-My Senior Capstone Essay
A 2008 experiment was conducted to gain a sense of the impact that stereotypes surrounding Native Americans have on Native American children. Considered stereotypes “include[ed] the Cleveland Indian mascot, Disney’s Pocahontas, [specific] negative stereotypes [such as] dropout rates, rates of alcohol abuse, and depression rates.” The researchers discovered that “exposure to prominent media portrayals led Native American high school and college students to have more negative feelings about their self [i.e., decreased self-esteem] and community [i.e., decreased community worth], and depressed academic future possibilities [i.e., diminished achievement related possible selves].” This suggests that stereotypes are harmful.
One seemingly obvious way to combat stereotypes (which overgeneralize our ideas about a group of people, ethnic or other) is to think of people not first and foremost as members of a group, but as individuals. As the Cowlitz Indian tribe member, personal essayist, Assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University and University of Washington American Indian Studies advisor Elissa Washuta says, “I still see people lock others into the same old, tired, damaging stereotypes of what a representative member of an ethnic group should be. But the massiveness of information out there online makes identity confusion hugely easier for me, and probably for a lot of others as well, because so many people have outlets for their stories that did not exist before. We have the good fortune of learning about individual experiences, which can break up false ideas of monolithic stereotypes.”
Washuta is a compelling individual to contemplate with respect to identity and ethnic identity, not merely because she is an American Indian (both Cascade and Cowlitz), or because she in fact, has a complex ethnic background (she is also a mix of Irish, Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian, German, Dutch, Welsh, and French) but rather, because she is also a personal essayist.
Personal essays are especially unique in literature. As Columbia University professor of Creative Non-Fiction Philip Lopate writes in an extensive collection of personal essays from the first century (A.D.) to the 1990’s written by authors from all over the world, “the personal essay has an open form and a drive toward candor and self disclosure.” Lopate adds that “The unashamed subjectivity of the personal essay makes it less suspect in a mental climate in which people have learned to mistrust the ‘value-free, objective’ claims of scholarship and science.” If by “unashamed subjectivity” Lopate means the freedom to include one’s most intimate and personal feelings, my conjecture would be that it is reasonable to infer from his definition/understanding of the personal essay, that this openness provides a place for a holistic, intimate, deep, qualitative examination which strictly academic sociology, psychology, and ethnic studies may not reach, due to specialized, technical disciplinary vocabulary, strict and delineated research methods, dropped context within statistics, et cetera. Moreover, Lopate’s distinction between “the ‘value-free, objective’ claims of scholarship and science” and the personal essay, seems to suggest his belief that the personal essay can offer a meaningful perspective that “scholarship and science” cannot, adding to a fuller understanding when all perspectives are considered.
In this paper I will argue that through Washuta’s memoir My Body Is A Book of Rules (which she says can also be viewed “as a series of interlinked essays,”) other personal essays she has published on websites such as the Chronical of Higher Education, Salon, and Buzzfeed, and interviews she has given, the complexity of Native American identity and personal identity more generally, are illustrated. I will show how, in particular, Washuta rejects the notion of quantifying what she often calls her Indianness (in part as an opposition to the blood quantum concept, in part due to psychological harm that quantified Indianness has done to her) and yet still retains a distinct Indianness within her more holistic sense of self (the various aspects of her that make her who she is) that has evolved from a Catholic school girl turned anti-Catholic, to a traumatized rape victim, to someone suffering from bi-polar disorder, to someone who comes to see herself empowered. A final element of my thesis is that there is likely a relationship between the retention of her distinct Indianness and her sense of self-empowerment, in part because in sharing her distinctive Indianness, as I quoted Washuta saying in her own words earlier, it combats or attempts to combat stereotypes of Indians.
Rejecting the quantification of Indianness
A so called degree of Indianness was initially a British-North American- colonial concept, not an American Indian one. As anthropologist Gregory R. Campbell and Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies, Dr. S. Neyooxet Greymorning explain:
“kinship rather than biology was the core component of both societal composition and individual ethnic affiliation. Every indigenous society had sociological mechanisms for the incorporation of individuals and, sometimes, whole groups by adoption, naturalization, or other ethnogenetic processes…most indigenous nations…integrated people from other societies…[including n]umerous Europeans and Africans…without any phenotypic or cultural stigma.”
