It’s been a long time since I have been so upset about something in the news, which is really saying something. The stand-off between the MAGA teens and the Native elder really got to me, I think because if colonization had a logo, this photo would be it. This iconic moment is a succinct expression of Standing Rock, of the disenfranchisement, murder, and mass incarceration of black and brown people, of all the ails we set in motion hundreds of years ago as colonizers, as slave owners, as people who thought we were better than. I am not going to post that photo here; I can’t look at it again.
On the day the PR firm tried to make the young men seem wholesome, something else began to bother me, and that is the way that this political climate constantly undermines common sense. It usurps our intuition, tries to cut us off from what makes us people. Says our inner compass is wrong. When we become unmoored from ourselves, anything goes.
What is up is now regularly called down. Anyone who saw the videos of the standoff can “read the room.” We can all see what was happening: adolescent energy run amok. Instead of acknowledging this, we have a group of adults working to exonerate the teens. This is the opposite of what a responsible parent would do if their child were being a bully. Maybe we would question our kids, try to understand what motivated the behavior, approach the situation with curiosity and the firm love of someone who won’t tolerate bullshit.
(Incidentally, we would never see a highly-publicized “positive spin” on the actions of black boys. Black boys would never subsequently receive an invitation to the white house, if they even survived the incident. [And let me also just say, black boys wouldn’t be bullying a Native elder.])
I kept thinking how these southern boys are untempered by ritual. All of our indigenous ancestors had coming-of-age rites that focused the enormity of adolescent fire toward facing our own fears, meeting them, and overcoming them. Through the ring of rebirth, adolescent intensity is made integral to the community. Teen boy vibes can become a flame that curates the land, or they can become unchecked sparks in the wind, waiting for the right conditions to burn it all down. (The conditions of now.)
This particular brand of “big dick energy” (bde) has been doused with the gasoline of intolerance. Without biodiversity, any ecosystem rots from within. These Kentucky teens, some of whom I am probably related to, only know southern white views. They probably have no concept of other Americans' realities, few models of empathy, little education or exposure to experiences that give the human heart traction, clearly very little sense of the history of this land. They probably have no concept of their own tribal identities, which are undoubtedly diverse. Instead they have been taught to adhere to nationalism at a time when our nation is particularly fraught. What a time to come of age.
Because of social media, we can see the environmental ethnocentrism they have steeped in, as they chanted “Build The Wall” at the people who have lived here all along. Grouping brown people together to look down upon is something we do because we have done it since we got here. It is an ancestral momentum that we replay in myriad ways. The best way for us to respond to the teens and the adults who made them is to say, “the buck stops here.” If we’re going to point our fingers anywhere, let it be in the mirror.
One boy stands out to me in the videos. He gesticulates erratically, has wild facial expressions. He looks like that spark in the wind. I just want to scoop him up, and hug him, and tell him there’s another way. He could ignite a conflagration of hate if left unchecked, through no fault of his own. You can see in his face that no one’s home, that no one has invited him to become at home in himself. He expresses the group mind so perfectly. I imagine how perfectly he could express the mind of a group that has our collective humanity at heart.
Some people are saying that we are being too hard on kids. These kids are on the cusp of adulthood. These kids have been programmed to hate, as their parents have been, and their parents before them. Barring motherly disruption, that hate will bloom in adulthood, and we will all have to eat the fruit as it falls. The adults who enabled these boys’ actions, the adults who hired a PR firm to defend them, the adults who are hiding behind their children, these are who the boys will become. I hesitate to call them adults because I feel they never had (or took) the opportunity to grow up.
This infamous photo also exposes the way we have lost our elders. The boys do not know how to approach or relate to, or even how to recognize an elder. All of our cultures honor elders, who are not simply old people, but people whose love has held up to the hardship of life longer than any of us can conceive of until we reach that age. This is not some nostalgic trap; life has always been a shitshow. Looking backward can be a means of moving forward when we are working to implement what works (intergenerationality, rites of passage, love, respect, healthy boundaries) and refuse what doesn’t (domination, oppression, murder, lies, theft, prejudice).
The way that we can best serve these teens is not to hire a PR firm that skews their actions and confounds their already-bewildered sense of identity, but to look at ourselves with them and ask how we got here. We can examine ourselves in the story of us, which includes our ancestors. If our ancestors caused harm to Native Americans or African Americans or to any other group, whether through explicit hate, blind fear, ignorance, or simple inheritance, we can examine how this story has become today’s reality. If we can’t find ways we are participating in the story of colonialism, then we are the fish that can’t detect water. We have the opportunity to take responsibility, personally. We have the opportunity to take responsibility for our children. That is one white privilege we can be proud of.
I have heard some people say MAGA hats don’t make the boys racist. I would say that wearing a MAGA hat at the very least signifies that we are willing to accept the intolerant actions and rhetoric that the president has put forth during his presidency. We concede that fear-mongering is a legitimate means of leadership. If we find ourselves defending our hats, defending people with money and privilege, defending those who look and act only like us at the expense of others, then maybe a good place to start is to ask ourselves why. Maybe we ask in secret. The question alone is enough to open new territory in which to heal ourselves, our ancestors, and our children. The question alone is enough to throw a wrench in a terrible, old machine.
rites of passage for teens in the Bay Area: https://www.steppingstonesproject.org/