“I have visions because / there are visions to be seen.” (A People’s History…Ch. 19)

You think I have visions

because I am an Indian.

I have visions because

there are visions to be seen.

Hell. Yes. Thank you, Buffy Sainte-Marie.

And thank you, Howard Zinn for devoting a delicious chapter to the “general revolt against oppressive, artificial, previously unquestioned ways of living,” aka the 60s and 70s in America. Not that this revolt was generally effective, but it happened. It’s happening still. Counterweights are still in place, too, of course, but it’s heartening to read about people fighting for their autonomy and making their own lives and meanings. Why is it heartening? Because it’s the personal work I’ve been doing since graduate school, not to mention the career I’ve chosen. My career – teaching (see: learning) – is my life’s path, the ultimate project I can take up: that of discovering my Self. In other words, this chapter resonated because it was a mirror; it reflected back to me my own greatest hopes. In particular, my hope that personal revelation and action breed collective awakening, freedom, and revolutionary change. A simple request, no?

 

Women, prisoners, and Native Americans dominate chapter 19, precisely because they all experienced acute domination. I use the past form of experience only to highlight the chapter’s purpose as a recapitulation of things that have happened, not to dismiss the ongoing reality of these groups’ subjugation in new forms.

I know remarkably little about how the Native Americans have fought back against our government’s (see also: the American people’s) tyranny against them. Heck, if you’re lucky, you hear about the tyranny. But that narrative, truer as it is, still disempowers Native Americans. It makes them victims, unable to rebound from centuries of our despotism. It makes it appear that they don’t have a culture, don’t have any strength or wisdom left to re-create themselves outside of our image of them. And then you read about what they did at Alcatraz in 1964. For a year, they “[held] the Rock,” vowing to turn it into an Indian reservation. It was the perfect location, they argued. After all, were they not prisoners on their own land? There they would become owners – nay, caretakers – again. While the occupation was eventually turned away by federal forces, the message resounds: “We are Indians!” That is to say, Indians are here. They aren’t victims of the past, but active creators of their own present. Oh, we still get in their way – I’m not disputing that – but I’m also not buying the narrative that they’re helpless, or that they’re relics, unreal vestiges of a bygone (see: deliberately erased) era.

When I taught Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, my students (9th graders) discovered a rising artistic culture in Native American communities. Did you know there are Native American rappers? I’m sure you will soon enough, when they get subsumed by hegemony, like other rappers have been. Or maybe they’ll retain their power, spread their influence, share their love. I choose that worldview instead. That’s the vision I’d prefer to see.

Civilized people depend too much on man-made printed pages. I turn to the Great Spirit’s book which is the whole of his creation…

The Great Spirit’s book is printed in our hearts. Our pages reflect – primarily – our minds, and there we can learn just how far or close we are to our hearts. Our histories are too frequently of the mind, which designates and divides and feigns “order.” Our histories position people in their so-called “place” and block their hearts from harmony; they block us all from life’s natural, liberating flow. But like women, prisoners, and Native Americans show us, there is always time to wake up and imagine a different world. And in so imagining, creating the space to make it a reality. It’s time we turn to the Great Spirit’s book in our hearts and follow the story that has room for all of us.

There are visions to be seen, indeed. Let’s go create and enjoy them, shall we?

 

In my tribe we have no poets. Everyone talks in poetry.

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