Archives for the month of: July, 2013

Happy Birthday, Americans With Disabilities Act! You are now twenty-three years old, the same age as me, until my birthday in two months. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for your existence. I know from books like Make Them Go Away, stories from people who were actually there, and other sources that you met a lot of struggle (and received a lot of gutting after you were signed into law) but that doesn’t change the way you’ve helped many disabled people achieve more than would have been possible before I was born. You’re imperfect, but still powerful.

I’m going to use the ADA’s birthday to talk a little bit about my own history in disability advocacy. Being a self-advocate for autism was my first step into the world of activism, in fact. In the past year, I haven’t done a lot of advocating for disability rights, not because I don’t care any more about stopping institutional ableism, but because I felt unsupported and uninspired by the lack of a solid, anti-oppressive disability advocacy culture in my community. It’s a long story, I’ll spare you the details. I also felt out of place in general as a radical, left-wing disability rights advocate, caught in between worlds, in a way, because I am hesitant to depend so heavily on the State as being a solution to the problems that disabled people face, which put me at odds with many mainstream disability rights advocates, along with me also being of colour, Indigenous, and queer, which has caused me problems with disability rights advocates who fail to grasp intersectionality and felt no qualms about showing their flagrant racism, sexism, and homophobia. On the flip side of the coin though, I also can easily detect the casual ableism and apathy towards accessibility that so-called radical leftists are quite talented at expressing, in fact, for all their lip service to acceptance and solidarity, I’ve found that radical leftists who don’t make anti-ableism a serious and visible part of their credo tend to be as bad as your average non-advocate at including disabled people in their vision of a better future.

Working through life as a disabled person still plays a significant part in how I approach my activism. In addition to my autism, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also acquired back problems and occasionally need to make use of a cane. I’m also working through post-traumatic stress disorder and recovering from an eating disorder. I notice when places aren’t accessible, physically or otherwise, to disabled bodies and therefore disabled opinions and voices.

It reminds me of Chrystos’ wonderful poem, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Meet if There Are no Third-World Women Here”, shooting down feminists who make no effort to wonder how their own complacency plays a part in the lack of diverse faces and voices in the audience:

“You’re the ones who called a community

meeting & didn’t contact the Black Lesbians or G.A.L.A or

Gay American Indians or the Disabled Women’s Coalition or

Gay Asians or anyone I know

You’re the ones who don’t print your signs in Spanish or Chinese

or any way but how you talk”

I could go on… How about the ones who don’t ever remember to hire an ASL interpreter, or book a venue with an elevator, or post accessibility information on their website/facebook event, or caution people to not wear scented products, or make their materials available in alternative formats? How about those who casually throw around ableist slurs, or slyly suggest that those who disagree with them are mentally ill? How about the ones who victim-blame people with disabilities and mental illnesses, by subscribing to the same harmful cure-based medical model as the mainstream, saying that their disability was caused by poor diet/lifestyle/vaccines/their medication, and could be cleared up by homeopathy, yoga, meditation, or positive thinking?*

It can be frustrating. Especially when the need for radical disability justice is stronger than ever. Prisoners with disabilities face cruel injustices behind bars, untold amounts of disabled people live in poverty, unable to remove themselves from the stasis of dependency on small scraps of disability funding because their communities aren’t accessible or welcoming, disabled people face disproportionately higher amounts of sexualized violence, abuse, and domestic violence, and funding cuts leave many disabled people having to choose between having their aides give them baths or cook them meals that didn’t come from a microwave because of how few hours of aide support allotted. Disability does not have to translate to such vulnerability, if non-disabled communities who want to make the world more just and less oppressive take the initiative to make their spaces accessible to all.

I long for conversations and spaces where anti-ableism no longer has to dedicate so much space to begging for crumbs from the state for mere survival, but instead focuses on how we can make our communities and our revolution safe and inclusive of all marginalized people, regardless of how they move, think, communicate, or act.

So, that is what I work towards now. The ADA is one thing. It helped me get through university while I was living in the States. Reading about the opponents who tried to keep it from happening, and the ones who used legal mechanisms to gut it once it was in place helped push me towards seeing other methods to liberating disabled people from dependency and invisibility. But it takes the responsibility and accountability of us all.

Are you prepared for that? I feel like I was born ready.

* All of these are real-life examples I’ve encountered.

I love books. I have an enormous collection of books. There are many that I keep as a permanent part of my library, because I love to visit them again and again, getting something new out of them every time I pick them up for a read. There are other books though, that, while still greatly loved and enjoyed, I always make a point of passing on, because I feel that they’re so special, they deserve to find a place in the hearts of many people. 

If you are like me, and you find yourself with many books like this in your life, which deserve to be passed onto someone else who can attain wisdom and joy from reading them, then have I got a proposal for you! 

