BACK TO THE FUTURE. Appropriation and the Power of History Part 2.

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

David Mura  asked the above question in the context of a discussion about lies in textbooks and public history displays, cultural appropriations and distorted and offensive depictions of Indigenous and Latino people.

It is a wonderful question, one that is central to arguments about reparations and stopping the patterns of repression.

Resistance to colonization and imperialism past and present are central themes for Latina writer Teresa Ortiz.   Rhiana Yazzie sees history as circular– the repression of the past happening today. Emmanuel Ortiz addressed Mura’s question of history and victors, noting that “our definition of victory is not the same.”

Mura brought up the recent effort to secure apologies and reparations for the deportation of Mexican Americans —  U.S. citizens — during the Great Depression.  An example that illustrates the danger in making corrections for the past with without explaining the hierarchies they upheld,  documenting the struggle that led to change, and recognizing recurring patterns, like the uptick in deportations following the 2008 recession.

As  R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. talked about monstrous  depictions of Native Americans painted on the walls of the capital and offered himself as a subject of  replacement portrait, I imagined a painting of him pointing at the old depiction, and his words speaking truth to the history of misrepresentation.

In Detroit, someone laid a tomahawk in the forehead of Columbus on October 12, of this year.  A permanent display like that, vilifying St Paul’s Columbus statue, and explaining the history of it erection is better I think, than taking it down and pretending it was never there.

Minneapolis’ Lake Bde Maka Ska, was for 180 years called Lake Calhoun after John C. the slave holder, Mexico invader and Indian killer. Now it needs only the Dakota name, but on each sign there should be a plaque explaining how it came to be named Calhoun, why that was offensive, what people had to do to change it back to its original name. That history includes people like Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole in South Carolina to remove a confederate flag this past June, accelerating the push to de-confederate Minnesota as well.

The days after  Mura’s panel, I had two conversations with African-American students questioning their majors in Ethnic Studies “because the information is too depressing.” I took those conversations as a challenge to spend more time in my classes exposing the human determination and struggle undergirding all social progress.

We go back and tell truths, not to live in the past, but to change the future.

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?