I Began by Writing Poems

I wrote my first poem when I was 12 years old. It was a little poem about death. I’d already lost too many people and was wrestling with impermanence before I ever knew the word. Poetry helped me navigate the world of loss and grief.

I wrote poetry through high school, a little bit during community college, then as an undergrad poems became stories and stories became essays and finally journal entries.

Poetry fell away and other writing took up space. Grad school was the work of academia and the exposing of psyche. Followed by burn out and shallow, boring writing. Only twice was a poem born in all of that.

But now, as the burn out lessens and I come back to myself, the poetic voice resurfaces. This very morning I caught a poem on my commute to work.

"Peacock, Florida" by Lorenzo Cassina

Pray for me

The fire in my belly woke and there was nothing left to do but feed it.

Pray for me.

The dreams came twisting from my sleep into the depths of a dark room.

Pheasants wrapped in coital twining. Rainbow feathers. Pushed by brooms from room to room. Sliding.

Undulating peacock serpents. A family of three. Mama and Papa far from me. Curious baby finds my eye and locks. Flies away in a graceful trail of holy feathers. White and turquoise. Delicate spinning madness.

I remember the owl hunt witnessed a week before. The death my grandmother would have predicted. The “seeing in the dark” my post-colonial, post-boarding school, over-educated, urban Indian mind anticipates.

Which is it?

I wake up sweating in the dark. Certain I am locked in an abandoned barn. Boards cracked and crashed. No light, only shadows and blocked doors.

Ghosts telling stories as they slip out through the space by which my consciousness enters. The only thing left of songbirds is the wicked silence of fluttering wings.

The stories are changing. They move along a curve in the path, bending visible. Renewed. Nothing lost. Only re-shaping the way out of dark.

Once Again . . . Dear Indian Country,

Last week, the Oregon State Hospital, a forensic mental health facility in Salem, Oregon, opened a job position for a “Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor and Native American Coordinator.” When I first read the description I assumed there was a clerical mistake, this could not be one job, clearly it must be two. Upon further inquiry with hospital staff I learned it was in fact one position.

Disturbing.

I completed my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency at this institution where I worked with both the CPE Supervisor and the Native American Services Coordinator (both of whom are still employed by the hospital, however, the Native American Services Coordinator has now been made ineligible for her own job thanks to this new position. Update: The Native American Services Coordinator was fired from her position at the end of May). These are TWO, very different, high-level, full time professional positions and I am left wondering how the institution administrators missed that.

But, my dismay over the presumption that one person can manage both roles transformed into utter disgust when I read the requirements for the position. The original posting required minimal experience that contradicted the accreditation guidelines of the of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). It also ignored (and continues to) the fact that to coordinate Native American services a person ought to be familiar with Native American communities, cultures, and faith traditions. I could not sit idly by and allow these gross indignities to both my profession and my people unfold.

So, I did what I do best, I took to words.

I wrote a letter to Oregon State Hospital officials, Oregon tribal leaders, and the ACPE calling for intervention. I asked that the job opening be revoked in an effort to create positions that uphold the dignity of both the chaplaincy education experience and the culture of indigenous people. My letter was forwarded and shared and now, three days later, some changes have been made. And while those changes certainly uphold the integrity of the chaplaincy program at the hospital, they do not ensure the protection of indigenous peoples.

So, I take to words again. This time in a more public forum, in an open letter to my beloved community, because this issue involves all of us. This is about our freedom to self-determine what is best for our own communities as indigenous people.

The job posting now requires all of the proper religious education and experience for supervising chaplain students, however it continues to dismiss the very real need for a Native Coordinator with knowledge of the diverse cultures that position would represent (and let us not forget the hospital already employs a full time, tribally enrolled Native Services Coordinator who holds a doctoral degree in psychology).

The Oregon State Hospital authorities may think their addition of “Desired Attribute: Knowledge of the theology, doctrines, liturgy, scripture, and practices of spiritual/religious Native American ceremonies and traditional healing services” fulfills their obligation to tribal peoples, but it does not. First, this is a “desired attribute” not a “minimum requirement” and second . . . any person knowledgeable about and immersed in traditional Native American culture knows that the words “theology, doctrines, liturgy, and scripture” are not synonymous with traditional Native cultures, spiritualities, or values. And while there are plenty of indigenous Christians in the world, and there is amazing work being done to bridge Christian traditions with Native ones, these words do not coincide with pre-colonial Native peoples.