British colonists in North America, while writing treaties with Native Americans invented a so called “blood quantum” concept which “defined ‘Indian’ in legal terms. In her personal essay “I am Not Pocahontas” Washuta explains the concept of “blood quantum” as:
“the degree of Indian ancestry expressed fractionally, as a consideration when defining their [tribal] membership. Contemporary determinations of blood quantum often look back to base rolls, records of tribal membership, often created by non-Indians. Determinations of blood quantum are made by establishing proximity to the ancestors listed on these rolls.”
Although Washuta does not explicitly say when the word “blood quantum” itself was first used, she does reference what she claims to be the first time American Indians were subjected to “ancestral fractionation,” citing “a 1705 Virginia statute barring a ‘mulatto,’ or ‘the child of an Indian and child, grandchild or great grandchild of a negro’ from holding public office”
This “blood quantum” concept underlying mainstream American notions of Native American ethnicity makes Washuta sensitive to questions about her Indianness. She writes that the question:
“‘How much Indian are you?’, however well-intentioned, implies that alive within me is only a tiny piece of the free, noble Indian that passed on long ago, a remnant from which I am far removed. The questions, individually, are borne from a place of curiosity, but the questions have embedded in a time when blood quantum was used to rob indigenous peoples of rights and, ultimately, lead to our being defined out of existence.”
Here Washuta tells us she rejects any limit to how Indian she can be and at least in part rejects it on the grounds of the anti-Indian sentiments (she’s referring to that aspiration “to rob indigenous peoples of rights” and have them “defined out of existence”) she says fuels the concept of degree of Indianness.
The question “how much Indian?” can be problematic for other reasons too, which we learn when Washuta tells us about her personal experiences. In a podcast interview for Montana Public Radio Washuta discusses how upon receiving a “merit scholarship” from the University of Maryland, some people suggested, with resentment, that it was because she was a Native American, not because she deserved it. She told the woman interviewing her that “people in my high school and then in my university gave me a really, really hard time about it. They said some really repulsive things to me and then some more kind of passive aggressive things and I wondered for a long time whether I deserved that money.” Washuta elaborates on this incident in her essay “How Much Indian Was I?’ My Fellow Students Asked” published by the Chronical of Higher Education in 2013. She said:
“That money never went to white kids, they said, so I must be an undercover genius. I’m not all white, I said. What was my SAT score, they wanted to know. My GPA? Extracurriculars? How much Indian was I? The first thing I learned in college was that white boys don’t care if you’re legitimately Indian if they think you robbed them of $100,000 in scholarship money that they’d earned holding a tuba for countless hours on a high-school football field.”
If Washuta had suffered from having too little self-esteem and was unable to defeat her sense of self-doubt she may not have maintained her perfect GPA, received an MFA in Creative Writing, became a professor, and a published author of articles and books. She, however, proved to be resilient.
Washuta’s Distinct Indianness Throughout Her Evolving Sense of Self
Washuta’s distinct Indianness must be understood as part of her, not the only thing that defines her. She makes it clear throughout her various writings that she possesses what one interviewer described as “different threads of identity [including] race, gender, sexuality.” In her memoir, Washuta reveals the context that establishes who she is more holistically.
As a child and young teenager she describes herself as a Catholic school girl who “couldn’t fit in” and who, despite being “bookish” and with good grades, cared more about “sex tips from Cosmopolitan” than God and religion. She shares an interesting episode during Catholic school that reveals somewhat the essence of her awareness as someone who was multiethnic. She says:
“When the nuns found out I was Cowlitz Indian, they offered me Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, as a spiritual guide. I knew nothing more than that she was holy and that I was to ask her to speak to the Lord on my behalf…I could not pray to Kateri Tekakwitha. She seemed more like one of my Native American Barbies than a saint. With her braids, and ethnically confused features, her prayer card image reminded me enough of myself that I found it impossible to venerate her.”
