NDN in the North

By Guest Contributor Aaminah Al-Naksibendi, originally posted at Anishinaabekwe

Note from Cecilia, owner of Anishnaabekwe: This is a guest post by Aaminah Al-Naksibendi. She is a Michigander, mother, daughter, sister, artist, writer, activist, truth teller, rebel and NDN. I asked her to write a guest post because of my utter exhaustion around what happened to me this week. So I thank her with all my heart for helping me to speak and share this story when my voice is drenched in sorrow, depression and dealing with the effects of racism in the 21st century.

I grew up in Michigan, adopted by a white family. As a young girl I attended NDN pow wows, African American cultural festivals and the Hispanic festival in our West Michigan city. My parents attempted to raise us with multi-cultural friends, in multi-cultural public schools, and attending multi-cultural churches. As a woman, I had a long relationship with a fellow NDN who had gone to school with and remained friends with my brother. We had a son together before we separated.

When my son was about 7 months old, I started dating a Zhaganaash man whose family lived in Benzie County, up just north of Traverse City. For many reasons, I was not really liked by his overbearing mother, but we attempted to build bridges and visited up there several times before we married in December and his family refused to attend and cut communication with him.

Needless to say, those visits up north were very uncomfortable in many ways. But one thing that was especially difficult for me was the complete lack of color. My fiancée talked about wanting to move up north. We loved the wooded areas, the idea of living just outside a small town, and the literally Crystal-like water of the lake – cleanest water I have ever seen. But the idea of being surrounded by only white people made me really uncomfortable. I wasn’t Muslim at the time, and I am pale (and as a baby my son was blond and pale too) so I was able to “pass” as white and no one recognized us as NDN. I didn’t experience personal racial attacks while visiting (except by my fiancée’s mother of course) and out in the community, though there was one time when a shop keeper asked my fiancée “what” I was and he answered that I was Irish like him. I do also recall overhearing jokes about Blacks, “wetbacks”, and NDNs. Even so, my discomfort stemmed more from the complete lack of color, and not being able to imagine raising my son not only completely outside his own culture, but also without the benefit of a multi-cultural environment and amongst people who were clearly hostile to people of color.

There was one time, only one, where I saw any other color in that town. It was when a Black girl accompanied a white foster family who was visiting the town on vacation. We ran into them when we went to have lunch in a little burger shack near the lake. The little blonde children of the family were in bathing suits, and the Black girl was in sloppy cut off shorts and an oversized none-too-clean t-shirt. When the family’s number was called to pick up their food she got up to serve everyone. I didn’t hear the mother or father say that wasn’t necessary or even thank her, and they certainly weren’t jumping up to help. I lost my appetite and that was the day I declared there was no way I could live there. My fiancée insisted that since they were only visiting their cabin in the summer, that family didn’t represent the year-round residents, but I will never forget what it represented to me. Between that and his family, I never again was able to bring myself to visit.

When my NDN sister Cecelia told me about moving up north, my first thought was discomfort but of course I didn’t want to spoil her plans with my misgivings so instead I congratulated her. I wanted to believe that things have really changed in the last dozen years and there would be more color in the north. Certainly, I thought there must be other NDNs there! Cecelia wrote happily about communing with nature, getting in touch with silence, getting away from the gray and draining energy of the cities. I was happy for her.

Unfortunately, it didn’t surprise me then to hear that she quickly ran into issues when looking for work. Of course people can write it off as our bad economy, no one can find work right now, etc. But I sensed something else… I sensed that she also wasn’t finding a lot of support from the small NDN community there either. Finally she wrote to tell me she had accepted a position as a volunteer (with small stipend) with an organization. I thought volunteer work is better than no work anyway and at least she felt like she was contributing to her community.

Quickly that changed. Quickly it seemed that there were some “issues” at her job and that she was being routinely disrespected on the job. The funny thing is, people know that it is wrong to be discriminated against or spoken down to when they are a “professional” on the job. But I think that people figure that if you are “just” a volunteer then no one owes you professional respect and you could just leave if you don’t like how people treat you. Of course, a committed and professional person who cares about community-based organizations doesn’t see it that simply. It is a difficult choice to leave a job, whether it is paying or not. And so many of us have been taught to second-guess ourselves, to not trust our own instincts that something is racist or classist or otherwise damaging to us.

