By: Twlya B. Baker-Demaray
I have a pretty good command of the English language. I use ‘five dollar words’, as one of my brothers calls them, all the time. I don’t do it to be obnoxious; I just like to be able to express myself clearly and succinctly (5 bucks right there). I assume that this is what a particular person was referring to earlier this year, when I was told point blank that I ‘sound white’ when I speak. It was an offhand comment, and I really don’t know what she meant by it when she was telling me this. Should I pepper my speech with ‘ayyyye’ and ‘enit’? Was I not credible in speaking on Native matters? I really don’t know. I’ve pondered it from time to time since then (‘pondering’ being only a $2.50 word, after all). I really like to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I try not to consider that what she really meant, is that when I speak, I sound ‘educated’. If this is the case, which I sincerely hope it is not, then it would imply that if I sounded more ‘Native’, then I would sound ‘uneducated’. This is an insult to pretty much every Native person everywhere, no matter what you sound like. I can’t even think on it too long as I write this, because the idea makes my blood boil.
The whole rather uncomfortable situation had left my mind since then, until I received an email from a ‘fan’ who had read some of my LRI pieces and I think was attempting to give me a compliment, albeit in a very bass-akwards manner. This fellow was ‘very impressed’ with my writing, and just wanted to tell me so – if he’d stopped there, then I probably would have been nothing but flattered. Sadly, he did not; this reader felt that he needed to provide his assistance to me, a ‘fledgling writer’ (never mind that I’ve been writing since I was in grade school). He went on to say that I shouldn’t ‘limit myself’ just to topics related to the Native experience; that I had much more to offer than that. The rest of the email was a virtual pat-on-the-head, slap-on-the-butt, send-me-on-my-way type deal. I wish now that I’d saved it, not only to show to others, but to prove to myself that somebody had written that to me. After about thirty minutes of opening it, closing it, re-opening it, reading it, and re-reading it, I decided that responding to this ardent admirer wasn’t worth the keystrokes. Delete.
I’m really not sure how to feel about these folks, and really, any other people who inadvertently express similar sentiments of identity confusion to me (or perhaps FOR me, as they appear to think they are doing). Thus I have decided to feel – nothing. Every reader who picks up one of my pieces, every person who listens in on one of my talks, all carry with them their own experience, Native or otherwise. It’s really none of my affair what they think of me, as the saying goes. Like it or lump it, I’m probably going to keep writing for a very long time, because it is what I love to do, and I like to think I’m good at it; good enough to be making a living at any rate. I will write about my experience, and as I am a Native woman, I am by extension writing about the Native experience; at least as viewed from these eyes. Thus, for some though I appear to be pigeonholing myself, to me, it is what I know and love best. If I sound ‘too white’ some days, or write ‘too Native’ on others, please feel free to keep that opinion to yourself. If, however, you do feel the deep seated need to express such thoughts to me, be prepared for disappointment when I don’t immediately change my manner of thinking, writing, speaking, or acting. I’m considering adding a disclaimer to my work now, which would go something like this:
‘Warning: The ideas and thoughts expressed herein on any topic relative to Native America may cause feelings of conflict, discomfort, amusement, mirth, disdain, disinterest, empowerment, disgust, boredom, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, scorn, love, apathy, fear, joy, derision, disbelief, pain, righteous anger, identity crises, and/or the overwhelming urge to urinate or consume prodigious amounts of frybread. Responsibility for such feelings will be denied by the author, and will be wholly attributed to you; in particular what to do with such feelings. Proceed with extreme caution.’
Dang – that disclaimer alone is worth about $400 bucks.