Whose Land Am I On? And Am I Really a Princess?

In an essay published several years ago on Crunk Feminist Collective, Eesha Pandit reflected on our country’s official and stubborn celebration Columbus Day, in light of the fact that the explorer’s “discovery” of the Americas caused the genocide of Native and First Nations people, and an experience she had:

Recently, while at a conference, Jessica Yee, of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, asked a group of us in the audience whether we knew whose land we stood and sat upon.  She asked us if we knew the people whose land we were on.  After an uncomfortable silence, someone spoke up. There were about 300 activists in the room, and perhaps 2 knew the answer to her question.

Do you know? Wherever you sit right now, do you know who lived, worked, loved and died there before your history books begin the story?

Today would be a good day to find out.

She re-posted the piece today, and, upon reading it, I answered out loud, alone in my kitchen: Karankawa.

Why do I know this?

Not because it was taught in class.

Allow me to share with you the bizarre tangle of racism, cultural appropriation, and ignorance both benign and willful that made it possible for me to reply instantly to a question posed second-hand in a four-year-old blog post.

In the mid-to-late 1970s, during elementary school, I took part in a program offered at the YMCA on Augusta Street in Houston. The father/daughter outdoors program was called Indian Princesses. Boys did Indian Guides.

Preparing for some event at which we would need a sign to identify our particular group, my father volunteered to create a banner. He used some scrap lumber and piece of textile art from Ecuador for our standard. Across the top bar holding the banner in place, he wrote our tribal name: Karankawa.

Our fathers explained that we should claim that name because that was the tribe who lived in Houston before us. They didn’t tell us much about them, except that they were vicious warriors prone to cannibalism. When you are in second grade, you don’t question facts like those. They fit everything I knew about Indians.

There we stood, at a gathering of various Indian Princess groups from around the city that I have to think must have been called a pow wow. How could they have called it anything but that? A tribe of Indian Princesses, one of us in a headdress, one of us with a large drum, and one of us holding the Ecuadorian banner (maybe Quechuan?) of our Karankawa nation.

Today, the local YMCA still offers the program:

Y Guides and Princesses, formerly Adventure Guides, encourages fathers and their children to spend uninterrupted time together as members of a larger group, building lifelong memories and bonds. Through activities such as weekend camping trips, games, ceremonies and family adventures, dad and child will create memories that neither will ever forget.

Through Y Guides and Princesses the YMCA provides the following benefits to father and child:
  • Foster companionship and understanding and set a foundation for positive, lifelong relationships between father and child
  • Build a sense of self-esteem and personal worth
  • Provide a framework to meet a mutual need of spending enjoyable, constructive, and quality time together
  • Enhance the quality of family time
  • Emphasize the vital role parents play in the growth and development of their children
  • Offer an important and unique opportunity to develop & enjoy volunteer leadership skills
  • Opportunity to meet other families with children the same age

Y Guides and Princesses. They’ve dropped Indian from the name at the Y in Houston, but the Native and First Nations appropriation is still central to the programs across the country. And note that they dropped Indian from the program name, but they kept princess.

That’s kyriarchy for you.

That’s how densely packed racism and cultural appropriation and sexism are.

Reading about the Pawnee Nation, one of the California groups, I saw a reference to the Great Spirit. I’d forgotten, but seeing that on the page brought back a memory of chanting and drumming while we offered something (prayers? supplications? wishes?) to the Great Spirit as part of our daddy/daughter time.

This is the essence of cultural appropriation, isn’t it? We conquer and drive people from their land that we “discovered,” and then, we romanticize and fetishize their culture to assuage our collective guilt until we don’t even realize what we are doing.

As individuals—certainly, as children—we may not understand. It is endemic and systemic. Very few are taught to question it, and very few are offered history books that tell the other sides of the story.

The goals of the program in the bullet points above are lovely. Why on earth must we hang those goals on a framework of exotic otherness? Are modern American dads only capable of relating to their daughters by playing the role of the Noble Savage™? Surely not.

And yet, there it is. Daughters and daddies worshipping the Great Spirit while wearing war feathers, chanting made-up words, and pounding on drums.

Of course, when I was in 2nd grade, it was wonderful. I loved it.

It is probably a big part of the reason that I was so eager to accept the lore that one branch of our family tree bore a real Indian princess. I recall my grandmother, a native of Opelousas, Louisiana, confirming that our ancestor was an Alabama-Coushatta princess. {That’s a wholenother story … } Needless to say, all of my research suggests that was not the case.

The work may never end.

The name isn’t Indian Princesses, but the program still appropriates Native cultures and reinforces the erasure and denial of the brutality visited upon Native people.

I wonder what it would take to get the Y to overhaul this program so that it creates a space for parent/child bonding free of cultural appropriation? And maybe to create a space for children to learn whose land they are standing upon, and what it really means, and how to learn and grow from that knowledge? I think dads and daughters could handle that.

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