I’ve written some controversial stuff over the years—to this day, I’m fielding hate mail in response to an article first published in 1996.[i] I’d be getting more if half of whatever else I’ve written were as widely read. But of all the statements I’ve ever made—in print, public speaking engagements, college classrooms, invited lectures, or airport smoking lounges[ii]—the most controversial has been this five-word slogan culled from a bumper sticker purchased in the early 90s at a powwow in northern Wisconsin: You are on Indian Land.
My problem: I’m a sucker for truth. I cannot tell a lie. The beauty in the bumper sticker was its naked truth. Once I attached it to my bumper, the statement would be true as far as that car could take me. I’d picked up the ’68 VW bug for 500 bucks at a police auction in Minneapolis in 1993, so it wasn’t likely to get me far. But still. The thought of it sufficed: this statement will be true for as far as this car can travel—you are on Indian Land.
Maybe the bite of it was more bitter in the northwoods of Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Last Standing Woman, Winona LaDuke wrote about the particularly virulent form of hatred that prevails in these areas—stemming from three generations of complicity in the theft of Indian Land.[iii]
That might explain why once, while heading to Sawyer, MN with a load of food and city stuff for a weekend with a tribal elder on the Fond du Lac Reservation, I was nearly run off the road by a carload of teenagers gone wild in their daddy’s SUV. I took down the license plate number, stopped at a gas station to call the police and report the incident. Who knows whether the kids targeted me because of the bumper sticker, or whether they were just young and full of themselves and mine happened to be the only other car on the road at the time? But the fact is, the bumper sticker on my car flashed at them those five words in bold red-white-and-blue: You are on Indian Land.
Who knows, either, whether the bumper sticker was what caused a state trooper to detain me for over an hour at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border in Hudson late one night while making the hour-and-a-half trek from Minneapolis to Eau Claire after a long day of teaching peace through drums to inner city kids in St. Paul. I was stopped for expired plates, but had promptly pulled a receipt from the glove box demonstrating that the registration had been paid, the tabs just hadn’t yet arrived in the mail. It should have entailed a ten-minute stop. I still don’t know why it took over an hour. It wasn’t until after midnight, examining the citation in the quiet of my kitchen, that I noticed my race had been identified as “Indian”.
So what I was really charged with was DWI: Driving While Indian.
I subsequently spent weeks back and forth on the phone and in letters to the cop’s supervisor, Chief Trende, explaining, among other things, that the state trooper’s actions were counterproductive since—as an inner city educator working in violence prevention programs—the services I provided made their jobs easier. The police chief conceded to all my contentions: yes, the citation was made in error; yes, it was counterproductive for a state trooper to detain an inner city schoolteacher for so long at the end of a long day.
Then I brought up the business of the DWI.
“There is one more issue that concerns me, Chief Trende,” I’d said, “And that is the identification of my race on this citation—it says here ‘Indian’. I can assure you, Sir, that neither I nor any of my ancestors have ever been to India.”
A discourse ensued on the subject of geographic disorientation and dislocation dating back to Columbus. The end result: the state trooper in question would be forced to attend sensitivity training to prevent future incidents of this nature from occurring.
For decades now, I have been trying to figure out what is so controversial about that simple statement of truth. I still cannot say whether or why these words should mean different things to different people: Is it the who of it, the you of it, as in: who the hell are you to tell me “you are on Indian Land”?
All I can say is what the words mean to me.
You are on Indian Land means every step I take or move I make on this land will either honor my ancestors, or betray them. Standing at places where pipestone runs through its veins in the earth, the rhythm of their blood pulses beneath my feet. Biking the shore of Lake Michigan, the beat of their hearts roars at my ears. Clambering down to where the water meets the roots of Manido Gizhigans to place a pinch of tobacco there, the ancestors speak, telling me to be that tree—to draw strength from the stone, and nourishment from waters running beneath, to survive on this collective soul-source even as bodies are beaten, fettered and unfed by above-ground forces. Nind anishinabe, the Little Cedar Spirit tree tells me.
In the city where I live—city of broad shoulders, city of spring’s first fruits, city of school closings, gun violence and astronomical homicide rates—a small patch of Indian Land was ceded to the United States government in the Treaty of St. Louis concluded on August 24, 1816 by the United Tribes of the Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatami. On August 25, 2009, I bought that piece of land back. Now, when I am up to my elbows in its soil, my hands follow an ancestral instinct as I tend to roses I have planted beside the fence in my yard just because they are pretty. Because for centuries, revolutionaries of every stripe have known: meaningful life is sustained not by bread alone, but by roses too.
The grandmothers of these gardens tell me it has less to do with green thumbs, and more with dirty knees and nails. Ten hours with a spade in hand does more than a 10-gallon jug of Round-up. But must pick up the spade, must dirty your hands, must dig deeply to stop the roots of the silver maple from growing wild as wasichu, sucking the good stuff from the soil and strangling everything in its path. Peace never comes easy. Not even here in the garden on this small piece of Indian Land.
You are on Indian Land. It would be presumptuous to make any broad-brush claims about what these words mean to every Indian everywhere or to any Indian anywhere. I can only say what it means to me to say You are on Indian Land.