Washuta does not talk much about her time in high school but said that “Sophomore year…I was the teacher’s pet.” She says also that “being the only Indian around got lonesome, so I took what I knew from my books and family and draped it in Indian-looking beads.” Reflecting on how her sense of identity began to evolve, particularly while she was in college, she says:
“It took some time to get the hang of being simultaneously white and Indian. But I had to be something [emphasis is Washuta’s], so I searched for an identity to sink into. Before I knew I was bipolar, and could settle into that, I had rape. It was bloody and violent and it was an injustice of the kind my [Indian] ancestors knew, I used to think.
“For awhile I had to make the rape fit into my life as an Indian. It was nice to have a straight forward, academic explanation to fall back on, one involving a history of violent oppression and subjugation, something about inherited ancestral consciousness, something about how the guy who raped me was English and could trace his ancestry back to the first English settlers. Something I could tell myself so it wasn’t my own malfunction, neurosis, weakness, character flaw, not my own fault.”
Washuta’s Distinct Indianness as Self Empowering and Combating Stereotypes of Indians
Washuta comes to realize however that she should not make her rape all about race. Furthermore she also does not associate her bipolar disorder with some sort of inherited ancestral trauma. In fact, in reflecting on circumstances surrounding her rape, she writes fictional dialogue between herself, the rapist, and different people within the law enforcement and justice system based on her notions of the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. A take away here should be that in turning to Law & Order for comfort, as opposed to say, some “traditionally Native American” healing practices, Washuta is stereotype busting, showing that if there is a special way a Native American seeks dealing with rape, she does not even slightly imply it to be her approach to coping. Ultimately, Washuta deals with rape in no particular way other than Washuta’s own unique, personal way.
Washuta takes a similar action when she contemplates her bipolar disorder. She does not write about experiences of engaging in exclusively or distinctly or necessarily Native American therapies or understandings of mental disorder. Washuta does not suggest there are or are not distinct Native American understandings of mental disorder though she acknowledges there is a way some Native Americans cope when dealing with mental aguish and she does not restrict herself from contemplating it. The broader point- a motif of this paper- is exactly the fact that Washuta does not restrict herself at all with respect to how much or how little ethnic influences dictate her approach to one thing or another. In one portion of her memoir, she catalogues an array of psychiatric drugs her psychiatrist had her try to treat her bi-polar disorder- documenting their technical, medical names, and describing their impact on her. In another section of the memoir she writes an imaginary letter which she pretends is from her college psychiatrist, explaining in very technical, clinical language, details of her bipolar disorder.
In a rather interesting fashion, Washuta also compares her bi-polar experiences to the apparent mental anguish of two celebrities who fascinated her: Kurt Cobain, and Brittney Spears. It should be noted that in this instance she relates here to white Americans, and makes no reference to relating to them for ethnic or racial reasons. To further demonstrate how she is not limited or tied down by a single cultural or ethnic group, or perception of how one should think, she makes a thoughtful remark on the infamous incident when Brittney Spears shaved her head. “Freudians consider long hair to represent the id and aggression, so they associate cutting long hair with killing sexuality… For many Indian tribes, cutting hair symbolizes a severance from the past, or mourning.” Here she integrates what one might say is a “Western” way of interpreting an event, with a Native American perspective. That she happens to integrate does not make her more or less Native American. It shows one example of how a Native American would interpret events, which again, is consistent with Washuta’s belief that “learning about individual experiences …can break up monolithic stereotypes” about American Indians and thus by implication, stereotypical thinking in general.
Combating stereotypes of Native Americans is important to Washuta. She elaborates on this in an interview when she is asked if she would change how “Native Americans [are] being depicted incorrectly.” Washuta responds:
“Certainly, I would like to see representations of Native people as complex humans with our own trajectories, differences, and values independent of settler lives and aims. Movies with Native characters usually take place at least 150 years ago, and Native characters appear in support of (or as a threat to) a white character’s goals. In most Hollywood depictions, Native characters get to be brave, noble, savage, lusty, doomed, unintelligent, or bloodthirsty, but they don’t get to have complexity. Most representations of Natives in books and movies are created by non-Natives. I wish that were different. I wish the book-buying and movie-watching public had more interest in Native stories–the ones we tell about ourselves.”
