Appreciation, Appropriation, and the Power of History

 

 

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In 1981 I visited Eastern Europe with my father. It was a roots trip, to visit the coal mining town where he was born. Gleiwitz was German until after WWII when it became part of Poland. Dad was born the year Hitler came to power.  His family managed to escape but thousands of other Jews in the region did not. Behind the iron curtain we dug up memories and found the names of his five- year olds friends on concentration camp rolls. We hung out in cemeteries and the ruins of Jewish neighborhoods. We visited antique stores where shopkeepers displayed menorahs and other Jewish paraphernalia.

It was a trend at the time, to collect such items. I was shocked, but being from the United States I recognized the phenomenon: The theft and fetisization of all things Native American followed forced removals, genocidal marches, and the creation of reservations and boarding schools meant to erase peoples and  cultures.

This erasing with one hand, robbing and appropriating with the other is a process that is ongoing.

Native and Latino writers Teresa Ortiz,  Rhiana Yazzie, Emmanuel Ortiz, and R. Vincent Moniz, Jr at the Loft  Literary Center on Monday October 19, spoke of this  ongoing theft.

Fall is the season of appropriations.  Emmanuel Ortiz talked of Day of the Dead sculls as an art project devoid of spiritual content,  offensive Halloween costumes and football mascots. R. Vincent Moniz, Jr noted that he sees it all the time every day, from the Blackhawk sweatshirts worn in his Phillips neighborhood and violent murals at the St. Paul Capital, to the butter aisle at the grocery store.

Appropriation includes obvious obscenities like the “Cleveland Indian” mascots and more subtle but no less damaging examples of practices and accoutrements,  stolen and misused without understanding or respect. Emmanuel Ortiz noted that power is central to appropriation and other types of exchange. He talked of  the unequal exchange inherent in Americans crossing the border because the drinks are cheap and Mexicans crossing because the jobs are north.

Rhiana Yazzie talked about a Native American worldview– an understanding of creation that is fundamentally different from the Judeo-Christian hierarchy, and a relationship between the United States and American Indians that is unique. All  Americans need to understand concepts of national sovereignty and treaty rights, she argued.  R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. said he felt lucky being able to go to the Dakotas to sit on the ground of his ancestors.

Teresa Ortiz said her work is also steeped in the stories and rhythms of indigenous and African ancestors while noting that Latino culture in Minnesota is always changing as new immigrants arrive.  As a Latina artist she needs to keep up with these new realities.  She  writes in both  Spanish and English “the languages of my ancestors and my children.”

R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. invited the St. Paul Capital to paint him on their walls if they want to depict a Native American.

Real depictions are not monochromatic. It is the false imagines that strip diversity and the reality of change, even as they lie about the past. David Mura, Japanese poet and curator of the panel, wanted to know about the power of uncovering those lies. He asked a question dear to my heart:

If history is written by the victors, can we change the winner by changing the stories we tell about the past?

 

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