In “Featherweight,” your story in this week’s issue, a young Native American experiences something of a culture shock when he leaves his reservation and attends a college populated mostly by whites. What is the nature of this shock and how would you characterize its response?
Culture shock is another way of saying that all the unconscious things people around you do that make up the behavioral patterns of a group are somehow unknown to you, and it creates discomfort in you and sometimes for them. I went through a huge culture shock when I left home and went to college. Of course, at that time the term was not in common use, and there was no public discussion of what Aboriginal people had been through since we started attending colleges and universities in greater number, so it was difficult for me to frame my experience there—I didn’t know it was common. What I knew was that I missed home and my family terribly, that I was very depressed and that whenever I tried to tease white people, I knew that they usually got angry because they didn’t understand the teasing, at least for Blackfoot. people, is an essential aspect of our cultural experience and sense of belonging (and that if we don’t tease you, it probably means we don’t like you or you’re going to start crying). I’m an introvert so I spent a lot of time alone, didn’t party and played ball as much as possible – which was my only point of contact with not only other humans but also with some of the other Indians on campus. There were also Samoans who were part of the football team – they came to play and it felt good to be with them. They were tribal, and that made me feel comfortable. But there are Indians who don’t do that, who really get into it and immerse themselves in the larger experience and have a great time doing it; and I wanted to write about it, both because it was very different from my experience and because the people I know who did that, they still had those moments – like all native people – of radical disjunction that happened between them and the non-Indians they spent time with. And those moments are the most important to me, because they remind me that just because we can talk to you in a way that makes sense to you, doesn’t mean you understand us.
He gets involved with a group of white girls – they stereotype and idealize him, and he does much the same with them. How do we manage to represent such interactions in fiction in the constant context of incomprehension and cross-cultural prejudices that make up our world?
It’s true that he and the white girls don’t quite understand each other in a certain way, but it happens in different ways on each side. The white girls come to the table with their notions of what Indians are and what it means to be an Indian, who don’t talk about his experience at all, as he notices things about them that they don’t know about themselves. , things that indicate an unbridgeable gap. There is a difference between assumptions that come from stereotypes and the kind of understanding that comes from closely observed experience. The first situation in the story was for me a way of talking about how whiteness – which, and this is something we never talk about, is different from being white – works. The most striking thing about people who truly embody whiteness is that they see everything but themselves. Whereas people who do not come from this space, usually people of color but not always, see themselves (because they have been objects of white gaze for decades and centuries) and the particularities of whiteness at the same time. This blind spot is one of the reasons this country is such a mess right now; whiteness no longer functions unhindered, and this process of self-awareness is extremely painful, both for those people awakening to the values that underlie whiteness and for the rest of us, who must experience their resistance to this awakening. I felt from the start that a lot of the support for Trump was about this: the promise of a return to a time when white people didn’t have to look at each other, which meant they could continue to participate. to the great American project of oblivion… the past, how the country was created, etc. Returning to an earlier America is not an option, however; The only way out is through. And, while I am deeply critical of this country, I am also deeply invested in its existence and its health, precisely because the future of Indigenous nations here is tied to the future of the United States as a whole. Native people who think our nations would survive the collapse or fracture of this country are living in a fantasy. I don’t have time for that.
He meets a native girl named Allie, who seems quite a richer character. Can you talk a bit about how you use it to complicate ideas about Indigenous origins?
It’s not that the other girls weren’t rich in character; it’s that he didn’t go deep with them. You cannot discover the depth and complexity of another person’s character without investing in them in such a way that they reveal their nature to you. And it takes time and effort that he does not give. But, also, it is easier to discover this nature when you have certain cultural elements in common; the door to knowledge opens more easily. So Allie was both a way for me to talk about what it’s like to have that experience of familiarity in the middle of an ocean of whiteness, and to talk about the difference there can still be between people from different tribes. It’s one of those things that non-Indians just don’t understand unless they’ve had massive exposure to multiple parts of Indian country (which almost none have) – that people from different reservations and tribes can be very different from each other because the cultural spaces are so distinct. Not to mention the differences that result from family, individual nature, etc. – all normal human things. Remember that when we talk about Indigenous people, we are actually talking about hundreds and hundreds of distinct tribal nations, with unique cultures, histories and languages. No one benefits more from the diversity project than we do, because we are the original diversity. Just because America calls us American Indians or Native Americans doesn’t mean that’s how we see ourselves, even though we use those terms as well. There are deeper levels of meaning that we cling to.