I will always be a colonial on this land.
For most of my life, this was never a conscious thought or idea inside of me. Yet somehow, I believe it affected me in an unconscious way and influenced many of my decisions and attitudes. These had a range and breadth from guilt to aggression to appropriation to righteousness. Clearly, this cannot contribute to any kind of positive or healing movement towards decolonization.
Which begs the question. How is it even possible for a settler colonial to engage with decolonization without simply leaving Turtle Island? Indeed, I tried that. It was not a choice that had anything to do with decolonization, but somehow it feels as if that were present. Decades before I even learned what decolonization meant I had formed a critical analysis of my country’s practice of genocide. In many ways, I attempted to dissociate from this; rebel against it.
I moved to Austria to be with a woman. The first year there, I lived illegally and undocumented. That, in and of itself, was a profound learning experience in immigration and racism. As an American, I enjoyed great freedom of movement throughout the country, unlike Turks and Yugoslavians, who often had more legal ‘rights’ to be in the country than I did. But when confronted with my American passport, devoid of visas or coherent border crossing stamps, coupled with my Anglo Saxon features, the police were prompt in accepting whatever hastily cobbled lies I offered to explain my presence in their country. Several times I witnessed darker skinned people subjected to deep and humiliating scrutiny even when in possession of ‘proper’ stamps and visas.
The next five years in Austria I carried a visa allowing me to work and reside within their country. This was solely due to my marriage with an Austrian citizen. After our divorce (in America), thirteen years later, I lost all privilege to even APPLY for a visa, let alone be granted one.
Again, this led to insights into racism. People here in America, when they learned of my situation, inevitably asked why I could not simply move to Austria to be with my children. When I explained that having children in a foreign country did not entitle me to a visa, the reaction was shocked and confused. More often than not, when I pointed out that Mexican nationals with American children ALSO do not have rights to American visas, the response was along the lines of, “… but that’s different!” Nobody was able to explain to me why this was any different than my situation. Today I recognize that the confusion around this had much to do with white fragility. My situation with European immigration laws somehow challenged many folks’ white racial expectations. (And certainly; there are other layers at work here. I am choosing at this time to focus on race.)
Before I left for Austria, and upon returning, I participated with the Native American Church. At least 25 years I was active in that tradition. Some part of me feels that I will be active again. But I have needed to take time away from that ceremonial life in order to better understand who I am as a white man living on this continent. Once I moved to New Mexico in 2007 I began to learn about decolonization and rather suddenly, questioned my place within that spiritual community.
I had been deeply engaged in appropriation. Of course, I did not realize it at the time. My focus was simply the prayer and the ceremony. Looking back it seems that by focusing on the spiritual, I was able to fully ignore the political and social impacts of my participation in that tradition. Nothing could ever come before that prayer. And truly, I still feel that way. The prayer is first and foremost. What I failed to recognize is how my practice was an appropriation of an Indigenous ceremonial tradition.
I can imagine some of my friends and relatives within that tradition responding that God does not see color, or that these ways were made available to ALL people, regardless of where they come from; racially or otherwise. However, coming into ANY space, it is my duty to recognize my role, determined within the context of my identity. I chose to take an appropriator’s role and claimed that tradition as my own.
It is also important to note that this is not a judgment or position on white folks engaging with Indigenous ways. I recognize that Native communities often offer ways for us colonials to participate, spiritually or otherwise, respectfully and appropriately to enable healing for all of us. My point is simply that I failed to see that and instead entered those spaces with privilege on one shoulder, entitlement on the other, and very little sense of how my words and actions were perpetuating a history of colonialism and genocide.
Recognizing myself as a white person was a difficult process. I was taught color blindness as an antidote to racism from a very young age and clung to that life preserver as I navigated diverse and integrated spaces. It served to protect me from recognizing how my privilege is built upon the oppression of others. I developed a sense of achievement for my ability to walk through the world relatively unmolested and free to do as I please. To replace my sense of individual merit with an analysis of racial privilege was a difficult process indeed. I have been fortunate to have close friends love me through this education. There was very little I did to deserve that kind of care while I thrashed and grappled with my own denial. I will be forever grateful to the people who never gave up on me and told me the hard truths.
Once over the initial shock of recognition, deconstructing whiteness continued, and continues, to be a daily practice. I have come to see this as a path, not a destination. It is spiritual in nature, built upon recognizing when the entitlement and privilege manifest both within me and in my environment, then understanding the source of that piece and how to either deconstruct it, move with it, or move beyond it. There is no single thing that I can do, say or think, which will change the nature of my identity on Turtle Island in the year 2015 A.D. Nor any combination of things. I am and will always be a white man, which means that I come to be here through a legacy of genocide and colonialism.
