Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a writer of personal essays and memoir. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University.
This Indian Does Not Owe You
Just because you're curious about my ancestry, my beliefs, and my experiences doesn't mean I owe you answers.
By: Elissa Washuta
This essay was published September 22, 2014 via BuzzFeed
I am here before you, a living Indian, upright and animated, full of blood. I am a young Cowlitz woman, not one of the dead chiefs flattened into history books. I have come to expect that you may want to know what an Indian knows and feels; you may want to unroll before me your knowledge about Indian wars or toss out a fun fact about totem poles — conversational niceties, perhaps, attempts at connection. Fair enough. Know, though, if I have no response, it is because I have only a few inches of innards left to pull out for examination. I must place some limits so that I might keep myself intact.
I do not owe you a complete breakdown of my ancestry. I do not keep a blood quantum chart sketched out on my palm like crib notes for an exam. I do not have to tell you where my mother was born or what substance forms my father. I don't have to justify the place of my birth, necessarily off-reservation because my tribe has none, all of our land taken from us. I cannot stop you when your gaze searches my face, gouges out my eyes, and roughs up my cheekbones, but I don't have to respond when you offer your assessment. I don't measure my blood in pints and quarts, and I will not spill it at my feet for you.
I do not owe you my assistance with your search for the Indians you're sure you'll find buried somewhere in your ancestry, the ones from tribes and places you can't name, specters skittering between generations, a rumor or a wish.
I do not owe you the names of those you call "shamans," and I will tell you I don't know where to find any, but when you ask me if it's all a bunch of hocus-pocus, despite every urge to bundle up all my secrets and send you away with nothing, I will spit back at your slap, "Of course that's real."
When you refuse to copy down the contact information for the museum that will work to repatriate the "ancient Indian artifacts" you say you got for a steal at a yard sale, do not be surprised when I say I know no galleries that might offer up cash for your goods. I do not owe you advice on how to sell the bones you dug out of your garden.
I do not owe you the long hair that confirms your expectations or the short hair that defies them. I do not have to let you touch it. I don't even have to let you witness it. And yet you do see it: the hair that was two inches long when I came to this place where every woman in line before me was born; the hair that has grown as long as it can, skimming my waist; the hair that is getting limp under the weight of trying to insist upon what my pale scalp cannot.
When you quiz me on genocide highlights — Were those smallpox blankets real? I've always wondered about that — to sate your hunger for facts, I do not owe you a free education of the kind that my university students pay for, and I am not so flattered by your interest in my people that I might unfurl a lecture on 500 years of colonization for your edification. I don't owe you commentary, desk punditry, or afternoon anger. I don't want to let you play devil's advocate over casinos or feed you arguments about team names that you can pull out at happy hour. But I won't tell you, either, about the burn that runs up my spine: the rape of Native women from sea to sea, from the first metal clash of conquest to each passing second. In the U.S., 1 in 3 Native women have been raped or have experienced attempted rape. When you are in a room with me, know that I am one raped woman. And though I owe you nothing, I've been broken into, broken down, and broken in over time. If you are a stranger in my otherwise empty office at the end of the day, I just might give you leads tracking down the Indian enrollment card you've been coveting if it gets you to leave.
I am not here to weigh in on the authenticity of that sweat lodge–retreat weekend you paid for in the '90s. I am not invested in your personal search for meaning, but I was raised to treat others as I want to be treated. How I want to be treated: not like a cabinet full of curiosities. Not like a magic lady who waves her hands over your wounds and heals you of your ignorance. You can keep your wounds; I keep mine.
I do not owe you gratitude for your love of "our" ways, "our" art, "our" peaceful nature. Love is not consumption; love is generous, love is action, and violated bodies and homelands can do nothing with unfocused appreciation. Whether you're learning your new fact for the day or admiring the print on my office wall, you have the privilege of consuming and walking away. You can discard the printouts from my website you brought to my office after you leave with what you came for: a look at what Irish, French, Ukrainian, and Indian looks like. You can scroll across the blip on your Facebook feed about the overrepresentation of aboriginal women among totals of murdered and missing women in Canada. Even if you think it's a tragedy, you can click the X and walk away. Whether you believe it or not, I'm Indian every day.
When you tell me that if you had been alive back then, you would've done something, I don't disagree. But I don't say that I know that it's true; you might have done something, but maybe not what you'd like to think you'd do. When you tell me that it's too bad we were all annihilated, I owe you nothing, but still, I am giving you more knowledge than you deserve when I say, "I can't help you."
Read more essays by Elissa HERE