The issue of stereotypes is not one to take lightly, nor is the role our culture plays in perpetuating them. As was found by Peter A. Leavitt et al. : “Close examination of the population statistics and media portrayals of Native Americans reveals that they are largely invisible in contemporary American life” To confirm this, the researchers “examined the first 100 image results for each of the terms ‘Native American’ and ‘American Indian’ returning 200 images total from both” Google and Bing, and “found that 95.5% of Google (n = 191) and 99% of Bing (n = 198) images were historical representations. These search results highlight the extent to which media consumers are inundated with a narrow set of historical images of Native Americans.”
One major psychological consideration that Leavitt et al. point out is that research suggests that stereotypes or images of racial/ethnic groups matters; that vulnerable minds associate public/media images of people within their own demographic and see within the range of stereotypical/prototypical images available, the options they may be able to identify with. Leavitt et al. explain, for example that:
“when groups who experience stereotypes about their academic abilities (e.g., women in math, Black students and intelligence) think about self-relevant role models who demonstrate competence and success, the performance-inhibiting effects of negative stereotypes are diminished. Similarly, reading about or identifying self-relevant role models increases school motivation and belonging.”
Naturally, when this is lacking, psychological benefits may as well. Leavitt et al. further elaborate:
“What self-stereotyping demonstrates is that members of underrepresented groups may be motivated to identify with any available representation simply because one representation is better than no representation (i.e., absolute invisibility). The one representation, no matter how unfavorable or inaccurate, provides answers to the ‘Who am I?’ questions that people are motivated to answer and provides a reference point around which to negotiate one’s identity with others.”
Just how problematic this may or may not be, I would argue, depends on certain other factors. For example, does a person who belongs to an ethnic/racial minority group only imagine him or herself based on stereotypical images of his/her ethnic/racial minority group that he or she is exposed to, or does her/she conceptualize him/herself beyond that very limited scope?
What does ethnic/racial self-consciousness “beyond that very limited scope” of stereotypical images mean? Washuta offers us a good example. As opposed to conceptualizing her Indian self stereotypically, she conceptualizes it in part by gaining an understanding the history of where she comes from. As she writes in her memoir: “I became increasingly frustrated with the notion of Indianness, feeling so far away from the reservations I so clumsily fictionalized…I thought that if I read more about the history of Native Americans…I would almost get my blood boiling enough to reduce it down to a steaming, potent syrup that would contain some legitimate Indian essence.” She adds to this later, “The story is in the details, the traumas, the histories, not the titles and labels we apply and try to pass down without context. I’ve been searching for the story, the whole beast, the blessing, the burden.”
It is noteworthy that as interested in the history of her tribes as Washuta is, in her first memoir and the essays she makes available on her website, she does not make much mention of other Native American writers or contemporary thinkers throughout Native American history. One exception is a quote she cites from University of Kansas Professor of law comparing colonization to rape. Colorado College and University of South Dakota Assistant Professor of English Natanya Ann Pulley makes this observation herself. The theme of “Native American identity,” Pulley writes, “ is not…fully developed, which one may take as a sign of a forced theme or perhaps the work of a promising, but first book writer.” Pulley however questions her own criticism saying “I began to question why I, as a reader, think there is a work—one book or essay or line—out there clearly about Native American identity.”
Whether Washuta’s sense of Indian identity is sufficiently explored may be open to debate but she does nonetheless explore it and does so beyond identifying with stereotypes. This kind of racial/ethnic self-consciousness, is believed to be a healthy thing, particularly among racial/ethnic minorities. Researchers Yetter and Foutch write: “although ethnic minority youth tend to experience more stress than the population at large, the extant research suggests that a strong ethnic identity may moderate the effects of stress and strengthen academic and psychosocial functioning.”
