Essays that wrangle ideas and big questions. Musings on topics I find interesting. Posted monthly, sometimes more. All opinions are my own. View more at Medium.
Last week, in the wake of statues and monuments toppling across the country in protests against systemic racism and the murder of George Floyd, President Trump signed an executive order not to protect American citizens, but to protect the statues. There’s a lot that I could unpack in that sentence — an administration that disregards the humanity and value of the American people, for one. But I’m going to stay focused on this issue: that there are statues to white men across this country that must come down.
I’ve written on statues before, and my stance remains: statues to people ignore the context of their time, immortalizing fixed (often questionable) ideas a society has of its past. When we glorify men with shameful histories for a handful of actions, we are telling our children and the world that we not only accept the ideas they stood for during their time, but we exalt them. That is why Andrew Jackson must come down.
When I visit my family in Montana, we drive by the site of the old Blackfeet Agency. Old Agency is where, over the winter of 1883–1884, after the white settlers had decimated the buffalo herds for sport, leaving none for the Blackfeet Tribes to stockpile sustenance for the winter, over 500 Blackfeet died of starvation. That winter has come to be known by the Blackfeet as the Starvation Winter, a period that weakened the Tribe and made them even more vulnerable to one of greatest threats against Native peoples — smallpox — only a few generations after the epidemic that killed two-thirds of the tribe between 1837 and 1840.
Native Americans have a different relationship with new disease. As a descendent of the Piegan Blackfeet (my mother is an enrolled Tribal member), I understood from a very young age the weight of the word “smallpox.” Influenza, cholera, measles, typhus fever and, especially, smallpox decimated tribes from the 1650s through the 20th century. Before European arrival, these diseases did not exist in the Americas, and Native Americans had no individual or population immunity against them. Though it’s impossible to say exactly how many died, historians estimate that as many as 90% of the Native population were killed.
As statues fall left and right around the U.S. and the globe, we are all grappling with the real history behind the official version that we were originally taught that glorifies specific people as great men (because the statues are almost all men), but leaves out the darker realities of their lives and the times in which they lived.
George Washington owned slaves. As did Thomas Jefferson.
The words we use have a profound impact on how our message is received — or whether it’s received at all. My day job is in nonprofit communications, and my organization, like many organizations right now, is working to intentionally shift our messaging from what’s called a deficit-based approach to what’s known as a strength- or asset-based one. As I’m educating myself on what this means for the work I do, I realize that this shift shouldn’t just be relegated to the nonprofit world.
Our nation is at an inflection point, in the midst of two pandemics: the one that started back in March and the other that began over 400 years ago. As the nation grapples with the systemic inequities and pervasive racism, language is what drives the conversation, and the words we use matter, from how we describe black and brown communities to how we talk about the millions of people in the U.S. living in poverty. Understanding the difference between deficit-based language and a strength-based language — and actively choosing to use the latter — will make a profound difference in where we go with the conversation as a nation, as communities, and as individual people talking with our friends, families and coworkers. It could even change the way we perceive the world.
“Welcome to the thunderdome,” remarked the guy next to us in line.
It was the middle of March and my boyfriend and I were walking into Costco — or, rather, the line that was snaking its way from the entrance. The governor had yet to enact a state-wide stay-at-home order, but the national rumors of toilet paper shortages and people stockpiling hand sanitizer had clearly hit home. Though the man next to us in line was commenting on the chaos we were headed toward in the Costco warehouse, his comments could not have been more accurate about where we, as a society, were heading.
On April 21, the lieutenant governor of Texas announced we needed to take a risk to reopen the economy because “there are more important things than living.” The economy has tanked, businesses have shuttered, and millions of people are unemployed. Under normal circumstances, a political leader’s job is to assure citizens and buoy the economy — but a pandemic is not a normal circumstance. When people’s lives are at stake, I believe we look to our leaders to protect those lives, whatever the cost. But that is not the message the Texas governor — and many other governors also choosing to prematurely reopen their states — is saying. Instead, he has made it very clear that business and the economy are more important than human life.
When I went to graduate school to get my MFA in Writing, I thought I was going to write great books and articles. But somewhere between graduation and now, I got sidetracked. I was a young graduate, with hardly any work experience, but as I explored whatever industry, job or avenue that matched my interests with a paycheck, nothing fit quite right. Entertainment was vicious. Historical preservation was tedious. Yoga was so self-aware it was elitist. Communications, too vague. In all of these fields, I was writing, but I wasn’t enjoying what I was writing.