“Hi!” His greeting was warm but anxious. “Thank you so much for coming to our university this morning, let me show you into our multi-cultural center. Students have gathered here to support one another. We’re sorry to put you in this position, but do you think you could speak with them before you deliver your general speech? They’re pretty upset at what has happened in the election …”
Surrounded by tall pine trees in glorious Northwest autumn, we stepped through bright orange leaves swirling in the crisp air to join an audience stricken by the vote of the American electoral college. Inside the multi-cultural center we find Cesar Chaves posters hanging next to Nepalese prayer flags and placards of MLK quotes. All down the long hallway, brown paper has been strung for students to express themselves. I read - “I don’t feel safe”; “I’m so scared, what if they try to deport me?” “Some have said they want to build a wall on this campus.”; “Fuck Trump!” About 30 brown students of every hue and background have tears in their eyes, huddled and hugging distraughtly all over lime green furniture, while sighs escape from the few professors.
We sit in a big circle, mostly quiet and downcast. Doughnuts are set on a coffee table. People reach for them quickly. Sugar always seems to make grief a little easier.
Students are looking at me. I whisper to my colleague Elisa to go to the car to grab the smudge. I want to pray with these students. The room is still as I begin, I introduce myself as Stahobes, I share a prayer song. I let the smoke of the smudge and the prayers settle the atmosphere. I ask the students to introduce themselves and, if they like, to share what they’re feeling. One by one, they come forward - they’re chem majors, they’re studying comparative literature, they’re in pre-med, pre-law, they’re studying theology; they’re brown, from the Rez, from the Hood, from middle American suburbs, from Iran; they’re undocumented, they’re gay, they’re beautiful. And they each confide, “I’m scared.”
Their campus just became a nightmare. A young black woman’s genitals were grabbed in the elevator by a white male student who declared, “It’s a new America. Get used to it.” A girls hijab was ripped off her while she was walking to class, by yet another white male student, who spat, “you and your terrorist family will soon be caught!” Graffitti appeared in a dormitory hallway- ”the wall will be going up soon all you spics will have to leave”. Confederate flags appeared inside of dorm rooms.
America has just elected Donald Trump. A blatantly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, capitalistic extremist who threatens to build a wall, to deport the “undocumented”, to extreme “vet” immigrants, who, if given the chance, may abolish tribal sovereignty, mark brown people as terrorists or otherwise criminal, and who knows what else.
I don’t usually talk politics, it’s not my place. My work has been as an artist, a story teller. I try to remain neutral enough to be a good messenger.
But after spending all of last week nationwide on campus visits such as this, I wonder: What do we tell young people?
This is part of what the students in this visit expressed:
Native American College Students Respond to Election
This is the first time that younger generations, particularly college students and Millennials, have experienced such political upheaval and angst. We were not alive or directly impacted by the assassinations in the Sixties of Malcolm X or Dr. King or JFK or Robert Kennedy; none of us experienced the Vietnam War or later on Nixon’s “dirty tricks” or Reagan’s conservative rise.
I decided to share with these bereft, disillusioned students stories and experiences of hope I’ve encountered in the last five years visiting Tribal Nations for Project 562: “These are some of my favorite stories and encounters, to uplift you and renew your faith in your brothers and sisters. They’re about transformation, of people who have endured crises and made peace with themselves and the world despite terrible odds. These stories boost me in times of crisis and I hope they help you as much as they have helped me:”
I encouraged them with Raymond Mattz’s righteous defiance, a Yurok fisherman who was arrested nineteen times by California state authorities for fishing on the Klamath River until tribes won the federal Boldt Decision in 1974 ensuring Native American fishing rights.
I affirmed them about the tenacity and revival of Native American culture and ways all over North America, including Northwest tribes’ traditional canoe journey. That culture went to sleep for several generations because it was ruled illegal for us to travel down our ancestral highways. With the Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1979, we had the opportunity to bring back our canoe culture. The Canoe Journey resumed slowly when the ban was lifted; this year, however, we landed with over 400 canoes on the shores of Nisqually!
I fired them up about the Pueblo Revolt, and how Pueblos have managed to build tribal schools whose students are fluent in language and culture, even though their ancestors had experienced forced federal assimilation practices in education and other ways of life.
I inspired them with the work of Tulalip’s Deb Parker, a tireless advocate for our women who have been victims of sexual assault. How Deb has been a leader in the coalition that successfully persuaded Congress to reform VAWA in 2013 and allow Native authorities to prosecute non-Natives for crimes committed on tribal lands, particularly crimes against women.
I moved them with the amazing significance of over 300 tribal nations along with allies from around the country and world united to protect water and tribal sovereignty at Standing Rock, North Dakota. More and more, Native Americans’ ancient, profound relationship with the natural world is in the forefront of environmental activism and decision-making.
I assured them that we who are working to change the conversation about Native America, to help this nation as a whole be free of falsehoods and mental bondage, would protect and never abandon them. That we’d stand with them as students, and with their families and communities; with Native, Muslim, black, gay, female, African, same sex parents, Mexican and Latino, disabled, immigrant, trans, Asian, all our wonderful, unstoppable variety! I told them we wouldn’t let anyone hurt them, or deport them, or threaten them without having to contend with us. That we will fight back, as protectors do, with love in our hearts.
I had them turn and take each other’s hands, and offer to protect one another.
I then reminded them of the history of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker that, using spiritual logic and reason, brought enduring peace and unity to the Six Nations in New York after a bitter era of spiritual and political conflict and warring crisis. I invite you to read the full story here, and understand most importantly that each nation decided to lay down its weapons at the great tree of peace.
Can we do the same? Can we become Peace Makers? Can we make that pledge to lay to rest our weapons of divisiveness? Lay down our weapons of fear? Lay down our weapons of discrimination? Lay down our weapons of racism? And instead choose to become protectors, of each other and our nation’s potential?