“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” – Steven Biko, 1971
I was forced to this space of rediscovery and healing, I did not walk willingly into it. I came from the bottom. Rock bottom. Due to my affinity for cocaine and liquor, I had to rebuild myself. Rebuilding required that I get to know who I was and where I came from. The journey of rediscovery was made a necessity for me because of my experiences. Not everyone has to rebuild. Not everyone is forced to a place where the absence of culture and tradition equals a life of ceaseless wandering and self-inflicted pain. But many of us are walking around thirsty and not able to pinpoint exactly what would quench our thirst. We learn how to walk about and shoo away the empty feeling as if it had taken the form of a small form of fruit flies. Definitely annoying but small enough to pretend they don’t exist.
If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.
Are we all much too busy and inconvenienced “but not inconvenienced enough” to actively pursue the truth of who we are? Maybe most of us are just too scared, too scared of the reality of what awaits us. When you have been another man’s prisoner whether it be mentally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically freedom can seem like a dangerous thing. After all, with freedom comes responsibility, a call to action, and if you never change then neither will your level of comfort and ability to only be accountable to yourself. But if we want to move forward successfully, in a good way, and create meaningful long-lasting change for future generations we will have to examine ourselves, our thought processes, and question the perch we sit upon as we perceive the world.
This journey is about reclaiming the warrior. The top layer is composed of questioning the legitimacy of the policies, laws, media, and institutional structures that continue to colonize and define our existence for us. The second layer is discarding all of the inner talk that was shaped by the outside world that has us forgetting our power and purpose. It is purging the ideas that affirm that success is always outside of you or that love is something you have to work for. Behind all of this unlearning that we have done, lies the truth. That we are composed of, and come from, love.
Love has become this fluffy word that summons movie scenes, unicorns, and puppies to the minds eye. Love has taken a backseat in this world of grit, ambition, and drive. We often forget that love is one of the most powerful energies that exists. Love put into action can transform circumstances. What do you think was the basis for Sitting Bull, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, or Nelson Mandela? Yes, freedom and justice were the overarching things they reached for. But what do you think moved them into action?
Love. A deep and fierce love for their people, for the land, for what they knew. Love is what moved them. So believe me when I say, loving yourself is a revolutionary act.
Albert Memmi once wrote that, “in order for the colonizer to be the complete master, it is not enough for him to be so in actual fact, he must also believe in its legitimacy. In order for that legitimacy to be complete, it is not enough for the colonized to be a slave, he (the colonized) must also accept his role.”
Present day there are a multitude of people still buying into their roles as the oppressed. There are individuals out here completely oblivious to the power that they hold and the love that they are. I see and hear it all the time but if your ears and eyes aren’t tuned into the frequency of internalized oppression then you might not pick it up.
Everyone else get’s the breaks in this life. Nothing good ever happens to me.
I work really hard because I have to. Other Native people are lazy and give us a bad name. I have to prove that I am different.
Why fight? The government is going to do what they want anyways.
They’re not the kind of person to date a Native girl/man.
They’re not even Native. They weren’t raised in the struggle and don’t know what it’s like.
Purposefully trying to set yourself apart from your bloodline/background.
Acting apologetic around white people or shrinking in their presence.
Not doing something because you don’t think you are good enough to achieve it.
Not doing something because you don’t think it’s something “your kind” does.
Accepting shitty circumstances because of the belief that life is something that happens to you.
When I was a teenager I absolutely hated being Indigenous. I am two different tribes and my maternal Grandpa was a white man from Montana. I have fair skin but telling cheekbones and dark hair. I lived in this precarious space of being “too Indian” or “not Indian enough”. I could be mistaken for other ethnicities when I was in other towns or cities but I grew up in a town where there were literally cowboys and Indians. There were also a lot of cowboy Indians. There was no escaping the fact that I was Indigenous. I tried to. Believe me.
Anonymous Potential Friend (APF): “So Helen, what are you?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
APF: “Like, you know. What’s your background?”
Me: “Oh, I’m white.”
APF: *stares at me until like they have built in pigment and phenotype deciphering programming*
Me: *squirms uncomfortably*
APF: “Are you sure?”
Me: “… and I’m Native.”
APF: “I knew you were something else!”
I still tried to assume a white identity. At least a times half dozen before I realized it was never going to work out for me in this one horse town. I heard of Native women in larger towns claiming other identities such as Spanish and Italian. I envied the ability to disappear from yourself. At the time I only saw weakness when I saw Native people. My great uncle was a street person, I grew up in an alcoholic home, and I was an alcoholic. I hadn’t been introduced to culture or language and knew nothing of our history. I only knew what I picked up from visual environments, experience, and of course mass stereotyping and media messages. Indians were lazy, bums, drunks, violent, squaws, and the women were easy and disposable. I wanted to distance myself from all of those things. I believed in the messaging I received. I believed in the yoke that was placed on my neck that said I was never going to amount to anything and my body was free for the taking. I believed in my role as the oppressed.
What is particularly ironic is that I grew up experiencing racism and being called a squaw but when I reclaimed my power as an Indigenous woman and started pointing out these things, I was told… “But, Helen. You don’t even look Native.”
Colonial mic drop.
Colonizer walks off stage and leaves colonized to work through identity crisis and sense of self.
We cannot be “Indian” only when it is convenient for the outside world. They want the culture. The outside world wants our pretty vibrant colours, our beads, our sage, and our ceremonies. They want us quiet and subservient; they want the Indian that is oppress-able. If not that, they want the oppressed Indian who is struggling so they can point at one (while ignoring every single other Indigenous person who is thriving) and say:
“Carol! I fucking told you all these Indians were drunks and leech off the hard-earned tax paying dollars of upstanding Canadian white citizens. God damn it, it is a good day to be white, Carol.”
