Where I Was Born: a Reflection on Indigenous Peoples Day

Michilimackinac, the heart of the Anishinaabe world.

I was born in Bay City, Michigan, in a hospital located on a street named for a gold-hungry mass-murderer of the Taino People. I grew up in a house of skeleton keys with a backyard climbing tree and an overgrown alley as my first wilderness.

Before it was Bay City, it was Lower Saginaw.

Before it was Lower Saginaw, it was John Riley’s Reserve, in Michigan Territory.

Before it was Michigan Territory, it was a British held territory. Before that, part of New France.

But before that, it was Mishi-Anishinaabaki, “Greater Anishinaabe Land.”

On this Indigenous Peoples Day, I honor the many nations of First Peoples upon whose lands I have spent my life. In my 50-plus years, I have lived on the lands of the Ojibwa, Lakota, Mayan, and Crow Nations. These lands were acquired by the United States through often disingenuously negotiated treaties, wars of expansion, massacres, germ warfare waged against non-combatants and outright theft.

My birthplace is Anishinaabe/Ojibwa land in what is now called Michigan (coming from the Anishinaabe michaagami, “big lake”). Much of the area was ceded to the United States by the Ojibwa in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw; although Lewis Cass’ methods of getting the signatories addicted to alcohol, then bribing them with barrels of whiskey to sign the document would most likely render the treaty void in a fair court. Additionally, the negotiations were mostly forced upon the Ojibwa as punishment for siding with the British in the War of 1812.

The area of what became my birthplace of Bay City was not part of this treaty. This land was held in reserve for an Ojibwa named John Riley, the son of Menawcumegoqua. However, within weeks of Michigan becoming a state in 1837, a new treaty transferred this land (and other reserves) to the United States. It doesn’t appear that Riley, the legal possessor of the land, was party to the negotiations, nor signed the treaty.

The incomparable wealth in natural resources and land, combined with the free labor of enslaved Africans, is what gave the United States its ability to become one of the richest and most powerful empires in history. As European Americans, we were mostly taught that it was natural that we had so much land, wealth and power, or that God willed it, or that good old American ingenuity and work-ethic created it. None of that is true. We have what we have and are what we are due to the theft, genocide and enslavement perpetrated by our forebears.

I believe that if we can face this truth, we can heal. We can make amends. We can move forward. Until then, we will be a nation carrying the grave burden and illness of our original sin. Today, Indigenous Peoples Day, is a great place to start.

Chi miigwetch.

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Awakening to The Tempest on Oguta Island

It’s tragic how one can read a story dozens of times and still miss who the hero is, who the villain is. Or that these personas can be one in the same. For a very long time now, I’ve wanted to mount a production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. I wanted to tell the story of the wronged man orchestrating his own justice against those who have oppressed him. A story of the healing forces of the wilderness. A story of the usurped besting his usurper.

Damn, did I miss the point. Because there are bigger, more necessary stories within this play that need to be told, and they were staring me in the face the whole time. I was blind to them. I hope not willfully blind, but blind all the same. This is a symptom of my white privilege. The trickiness of white privilege is just how hard it can be to see when it resides in a pervasive environment, a totality of whiteness. Like trying to spot a moth in a snowstorm.

Performing as Master Prosper (aka Prospero) in Nnamdi Kanaga’s film adaptation of the play, Oguta Island, rewritten as an examination of British colonialism in his home country of Nigeria, I struggled with speaking the lines, berating my slave Onyeka (Caliban) with racist contempt and derision. Knowing that the actor playing opposite me was also the playwright and co-director – that he had asked me to speak these words – didn’t make it any easier to spew this venom at him. And it was clearly much harder for him: He shed tears at every rehearsal and during the filming.

When I first read the script, I thought Kanaga had pushed the racism further than the original, twisting a relatively benign or even comical relationship (it is billed as a comedy after all) into something more sinister to make his point. But then I went back to the original. It’s all there. Prospero is horribly vehement in his white supremacist bile. He sounds as bad any KKK-member, neo-Nazi or rabid Trumpaholic. How did I miss it?

I think what watered down Prospero’s racism for me, is that we are told that Caliban is not human, rather he’s some half-fish creature born of the union of the Devil and a witch. And even more, Prospero treated him better than he deserved until Caliban tried to rape Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. But in speaking his words to another human being, to a Black man standing face-to-face with me, I had a revelation: when it comes to Caliban’s inhumanity, we only have Prospero’s word for it. Who’s to say that Prospero’s definition of Caliban as half-fish is any different than the racist colonizer or slave-holder’s definition of the African as half-monkey? Or as the Native American as “savage” for that matter? Was Sycorax an evil witch, as Prospero claims, or merely a practitioner of a religion other than Christianity? In this light, one may begin to wonder: did Caliban assault Miranda, or was it another example of Emmett Till, a mere accusation of a black man by a white woman is grounds for murder? We don’t have easy answers to these questions, and that is exactly the mark of great art – it asks difficult questions without simplistic answers.

But the point is, in 30 years of reading this play, I had never asked these questions. I accepted Prospero’s word at face value. I accepted that he was the rightful ruler of the island, I accepted that Caliban was a monster, that his mother was a witch. My white privilege blinded me to the white privilege that encompasses this entire play. Having to curse a fellow human as less-than-human, while watching tears stream down his face, awakened me to a whole new understanding of this play.

And it wasn’t until a few days after we finished filming, that this truth come crashing down on me like a tempest: Very likely, no Black or Indigenous person has ever read or watched this play without seeing the truth of it right away.

Visit Montana InSite Theatre on September 18, to view a free screening of the film, Oguta Island, by Nnamdi Kanaga, directed by Kanaga, Jennings Barmore and Gretchen E. Minton.

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Notes on This Year’s Birthday Poem

Every April 14th, I mark the completion of another trip around the sun by sitting somewhere, quietly and alone – before the birthday celebrations begin, before social convention requires my attention – and make note of where I am. I watch and listen to that small moment of my life, and write it down.

I’ve been doing this for over a dozen years, and hope to continue the practice as long as I can hold a pen. Past birthday poems found me walking the broken sidewalks of Saginaw, Michigan, or watching elk from a bluff in Yellowstone National Park, or splitting logs in the woodshed at the Grizfork, or soaking in a tub listening to Beethoven’s 3rd, or watching swans at the lagoon, or noting the toxic passing of yet another coal train from the back patio at Glenn’s Bar.

This April is certainly one that will stand out. Our instinct in times of crisis is to come together. To gather our community and find strength in unity. This crisis that asks us to keep apart has been as counter-instinctive as it’s been fraught with the misinformation and deceit of the Covidiot-45 cult members. We are facing two crises, the pandemic and the self-imposed ignorance of those who’ve succumbed to the fear- and hate-mongering machines of myopia.

My bookstore, Elk River Books, has been closed for maybe months, though the ability to measure time has become nebulous at best. Has it been weeks or years? I’ve barely seen anyone outside of my immediate family and have gotten into the habit of donning a mask the same way I toss on a hat to head outside. I give neighbors a wide berth on the sidewalk when passing.

I’ve spent a lot of hours looking out the same window watching the bare trees shed skins of snow, darken with rain, and begin to glow with new buds. I wouldn’t have noticed the arrival of my birthday if my wife hadn’t reminded me.

All of this self-isolation and the silence of our downtown, the uncertainty and trepidation, the news trickling in of who may be sick, who has died – all of this was with me this year when I parked my cousin Doug Peacock’s battered old pickup at a boat launch on the Yellowstone River, cracked open a Tecate and found this year’s poem:

Birthday Poem 2020

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