In Washuta’s case this appears to be true. The connection she has to her Indianness, which she shares with us in her writing illustrates a display of her affirmed self-esteem. She writes:
“I do not think I was predestined for brokenness- this world of ours has shown itself to have no sense of order to make such a feat possible- but I’m leaning to talk to the ancestors, listen for answers, stay awake in dreams, and let those loved ones erase the muddy corners of my brain so I might learn all over again how to know anything at all.”
Subsequent to the publication of her memoir Washuta described herself in this new context in an interview as a “self healer.”
Washuta has used the essence of individuality inherent in a- “personal essay”-/memoir not only to combat stereotyping, but to illustrate indeed how “personal” all aspects of identity are, whether ethnic/racial, religious, sexual, career, et cetera, and further, how that ethnic aspect or element of self-identity is (for example, her Indiannness), like self-identity more broadly, complex. Washuta makes it clear that her Indianness is not in anyway to be misconstrued as having a necessarily biological component. When asked in an interview what she considers the “most irritating myth about Natives” she answered “That our identities are based completely in what a DNA test might say about us (bullshit) or in what we present that’s in alignment with something someone saw in [the movie] Thunderheart (bullshit) rather than in our relationships and our roles in our communities.” In light of these themes Washuta addresses it may be well worth the while to ask ourselves every now and then: are we ever stereotyping others without realizing it? Perhaps we are quick to be defensive, but as was pointed out by Leavitt et al, which I mentioned a little earlier, we are quite inundated with caricaturized and more historical images of Native Americans, as opposed to real, modern, holistic images. What if our inclinations to think about Native Americans in a certain way have been developing somewhat subconsciously and inaccurately because of what we have and have not been inundated with? What comes to our mind when we stop to think about Native Americans? Do we think about someone like Pocahontas or someone like Elissa Washuta?
1) Peter A. Leavitt, et al. “’Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding” Journal of Social Issues 71 no. 1 (March 2015)
2) Ibid., 44
4) “About Elissa,” Washuta.net, accessed April 29, 2018, http://washuta.net/about-elissa
5) Elissa Washuta, “AIS Adviser Elissa Washuta Reads from My Body Is a Book of Rules on the UW Campus,” February 27, 2015, https://ais.washington.edu/news/2015/02/27/ais-adviser-elissa-washuta-reads-my-body-book-rules-uw-campus
6)“Interview with Elissa Washuta,” Elsewhere Lit, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.elsewherelit.org/elissa-washuta/
7) Elissa Washuta, My Body Is A Book Of Rules (Pasadena, California, Red Hen Press, 2014) 157
9) “About,” Philip Lopate, accessed April 7, 2018, http://philliplopate.com/
10) Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay (New York, Anchor Books-A Disvison of Random House Inc., 1995) xxiv.
11) Ibid., xliii
12) Interview with Elissa Washuta,” Elsewhere Lit, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.elsewherelit.org/elissa-washuta/
13) Brief comment on Washuta’s use of the term “Idnianness.” That this should be addressed was brought to my attention upon reviewing feedback to an earlier draft of this paper. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists “Indianness” as a word but does not define it. (“Indian,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, accessed April 29, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Indian) The Oxford Living Dictionary does the same. (“Indianness,” Oxford Living Dictionary, accessed April 20, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/indianness) To keep from digressing, it seems the point to be made is that this term does not appear to be a widely defined term among prominent dictionaries. Washuta uses the term often in her writings but does not explicitly define it. Upon reviewing a vast body of her work it is my guess that she means, implicitly, Indian identity.
14) Elissa Washuta, “I Am Not Pocahontas,” The Weeklings, September 4, 2014, http://theweeklings.com/ewashuta/2014/09/04/pocahontas/
15) American Indian Nations (Lanham, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK, Altamira Press A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007) 315
16) Ibid., 317
17) “What’s in a Label? Native American Identity and the Rise of a Tradition of Racism,” American Indian Nations (Lanham, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK, Altamira Press A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007) 23
18) Elissa Washuta, “I Am Not Pocahontas,” The Weeklings, September 4, 2014, http://theweeklings.com/ewashuta/2014/09/04/pocahontas/
21) Ibid., quoted in Paul Spruhan, A Legal History of Blood Quantum in Federal Indian Law to 1935. South Dakota Law Review 51.1: 2006.