Face it: whoever you are, wherever you are on this continent, you are on Indian Land. You know it. I know it. We all do. We know, too, that no amount of geological cosmetic surgery will restore the Black Hills to their pre-Mount Rushmore glory, that the streets of this city cannot be un-asphalted, and that there’s little point in talking about the current property value of Manhattan. It’s an Ecclesiastical truth: What’s done is done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
If what you take from the statement “You are on Indian Land” is “Shame on you, you, you, wasichu, you who would plunder, pillage and prey on the land,” the recrimination of it would explain what was so unsettling about these five simple words. Nobody wants to be the one who did the undoable, the unthinkable, the unfathomable: no one wants to admit to having done the dastardly deed. No one.
In my classes at the community college, I tell my students what “You are on Indian Land” means to me: “it means when you throw that bag of McDonald’s trash out your window on the highway, I’m like ‘Hey, thanks for throwing your garbage in my dead grandmother’s face.’ Or, when you dump your baby’s pooped-up Pampers on the ground in the parking lot, it’s like, ‘Wow, thanks for crapping on my cousin’s gravestone’.’” When I put it that way, my students get it. In some instances, their lives are changed by it—as semester after semester of student evaluations confirm.
These small efforts won’t stop any pipelines, or stand in the way of another dam, won’t get Peltier released from prison or provide heat to elders dying at Pine Ridge and Rosebud in winter because they can’t afford to pay the gas bill. They pale by comparison to the bold acts of today’s indigenous youth on the Journey of Nishiyuu, to Theresa Spence’s courageous stand against the Harper regime, or to my recently deceased cousin Mel’s participation in the year 2000’s Walk to Remember around Lake Superior.
What Walt Bresette said about the people of Lake Superior also holds true for all the people who live (and die) here, on Indian Land: “We need to talk to each other about what is happening in our villages and our communities, to share our experiences, our concerns, and our hopes for the future. We need to meet our neighbors and learn from them.”
So I’m not content to stop at the point about the pooped-up Pampers on my cousins’ grave/s because the students in my classes are also my neighbors, and I need them to understand what I mean when I say “You are on Indian Land.”
If what it means to say “You are on Indian Land” is that any step taken on this land will either honor the ancestors or betray them, then the question those five words provoke for everyone living on Indian Land is: How many generations have your ancestors been here? Two, three, five? Whether your ancestors padded in the proud rhythm of promise down the Mayflower gangway at Plymouth, whether they staggered in throes of protest from the perilous planks of the Amistad, however they came—all Americans’ ancestors are here now on Indian Land.
We should take care to honor more than betray them.
Lillian Banks is a writer, translator and scholar whose publication credits include works in American Indian Quarterly, New German Critique, Monatshefte, German Quarterly, and others. Her creative non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Race Traitor, Calliope, Lesbian Contradiction, and elsewhere. Her translations from the German of Elfriede Jelinek (in Theater, for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, the Austrian Cultural Forum, among others), of Ingeborg Bachmann (Green Integer Press, Ariadne Press, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, Trivia) and of other authors have received literary awards and met with critical acclaim.
Banks is of American Indian/Ojibwe descent. Her works reflect a concern with negotiating topographies of cross-cultural identities, diasporic and multi-lingual themes and is informed by a 30-year history of cultural/literary production on three continents and in three languages.
Reference here is to an article published by the new abolitionist journal Race Traitor (No. 5, 1996) under the title, “Running in Vicious Circles: Racism and the African Drum.” It was subsequently reprinted in Colors magazine (June, 1997), titled by editors “Stealing African Drums.” The current version was slated for publication in the anthology Bearing Witness, Reading Lives: Imagination, Creativity and Cultural Change, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating in Fall of 2003. Regretably, Anzaldúa’s sudden, premature death brought production on the project to a halt.
Some examples include: “Dare to Compare: Americanizing the Holocaust” American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000): 353-80. Excerpts reprinted in The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings. Edited by Neil Levi and Michael Rothberg. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003; also presented as an invited lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my translation from the German of the controversial 2004 Nobel Laureate, Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek’s scathing indictment of the Iraq War in her play Bambiland, published by Yale University’s journal Theater 39.3 (2009): 111-43. An invited lecture at Emory University in November, 2006, included a subtitle, “Bambiland: Professional Bush-Bashing at the Nobel Prize Level,” in which I addressed the Nobel Laureate’s overt literary condemnation of the Bush administration and others in her graphic portrayal of the Iraq War.
LaDuke’s reference here is to the state of Minnesota. Her discussion centers on the particularly virulent strain of metaphysical Indian-Hating that permeates those areas in direct proximity of reservations.. She writes: “There is a peculiar kind of hatred in the northwoods, a hatred born of the guilt of privilege, a hatred born of living with three generations of complicity in the theft of lives and lands. What is worse is that each day, those who hold this position of privilege must come face to face with those whom they have dispossessed. To others who rightfully should share in the complicity and the guilt, Indians are far away and long ago. But in reservation border towns, Indians are ever-present. …The poverty of dispossession is almost overwhelming. So is the poverty of complicity and guilt. In America, poverty is relative, but it still causes shame. That shame, combined with guilt and a feeling of powerlessness, creates an atmosphere in which hatred buds, blossoms, and flourishes. The hatred passes from father to son and from mother to daughter. Each generation feels the hatred and it penetrates deeper to justify a myth.Winona LaDuke, Last Standing Woman (Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 1997), 127.