Animal Teef: The world is ours -- for building, not for taking

The following opinion was written by Animal Teef, Native Sun News Correspondent. It appears in Eyapaha Today, a monthly publication of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

The World Is Ours. PHOTO BY/A. Teef

The world is ours, not for the taking – for the building
By A. Teef
Eyapaha Today Correspondent

** Author's Note and Personal Disclaimer **

Before I start, please allow me to discredit myself. I am not a scholar, I am not a scientist of any kind, and I serve only as a voice that has no "official" credence lent to it by any academic or cultural entity. I also recognize fully that whatever merits my voice may or may not hold this conversation is much older than me.

I don't need to agree with all of what has been said and done to respect all the contributions made by those before me and all to come. Anyone who would seek to invalidate my ideas here by assailing my personal character, the content of my music, my skin color, my reputation, or my non-existent political alignments is missing the point of starting this conversation entirely.

So, for all those people, I say now, "let me do it for you." I am no one of any political import and hardly consider myself a journalist. To be truthful, I see myself as a musician and Oglala citizen of the world who has been granted an opportunity to express myself with a different medium than I usually employ. Never, ever in this piece would I purport myself to be anything more than a young Lakota man who considers Pine Ridge home and is personally invested in its future.

I was asked to write this piece for exactly those reasons and have done so honestly. I am of the opinion that expressing absolute truths is for people who don't know anything. I apply that conviction to our purpose here by maintaining that not only do I believe I could be wrong, I'm almost certain that I could be more right. I ask you to please write your responses with that type of consideration. I'm only trying to start a conversation. And if ultimately, to you, I'm just a fake, stupid Iyeska whose opinion is irrelevant in the first place, being upset at the messenger seems like a waste of your time. Try to focus on the ideas.

Another clarification I have to make before we begin is that I'm not speaking to the world at large here.

In any narrative concerning the state of affairs for indigenous peoples, two discussions are really being had: one internal, and one external. In this piece I am speaking to Oglala people in a most internally-focused way and that's not an accident. If we're going to have honest dialogue with the world around us, I believe we must do the same amongst ourselves or accomplish neither. Speaking only to an audience of participants in Oglala life and culture simply felt like the most necessary and poignant approach given who I am and what I have to say in this article. I thank you for your time and consideration.

When addressing the question of the actual long-term effects of the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973, what seems to be universally agreed upon is that the world at large became more aware of the disparate social conditions and general strife that have plagued Oglala people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since its inception. Indeed, to this day, Pine Ridge itself is heralded globally by various resistance movements as a symbol of the active, continuous oppression of indigenous people by a dominant Western superpower. Even beyond the scope of activism, we (Oglala people) have developed a tendency in the larger social landscape to be inescapably cast as sufferers of Euro-American greed and hegemony.

The first thing that feels important to point out about these popular conceptions is that, historically speaking, they are quite justified. No reasonable intellect can in good conscience argue against the thought that nearly all contact with European and American governance has been anything short of disastrous for Oglala and Native Americans in general. At the most essential levels of language, religion, ecology, food sourcing, geography and cultural identity, American history over the past 500-plus years can be collaterally viewed as a record of the marginalization, if not genocide, of Indigenous peoples and cultures throughout the Western hemisphere.

Using this history as a context for viewing the Occupation of '73, it's apparent to me that, as one result of those events, the populace of Pine Ridge has now essentially been afforded three roles in mainstream American culture: the first as outright villains and godless monsters to be eradicated from all corners of the earth, the second as perpetually drunk, downtrodden, and helpless wards of the state, and the third as noble, mystical warriors and maidens of the plains who live in perfect harmony with Earth and all its creatures while possessing an immortal revolutionary spirit. In other words, post-'73, while racism and Eurocentric worldviews continue to influence popular attitudes to a high degree, socially visible sympathy for the crushing poverty and hopelessness that is the norm in Pine Ridge has also turned into a global currency of notoriety. Truly, for all involved - activists, politicians, reporters, scholars, artists, and most other audible voices - our top export is misery.

As we continue engaging the media, fighting to make our presence and plight known, obviously, certain thematic elements of the truth are amplified and others diminished for sensationalism or to advance sociopolitical agendas. This has always occurred and is still occurring on all sides of the historical arena. However, much to my dismay, there seems to be an undercurrent of perverse romanticism to this issue that too few are discussing publicly.

As humbly as possible, I contend that at a certain point in our embattled history post-'73 we began to self-identify as victims and resistors of genocide - that is, we ceased to only circumstantially be these victims and came to know ourselves and our projected life experiences through a lens of predestined strife.

Furthermore, we have learned through popular media to romanticize the struggle of our historical poverty and make it a commodity of emotion. Countless media personnel and left-leaning politicians ache to photograph muddy-faced Oglala children and be ostensibly involved in uplifting communities via "awareness." The problem with this approach, in my estimation, is not in creating awareness. That is great and necessary and owed to the participants of history as well as their descendants living today. But I'm unsure where we should draw the line between calling for action and "poverty porn" created patently to be a marketing and ratings tool for media outlets.

Also, this compartmentalization of Oglala people isn't entirely an external mechanism. Following our recognition by the media at Wounded Knee '73 as sufferers of a great injustice, we seem to have shifted into a mode slightly beyond remembrance and awareness, one of (consciously and unconsciously) internalizing our popular perception as third-class citizens.

Even in very tangible, material ways, we effectively have adopted the identity of oppression and sometimes assign honor to it. We do this by treating tribulation itself as a part of our modern culture but not quite challenging its existence. Down to our very collective ethos, we have been inundated from all sides with the idea that we were born to systematically suffer as prisoners of war and it paralyzes our cognitive capacity to treat causes instead of symptoms.