The only requirement on this job posting that comes close to mentioning cultural knowledge (and let’s face it, it really doesn’t) is “experience working with minority status populations.” Colonizing language aside, work with general minority populations does not guarantee qualification to lead sweat lodge, smudge ceremony, talking circles, or group discussions on historical trauma, reservation and urban Indian communities, or the vast diversity of tribal traditions, spiritualities, or protocols.

Indian Country, what the Oregon State Hospital is attempting to do is a gross injustice to our self-determination, our sovereignty, and our spiritual and cultural lives.

10% of this hospital’s residents are indigenous peoples. The hospital is, in effect, saying to its indigenous residents (and to all indigenous people) that our cultural traditions, spiritualities, and protocols do not matter. That a hospital administration, governed by non-Native people, make the decisions about the spiritual lives of Native people using words like “theology, doctrines, liturgy, and scripture.” I don’t know about you, but that reminds me of boarding school.

I am writing to you because we are the less than 1% who survive(d) colonization. We, as indigenous people, are standing up all over the U.S. and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Africa, South America, Mexico, and the Pacific Islands. We are standing up globally – together – to advocate for our self-determination, our sovereignty, our most basic human rights. And this story is at my front door.

I need your help. The Indigenous residents of the Oregon State Hospital need your help. The current indigenous employees of the Oregon State Hospital, along with their non-Native allies, need your help.

Tell the Oregon State Hospital they do not determine the spiritual lives of our people. We determine our own. Urge them to eliminate this job opening and start over with two separate positions that both uphold the integrity of spiritual care AND REQUIRE cultural knowledge and competency of indigenous peoples.

On the heels of my ancestors and with deep love and gratitude,

Melissa

Dear Indian Country

I’ll admit it. I have been neglecting my writing. But, this morning something happened to remind me that the ability to put pen to paper as an expression of my experience is a gift. And this gift has a purpose. And my purpose is to write. And write. And write. Whether or not anyone is listening.

This morning, my brilliant doctor friend and fellow creative person, Elizabeth LaPensée, posted a photo on Facebook. A photo that made me groan, roll my eyes, sigh, and hang my head. A photo that put my belly in a twist. Another photo in a long line of disturbing images turning Indigenous people into caricatures for other peoples entertainment (think Washington R*dskins, think Chief Wahoo, think Portland Winterhawks, think Johnny Depp’s Tonto, think Avatar, think “Indian Princess” Halloween costumes).

Elizabeth had been attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco (you see, she is a game developer whose work addresses Indigenous determination in video games, animation, and web comics) and witnessed this:

Glispa at GDC

Two beautiful young women dressed in brown fringe standing in front of a canvas teepee as a marketing ploy for a company known as glispa. Glispa, a “performance marketing platform for mobile and digital entertainment clients,” boasts on its webpage that it is a multicultural team representing 33 different countries and 23 different languages. A company this diverse ought to know better than to abuse stereotypes of indigenous people to make money.

I took a closer look at their website. It gets worse. They call themselves “your online rainmaker.” Their departmental teams are named after Native American tribes (Team Hopi, Team Cherokee, Team Mohawk). Their page has a silhouette of an “Indian” with feathers and a staff. And when a team member’s photo is not available for display it is replaced by another silhouetted image of the media favorite “profile of an Indian in a headdress.”

Do they really not know this degrading? Do they really not know this is painful? Does this multicultural organization really not understand the implications of images such as these?

So, I wrote a letter to the organization. Because words matter. I told them I am a Native American woman. I told them I found their “teepee and indians” display offensive, hurtful, and despairing. I told them these images perpetuate stereotypes, encourage racism, and make a mockery of Indigenous people. I told them the scene in the photo demonstrated ignorance and a lack of respect for Native people. I told them we are people not characters. I asked them to stop abusing Native people with stereotypes and racist portrayals.