You see, in the tiny town of Bella Bella, British Columbia, a tragic fire wiped out the town’s library. So, the town is seeking book donations for Bella Bella, with a priority on children’s literature, indigenous literature, international fiction, eco literature, and many other categories. They even have an Amazon Wish List if you are feeling particularly generous. You can also physically ship books there, if you live outside of the areas where there’s a drop-off spot within BC, at this address: 

Thistalalh Library
c/o Jessie Housty
PO Box 786
Bella Bella, BC
V0T 1Z0
Canada 

I’m donating a hefty portion of my own book collection, because I love what books have gifted me with. I was very fortunate to grow up in a household rich in literature of all varieties, which fed my young mind, made it strong, and gave me the ability to creatively explore all the corners of my imagination. This passion for reading has lasted me well into adulthood, as you can tell, and the joy of reading is something that I hope and pray will stay with me until my final days. I want everyone, youngster and elder alike, to have the option to creatively explore and attain joy and wonder from reading. Bella Bella deserves a place where this can happen. 

If you have the means to do so, donate a book or two for Bella Bella. The gift of a book will resonate beyond a small, simple gesture of generosity. It has the power to change a life, and give a community recently struck with tragedy the chance to celebrate. 

Now, exactly what was it, that was holding me back from applying what I was learning about the Ainu experience in Japan to the experience in the West? Why the reluctance to interrogate that connection? It was a combination of lingering settler guilt and complicated feelings towards my own identity, which takes us back to childhood.

I was raised by a very assimilated Blackfoot woman, and her white husband. My mom loved Pendleton patterns, rocked some wicked cool beadwork jewelry, and would sing along loudly to powwow and country music in the car (Which was very unusual in Hawaii), but that was about the extent of her connection to her cultural identity, she’d left most of it behind in Montana. My father could almost be described as “infamous” for his views on Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination: He was among those who made an active effort to stop the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement. He was even the first non-Hawaiian person to run for chair of Office of Hawaiian Affairs (he didn’t win, obviously) and hung around with more notable anti-sovereigntists, such as H.W Burgess and Thurston Twigg-Smith, who opposed both Hawaiian sovereignty and “preferential treatment” for Native Hawaiians, under the assumption that such actions were “harmful” to the multiculturalism of Hawaii and were overly obsessed with dwelling on supposed wronghoods from the past to boot. Twigg-Smith even wrote a book called Hawaiian Sovereignty: Do the Facts Matter? which argued that American annexation had in fact, been a liberation for Native Hawaiians.

I can remember when my father wrote letters to Trent Lott and other U.S senators to try to kill the Federal Apology Bill which recognized the tragedy and wronghood of Hawaii’s annexation to the United States. A few times, my father and his friends even encouraged me to either apply for admission to Kamehameha Schools (A school whose enrollment is limited to students of Native Hawaiian descent) or to apply for Native Hawaiian-only scholarships. I didn’t do that, because I was a young kid who was self-conscious about being socially outcast, but I passively accepted their beliefs about Native sovereignty being a crock, that racism was over and legal programs to aid Native peoples were wasteful and divisive, and that Hawaii was better off as an American colony than it had been as an independent kingdom. Mercifully, these toxic ideas were slightly tempered by my education in Hawaii public schools, which, at least while I was growing up, placed a great emphasis on learning Hawaiian culture, language, history, and music. But that alone wasn’t enough to combat what I was learning at home. 

As you can probably guess, my father, with his strong, assertive, dominating personality, contributed significantly more to my intellectual and cultural development as a child. My mother filled more of a background role, which meant that any Native pride I might have gotten from her that wasn’t diffused by her being assimilated was lost in the influence my non-Native father had over my upbringing. The only time that I really felt a connection to the Native side of me growing up was when we would take our annual trek to Montana, to visit my mother’s parents. I loved going to Montana. I loved visiting with my grandparents, playing with the family dogs, swimming in the lakes and rivers, exploring the wilderness, going to rodeos and powwows, hiking in Glacier Park.

It felt so different, so invigorating, and inspired my young imagination in a way Hawaii never had. Mom noticed this, and around the age of seven, when we started making regular trips to Montana, she started to put more of an effort into making me feel good about who I was and where I came from. She bought me bead jewelry, Native American Barbie dolls, and my first pair of moccasins. My grandparents told me stories about the old ways and the old days, and encouraged me to learn more about the stories all around me, in the natural world outside of our front doors. 

My father died when I was thirteen, but this didn’t help my mother become more influential over me. It strengthened my will to live up to his legacy, so I became more interested in finding out about my father’s cultural background. The fact that that was to be the year of my bat mitzvah strengthened this resolve, and my “Jewishness” entirely eclipsed those traces of Native identity my mom had cultivated. 

