Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

December 4, 2011

Debra White Plume in New York: Occupied land

Worship Greed

Debra White Plume in New York: Occupied land
By Debra White Plume
Censored News
During a visit to New York City, my friend and I rode the train downtown and spent two days walking around. We went to Wall Street on the day that is only celebrated by America and Americans, known as Thanksgiving. We went to Zuccotti Park, now called Liberty Park, since it has been Occupied for the past two months by the Occupiers. There is one entrance/exit. It is manned by the NYPD. There are chest high metal barricades all around the park, along with yellow police tape. As we enter, it feels eerie. I see a lot of people, but no other Natives. There are men playing chess, a guy is twisting balloons into shapes and handing them to others. There are young women passing out turkey dinners in Styrofoam containers. People are saying Happy Thanksgiving. We walk along, and hear drums. We follow the sound, and see about ten young white men, all pounding their drums, it doesn’t sound like a song to me, but I am prejudiced. I grew up hearing only the Lakota drum, which is significant to its purpose. I tend to judge all other drum beats against our own. The NYPD begin to come in to the park and gather around the drummers. The Occupiers form a circle around the NYPD and the drummers and function as a human microphone, which states “Cameras out, cameras on the police”. I glance around and see the NYPD Guard Tower high up in the corner of the park, plastic and temporary. Can’t see the uniforms, but can see the weapons. The plastic windows up there are smoked. Nearby there is a guy with a huge poster that says something about hospitals killing people in New Jersey. There are a dozen protesters with big signs that say the 1% wear furs from animals they killed. Yikes, I realize I am wearing a leather jacket.
There are conversations going on all around, in small groups. I hear about capitalism, the 1%, see young faces chanting This Is What Democracy Looks Like. I don’t hear anything about Mother Earth and how desecration is the source of the riches of the 1% at the cost of the Native Nations. I wonder if the Occupiers know they are Occupying an Occupied land. I wonder if they know we Native Nations are older than America? I notice cop cars parked all around the area, and NYPD everywhere. The circle of cop cars is outside the circle of barricades, which is outside the yellow police tape. I see this as a trap and wonder if anyone else feels this way. I see folks that look homeless, dressed in ten layers of clothes that have not been washed in months. They snuggle into the few benches, sprinkled around here and there. There is a group of people forming, getting bigger by the minute, singing Christian songs. I see the Wikki Leaks Top Secret Media Van. There are several unmarked plain white cargo vans parked around the streets, some with those little satellite thingys on the roof. The Christian song is getting louder, drowning out the human microphone over there trying to protect the drummers. Seeing Democracy, Capitalism, and Christianity all in one place--when I know all three all work against each other to create chaos--I want to leave, I can’t stand the singing. I know who committed genocide against my people and it was just as much the Christian Religion as it was the American government and its settlers. It is in my lifetime that the churches took little Lakota children to boarding school to brainwash and beat. I was there. I was one of them. My friend and I notice the NYPD notice us as we leave Liberty Park. The banks and money houses are everywhere down here, they form a circle around the cop cars that form a circle around the barricades and yellow tape, all around the Occupiers.
We walk around the Wall Street area. I think of the invaders of long ago who built the actual wall as a defensive structure to keep out the Indians, of the Stock Market that was named for the selling and buying of live stock, that is, the black people who were to become the slaves of the people with the money and mindset to buy them, I think of the Indians who were beheaded here, to teach them a lesson. The buildings are tall and glass, and even look rich. The air is quiet, like in a church. I guess this is kind of like a church, where the congregation worships greed. Looking at the names on the banks, I recall the headlines a few years ago when a great spin was pulled like wool over the eyes of most of America, and billions of taxpayer dollars were given, with no questions asked, by elected officials to these banks and money houses, to bail them out of the problems they got themselves into. I remembered how I thought at that time that America was now openly governed by Wall Street. I am happy to leave this place, it feels heavy.
We ride the A Train, there are musicians on there who make lonely-sounding music, they say they are Gypsies. I give them all my change. I think about discussions I heard at Liberty Park, talk about changing the system, like it is broken. Me, I think this system was created to be exactly the way it is, but I have the 143 years since the 1868 Ft Laramie Treaty between our Nation and America to measure it by. The folks in Liberty Park never talked about that, when I was there. Then my friend and I saw a movie star get on our train and that’s all we talked about till we got home. Neither of us could think of her name, but we remembered movies she was in.
The second day we walked around NYC was Black Friday, another day peculiar to America. Seeing the stores with recognizable names, all lined up in rows along these narrow, old streets, like they are soldiers in the front line. People of all colors, but mostly white, moving in and out of the stores, carrying shopping bags decorated with logos that even I recognize, coming from one of the poorest counties in America. Faces smiling, chatting into costly cell phones of lovely purchases just made. Cloudy gray sky, dark and chilly in these canyons of the city, buildings so tall the sun shines only a few hours a day here. Smells of water, the East River nearby, the ocean a little further. Sidewalks are litter-free, yellow cabs parked here and there, black shiny town cars everywhere. No peanut vendors down here!
Seeing the store names creates nausea deep in my stomach, they represent the casually luxurious lifestyle of the families that own these corporations, and I think their lust for wealth is never going to be satisfied, no matter how much they accumulate, it will never be enough. Nausea rising from seeing working people pull out credit cards of corporations owned by the same wealthy people who own the stores that accept the credit cards who own the banks that finance the credit cards. To shop in there, they will pay for years for the purchases made today. More interest money paid to the same banks that these very same taxpayers bailed out a few years ago! The shoppers just keep making the rich people richer, while they burrow deeper into their own debt. This Black Friday concept blows my mind, a day created to increase the wealth of the richest, gained by the non-existing dollars of the people shopping with plastic, much of the items purchased on time are created and marketed by those who are the owners of the plastic, who have created this way for people with no money to make the purchase with plastic. What a system! Celebrate Christmas In Style, say the BLACK FRIDAY SALE signs hanging everywhere.
