550: My Standard Response
550: My Standard Response
I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.
Many people in the United States have a strange idea that history has happened somewhere else. I’ve always found that idea interesting ⏤ if that’s even the right word. To them, that history, the events of the past, have stayed in the past. “So much has happened, so long ago,” people seem to say. This seems particularly true when it comes to addressing the lasting effects of slavery and genocide. “Oh, that happened a long time ago.” And because of that dismissal of our complex and brutal history, there’s often a deep misunderstanding about who we are today as a country.
So often our history lessons are reduced to stereotypes and easy myth making that offers digestible lessons for the uninitiated. Because of that, there’s a troubling fascination that some people have with native nations today. It seems that some people believe that native people only exist in the past and this is reinforced by the nationalistic propaganda so many continue to be raised on.
We see dangerous objectification in the existence of carved wooden “indians” still (somehow) proudly set outside tobacco shops, the headdress used as a logo, the mascots, the dream catchers sold at trendy chain stores, among many other things. Some people mistake that sort of fetishizing as reverence, but how can anything be reverential when it’s designed to dehumanize, sterilize, and commodify?
One of the many reasons I love today’s poem by Karenne Wood is that it takes those harmful stereotypes and upends them. It addresses, in a straightforward and unflinching way, what it means to be the subject of someone’s fascination and what it means to walk away from that exchange, in order to take back their own power and identity.
My Standard Response
by Karenne Wood
I. The first question is always phrased this way: “So. How much Indian are you?” II. We did not live in tepees. We did not braid our hair. We did not fringe our shirts. We did not wear war bonnets. We did not chase the buffalo. We did not carry shields. We were never Plains Indians. We tried to ride, but we kept falling off of our dogs.
IV. As they ask, they think, yes, I can see it in her face. High cheekbones (whatever those are) and dark hair. Here’s a thought: don’t we all have high cheekbones? If we didn’t, our faces would cave in. (But I do have a colonized nose.) I’m sick of explaining myself. “You know,” I finally say, “It doesn’t matter to my people.” I ride off to my ranch-style home. Time to weave a basket, or something.
"My Standard Response" by Karenne Wood, from MARKINGS ON EARTH by Karenne Wood, copyright © 2001 Karenne Wood. Used by permission of the University of Arizona Press.