude, and humility. When I tell you I felt like Miss Ava was saying the same thing in the film - I could barely process it with my best friend afterward without getting emotional - I barely got the words out to her without crying.  Call it a "coincidence" or some sort of divine intervention but in my heart of hearts the universe and Creator brought everything together in perfect harmony last night and for that I am forever grateful and blessed. For that, Miss Ava DuVernay I am wholeheartedly thankful for your insight, intent, and inspiration.

We have a saying in the Native community - "the seventh generation" in most times in reference to this idea that whatever we do is going to impact the generations to come - after hearing Ava's interview and seeing the movie, I truly believe this movie is a "love letter" to our "seventh generation" to just be good people.  Maec Waewaenen Ava! 

Native: The Antithesis of being American

Lately, every time someone talks about being "American," I get a very visceral feeling - something about American nationhood makes me feel uneasy. Its more than my own conflicting feelings of being Native, allegiant to my own tribal nation and "technically" being American, allegiant to the United States. It's this feeling of opposition, this feeling of hostility to a nation that was founded on the principles where my ancestors needed to be erased. As I immersed myself in ideas of colonialism and the 19th/20th century United States citizenship/education policies it occurred to me that being Native in the United States was/is the antithesis of being American.

History Professor, Phillip Deloria in John and Kevin Little's More than a Word Film - describes two moments in American history where Natives needed to be erased or dehumanized in order for America/Americans to exist. 

"...The first is the moment of the American Revolution, where Americans, American colonists have to figure out culturally and in terms of their identity, their social identity, they figure out ways in which they can stop being British colonist and start being American and the fundamental claim they make is that they are Indigenous to the continent, this is what happens in settler societies, so they are Indigenous to the continent so they take old European rituals practices and beliefs and they graph them onto new symbol systems around Indians (refer back to my "Savage or Nah" post) and all of the sudden they create meaning for themselves they create an identity as being Aboriginal and Indigenous to the continent and that lets them speak in oppositional ways to the British government and in many ways, I think to build a cultural formation, that allows them to create a Revolution and rebellion, so Indians are wrapped up into the fiber of America from the very very beginning...

In order for the colonists to separate themselves from British rule they needed to be "aboriginal" to the Americas and do to that, the people who where already there needed to be erased.   

"...then there is a second moment at the turn of the 20th century when Americans are confronted with modernity and the sort of struggles around that and what does it mean to be an industrial place full of immigrants and the frontier is closed and there is all kinds of ways which they feel a sense of crisis, what gives them reassurance - a refiguring of this kind of Indian play that they do, where they can grab on to something that is authentic, that is of the land and that is anti-modern and gives them a sense of authenticity."

In order for America to be America, it needed to erase the Native people who already occupied this continent, it needed to erase everything Native - our cultures, languages, identities, etc., then it needed us to be anti-modern, functioning as a mere historical figure whose only role was helping to shape the "American" story. The impact of this is still felt today especially in our American institutions, of democracy and education. They both have been created, sustained, and worked for the betterment of this "great nation state." The United States is a nation defined and formed by the genocide of Native American communities. Colonial institutions like democracy and education inflicted those acts of genocide and went to any length to destroy and replace Native American culture and way of life. Though amazingly resilient, Native communities endured tremendous suffering and gave rise to the hardships that Native communities continue to experience today.    

Just like at the turn of the 20th century, America is still trying to understand what makes us American, grasping at any idea that may unify U.S. But until we can face our complicated and complex history we are bound to repeat and reproduce. 

"History is not the past, it is the present, we carry our history with us, we are our history, if we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals." James Baldwin - I Am Not Your Negro   

Savage or nah?

"The idea of savagery undoubtedly enabled white American's to exercise multiple kinds of power over multiple kinds of Indians. Yet the existence of so many variations on the savage theme also suggests that stereotype might function better as a descriptive shorthand than as an analytical tool. A stereotype, we might say, is a simplified and generalized expectation - savagery, in this case - that comes to rest in an image, text, or utterance. It is a sound bite, a crudely descriptive connection between power, expectation, and representation." 

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in unexpected places, 2004, p.9

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In the past few years "savage" has become a popular word to use - so much so that on Instagram 8.6million (yeah MILLION) pictures were tagged with the hashtag #savage. The posts range from selfies of people to  inappropriate and most often offensive posts by people who the Urban dictionary refers to as "some who does not care about the consequences of his or her actions."  There is even multiple online stores that sells "savage" merchandise ( Popular culture has really embraced this word and as result attached new meanings to it but for me I cannot help but think about Phil's quote above and how it was used as a tool to exercise power over Native people.  


