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An Open Letter to Decolonize Oakland in General, Indigenous Activists in Particular
An An Open Letter to Decolonize Oakland in General, Indigenous Activists in Particular, and Any and All Other Interested Parties or: Why the Occupy Oakland Tipis were Cultural Appropriation
I don’t even know what salutation to use to begin this letter, as there has been so much come between the groups that started out in the camp that sprang up at Oscar Grant Plaza last October 10. I do not want to insult you by calling you “comrades” as I am aware that we do not have that relationship at this time. I also do not want it to be wholly impersonal by saying, “dear everyone.” Unfortunately or no, I must begin this letter in an ambiguous state – a state that perhaps reflects the state of intersectional activism in the city of Oakland at this particular juncture in time.
This letter will be in two parts. The first part is intended explicitly for indigenous activists and by extension their affinity group Decolonize Oakland. The second part is for people who may not understand why I am doing this or why this is happening at all. I am separating them because the most important part is the first part. The rest is just background information for people not in the know – and I add the second part only in order to be fully inclusive, transparent, and open about everything I have done and am saying.
I am the person who began building the little tipis on the lawn of Oscar Grant Plaza in the days after the vigil tipi was removed by the police. At this time, I would like to deeply and sincerely apologize to all of you for doing this. I was clueless, and stupid, and acting like a colonizer. I was appropriating cultural symbols that were not mine to use. My intent is not important; I realize that as well. I am not looking for approbation, or forgiveness, or any other reaction from you. I am simply offering apology for my stupidity and carelessness as a white person replicating what this culture has done and continues to do to people of color, and especially indigenous people, all over this country and this planet.
I am very, deeply, humbly sorry for being so insulting and insensitive. I am working on being better than that every day and will no longer be building tipis for any reason, political or otherwise. I can’t make up for hundreds of years of genocide, theft, oppression, but I can apologize for this one act for which I am personally responsible. And that I do with my whole being.
This part is for the folks that loved the tipis. Or don’t understand why I am no longer doing them. Or why I may have done them in the first place and also don’t understand why this was such a damaging act for me to perform.
I began making the tipis at Oscar Grant Plaza the day after the vigil tipi was seized by the city of Oakland. They were intended to be a protest that the vigil tipi was taken. Some indigenous folks (other than Running Wolf) were positive about them. A great many other people were excited by them. I enjoyed making them, sitting on the lawn, in a semi-trance state, protesting in a way that I believed to be valid and appropriate. I had only the most superficial of race analyses. I would hear on occasion from one or another friend that some people were disturbed and upset by the tipis but I didn’t really take the time to understand why, and so many other people were so in love with them that I continued to make them, and did so for several months, and in more than one location in Oakland.
After nearly a year of involvement in Occupy Oakland I began to unravel my own racism. I finally began to really understand white privilege and white supremacy. How truly invisible they are to white people because they are the medium in which we swim, like water to a fish. In beginning to understand the effects of patriarchy on myself, I began to understand how people could internalize white culture even when not being white themselves, so that even some of them couldn’t see when some things were racist. Such as the tipis I was making.
I have been reading a lot of social justice blogs on tumblr and unlearning racism as I go along. Being white, I also accept that I will always be a racist. But I know that I can continue to work on not acting like a racist, and trying to teach others of my skin color to do the same. I can do better than I have been doing. I can be aware of how my actions affect others, even when they’re intended to be innocent, even when they are approved of by so many other people -- people who also don’t understand how something could feel right but be wrong.
Whether there was a tipi on OGP or not, whether it was put there by an indigenous person or not, it was not up to me to protest the return of the tipi by making more of them. The tipi was not the style of housing the local peoples used. It was out of place. Even were I to want to build little houses like the ones that were here before white culture arrived, it would not be my place to do that. It would be (as my building the tipis was) cultural appropriation. I should have built little tents instead. And that is what I will do in the future, if and when I ever decide to protest in that fashion again. But tipis will never be made by me again, in this or any other context.
If you are still confused about why this was not a right act on my part, I would like to recommend reading the links on this FAQ about cultural appropriation and white privilege. This was the source that taught me the most, and it has led directly to my making this apology today.
We’ve all of us made mistakes, and will continue to do so. But if we don’t find a way to bridge the gulfs between us, the state will continue to keep its boot on our collective necks. I would rather we find a way to work together, if not side by side, then at least in concert against the common foe, without tearing each other down, and without continuing to replicate the systems of oppression that destroy us all. I hope that this effort on my part will help in some small way to help us move forward, if not in concert, then at least not as implacable foes.