Lessons from Kim TallBear . . . and the Tears Not Shed

Right after the announcement of Donald Trump as our next U.S. president, I got on a plane and came to Canada for the National Women’s Studies Association. I enjoy this conference for one reason: I see more women of color/gender-queer folk here than any other professional conference I attend. There are problems like with every other professional organization but at least I like who sits and fights at the table.

This year, I was grateful for the Black and Indigenous women in Canada who let us know at every turn that freedom ain’t up here. You can follow the drinking gourd, Underground Railroad, North Star, Black Moses and then wade in the water all you want: Black folk still ain’t free in Canada. Kim TallBear’s plenary talk was the highlight for me.

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TallBear is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota and a descendant from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. She was raised on the Flandreau Santee Sioux reservation in South Dakota. She began her plenary by reminding us of history, particularly the Uprising of 1862 also known as Little Crow’s War. At the dictate of the US military court, the Army hanged 38 men the day after Christmas in 1862 and followed that with MORE revoked treaties, usurped reservations, and mass displacement. That violent occupation continued into what we now know as Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.  The bodies of the Indigenous who were murdered in 1862 were even used for medical study, including a white male doctor who taught anatomy to his sons with the remains he acquired. Those remains were not returned to the families until the 1990s. Let me say that again: they kept the remains until the 1990s! In fact, Little Crow’s skeleton was on display . . . ON DISPLAY . . .  at the Minnesota Historical Society until 1971 … it took 109 years before the Crow family could bury him. What TallBear expressed next are the words that I will always take with me, especially in this moment.

I won’t pretend to represent TallBear’s words and thinking in original form here.  That would be disrespectful.  What I offer then is her impact on me.  TallBear reminded the audience that the U.S was founded on conquest, deceit, and murder. And then she expressed a deeply felt sympathy and empathy that remains, for me, one of the most critical stances on the election of Donald Trump that I have heard to date. It was all in her tone and body language.   She explained that she felt sorry for the people who woke up Wednesday having to face the reality of the violence and pending bloodshed at the hands of the United States. She offered condolences for the deep pain these folk must be feeling to be newly learning— and really getting—  the historical fact of United States intolerance, white supremacy, and violence. Half of the room gave her a standing ovation; the other half of the room seemed frozen and speechless.

TallBear became a kind of torchlight in helping me to express what I had been feeling since I walked out the door Wednesday morning to see so many people suddenly saddened and enraged. I do not mean to belittle people’s mourning. I get that. I have been in tears too many times to even count since Trayvon Martin’s murder and the white women who acquitted George Zimmerman in 2013. I remember even being SO MAD at myself for being surprised that Zimmerman got off scot-free, for being surprised that the court case worked no differently than the non-acquittal of Emmett Till’s or the 4 Little Girls’ murderers. White people had caught me off guard and I knew that could never happen again.  It became a turning point in this phase of my life as I have had no choice but march in the streets so many times because I was tired of feeling helpless and sad for Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner…. I barely have the strength to keep writing this list of names or think back to the dead body of Mike Brown lying in the street, the life fade from Philando Castile with Diamond Reynolds— his girlfriend— live-streaming the massacre with a four-year-old baby girl watching, the 15-year old Black girl pinned to the ground by a while police officer in the now infamous “McKinney Pool Party.” Crying reminds us that we have not accepted Black death as normative. But crying because you are disappointed, surprised, or shocked, well that’s something different.

If we are to ever reach a critical or radical departure from the world we are in, that kind of response has to be interrogated and this includes Black folk.  It means that somewhere deep down inside you believed in the myths of democracy, meritocracy, equality, and/or middle class stability that have been pimped out as real. Did you forget the first Post-Reconstruction/Backlash after slavery and the Second after the Civil Rights Movement and then think we would escape the Third after Obama’s double election?  Did you think things had changed according to some kind of white settler logic of linear progression? Did the college degree, publication, promotion, house, car, or nice vacation make you think you had made it?  Did the volunteer work with the po’ folk make you feel so good inside that in your mind the world had changed for the better?  Did the number of hits you had on social media make you think you had real influence or likability?  WHERE have you been during the CURRENT brutal police responses at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline— this militaristic approach that looks just like Wounded Knee of 1890? I don’t mean these questions to be accusatory, but they WILL need to be addressed before viable solutions can be imagined. As TallBear reminds us, you believed in a fiction of America— somewhere deep down that maybe you didn’t even realize even if only from a little bitty place of privilege.  That is an America that the Lakota have not experienced since, at least, the reneged Mendota treaty that Little Crow signed in 1851. Mass displacement and death have been far too theoretical if we didn’t see this election coming.

peltier-artAt one point in my life, I taught Mary Crow Dog’s Lakota Woman religiously alongside primary documents from the American Indian Movement with connections to the fight to release Leonard Peltier. I am ashamed to say that I no longer do that. I got Ph.D.ed and got “specialized.” Worst off, I stopped entering the spaces that I inhabit with the verbal reminder/libations to the First Nations whose lands we are occupying. I got wrapped up in some kind of post-modern gibberish and began questioning if I was appropriating a Indigenous epistemology and languaging/being practice. In truth, I allowed white settler logic to fester and dictate the spaces I move through. By not acknowledging who was there before us, I erased them— the hallmark of what white colonialism has always done in the U.S.

I wonder if I have done my own students a disservice today. I wonder about the people who cry for an America that never existed because they have never been able to really see and hear folk like TallBear and her kin, that special trademark of not-seeing that white settler logic makes normative. I am grateful that the world moved in such a way that I could be present to TallBear this weekend. There are no tears here.

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