Plastic shoppers seem so happy, but I see a small frown pop up, only for a second, is there a worry about where the money will come from to pay off these purchases? Maybe there is a doubt that the 50 inch flat screen TV might not REALLY be necessary, that maybe it is, after all the interest rates, not going to really cost $200. Young women oh-ing over the fabulous pair of designer shoes that will look SOOO good on them when they go out to that designer club over there. Doesn't sound like a necessary purchase to me, I mean it's not like they are talking about spending their non-existent dollars on food, shelter, medicine, tuition. But that purchase makes them happy, to indulge their desire, after all, that lady said she hadn’t been waxed for a month.
As we are shuffled along in the crowd of people moving from store to store, my thoughts go to nonessential products and services being part of the problem, such consumers prop up the rich while they continue to complain about the rich. Or maybe its’ just me that considers them non-essential items and services? Could the reason behind this come here-go away kind of thinking be that the consumers just want for a few minutes to be MORE LIKE THE RICH, in that they do not have to just admire something, they can actually possess it?
In my experience, the lack of choices is one of the hardest parts of being without money. Choices have to be made based on the amount of money available. When that amount is very small, the choices become very limited as well. The lack of choices feels like confinement, and I think it is a natural response to resist confinement. Maybe some peoples’ resistance is to get a credit card and charge it to the max? That outcome is brilliantly capitalist and was probably thought of by the very rich. Had enough of watching shoppers in this huge mecca of the capitalists, we leave the area.
Wandering now to the East Village, Greenwich Village, Little Italy. Lots of mom and pop shops, and vendors up and down the streets. Famous coffee shops on every corner, the strong odor tempting, but we move on, determined on principle, to not spend a precious $7.50 on a cup of coffee. See folks paying with credit cards, smiley faces, but some people have a glazed look in their eyes. Maybe wondering where they can get the cash to pay for something they charged because they didn't have the cash to purchase it?
Here, items are handmade from other countries, each unique and very expensive. Liked that one handbag, but the price is comparable to that registered paint horse I admired a few auctions ago. Didn't get the handbag, didn't get the paint horse either!
We wander into another neighborhood. It is kind of dark in these city canyons, but not so much here, the buildings are not so tall around here, the sun gets in a few more minutes a day. Litter on the streets, just enough so it looks out of place. We stop and I pay cash for a pair of sunglasses, a gift. Street prices are very good, about a fourth of what I would spend back home. A few blocks later, we turn a corner, and stumble over folks sitting on the sidewalk. They shook little cups, a woman's voice chanted, "help me, have not eaten for days, no job, no home, help me, please". I put money in the crumbled paper cup that she is shaking like a rattle. Her old eyes say thank you, her skin is wrinkled, her hand is thin, she looks like she might have an illness, its’ in her eyes and the grimace of her jaw. As we walked away, the sound of her old voice began to fade, but I still hear it now, it is there in the back of my mind.
Finding the right subway entrance, we go down, down, five flights of stairs, deep underground. As the train stops and goes, leaving downtown and moving toward the neighborhood where I stay, folks get on and off, I notice they have a different appearance the further we move away from the rich part of town, less designer bags and shoes and signature perfumes. More folks getting on the train who wear uniforms, a few wearing hospital scrubs, utility maintenance men, teenagers wearing knock-off designer clothes purchased in the alleys from guys who catch the items that fell off the trucks. Baby strollers look normal, not like the fancy ones on Wall Street that probably cost as much as my 21 year old car.
During the past two days, I somewhat walked through three lifestyles. I saw where the rich live and work, I saw their kitchen where they cook up their riches. I saw the parts of town where plastic is king and folks fool themselves that they are above the “down-trodden”, a term I heard a lot at Liberty Park. I saw the streets where the homeless beg for money and food. I noticed also that those were the streets where there was litter everywhere, but rarely a yellow cab, and not a single black shiny town car.
We got back to my friends apartment and I burned sage, sending smoke to clear away anything bad. We made a pot of coffee, the whole can cost less than one cup of designer coffee. I washed up, got comfortable in house clothes. We drank that pot of good coffee, I smoked roll-your-own cigarettes. We talked about the past days and how most Americans don’t have a clue about real history, how this country and its rich people made their wealth from stealing Native Nations’ land and its bounty, to this day even. How the land theft had to be prefaced with killing off whole Nations. We talked about Decolonization, a personal experience that can only begin with a paradigm shift. We talked about what we will do next summer, about pow-wows, Sun Dance, horse races, give-aways, and films to use for upcoming Film Forums.
I told my friend all about that registered paint horse that I admired, how his price was the same as that handbag the young lady purchased downtown. That was some horse! My husband and are I are saving up to get one just like him. Sometime, somewhere, I will find another horse that catches my eye, maybe we will have the money to take the horse home, to live on the land with our family. You see, we all want something, to indulge our desires. Mine is another paint horse. I will pay cash, no bankster is going to hold me hostage. I have to fight the confinement within the limits of my chains, because, you see, none of us are free. As the saying goes, none of us will be free until all of us are free. The first step to that freedom is knowing that you wear chains. The problem with that is, you can’t really feel the chains until you try to move.

