UMF’s Native American Film and Performance Symposium came to a close last Wednesday with a poetry reading and talk by William Yellow Robe Jr., followed by a staged reading of his play Wood Bones and a Q&A. Yellow Robe is about to publish an e-book tentatively titled Spam Rants of that Crazy Indin Yellow Robe.
While Yellow Robe’s poetry concerned itself mainly with the loss of his first wife to cancer, the mere act of writing poetry (as well as being an accomplished playwright) signals his concern over indigenous peoples’ ownership of emotions and storytelling. He gives his audiences a unique Native perspective and even when we’re angry, disturbed, or saddened by what we hear and see on stage, we (especially non-Native people) need to pay attention. As Yellow Robe tells it, he might be angry and write about it, but if we have no problem asking a crying person why they’re sad, then we need to ask angry people why they’re angry. And Yellow Robe is angry, at least in print. He’s not ranty, or spewing vitriolic negativisms as White people, but he is contesting both White and Native stereotypes and ethnocentrisms and as he said at dinner, it gets tiring to feel like he’s saying the same thing over and over and wondering if anything is changing.
One of Yellow Robe’s talking points surrounded the commercialization of Native figures as team mascots. I happen to agree with Yellow Robe, but more importantly he illustrates the diversity of opinions amongst Native peoples. James Francis, historian of the Penobscot Nation, speaking last year at Colby College, said that the official stance of the nation is ‘they don’t really care.’ What matters here is that because indigenous peoples are not mascots or costume, but cultures, they are made up of people of differing opinions. In a step towards decolonizing our minds, there must be an acknowledgement that indigenous cultures are not homogenous. In other words, not all Native peoples want the same things! Some care deeply about eliminating discriminatory team mascots while others are concerned about the trampling of environmental or land rights and, frankly, don’t give shit about mascots (to paraphrase Francis).
Yellow Robe is what we might call “pro-contamination.” As puts it, Native peoples have been contaminated by everyone: “We’re even kosher!” His writing is infused with his perspective as an Afro-Native writers and with the idea that authenticity can be found in actions, not in federal papers or the way one dresses. Purity is a moot point in this case. In owning his emotions and writing about them, he validates himself and his identity. But he doesn’t think his identity (or the identity of Native Americans generally) should be a point of novelty. As he tells it, numerous people have come up to him and touched his hair and his necklace and other wares. Another component of decolonizing our minds will be a rejection of exterior features as points of fascination, as something to marvel at and, by extension, eulogize. William Yellow Robe Jr. is not wearing his necklace or telling his stories to pay tribute to the past; like most indigenous writers, he’s writing to say ‘we’re still here!’