Confronted with our social ills, we have shown a tendency to take approaches to them which are incomprehensible, to say the least. Plagued by alcoholism, we uphold a policy of prohibition that has constantly and consistently failed rather than decriminalizing responsible adults and discussing treatment strategies for a problem that exists without regard to the law.

As our lack of technological and commercial infrastructure places our youth at an ever-increasing disadvantage academically and in the work force, we call for an increase in our efforts at suicide prevention and counseling to combat their despondency. Some of our loudest political voices urge us, above all, to resist the influence of American (White) culture; assuring us that holding fast to tradition will deliver us from the perils of adaptation.

But while our rates of access to preventative health care are barely registering on a national scale, the foods we almost all (I'm not innocent of this) choose to eat quite as a matter of custom, be it at normal family dinners, lunch breaks, religious ceremonies, funerals, or community events, are to diabetes what matches are to fire.

Speaking of matches, approximately 62% of our adult population is tobacco users, which only serve to compound the problem of what seem like impossibly high rates of cancer and heart disease. In so many ways that are not even ideologically rooted, we actually invest in the monolithic perception of Oglala people as unhappy and unhealthy. Perhaps we're still largely unaware that on a practical level we're perpetuating certain elements of our colonization. But whether we do it knowingly or not, hardly anything sounds more American to me than exactly such a circumstance.

We must accept the following painful reality: at any juncture in time henceforth, reach as we may into the past for a romantic warrior ideal to soothe our inherited trauma, the influence of American and global culture is not going to fully depart from the Oglala or any other indigenous people. It doesn't matter whether we reach back to 1890 or 1973 for these warrior ideals, and I'll tell you why.

You're reading this either on a newspaper page or a website. It's written in English (and that's how you're reading it). If we're going to live, let alone thrive, it will have to be alongside a social structure that has no particular desire to negate its own interests and revitalize our culture for us; it's easier, after all, to keep a people under one's thumb than to come to any reckoning with them about how they got there. This job is ours by default, and I don't trust anyone else to do it in the first place.

My thought on how to move forward consists of two correlating hypotheses. Firstly, we can be prosperous (which doesn't mean the same thing as maximizing profit) and have an economic infrastructure without having to lack social compassion or be ecologically parasitic.

The choice to elevate our quality of life in the modern world does not require us to abandon our Lakota worldview, spiritual beliefs, or contrary stance to imperialism worldwide - it does, however, require us to internalize sovereignty along with our knowledge of injustice. I agree with most thinkers that Westernized global culture in general is a game indigenous peoples were never meant to win.

However, if we play with practicality and honesty amongst ourselves, I disagree that we can't win. With utmost conviction, I believe that it's possible for us to construct a more people-oriented, environmentally conscious, sustainable and innovative modern society than any model of which Europe has ever conceived.

If we are warriors of a sovereign nation, let our weapon eventually cease to be federal and charitable funding that's tied to the superficial sympathy of other nations and let it become prosperity in the way we choose to define it. I refuse to accept that Oglala people are precluded by our prescribed identity as once-powerful victims from the potential to be an inspiring, redeeming part of what history books say in the future. I am baffled as to why we wouldn't assume intellectual control of our standard of living by un-assigning "whiteness" to things like higher education, good health, and fiscal responsibility.

As we delve into the second hypothesis, please bear in mind that no one is being asked to part with the value of a connection to ancestral wisdom and philosophy here. I am as convinced as any traditionalist that it is critical for us to maintain some incarnation of our Lakota language and otherwise preserve, as much as possible, the pre-colonial aspect of our true identity. Though I consider myself a "progressive" thinker, I am far from thinking that the past needs to be forsaken or trivialized to bring about a less bleak future. Quite to the contrary, I believe precisely what we're doing is failing that past if we refuse to acknowledge the world around us and allow our future to happen to us rather than making it happen.

Let's imagine for a moment that we actually became a healthy, happy, self-sufficient people (this is how I personally define our cultural "success") in the context of our modern world. By cultivating such a shift we wouldn't be lessening the significance of our forebears' suffering. We wouldn't invalidate our history of being oppressed - we would own it. Now let's return to the literal present.

Once we can be totally accountable for our role in an undeniably globalized society, once we seize control of our cultural progression by building world-class intellects and a sustainable economy, we'll have the power to make any corrections to the misrepresentations of our past we so choose. Also, the fact that this may take longer than the lifespan of anyone currently living doesn't make it an unworthy pursuit. Some would even say the opposite is true. What I'm saying is that any possibility of our tangible sovereignty or of paying greatest tribute to our relatives before and after us still resides in our future, not our past.

Creating a world we're glad to live in requires us to first stop identifying ourselves as symbols of endless tribulation. Our current means of coping are not working - we serve no justice to those who were actually murdered by cavalrymen, to those who actually attended the nightmarish missionary boarding schools that were instrumental in disintegrating our way of life, by yearning for a past we've seen destroyed and simply reinforcing that our oppressors have always wanted us to be miserable. We (especially our youth) know this innately, and now the rest of the world knows it in passing. Given how little has actually changed in Pine Ridge since the revelatory events of the Occupation of 1973, it seems to me that knowing the facts of our ordeal is not enough.

So, as I conclude, I'd like to continue the conversational aim of this piece by asking and then (sort of) giving an answer to a question which I believe is the crux of our path to resurgence from the cruelties of our history. If we're not mascots of genocide and cultural suppression, who are we? Above all, whether we think we share a fate with the rest of the planet or not, we are human beings and residents of the community of Earth. Beyond that, I think it's high time we start making the decisions that would properly answer my question.

(Animal Teef is Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, SD. He can be reached at sambateef@gmail.com)

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