Debra White Plume, Lakota, is of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Pine Ridge, SD.


maralena said...

Thanks for your words Debra. I've learned a lesson crafting my reply.

I was also in Liberty Sq. on the day called Thanksgiving. I was in the crowd singing "Amazing Grace", and at the end I looked around and wondered to myself, how many of the white people in this here singing circle (which was mainly white people) know the history of this song, understand the complexity and weight of what it means to be standing here, on this day, given the history of this land, singing this song?

Probably not many, I thought. But I didn't say anything.

Since I arrived at the Occupy protest on Sept. 17th, I too have been saddened and heavied by the lack of awareness and discussion about the history of the land and the genocide of native peoples, the lack of emphasis on restoring ecological health and learning to live in harmony with all relations, and the lack of faith that we could have one clear, coherent demand that would address all of our issues, problems and needs: the demand of full-scale, global decolonization.

As a white person, I view it as my responsibility to be bringing, in whatever way I can, voices and arguments for decolonization to the circles I sit in. In my time on this earth, this movement is the closest this nation has come to something approaching the widespread, popular revolt I envision as a necessary tactic in toppling empire. Can I just walk away because these people are not speaking my language?

Because, sometimes, when I sit with them - mostly as individuals but sometimes even in groups - and I probe their hearts, give space for the layers of conditioning and generations of colonial thought to peel back, most of these people have heard spirit whispering to them. They feel the pull towards freedom, towards the wild, and while they may not have the language or analysis or history of practice or decolonization community that I do, their hearts know the truth. Their spirits feel the weight of empire and long to be free of it, long to return to roots severed in their bloodlines generations ago.

Often, I think, they sing the songs they do, the ones laden with painful colonial history and layers of ignorance, just because nobody has ever taught them any other songs to sing. (I know I struggled with that for many, many years.) If what the land is asking of us is to shift out of the paradigms of selfhood constructed by empire and to step more and more into decolonized beings, what better thing could I possibly do with my time, I wonder, than to share the new songs I have learned on my journies?

I struggle, though, because I am a white person: I feel I have no right to the narrative of the necessity of decolonization, or I fear idolizing native cultures in a way that erases the specificity of their true histories, or I fear appearing arrogant in the staunchness of my belief or the depth of my analysis, and therefore will seem blind to the immediate needs of the given individual in front of me, undermining the efficacy of offering such analysis. There's reasons I stayed silent after we all finished that round of Amazing Grace. To speak to the power of the land, and the necessity of turning back to our relationship with her, and to feel so distant and unskilled in my own connection with her, fills me with doubt doubt doubt.

It seems, though, from reading your article, that this doubt truly doesn't serve the needs of the land. So I pray, here and now, to be released from it, for clear passageways into the heart of spirit moving through the land beneath the concrete of Liberty Sq. and through the bodies of a people, who, for a short time, were in some ways remembering what it is to be free.

Only Ed said...

I was there in Liberty Square on Thanks-giving/taking. Not all of us were white, though we can pass. Not all of us sang Christian songs, or approved of them. Not all of us have forgotten that we are committing genocide against the original inhabitants of this land. Not all of us have forgotten Mother Earth. Not all of us have forsaken our ancestors.

Mother Earth.

I occupy in defense of my Mother. I occupy in defense of my Sisters and Brothers. I occupy in defense of all my relatives.

I welcome all my relations.

Debra said...

America is Occupied already. To even name their protest an "occupation" is a clear statement that they don't understand or know that this whole land was our home for many native nations. I spoke with a few occupy folks across the land about Treaty Law. A common response was "well those are old documents what can we do?" I said "honor the treaties. the bible is old. the ten commandments are old. the koran is old. people fight and die for them all the time." Debra White Plume

victor said...

you mention decolonization in the article, do you think the united states will ever honor the treaties ie, give back the land? that would require a paradigm shift, will it ever come? what do you think would be necessary to bring it about?

victor said...

fyi: i have nothing to do with the occupy movement, and by decolonization i specifically mean giving the land back and granting true independence to tribes that want it