When you fast  forward to university, that should offer context: I was very much complicit in colonialism from childhood, moreso than the average settler individual, and I was having issues about whether my Native identity was even legitimate. 

What set me on the path towards recognizing the Indigenous within myself, even though I was raised diasporic, urban, and as far from my home territory as one can imagine, was a chance meeting with Louise Erdrich, some reading material, and, oddly enough, my move away from Montana to Victoria. When I met Louise Erdrich, I swore she was a light-skinned version of my mother. She had the same peachy toned skin, light eyes, and dark brown hair as me. She was incredibly kind, intelligent, creative, and told me that I seemed “familiar” to her, as if I were an old friend come to visit again whom she’d known forever. 

As silly and arbitrary as it may sound to non-Natives or those who have never had any question about whether they “look” Native, that experience changed me. It gave me confidence, and one particular barrier towards declaring myself Native vanished in a single encounter. 

After that, I read every book of hers, along with any other Native women writers I could get my hands on. A particularly special shout-out is owed to Chrystos, who managed to do the incredible double-duty of not only helping me come into my Indigeneity, but also my queerness. Leslie Marmon Silko also deserves an honour for her stories and poetry. I was becoming progressively more and more comfortable with calling myself “Blackfoot” and “Native”. 

I left Montana for various reasons, enough to constitute its own story for another day. When I arrived in Victoria, what enchanted me was the strong connections between each advocacy group on campus at UVic, there were friendly, respectful, collaborative relationships between Pride, the Students of Colour Collective, the student disability group, the Women’s Centre, and the Native Students Union. It was a friendly student (and now, fellow Indigenous Feminist!) who served on the NSU council who encouraged me to join and get involved in their activities, in spite of my feeling that it may not be appropriate. I couldn’t thank him enough for giving me the confidence booster to say “Yes, I can get involved with this!” 

Since coming to Victoria, two years ago now, I’ve undergone the most radical, and sometimes painful, changes of all, towards Indigenous Feminism. After all, I couldn’t fully do that without acknowledging my childhood history that I discussed up there, could I? I will save that for the third part! 

Indigenous Feminism isn’t really something you necessarily “subscribe” to, or something which you label yourself with, at least in my case. For me, Indigenous Feminism was something that I grew into, and I continue to flourish in it. It is particularly important that I am learning about myself while simultaneously contributing to the ever-expanding sphere of Indigenous Feminism’s debates, actions/advocacy, and intellectual output. Before I reached this stage where I was ready to participate in the movement and offer myself a chance to contribute and grow within it, I had to undergo a series of personal and political transformations to reach a place where my contributions would be worthwhile and my growth notable. This series of posts is about that journey.

Even though I’ve always existed as a Native person, and as a girl/woman, that was not enough to make me an Indigenous Feminist. Both “Indigenous” and “Feminist”, for me, are personal and political identities that I intentionally adopted, and I consider both to have strong elements of responsibility for me to uphold. Indigenous Feminism by contrast, is a movement, more than a personal identity, which  I use to both help me navigate what being Indigenous and a Feminist mean for me personally, and how I can identify, understand, and dismantle the forces of patriarchy, colonialism, and other oppressions.

I didn’t always recognize this though. Before Indigenous Feminism, I had a sense that the there was something deeply wrong about the way things were, but I lacked the vocabulary to articulate  how it could be changed. From a very young age, I was described as having an “overdeveloped sense of justice”, and possessing “very strong opinions” (both taken from Elementary school reports). It wasn’t until I got to university that I would be able to take these opinions and this sense of justice, and refine them into tools which I could use to bring about change I wanted to see. When I first arrived in University, my major was Japanese/Asian Studies. I had initially hoped to study the Japanese Anarcha-Feminist group known as the “Bluestockings” (Seito), who had their own literary magazine filled with feminist, erotic, sensual poetry, and were frequent targets of government censorship. I thought that poetry and other artistic outputs were a powerful, incredible tool with which to challenge dominant power, and their story fascinated and inspired me to no end. For a while, I even wanted to get the title image from Yosano Akiko’s incredible collection of poems, “Midaregami” (Tangled Hair) as my first tattoo.

My passion for the Bluestockings never wavered, but I found something else which piqued my interest. It took me down an academic rabbit hole upon discovering it, from which I’ll probably never fully emerge. One of my professors, in my first year, gave me a book on Japanese “minority groups”, which included a chapter on the Ainu people of Northern Japan/Hokkaido (the land known to them as Ainu Mohir) My life was radically changed by reading about Ainu history and struggles towards self-determination and sovereignty. I wrote numerous papers on the Ainu, read every book I could get my hands on about their history, and dreamed of travelling to Japan so that I could learn more from the Ainu first-hand. I wanted to shout their story from the rooftops and declare my eternal solidarity to their struggle.

