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The Talk: A dual reality for Native kids

Why this moment of Indigenous visibility is not without its painful ironies

Jialei Sun

One thing to get out of the way is there is no one The Talk for Native kids because there is no one experience as a Native person. A White-passing Native boy in the city will experience a far different chat than an Afro Indigenous teen in the suburbs, as will a young Native girl on the rez. Depending on where you live, you’ll be told to be wary of border-town police and drifting transients, or know which blocks are safe to walk at night, or which White-owned stores where you’ll be followed.

I can tell you only an amalgamated, modernized version of The Talk I heard as a Sappony child, with hopes that it will expand on and complement the one your parents and tribal community give. Advised to be safe and aware of my surroundings, I was infused with strength and pride — to always represent myself as Sappony and display the values we hold dear in the High Plains community of North Carolina.

I’ve been reflecting lately on how to talk about this moment of Indigenous visibility. American institutions, such as Hollywood and publishing, that for so long saw us as the backdrop to their nationalistic stories are now slowly but steadily mainstreaming Indigenous artists. We are being seen in ways our parents and grandparents got in tainted glimpses. Even I find myself occasionally jealous of a younger generation who gets to grow up seeing themselves not just represented by actual Indigenous actors but also being inspired by the writers, directors, showrunners, novelists, and playwrights creating the space for that representation to exist.

That jealousy is a trap, though — and a blessing.

This unprecedented moment of representation exists in the same reality wherein you still go to a nontribal school and have to sit in a classroom and listen to social studies teachers turn our genocide into a “necessary” evil of progress — if it’s framed as an evil at all. Once you exit the 19th century portion of the semester, the idea that your tribal nation’s borders will show up on a modern map is laughable. You’ll learn the states and their capitals, but you won’t learn of our many sovereign nations and homelands. When the time comes to grab your diploma, depending on where you live, you might get kicked out of the auditorium for beading your cap. You then have to enter into a world that — presidential cabinet member “Auntie Deb” Haaland aside — continues to be governed by people educated via these same lackluster standards.

That’s a heavy dissonance to swim through daily.

But it’s one I feel comfortable saying almost every Native kid will identify with and have to contend with: the ease with which people will slide our tens of thousands of years on these lands alongside the colonizers’ few hundred; and reliance on the past tense whenever our nations and communities come up. We are still here — our art and our bodies both declare this fact clearly. But our schools do not, and our government is just beginning.

At every turn that you find yourself the only Native in a class, or in any space for that matter, wield your history and your presence and never shy away from either: familial, clan, tribe, tribes, everything. The European-turned-American project of colonization means our histories can be messy. They can also be hurtful and traumatic. And they can be world-shattering in the sense of how clearly they remind you of just how recent our attempted forced assimilation was.

But they are also ours, and despite what American systems of education would have you believe, they are not just sad or prehistoric. Our histories do not begin or end with the invasion bankrolled by some Spanish, or French, or English colonizing king or queen. Our histories — just like our futures — can be defined by our suffering only if you allow others to set the terms.

You might be ridiculed, followed around a store, or worse. All I can ask of you is to be as safe and smart as possible, and to go to your community and family for comfort and a renewal of strength. But do not for a second lose your pride.

Any pushback you face for being proudly, loudly Indigenous exists because we are no longer invisible to the American eye.

Nick Martin is the senior editor of the Indigenous Affairs desk at High Country News and an award-winning playwright and fiction writer telling Sappony stories.