books,  culture

Culture, Ethnicity and questions.

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I want to participate in the A More Diverse Universe book blogging tour, where bloggers write reviews of speculative fiction books written by authors of color. So I went to the library looking for a sample of speculative fiction by an author of color. I had a list of authors with me and choose a book called Rain is Not my Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith. After getting it home and reading half of it I realized it isn’t speculative fiction. The author was on the list because she also writes about vampires. This one is a middle-school novel about a young girl in small town Kansas. Nevertheless I read the book, enjoyed it and feel like writing about it. So I’ll write about it now and read a different book for the book blogging tour.
Rain is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitch Smith
Like most good novels, the book Rain is Not My Indian Name contains several different threads and it is a little bit of a challenge to pin down which the main one is. Is the story about a girl grieving the loss of her best friend? Is it about her finding herself stuck in the middle of local politics when her aunt’s summer program for native teens comes under fire from her (deceased) friend’s mother? Is it about her learning how to connect to the people around her? It is about all of those really, with a few other dilemmas thrown in too.
A major part of the story is Rain’s involvement in a summer program her aunt runs. At first Rain thought the Indian camp “sounded like the kind of thing where a bunch of probably suburban, probably rich, probably white kids tromped around a woodsy park, calling themselves ‘princesses,’ ‘braves,’ or ‘guides.'” That isn’t what the camp is about though. It is small and involves native teenagers (and one African American who has native blood somewhere in the family tree, she says), and the focus isn’t all that clearly defined. It isn’t focused on teaching them how to be native, as much as them being native doing other things, in this case exploring technology.
Somehow I can’t help thinking the heart of the story comes on pages 113 – 115, where Rain’s coworker at the local newspaper is asking Rain why had the teenagers at the summer program built spaghetti and glue bridges. What does bridge building have to do with Native American culture?
At that point I didn’t have much choice. I just laid it out. “Indians build bridges.”
He scribbled down my answer and looked back at me. “This is some kind of metaphor, right? You trying to Yoda me or something, Sc-fi girl? Fine, I’ll play: Why do Indians build bridges?”
At least he hadn’t asked why were were building the Indian Camp website.
I shrugged. “To cross rivers.”
“Rivers,” the Flash repeated. “Like rivers of wisdom?”
“Highways,” I added, slightly annoyed but honestly trying to help.
“Highways?” he echoed.
I took a breath and folded my hands in my lap. The summer Fynn was seventeen, he built a wooden bridge over a two foot high concrete troll at the miniature golf course behind Phillips 66 Car Was.”
No reaction.
“You can check it out for yourself,” I added. “The paint is chipped off of the troll’s nose, and its eyes look possessed. Nice bridge, though.”
The Flash’s eyes were blank. He still wasn’t getting it.
Against my better judgement, I tried one more time. “Think of it like this: How is bridge building not an Indian thing?”
“Well, Indians… You just don’t think…” The Flash rubbed his eyelids. “Well, maybe you do. I just always thought of Native American culture being…”
It wasn’t like I was in a position to blame him. After all, nobody says the wrong thing more often than me. But I couldn’t resist teasing just a little bit. In my best Hollywood Indian voice, I said, “Bridges not for white man only.”
The segment stuck in my mind because I think it encapsulates one of the key aspects of the story: the question of what it means to be native. Being native isn’t just about fitting in with cultural stereotypes. Natives are not frozen in 1800th century culture. So what does it mean to be native?
In the story the Indian Camp comes under attack from a want-to-be mayor who happens to also be Rain’s deceased friend’s mother. Mrs. Olsen views the camp as an example of the current mayor’s fiscal irresponsibility. Why spend money on a small segment of the population? I don’t remember the book asking outright why the program is limited to just Indian children. If they’re learning to build bridges and webpages, why not open it to all? Except perhaps that they are learning to do so as Indians. If the only thing a person can do at Indian camp is learn about Indian history and culture, does that mean that a person who chooses to ignore their culture and history isn’t a real Indian?
Okay, I need to move away from the book now and try to explore some different thoughts. I’m trying to understand what I’m thinking about. I’m not native. I’m from a visible minority. So I don’t want to talk as though I understood the experience of someone who is a part of a visible minority. Yet I want to talk about that question of being something as something else. I remember a drama teacher ages ago telling the class that she was an actor, not an actress, because the term actress somehow relegated women to a separate category. Her gender isn’t relevant to her career. One could argue in the same way that children’s camps, schools, and stuff should be based on people’s interests and skills, not people’s ethnicity.
Then I think about seeing in a continuing education catalog an advertisement for mechanics classes for women. Why have mechanics classes for women? Why not just mechanics classes? Surely fixing cars is done the same way regardless of which gender a person is. Is it discrimination to think women would need a separate class? A women-only class would have different dynamics, and this could be particularly important for making women comfortable in a field traditionally seen as male, but are there other reasons? Why have girl guides if all of the activities done at girl guides are ones that guys could do too? Is it just to provide the different dynamics? Or would having an all-girls group that does masculine type things reaffirm that women can do those things as women? That it isn’t like women need to put aside being a woman and be gender-neutral in order to participate in them?
Can a woman politician just be a politician or is she always a woman politician? Would just being a politician mean pretending to be male? To bring it back to the story, when native teenagers build a spaghetti bridge instead of learning how to make dream catchers, are they pretending to be non-native? I don’t have any answers and I’m not sure I’m even making the question clear enough.
I wonder: do authors of color want to be identified as authors of color, or just as authors? Is there a generic assumption that all authors are white, and that identifying an author as an author of color can celebrate the person’s heritage as equally important to their writing skills while referring to them as authors ignores their heritage? Or does it relegate them to a different class of author? What about hyphenated labels? What about when a person identifies as being Chinese-Canadian? Does that allow the person to feel included as Canadian without having to ignore their heritage? Or does it segregate the person? I don’t know.
I think about current disputes about what it means to be part of a particular group. I think about the situation of Veronica Rose, a young girl whom left her potential adoptive parents last January and has remained since then with her biological father and his family. The father was part of a native tribe and so a certain law (the ICWA) applied to him that made it easier for him to gain custody than he would have otherwise. I remember reading comments online with people saying that she has only a tiny percentage of native blood, so why should it be considered more important than her other heritages? I remember reading comments people made saying that the law shouldn’t apply in this case because the father wasn’t involved enough in native culture. How much involvement is necessary? How much blood? Others just said the whole law should not exist because native children should be treated just like any other child. I thought that the laws that protected that biological father’s right should be extended to all fathers, not just native ones, but that’s due to my opinions on father’s rights and doesn’t reflect my confused thoughts about the role of ethnicity in modern life.
I’m not part of a minority group, but I am part of a culture. I don’t exactly know what to call it. WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant) probably describes it accurately enough. I think its important to recognize it and name it so I act a bit less like it is the default.
Anyway, I really like the book, Rain is Not My Indian Name, and I look forward to sharing it with my children when they are a bit older.
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  • MJ

    These are big ideas, and this book sounds like a good way to explore them.

    I love how you end this “I don’t exactly know what to call it. WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant) probably describes it accurately enough. I think its important to recognize it and name it so I act a bit less like it is the default.”

    Mainstream culture does treat WASP culture as the default, and I think it’s important to push back against that idea.

  • Sherri

    Great post. Very insightful. I have more on thoughts regarding culture and race and its application to society. Too much to go into but would make for a good book club discussion 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

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