While discussions about an Indigenous struggle for self-determination taking place far across the sea dominated my academic life, in the realm of the personal, my life and outlook was changing as well. University, when properly applied to a young mind, does a lot to make you radically change the way you see things. It can make you either become very, very good at articulating and defending your beliefs, or have you question the foundations of your beliefs and have you entirely overhaul them. Mostly a combination of the two. I began to recognize the very obvious parallels between the way the Ainu were treated in Japan and the treatment Native peoples in North America received. Attempts at assimilation, suppression of language and culture, loss of pre-contact livelihood and traditions… I could go on and on. You could practically tell the tales of both in a single story if you used vague enough language.

But I resisted the urge to interrogate that further at first, because I was frightened, and slightly embarrassed.

I’ll explain a little bit more about where that discomfort and reluctance came from in Part II of this series.

Neil Gaiman has always been one of those authors who makes me feel that it would be really fun, but slightly scary and intimidating, to spend some time, maybe a day, or a couple of hours, inside of his head, making my way through the vast world of his imagination. Reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a lot like getting my wish granted; the sinister charm, childlike wonder accompanied by the dreaded shadow of impending adulthood, and the magic so heavily associated with his works are all present in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Within the charm, ecstasy, and magic, you’ll find a sort of cautionary tale which can leave you feeling depressed, but push you in a direction to make some choices to alleviate said depression, if you take the initiative.

In a literary style that you will also find in famous tales such as The Arabian Nights, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, this book functions as a sort of “framed story”, or a “story within a story”, with the frame being a sullen, depressed, middle-aged English man leading a rather garden-variety life, returning to a childhood home in order to attend a funeral. He wanders over to his childhood home, since demolished to make way for tract housing, and is drawn to Hempstock Farm, a place which was the cornerstone of many strange occurrences in the man’s childhood that all come flooding back to him as he reminisces. It’s in his memory that the “true” story occurs, and what a story it is!

Gaiman fans will be reminded of Coraline, a veddy veddy typically British home (this time a farm house, rather than a flat) being the site of a variety of spooky, supernatural occurrences, with the focal point of the fright being, like the Other Mother of Coraline, a female adult authority figure who exercises frightening control not only over the young boy, but his entire family and his community. The only sanctuary is Hempstock Farm, which is also connected to how the sinister being arrived in the boy’s world in the first place, but is also his only chance at sending the force back from whence it came.

I could spend all day talking about the Hempstock women. There’s Old Mrs. Hempstock, old enough to remember when the moon first came into being, Younger Mrs. Hempstock, her daughter, and Lettie Hempstock, the granddaughter/daughter, who is friends with our boy narrator and shows him around not only the world of her farm, but worlds that exist beyond it. Lettie is brave, calm, resourceful, adventurous, and is the true “heart” of the novel. We ordinary mortals, through the eyes of our bland, unremarkable, somewhat sullen narrator, get a privileged view of these remarkable, supernatural women. Everything is more sumptuous, more interesting, more real and yet not, on Hempstock Farm. One of the ways this truly came through to me, as a big foodie, was the descriptions of food at Hempstock Farm. Warm milk and cream fresh from the cows, honeycomb lumps, whole feasts of warm, savoury, delicious, filling foods which left me wanting more and more. Simple country fare, but nectar and ambrosia as well, reflecting the larger nature of the Hempstock women as these supernatural beings who nonetheless carry on lives as simple English country farmers.

The exact nature and purpose (if there is one) of the Hempstocks is never explained fully, and it’s said that there are male Hempstocks as well, but they are prone to flightiness and often go out in the world, meaning that there are also part-Hempstock mortal children running about, a concept which delighted me. Without spoiling the book, it is through one of the Hempstocks that the boy learns just how precious his life can be, and what a gift it truly is, which he should not ever waste or let be spent on the dull and unfulfilling. We leave the story there, returning to the frame, and see him, unhappy, with not much to show for his life. In light of what we just learned about the price that was paid for his life to be what it was, it takes on a depressing tone, I was almost tempted to not finish.

But I did, and I put down the book with a greater resolution to get more out of my life, create, and make it worthwhile. When I first finished this book, before I had fully formed my thoughts, I compared the experience of reading it to my various experimentations with MDMA. It starts off simple enough, then you are pulled into something incredible, euphoric, and perception-altering, which has to end eventually, alas, leaving you with the comedown, which can be disorienting, depressing, and leave you with a lot of questions about yourself, your life, and where you belong in the grand scheme of it all. I stand by that comparison. Approach The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a preparation to be amazed, but also to not let the amazement go away once you’ve put the book down. That’s not what the intention is here. There’s something in here that will call you to create and keep up the marvel once the story’s finished.