It didn’t take long to receive a response. Only about forty-five minutes. And this was the reply:

Hi Melissa,

I founded the company in the US over a decade ago and this is the first time I have received such a complaint.  I am a Chinese-American and understand the sensitivities around race and culture fully.  I was born in the midwest and have many Native American friends.  The name glispa comes from Navajo mythology and we have adopted many of the values of Native American culture in our company philosophy.  In the beginning some of these teachings were the driving principles behind the company philosophy.  We had no intention of offending anyone and “racist” is a strong remark.  While the depiction may not be accurate, we all stem from indigenous people and cultures.  Our company currently has over 35 nationalities and teams recognize the tribes from where they were born.  We celebrate the differences as well as the blending of these roots.  I apologize if this has been misinterpreted and I wish you would have formally contacted us before spreading your complaint around.  I’m surprised that no one has complained about the other companies at this event who show scenes of different nations killing one another in war depictions – but I guess this is a gaming conference.

Gary (Gary Lin CEO glispa GmbH)

I thought about writing back to Mr. Lin, Gary. I thought about telling him how none of the Navajos I’ve asked have ever heard of “glispa,” but if it is a true element of Navajo tradition the company has no business using it in their marketing. I thought about telling him that Navajos lived in hogans, not teepees. I thought about telling him that there is not one Native American culture, but a multitude of vastly diverse cultures. With an “s.” I thought about asking why, if he knows the depictions are not accurate, is he using them? But, the words were stuck. I was saddened by his response. It felt dismissive. It felt like he didn’t hear me. It felt like another example of a non-Indian person telling an Indian person what should and shouldn’t be offensive about their own cultures. And he was using his own identity as a person of color along with his “Native American friends” to somehow make it okay. Mr. Lin, it is not now, nor has it ever been okay.

The day has progressed and I have been exposed to more of glispa’s misappropriations and ignorance regarding Native communities (for the masochists among you check out their twitter feed @glispa). And I thought again about writing a response letter to Mr. Lin and his company. But, the truth is I don’t want to write to them. I don’t want to expose myself to more unapologetic apologies. Instead, I want to write to Indian Country. I want to write to my community. And I want to say this:

Dear Relatives,

I love you. I love your courage, your resiliency, and your ability to endure. I love you because despite the onslaught of generations of stereotypical images of our people we persist. I love you because you are beautiful, funny, diverse, sensitive, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, strong, and caring. I love you when you are happy, I love you when you are sad, I love you in your successes and I love you in your failures. I love you in your advocacy, I love you in your passions, I love you in your desire to self-determination, and I love you in your day-to-day triumphs and disappointments. I love you when you suffer. And I love you when you are joyful.

I want you to know I love you because we don’t hear it enough. Because we don’t feel it enough. Because too often we find ourselves frustrated, angry, disappointed, and broken-hearted. Because too often, in this world where once we were the majority and now we are less than a minority, our voices are lost. In this world when we are enrolling, dis-enrolling, counting blood quantum, watching our children die, watching our languages slip away, drinking, drugging, gambling, ganging, abusing, but also writing, praying, dancing, singing, laughing, playing, creating laws to protect our children, creating programs to enrich our traditions, enacting legislation to support our resources, and speaking up WE NEED LOVE.

And I love you. I love us. I love who we are as a vibrant, multi-faceted, dynamic family. A big one, with lots of cousins.

And I wanted you to know that in this big, messed up, hurt-filled world where companies like glispa, organizations like the R*dskins, and even our favorite actors don’t listen to us:

‘Ée hete’wise. I love you.

~Melissa

 

For more discussion on glispa’s misappropriations in marketing:

Simon Moya-Smith, Indian Country Today Media Network

Jean-Luc Pierite, Gaygamer

Audra Schroeder, The Daily Dot

Renee Nejo, M for Mature

Organize

My dream desk by Zach Moss at Etsy

It is Winter Break across campus and the cultural center that is my work place is closed until January. It has been quiet this week and today I used the silence to get organized.

I added personal photos to my bulletin board, hung a piece of artwork I found stashed away on a shelf, cleaned up my bookcase in preparation of creating a reference library, and organized all the paperwork I have been hoarding for the past (almost) four months.

And it felt good.

I forgot how much organizing frees me up. It acts as a clearing not only of my physical space, but of my mind. It helps me focus, but more importantly it gives my mind the space needed to create. New ideas flow and energy returns.

This was a good reminder. Forget Spring cleaning. Winter cleaning has begun. (Now, if I can just do the same for my apartment).