23) Cherie Newman, “Memoir Reveals Student’s Struggles With Bipolar,” Montana Public Radio, January 12, 2015, http://mtpr.org/post/memoir-reveals-students-struggles-bipolar
24) Ibid. aprx 5:06-5:32
26) Elissa Washuta, “How Much Indian Was I?’ My Fellow Students Asked,” The Chronical of Higher Education, June 9, 2013, https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Much-Indian-Was-I-My/139639
30) “Interview with Elissa Washuta,” Elsewhere Lit, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.elsewherelit.org/elissa-washuta/
31) Elissa Washuta, My Body Is A Book Of Rules (Pasadena, California, Red Hen Press, 2014)
32) Ibid., 16
33) Ibid., 24
34) Ibid., 16
35) Ibid., 22-23
36) Ibid, 42
37) Ibid., 49
38) Ibid., 178
40) Ibid., 179
41) Ibid., 95-114
42) Ibid., 136
43) Ibid., 53-58
44) Ibid., 9-14
45) Ibid., 130-152
46) Ibid., 136
48) Interview with Elissa Washuta,” Elsewhere Lit, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.elsewherelit.org/elissa-washuta/
49) Elizabeth Ogle, “Authors: Stories Behind The Books, Elissa Washuta,” March 10, 2016, http://www.elizabethogle.com/blog/2016/3/elissawashuta
50) In this particular interview Washuta does not give any specific examples of “Hollywood depictions” however, in her essay “I Am Not Pocahontas” she lists several, including but not limited to Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, Indian in the Cupboard and Pocahontas. One of her criticisms is that “these films relegated Native peoples to the past” (Elissa Washuta, “I Am Not Pocahontas,” The Weeklings, September 4, 2014, http://theweeklings.com/ewashuta/2014/09/04/pocahontas/)
52) Peter A. Leavitt, et al. “’Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding” Journal of Social Issues 71 no. 1 (March 2015) 44.
55) Ibid., 46
56) Ibid (qtd in)
57) Ibid., 47
58) Elissa Washuta, My Body Is A Book Of Rules (Pasadena, California, Red Hen Press, 2014) 155-156, 170
59) Ibid., 155-156
60) Ibid., 170
61) Elissa Washuta, “Apocalypse Logic, ” The Offing, November 21, 2016, https://theoffingmag.com/insight/apocalypse-logic/
62) “Natanya Pulley- Assistant Professor,” Colorado College, date accessed: April 29, 2018, https://www.coloradocollege.edu/academics/dept/english/people/profile.html?person=pulley_natanya_ann
63) “Creative Writing Workshop,” University of South Dakota, July 21, 2015, http://calendar.usd.edu/cal/event/eventView.do?b=de&calPath=/public/cals/MainCal&guid=CALfirstname.lastname@example.org&recurrenceId=
64) Natanya Pulley, “Natanya Pulley’s Review of My Body Is a Book of Rules,”As/Us, Accessed April 29, 2018, https://asusjournal.org/issue-4/natanya-pulleys-review-of-my-body-is-a-book-of-rules/
66) Georgette Yetter, Victoria Foutch, “Investigation of the Structural Invariance of the Ethnic Identity Scale With Native American Youth” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 19, No. 4, 435-436
67) Ibid., 436
68) Elissa Washuta, My Body Is A Book Of Rules (Pasadena, California, Red Hen Press, 2014) 180
69) Samantha Updegrave, “Rewriting the Rules,” Bitch Media, August 13, 2014, https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/interview-elissa-washuta-body-is-a-book-of-rules-feminism
70) Nichole L. Reber, “Native Voices Won’t Be Silenced,” Electric Literature, November 1, 2016, https://electricliterature.com/native-voices-wont-be-silenced-aede8c2adc6b
72) Peter A. Leavitt, et al. “’Frozen in Time’: The Impact of Native American Media Representations on Identity and Self-Understanding” Journal of Social Issues 71 no. 1 (March 2015) 44