It is okay for us to be inconvenienced but what they do not want is the “inconvenient” Indian. The Indian that is seated in their power and love for the people, lands, and waters. The Indian that stands up for what they believe in and demands more from society, more from public institutions, more from the governments. The Indian that is after total liberation is a danger and threat to not only the system, but to the solidified beliefs of the masses. If we are not colonized in a colonial settler state, then what are we? What is the validity, if any, of the colonial settler state? If Chris can’t bitch to Carol and blame his unhappiness and self-perceived lack of class and state mobility on Indians… then what is life? Where does his socio-economic frustration go? Upwards? Even when Indigenous people are seated in their power and actively advocating and fighting for the rights of land, water, and people the argument is usually the exactly the same:
“Carol! I fucking told you all these Indians do is interfere and leech off the hard-earned tax paying dollars of upstanding Canadian white citizens. God damn it, it is a good day to be white, Carol.”
These types ignore simple facts and reason (most of us actually pay taxes and *shocker* have jobs and *further shock* a higher percentage of Indigenous people abstain from alcohol than the general population). I am not going further to discredit the above arguments because it’s been done many times and is tiring. Even in this small one horse town that I live in I wonder if any of the businesses or people give thought to the amount of money Indigenous people spend at the local businesses. Let’s say 1000 natives spend an average of $500 dollars a month in this town on food etc.,.
That is 1000 + 500 = 500,000 a month
500,000 x 12 months = 6,000,000 a year
Those are very conservative numbers as many people live in this smaller urban center and travel here to spend their hard earned money. But god damn it, Carol. Let’s blame it on the Indians. Canada is like one of those dysfunctional families and we are always assuming the role of the scapegoat.
There is the flipside of this as well. When one becomes the “inconvenient Indian” they can also become the “model Indian”. I received a message last year from a young Caucasian lady who had been following my work for some time and it said something along the lines of the following:
Hi Helen, I have always been too shy to say hello. But I am a big fan of your work. It is so refreshing to see a Native woman from the north who is educated and powerful. You are a great writer and love everything you do.
If you read that and didn’t catch the micro-aggressive racist comment in it. Read it again. It was a compliment with one hand and a bitch-slap with another. First read you might think, but she is only saying nice things to you. Give me a break. Yes there was a compliment. She also said that it was, “refreshing to see a Native woman from the north who is educated and powerful”. The slap with a sting is indirectly stating that Indigenous women from the north are NOT educated and powerful. That I, Helen June Knott, was a model Indian. A beacon of hope. An Indigenous messiah. I was the exception to the rule. The rule being that the majority of Indian women are oppressed and act in such a manner.
Ah, nope. I am none of the above. I absolutely refuse to be a poster child for the colonial slogan, “if she can do it, so can you”. I mean, you can do it and anyone CAN do things. But my personal overcoming of circumstance and trauma is NOT to be used to dismiss the oppression and hideous colonial wrongdoings to spout off how an individual is solely responsible for ascension and healing. I consider myself lucky to have made it this far in life. If not for Creator and for teachers, family, my son, and others I would have never done the things I have done so far. I am what I am because of the collective, not in spite of.
The danger in the “model Indian”, is that everyone points to them as a measure and comparison to how other Indians should act and manifest themselves in this world. It is still robbing us of our humanity and right to be human and be seen as human. This is the opposite of someone pointing out a negative stereotype and then judging each of that ethnic background to the stereotype. It is saying, this is how you could be and how I expect you to be.
Where are your ceremonies Indian?
Why can’t I discuss my spirit animal with you Indian?
When can we smudge and get to the good parts of your culture that mass society oppressed, outlawed, and banned for a few decades or so? Let’s skip the messy stuff.
I went back and forth with addressing the compliment/bitch-slap with the woman. She did compliment me. She also probably didn’t know how that comment sounded. I could just leave it. Here is the thing though, every time we avoid theses situations it leaves them for US to process, remove, and heal on our own. These micro-aggressive comments are like getting a sliver from an old wooden porch. If you leave it in, it will fester. You have to sit down and grab your tweezers to pull it out. You have to break your own skin sometimes if it settled in too deep. You might even draw some blood.
If we leave it then we have to go through this process alone. Picking out the pieces that threaten how we see ourselves and ultimately our love for ourselves and our people. Everyone today is complaining about how people are way too sensitive and these semi-racist and sexist comments should be taken as jokes, or not seriously at all. I say fuck that. The only thing that is different is that we are no longer holding onto these moments and pulling them out of our bodies and minds alone. We are no longer accepting the solo responsibility of healing from another person’s words or actions.
Of course, I don’t address everything because there is no point. I know what is what and can gauge if something needs to be said. If I addressed every single racist comment that has been directed at me I would have no energy left to love and to create. My mind is mentally and spiritually fortified with the truth of who I am. I no longer need to prove myself continually to the outside world. If something really does bother me or if I see that it can be a learning opportunity for someone then I will address it. Otherwise I refuse to let it affect my peace.
SO the bottom line is love. Love = Boundaries. We have to set boundaries with people, institutions, governments, and society at large because we are choosing to love ourselves. People react poorly to new boundaries, keep reaffirming the boundary until it becomes the norm. Oprah said it herself, “you show people around you how you want to be treated”. Set the boundaries. Equip yourself with knowledge and teachings. Pick out the slivers of racism and prejudice that have taken hold in your heart and your mind and say…. never again. Call bullshit on the bullshit. Do the work.
We need you.