Tired of Being Tired: Reflections from a Native American Student
by Abaki Beck
I started to write this piece at the beginning of my senior year of college, fall 2014. I would add to it from time to time throughout the year. I wanted to send it to the school newspaper, or find another way to share it with the broader Macalester community, but was afraid of negative responses and of appearing vulnerable so I never did. I recently read it again, and decided I wanted more eyes than mine to see it. Despite my past fears of backlash, I feel that my words are important. Please note that the views expressed in this piece are only meant to represent my own, and are not meant to project how other Native students may feel about their experiences or about Macalester as an institution. It was originally featured on the blog Talking Back.
“Can I tell you how lonely I have been for you?” - Beth Brant, from A Gathering of Spirit: A Collection by North American Indian Women. This is often a sentiment I think to myself when I attend Native American community events in the Twin Cities- a community that struggles to exist at Macalester. You see, I grew up travelling back and forth to the Blackfeet Reservation, eating bannock, and picking roots that elders in my family use for medicine. I grew up in a large, strong family and community and spent a lot of my time around other Native Americans, but also with the idea that in order to get a truly enriching education, I needed to leave home. Somehow I ended up at Macalester. I am one of just a handful of Native students who made it here.
Being one of just a few Native students, I am often used by a variety of people across campus to represent Native Americans, and have experienced the loneliness associated with that tokenism. I have been asked to be a guest speaker in a class on Native American literature, but instead of talking about PIPE, the (white) professor asked intrusive questions about being part of an “unwanted group” on campus. I cried. I have been in a class where a (white) professor called Indians “savages” as part of a joke. I have been in a class that was supposed to be about Native Americans in which the (white) professor invented a “spirit animal” for herself and pretended she was in a clan to explain the clan system, instead of talking about the experience of actual tribes. I have been in a class where a (white) professor asked “Could you explain what you mean? There was a war between America and Britain you know” when I said the U.S. is a colonial state. These experiences are no longer anomalous to me but simply an expected reality. I am tired.
It is perhaps student responses to PIPE’s efforts to gain visibility that irk me the most. Two years ago, me and two other Native students along with some Native alumni and non-Native allies on campus planned the first pow wow at Macalester in about twenty years. I recently talked to a student who said that they didn’t attend the pow wow “out of protest,” because they thought it was hosted by white people and were offended. A similar reaction happened fall 2013, when we reclaimed several spots on campus on behalf of indigenous peoples in protest of Columbus Day. Similarly, some students thought that it was white students who had reclaimed the land as a “gift” to Native Americans, and were insulted. While both reactions to PIPE events were well-meaning, they completely overlooked the existence of actual Native American students on campus, and assumed- in both cases- that the events about Native Americans must have been hosted by white students. We are so invisible that even when we host events in a direct effort to gain visibility, our existence remains invisible, impossible. For me, recognizing the presence of Native students is not simply about supporting a small group of students, it is about recognizing Macalester’s own positionality within a settler-colonial state. Native Americans are not just another racial group. We are indigenous people to the land that Macalester sits on. These violences cannot and should not be erased. By not actively recognizing the importance of indigenous histories and presence, the Macalester community is simply re-enacting these violences and re-producing these power structures. Being part of such a consistently marginalized group on campus is isolating enough without having to feel responsible for educating others on my presence and my history’s importance. I am tired.
Recently, with prompting from PIPE, the Administration changed its flag policy for Cafe Mac and commencement to include tribal nations flags as well. Initially, they suggested we could hang tribal flags on the second floor of the Campus Center but not in Cafe Mac, since the flag policy stated that only states recognized by the United Nations were to be considered legitimate nations. I found huge issue in the college's definition of a sovereign nation, since Indian Nations were colonized and forced to become American. We are only considered "domestic dependent nations" (not truly sovereign) because the American government thinks we are too stupid to make decisions for ourselves and wants as much control over our resources and bodies as possible. After many emails from PIPE commenting on the sovereignty of tribal nations and the underrepresentation of Native students on campus, the policy was thankfully changed to include tribal flags as well. However, I only found out that the flags were actually put up when I was sitting on the second floor of the Campus Center and happened to see one. When I addressed members of the Administration about this, they said it was because they didn’t want to “pat themselves on the back.” Newsflash: these tribal flags are not just cloth on sticks. They are representative of colonialism, war, resistance, survival, and resilience. They are representative of my family and my history. They are representative of the existence and importance of Native students on campus. That is why I wanted tribal flags represented. So we could be represented. There was no formal announcement, there was no celebration until early this semester (spring 2015) - nearly a year later.
Most recently, I was contacted by the coordinator of a Native student group in Minneapolis who was interested in visiting Macalester. They had originally reached out to Admissions but were unable to set up a group visit. When I worked at Admissions, I witnessed us bend over backwards to support other groups visiting campus, setting up tours at times when there normally weren’t any. Yet when Native high school students wanted to visit Mac- a group whom everyone from Admissions officers to President Brian Rosenberg have told me personally is a group the school is interested in recruiting- they were turned down. To help with their visit, I emailed people to arrange tours, asked around to get Cafe Mac meal tickets, and gathered students to have a student panel. Guest speaker, event planner, organizer, now Admissions Officer? I am tired. Tired of explaining myself, tired of feeling like it is up to me to bring up indigeneity in conversations, tired of chuckling when people tell me I’m the first Native American they’ve ever met, tired of feeling guilty for feeling so isolated when I’m the one who chose this school in the first place. Macalester goes out of its way to prove its students are “global citizens,” yet it continually ignores and dismisses the indigenous citizens whose land we sit on and whose histories we write out of our institutional memory. It insults me further that the Twin Cities have such a rich history of Native American political and cultural activism, yet so few students have this local knowledge. Why must I go so far of campus to see more than a handful of people from my own racial group? There are a plethora of Native American community organizations, schools, art galleries, and businesses in the Twin Cities, yet when you walk through Macalester’s campus it’s as if we never existed in the first place. It should not be solely up to the few Native students and fewer Native faculty or faculty allies to start these conversations and pose these questions. I am done being tired.