How should we approach conflict?
Ask Granny, my mother said, when I wanted to know what it was like growing up in the depression.
In my family we turned to our elders when we had questions.
So I wonder how my elders would respond to questions from non-Indians about Indian life.
Do Indians smoke peace pipes? Why don’t you like Indian mascots? Can I wear your tribal costume for Halloween?
The question of how you respond arose in a class discussion: we are studying how narratives unfold in mass media.
We watched a 2014 interview with Piers Morgan of CNN and Janet Mock, a transgender advocate and author who is ethnically multi-racial.
Note that, while Morgan forged his journalistic stamp as a reporter for Britain’s top tabloid papers that feature stories of pop stars, Mock worked at People as the staff editor for the magazine’s website.
Both are fluent is the grammar of celebrity publicity and public relations.
In his introduction, Morgan said Mock was “born a boy” and had sex reassignment surgery at age 18.
Mock took umbrage at the characterization, but not during the interview to promote her book.
Instead, she took to Twitter after the show to share her outrage of being characterized as a (former) boy.
Morgan was ripped by what he referred to as “the transgender community” in tweet after tweet.
Mock prefers this narrative:
I was born a girl but in a boy’s body.
Morgan, as the interviewer, was unschooled in the grammar of transgender language.
Mock returned to the program for another interview, 5 days after the Twitter flare-up, ostensibly so that Morgan could hear directly from her and learn a new vocabulary.
But my students said that Mock shouldn’t have to educate the interviewer.
So I wondered: what would my elders say? How would they answer questions about peace pipes and regalia?
Elders I admire the most—people like Walter Echo-Hawk, John Sanchez, Cornel Pewewardy, the late Beatrice Medicine, and my aunties and uncles in Oklahoma and South Dakota—would be more likely to pause. Then listen.
I imagine they would reflect carefully on questions like: Why can’t we use an Indian mascot for our sports team since we’re honoring you?
The elders would take the question as an opportunity to help the speaker learn that mascots treat Indians as symbols, rather than individuals.
That when non-Indians dress in Halloween costumes as Indians, they likely don’t know that certain items of clothing represent something deeper—like the cones on a jingle dress represent a promise or a prayer of grave importance to the wearer.
I like to think my elders would take advantage of an opportunity to share their stories.
And who better to tell the stories?
Blog dedicated to Walter Echo-Hawk, John Sanchez, Cornel Pewewardy, Beatrice Medicine and my relatives
Photo of artwork by Mary Francis Herrera, Cochita Storyteller, from Elmore Indian Art