Burning Man. Oregon Country Fair. The John Muir Trail. “Because it’s there.” Buddhist retreats. Trekking in Nepal. Firefly gathering. Rainbow gathering.
I traveled to Standing Rock in November of 2016 with my friend, hauling over 5000 dollars worth of winter tents, clothing, food, and gear. My full time job allowed me to stay barely a week, and my ego, mixed with a hefty dose of white savior mentality, convinced me that my training as an EMT, and my lifetime of experience with direct action and social justice, would make me useful. Fast forward 5 days, and I was crying in the driver’s seat of my car, while my amazing friend listened quietly as I grieved for something I didn’t know I had ever lost.
Standing Rock is an incredible place. An indigenous led prayer ceremony, populated by resistance movements from every corner of the globe, many of them bound to each other by shared and distinct traditions of dance, song, storytelling, and way of being in the physical world. Like any indigenous and overwhelmingly powerful place, white people had decided to take it. White people, like me, were arriving to SR in droves, some of us even dressed like it was Burning Man, forcing our way to seats right next to the sacred fire, putting our pasty faces too close to elders and demanding that they teach us their culture, clumsily mimicking centuries old dance traditions, jostling for position in the lines for free food, taking up so much space that the medicine tent had to be guarded 24/7, and young Dakota men were placing themselves in front of elders to protect them from the onslaught of questions and poking and consumption an demands for emotional labor and reliving centuries of trauma. By the time we arrived, SR elder organizers had begun holding twice a day orientations, where each of these things was addressed, and indigenous folks were demanding that white people stop colonizing their space. Yes, colonizing their space.
“White people have no culture.”
This is partially true. It is also untrue. This statement is a form of denial, and also a source of grief.
White people do have culture. Our culture is that of colonization. Of genocide. Of taking. Of envy and of fear. The majority of white people can name no more than two generations back in their families. The majority of white people barely know where their grandparents were from, much less who their ancestors were. The majority of white people have no traditions, and the ones we have, are rooted in consumption and the superficial application of organized religion, both of which are steeped in histories of violence. Christmas is about a severed tree dropping dead needles on heaps of plastic crap, grinding the gears of our capitalist economy, a formerly pagan ritual that has been bastardized and twisted into a stressful display of wealth and excess. Easter is about disposable plastic balls full of processed sugar, many of which are left for years to mar the sterilized landscapes and rigidly decorated city parks and backyards. Valentine’s Day was created exclusively by the greeting card industry to make you spend money on disappointing gifts and unhealthy treats for your unsatisfied monogamous partner. Independence Day is a too long period of time where daily explosions and worshipping of war trigger people and animals with PTSD, and create an alarming amount of pollution, maimed limbs, and death. Thanksgiving? Don’t even start.
The closest thing white people have to culture is our disturbingly fanatical obsession with sports, which we use to justify things like property destruction, vitriolic hatred for people we don’t know, and even accidental deaths. These are the same things that we justify with our constant military assault on developing and impoverished communities, at home and abroad.
Which brings me to my main point: The culture of white people is the culture of death. It is a culture of endless war, desensitization to human suffering, and the upholding of a brutal individualism fueled by greed. It is a deep, dark hole of grief and of loss. We don’t even know what we lost. We don’t know our ancestors. We don’t have stories of creation and hope and family; only stories of destruction and genocide. Our coming of age ceremony is a school shooting. Our song is a ballad about rockets and explosions. Our elders die alone surrounded by their stories of family members who no longer visit them. Our cities were built by the blood of slaves, on top of the graves of native people.
Philosopher and professor John Kozy writes;
Violence pervades this culture. Americans not only engage in violence, they are entertained by it. Killing takes place in America more often than the Sun rises, currently at an average of 87 times each day. Going to war in Afghanistan is less dangerous than living in Chicago. The Romans went to the Coliseum to watch people being killed. In major cities, Americans just look out their windows. Baseball, once America’s national game, a benign, soporific sport, has been replaced by football which is so violent it destroys the brains of those who play it. Violent films, euphemized as action flicks, dominate our motion picture theatres and television sets. Our children play killing video games.
We do not get to achieve enlightenment; we lost that privilege centuries ago. We buried it in graves on land upon which we were strangers. This loss is real, palpable, and painful. There is a profound level of fear inherent in white people and the way we desperately grasp that which is not ours. This hole cannot be filled by our self delusion, and it represents generations of isolation and grief. It is our own generational trauma that we carry with us and pass on to our children. It hurts, and we do not know how to assuage that pain.
So we take. We take the traditions, costumes, dances, songs, and agency of marginalized groups after we have decimated their populations and destroyed their homes, and we polish these items so the suffering cannot be seen. We take their words out of context, and we use them to make money and to fake solidarity. We take their circles and stories and we wash them with our whiteness, and we struggle to fit them into our bloody box. We take their lands, their trails, their mountains, their rocks, and we climb and walk on them, snatching frenzied glimpses of what we want to call connection, enlightenment, transcendence, and wondering why they slip through our grasp. So instead, we get high on endorphins and call that “good enough.”
We want to learn something about ourselves that we lost, and so we keep taking the tokens and lives of other communities. But that one doesn’t fit, so, you know…on to the next.
The cycle needs to stop. It is the responsibility of white people to face our history and to fight the culture we have created. Stop hiding behind the stories and tokens of other people, and be accountable for the brutal ways we have consolidated our power and privilege. Stop pretending like you can hike or climb or meditate your way out of this power dynamic. You are not enlightened. Let’s stop with the excuses. You are powerful, and it is time to own that and to use it to fight back against the culture of death and violence that has left us spiritually and morally bankrupt. Call out the bullshit when you see it, in yourself and in others. Stop colonizing the lives and land and stories of others. Stop perpetuating the culture of death, and instead fight for the living.
Lorena Jasis-Wallace is originally from Kentucky, and tends toward a social justice lens in all areas of her work (whether it’s wilderness leadership, or providing access to social services kids and communities). She became a co-facilitator of Terra Incognita Media’s “Interrupting Oppression” workshops after being inspired by the outreach and commitment to social change in this community. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and spends too much time with her dogs.