There is a spark of hope, though.
Genocide and colonialism have at their foundation a spirit of supremacy. How could anyone kill and displace a people in order to seize control of territory, if they did not first believe in the superior nature of their mission, need, philosophy, culture, religion, or technology? Surely there can be no reason to convert the ‘savages’ to Christianity and western culture if the agents of these institutions had first recognized the inherent and intrinsic value of Indigenous life ways. The belief in supremacy, be it divine, technological, cultural, or economic lies at the root of colonialism.
But what of the immigrant? The immigrant moves to a new territory recognizing a need within them that cannot be fulfilled at home. If she could, the immigrant would be more apt to stay where she is and thrive within her home community. To give up all that is known in favor of a great unknown, speaks to a need deep within the immigrant that only in some ‘other’ place will she be able to fully realize her own life and provide opportunity for her children.
This is, of course, contrary to the spirit of ‘discovery’ that we attribute to the first Europeans exploring the New World. Certainly we can celebrate that spirit and recognize it as a positive and constructive human attribute. But the discoverers did not embark with humility on their quests. They traveled with the sense of supremacy, thus perverting First Contact into pogrom. No celebration of the courage these explorers brought to their work will ever assuage the pain and suffering that they visited upon these shores.
The immigrant does not think of these things. The immigrant sees the value in a new society, is willing to abandon her own, and adapt to another. The immigrants to the New World came seeking religious, political and economic freedom. To give those ‘huddled masses’ the benefit of the doubt, I imagine they came largely ignorant to the oppressions that sustained and continue to sustain, the ‘freedoms’ they sought. This humility, minus the ignorance, is what I seek to understand and practice.
Today, living on Turtle Island with very little opportunity to return to the territories of my ancestors, I am faced with a constant moral incertitude. As I work to shelter and feed my children, I am inevitably participating in a culture of violence and benefiting from the projects of colonialism and genocide. There is no escaping this truth. Praying with the Indians does not erase this. Guilt does not erase this. Shame does not erase this. No effort of my own can undo what has been done or lift this privilege from my shoulders. And yet there is hope.
As I recognize myself as a colonial, I also recognize myself as an immigrant/new comer. True, the actual immigrants of my family came generations ago, and I can confidently call myself an American. But as Americans, we have never approached the Nations of Turtle Island with the humility of immigrants. The sense of supremacy has clouded our vision to the intrinsic value of these Indigenous cultures. Today, I can strive to regain the humility of the immigrant, but shift my focus from adapting to the American Way of Life, and instead, focus on learning how to be a respectful new comer to Turtle Island.
My parents didn’t do this. My grandparents did not. Neither did my great-grandparents. No generation in my lineage has taken the steps needed to recognize these cultures as worthy of our respect. Yes, there is an altruist, color blind, respect for Native Americans. But the humility of the new comer does more than give lip service to the original inhabitants of this place.
The new comer strives to understand how to move in a new culture as gently as possible. She recognizes the spaces that are open to her participation, as well as those that are not. She accepts the limits of new comer status in the hope of acceptance into a new community. She knows that her place in this community is different than the local space and never attempts to superimpose her own traditions onto those already present. She realizes the need to learn a new language, new culture, new values and mores. She embarks upon this project with an eye to her children’s, children’s children; working to create space for them where none existed before.
This is the mindset I accept for my life in Tewa Country. Even more specifically than Turtle Island, which is much too diverse and eclectic a community of cultures for any one person to grasp, I inhabit Tewa Country. I came here as another ignorant colonial, assuredly with a certain respect for the Native cultures here, but with minimal appreciation for the impact of my people upon these Nations.
I cannot go ‘home.’ For me, home is America, which is built upon genocide and slavery. I cannot go ‘native.’ Indigenous life was removed from my heritage centuries before I was conceived. The only option I can currently perceive is to be a new comer. Listening to the rhythms of Tewa Country and striving to find space within this colonized land. This project will not be complete in my lifetime. It may never be complete. Perhaps the efforts of decolonization will ultimately displace my descendants. Perhaps my descendants will reject new comer status and embrace their colonial heritage. Or perhaps through these efforts, I can assist in dismantling white supremacy toward a future of respectful co-existence. I may never know.
I will always be a colonial on this land. And I will strive to teach my eyes to see as a new comer that some day we may finally know peace.