I was downtown this afternoon with a small group of acquantinces, all of us with a Native heritage - downtown for a Native event. As we waited for a straggler, we paused on a grassy hill and sat with our smoothies. I enjoy being with this group, many of them with an even more sarcastic streak than I have, and we were laughing about something. Just as we busted up about some comment made, a man walking by stopped and glared at us.
"Who do you think you are?" he started shouting.
We sat stunned for a moment, as it was clear he was addressing us.
"Go back to your villages - you are so worthless! Go laugh at yourselves!"
I'll let you imagine some of the other words sprinkled in there, including the last remark as he stomped off - "F_in' Eskimos."
This was not the worst Native-speech I've been privy to, but it's pretty close. I don't believe the man was drunk, and all I can imagine happened to create this reaction is that he believed we were laughing at him as he walked by. Not that even that excuses such blatantly racist remarks.
What really concerned me was not the man. I don't think all the arguing in the world will help a man like that, and - though of course upset myself, angry, emotional - intellectually I know there is little else I can do for a man who would be so disrespectful and hateful except to ignore.
What concerned me was our reaction, the reaction of those I was sitting with. A group of young, professional Native people, mostly women, who have every right to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. Our reaction? We lowered our heads, we didn't meet each other in the eye, we dare not look at another person in the crowd, for the shame of it. All we managed, as we rose to our feet knowing we all just wanted to leave, was one softly said comment of, "Geez, wonder what's with that guy?"
We didn't yell back, we didn't argue, we didn't console or comfort each other, we didn't talk about.
It took several hours of cooling off (no outward reaction certainly does not mean no internal one) to really start thinking about the reaction (or lack of one.) Not until I was home and slowly stewing did I think about past reactions. I have never been with a group of Native people - or even mixed group - in which there has been discrimination and hate thrown at us that there has ever been any reaction except exactly what I experienced today. Shame and silence.
This has not been my experience as an individual. If it is me and someone else - no audience, no others with me - I can be quite forceful, sometimes diplomatic, but I always address it. I think many non-Native friends would be quite surprised with my reaction today - but at the time it seemed the only thing to do.
I don't know what this says about the cultures I love so much, about the shame that was so overpowering that this group I know to be strong, independent and many of them involved in Native advocacy were brought to our knees when confronted with very public shame?
I have wondered about cultural ties. Although I cannot speak for others' cultures, only that of which I was raised, the Tlingit culture holds public shame to be the ultimate punishment. Back in the day, it was literally worse than death. Could culture be the reason we were so silent?
I also wondered about the the frequency of such occurences making it "just the way we react." There is a reason I stay away from downtown, and though parking is one factor, another large factor is that I am much more likely to encounter comments like these in downtown Anchorage than in any other area. I have frequented a downtown bar exactly two times in my life, exactly half the times I have been inside a bar in my life (three of those times the week I turned 21), but I still worry while downtown that, if I were to trip, would people think I was just a drunk Native? If I walk near a bar, will people think I just came out of it? If I laugh too loudly, or speak too boldly, will they assume I've just downed a bottle of Jack?
Yes, I see the frequency of looking at what people think. But I still worry, much because of encounters like this one. Has the frequency of such hate, especially in Anchorage, taught me the "best" way to react - i.e. that any other way is futile? React back and you're just an ignorant Indian. Talk about it to those around you, and you only increase the anger and hurt, with nothing left to do about it.
I have no real answers here, just a lot of thought sparked by an experience that is, unfortunately, not the most uncommon of my life. It is just simply not the attitude of those that I cannot control that concerns me. It is my own attitude, and the all-too-typical reaction of others I know experience it, that concerns me.