“We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny it to imagine, as least, completely, how and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.” — N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), The Man Made Of Words.
How do we imagine ourselves?
For Native American and Indigenous peoples in the United States, this is a difficult question.
If I look at home, the Pueblo of Laguna, I see a community that is rich and vibrant, with a deep and sometimes difficult history but comfortable and embracing.
Yet, popular culture repeatedly tells me that I and my community are poor and suffering. I have had to endure, more times than I would like to count, someone’s SMH moment when they talked to me about the “poor Native Americans” and “it’s such a shame what happened to the Native Americans.” These expressions of guilt and shame are influential as they focus on offering pity and remove our ability to dream and imagine our own identities as strong and capable Native individuals.
How we create our individual and communal identities is incredibly complex. Duane Champagne writes:
“I would not say that Native American identity is shaped by ethnicity, rather Native American identity was and continues to be shaped by specific tribal cultures and traditions. American Indians do not form an ethnic group, they are composed of thousands of independent nations, communities, and cultures that have very different and specific identities.”
Added to this are the representations and portrayals, especially in popular culture, of what Indigeneity should look, be, and behave. It is difficult to imagine yourself when an outside agent continues to gaslight you into believing a false narrative, a narrative that merges hundreds of different tribal identities into a singular Native American construct. A narrative that conforms to the romanticized notions of how Native people should have existed and how they should have ceased to exist. These images are constructed on a central tragic principle: that all natives are dead or dying.
We see this played out continuously in Western media. The last three Hollywood movies that prominently featured Native characters and communities were built on the core principle of violence. Whether it was dead Native women, in the case of Wind River, or dead Native men, in the case of Hostiles, or the invisible premise that Native culture will soon be non-existent, as in Woman Walks Ahead. Each of these representations demonstrates the same elements of pity and guilt that are a prominent aspect of Western ideas toward Native peoples.
In journalistic coverage, we see the same infatuation with the doomed Native. The most widely circulated photo from the Standing Rock Rebellion features key elements of Western iconography regarding Native identity: the lone rider astride a horse facing down armored militia: a fight against all odds, a lost struggle against the tide of modernization. The history of Native people summarized in a simplistic image meant to garner support and empathy, while maintaining the status quo, and undermining the complex realities of Native identity and existence.
And while the issue of erasure is a strong argument in support of these portrayals (i.e. these representations at least allow us to be seen), the invisible struggle between erasure and misrepresentation, forces Native peoples to choose between two destructive framings: non-existence or capitulation/ assimilation/defeat.
As we can see, with significant examples of self and community violence in tribal communities throughout the United States, these choices are not benign examples of art reflecting life but rather popular media directing public opinion and reinforcing a narrative that allows colonization to continue unabated into the 21st century.
Essentially, this is systemic and structural oppression coupled with propaganda. This propaganda is used to reinforce our oppression and remove the actual culpability of those who have been passive bystanders in the genocide and ethnocide of Native people.
Further, this propaganda forces us, as Native people, to expend significant mental energies in reconciling the dissonance created by the perpetual images of Native tragedy against the actual realities of modern Native and Indigenous life.
However, the established body of Native artists, writers, educators, and intellectuals have turned our attention to continue tackling this binary of terrible choices. Having been raised on a steady diet of Vine Deloria, Paula Gunn Allen, Joseph Bruchac III and many, many more of our cultural and intellectual forebearers, we have a clear understanding that in order to live beyond tragedy we must understand our histories as Sovereign people and subsequently work to dismantle all the structures that enable the continued marginalization and extermination of Indigenous peoples. This includes representations in popular culture. This includes appealing to allies to see the true extent of how their best intentions — awareness for the plight of Native peoples in the past and present — is actually a dangerous conforming and confirming of the Tragic Native Narrative.
As such, living beyond this Tragic Native Narrative means that we are able to unleash the Indigenous imagination and embrace the imaginings of our own potential. The marvelous work of many Native folks in pop culture and, especially, Indigenous Futurisms, provides a necessary pathway toward that joyous future. One in which we are not defined by propaganda but rather wrest control of the narrative through our own pop culture explorations.
Living beyond tragedy means we must fight on multiple fronts. The work on the ground — seeking equity and dignity, dismantling oppressive structures, ensuring sustainability and self-determination — must be coupled with destroying the perpetual narratives and replacing them with our own stories.
Living beyond tragedy means we must champion the work of those who are pushing the boundaries of Indigenous art and artistic expression. We must seek out and privilege those narratives that do not further the tragic existence but rather celebrate our spirit of resilience, resourcefulness, and resistance. This can and must be done in a balanced way that acknowledges the historical destruction and ongoing inequities without reveling in those aspects and instead using them to give hope and life to this new Indigenous narrative.
Living beyond tragedy ultimately means we must refuse to go unimagined. Or rather, we allow ourselves the space to imagine and reimagine our existence, our communities, our identity as vibrant and dynamic, as adaptive and joyful, as determined and creative. As Indigenous peoples, we have survived and thrived and we will for years to come.
Certainly there are still dangers. Certainly systemic racism, discrimination, and violence will continue to challenge our efforts. But if we are able to take the first steps of seeking triumph rather than tragedy then we can embrace that brilliant and powerful future together through a concerted effort of creating a new story, a new imagining, a wholly Indigenous one that is always looking toward the horizon.