Every time I hear someone use the word "savage" - I feel a cringe in my stomach. I think about how extensively this terminology was used to refer to my ancestors, as a way to dehumanize them and delegitimize their cultural knowledge and ways of knowing. I think about the imagery in these pictures - imagery that attached a particular stereotype to ALL Native people - with "savage" being the common denominator..."savage warrior," "noble savage," etc. "Savage" became synonymous with Native people, so much so that the United States referred to Native people in the declaration of independence as "Merciless Indian Savages."


Not only did this dehumanize Native people to animalistic like beings, it also imposed a sameness onto all Native people - erasing the beautiful diversity of all of our Native cultures, nations, and communities. Ironically, as the use of #savage in popular culture increased so did the cultural appropriation of Native culture (see Native Appropriations - "Valentino didn't learn anything" for a good recap). Ironic because at one point in history being "savage" was considered to be demeaning and now being "savage" and appropriating "Native" culture is almost being sought after by popular culture.  While no different than any word that has been used to historically disempower and disenfranchise a particular group, I have been incredibly intrigued at how readily people use this term now - without understanding its' ties to the oppression of Native communities. 


Hey I have to call you doctor does if feel to be what?

Those are some of the most common responses or questions I have gotten from people since finishing my doctoral degree.  After all of the long days and nights at the coffee shop reading and writing where my main focus was always on finishing my project, I never stopped to think about if or how my life would be changing.  Not until I went to coffee/tea with a good colleague and friend where she asked how I felt about this "transition" in my life and if I was ok. Those seeming were very simple questions - but quite literally B-L-E-W M-Y M-I-N-D. I had never once stopped to think about this thing that became such a large part of my life for the past 5 years and quite frankly a large part of my identity as contributing to such a huge transitional part of my life.  At that moment I went into a slight internal panic - like holy crap what have I gotten myself I ready for this...what does this mean for my life, all of the question came flowing. She then proceeded to point out that because of what is included in the doctoral process, that I may see things differently than I did before, and therefore potentially shifting the way I go about life. Again MIND BLOWN!

Until then I never stopped to reflect about this potential shift, although I had certainly felt it in a number of ways and responded accordingly, I never thought about this transition in totality.  A transition that people don't tell you about...a transition that I felt I was not emotionally ready or prepared for. Within the coming months, I started to feel the intensity of this transition. I started to feel the weight of people's expectations and perceptions shifting because of these three letters being added to my name. This elevated status made me really uncomfortable - as I felt no different than anyone else, I felt like the same girl from the rez just trying to live in a good way, still learning and growing. Honestly I didn't want this to define me, I didn't want these letters to be the only way people see me. I recognize that this is a huge accomplishment for those who value education in a particular way but I also didn't want it to separate me from people who may not place the same value on education - as my choice to pursue my education was because of the type of strengths and skills I thought I brought to it and not because it's my measure of one's own "success." 

I have certainly been afforded a number of amazing opportunities thus far because of my new found "legitimacy" and because I have a community of awesome people around me (we will get to that point in a second). I feel like those opportunities added to other's elevated perception of me, which seem to add to my feelings of separation. I have had people referring to me "making it big" or "blowing up."I have so many emotions surrounding this separation (that may be real or in my head). I feel like I am no expert (contrary to what having a PhD tell you - you should be), I feel like I am simply fortunate enough to sit and think about certain things and offer academic commentary. I believe that commentary is reflection of my experiences, my community, and those awesome people around me and for that I owe so much gratitude. I often tell people that I didn't complete this PhD for personal elevation or status or to be called doctor - that I did it for my community, I did it to use my newfound skills and talents to be an communal asset. Although I would be remiss if I didn't point out that initially this was not my focal point - initially I wanted to pursue a PhD because I didn't know what else was next for me and it sounded like a good idea - it just ended up working out in my favor.  For me, this new elevated status comes with a tremendous responsibility - a responsibility to use it for the betterment of my community and those around me. 

Although I am mulling over this current transition - I am very grateful for the shifts that it created for me while I was in school (finding my purpose, reclaiming the use of my given Menominee name - Sasanehsaeh). It was certainly one of the hardest things I have ever had to do but am really grateful of my journey thus far.  To this end, I am not sure where my journey will lead me but I certainly know that this transitional point in my life has made such a significant impact. For those who may be taken on or considering this journey in education know that this may be coming at the other end of your dissertation - when you are Ph.inisheD.