As women we are socialized in this society to turn off our instincts. Yet instinct is one of the first things that an NDN woman works to regain when she gets in touch with her culture. Instinct is a powerful and important tool that the Creator gifted women with. For women who are interested, as Cecelia is, in healing – not only herself but also her community and the earth – instinct is essential. But so many people of color have been told that our instinctual recognition of discrimination is wrong, that we are being paranoid or “playing the race card” to gain sympathy. So many of us instinctively feel that something is wrong and that it is related to our ethnic difference, but we attempt to give any other excuse for the situation and work thru it.

And there isn’t much talk (that I hear anyway) of how NDN women continue to be marginalized in this society. We are targeted for programs to sterilize us but cannot get access to an abortion by choice. We are rarely the group that is sought out, even in a tokenizing way, by organizations, task forces and other groups when they start looking for “minority representation”. And often we are simply erased from existence. As so many of us are “mixed” and span the spectrum of skin colors from whitest White to blackest Black, we have often been forced to “choose” a side and subsume our NDNness to the other “part” of us. For those of us who are on the paler end of the spectrum, we often find that fellow NDNs don’t accept us either, especially if we have been separated from our people and culture and are trying now to reconnect.

A little while ago Cecelia shared with me some misgivings about her job and the community she was in. She was having a hard time connecting with other NDNs. When she had accepted the job, the woman who was to be her supervisor had offered to help her settle in and get hooked up with other NDNs. But that promise was never actualized in any way. Now, there are different management styles, but on the job one does need basic guidance from a supervisor, and this supervisor didn’t given any direction. It is important for anyone in a supervisory role to be a leader, and that means that they have to have some relationship to those they are leading and provide an example of how they expect the job to be done. Also, seemingly little things started to pile up. Cecelia said that she’d send emails asking specific questions, seeking specific direction, specific community connections that would help not only her but also the people they were working with. But her emails went unanswered. She noticed that she was ignored, not spoken to in the office by that supervisor or spoken to as an afterthought. When she was spoken to, she felt rather patronized, like a “second class citizen”; the whole tone was different than how she witnessed others being spoken to. There were no specifically racist comments made directly about her, but loose comments about how “white bread” the area is in a tone that implied “you don’t fit, why are you here?”

This week I heard from Cecelia after she was called into the office of her supervisor. Cecelia shared with me that she had never felt so degraded, so disrespected, that it was even worse than the day-to-day poor treatment she had been experiencing. Her supervisor decided that she would henceforth need to submit to oversight of her job duties and supervisory meetings every other week to discuss her performance. In a paying job, that would be properly termed “a probationary period” and would come about after having received, in writing, some sort of complaint about performance. Cecelia had never been told, verbally or in writing, that there was any problem with her performance. In fact, she was never given any feedback or direction in regards to her job even though she pointedly requested it. As a volunteer, such oversight sounds excessive. To be clear, this was not a matter of a policy change that would affect all volunteers (of which there are two others). Even while being told that she would be subject to this level of new scrutiny, Cecelia was never given concrete examples of any way in which she was failing to carry out her job duties or doing so in an unacceptable or inefficient manner, nor was she given a concrete reason for the change. As far as she knows, she has been doing her job just fine and been given no reason to believe there were problems with her performance. But now she must submit to constant scrutiny and being spoken to as if she were an ignorant child, while other staff and volunteers witness her being called to the office.

Is it because Cecelia is the only NDN there? I trust Cecelia’s instincts. And I remember the general hostility of the area – an area that is almost exclusively liberal White racists that think we live in a “post-racial” society. I remember Cecelia sharing stories of how overt the staring and whispering was when obviously-of-color friends visited. I’ve also seen media showcasing open racism in Northern Michigan, in particular against NDNs. And I think that since she has been singled out for the treatment and treated in a paternalistic manner, it’s reasonable to assume that being NDN had something to do with it and that White privilege and power is at work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they may be intentionally trying to run her out of town to preserve their communal privilege and “white bread” vision of utopia – sans color, sans NDNs.