Book Review: My Name is Not Chief

Reviewed by Ron Malzer

“I was born in 1956 on a kitchen table in Chicago.”

This is how Ben Blue (1) began his life, and it is how he begins his book “My Name is Not Chief: The Life of an American Indian.” Ben is Ho-Chunk. He is also a university faculty member teaching in an education department. In his book he presents his life, with its many challenges and some clear triumphs, as a lesson for us. To summarize that lesson: Stereotypes have enormous power; native people have enormous obstacles to overcome as long as the dominant culture and the media perpetuate the stereotypes about them.

Ben grew up the biological son of two members of the Nebraska Winnebago tribe (2). His father left the family shortly after Ben’s birth. Ben was raised by his mother, with considerable help from a sister of Ben’s grandmother. A stepfather—a batterer– was also a part of Ben’s upbringing.

Readers quickly learn, and it’s a key reason for Ben’s writing the book, that his childhood and adulthood were not spent on rural reservations, sleeping in teepees, as the all-too-prevalent stereotypes would have it. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Wisconsin Dells are the communities in which Ben’s family lived; his childhood and adolescent years were lived in urban areas, surrounded predominantly by white people.

“There were many Trails of Tears”, Ben has said to me, when we talked over coffee. Winnebago people were “removed” many times from Wisconsin, with some continuing to live here by hiding out, and others returning after being removed. That native people and their identity have survived is a testament to the power of a culture to overcome attempts to extinguish it.

Chapters 1 through 8 of “My Name is Not Chief” provide a narrative of Ben’s life, and they are accompanied by commentary from Kent Koppelman, a retired UW-L faculty member. The disclosures about Ben’s life are a clear window more generally into the lives of native people in America, and they contain detailed descriptions of the many challenges for Ben, and as well as of some clear triumphs for him.

Significant challenges in Ben’s life include having grown up in poverty; the absence in his childhood of a biological father; a “random assault” in California that broke his jaw; two marriages that ended badly; and periods of very self-harming alcohol and drug use that are all-too-often part of the story of native lives in present-day America.

Triumphs in his life include professional ones: he worked for a brief period of time as an extra in Hollywood; he attained employment as an AODA counselor; and, most proudly, he found a pathway into academia that gave him a platform to teach the lesson that is now his life’s work: debunking the stereotypes that need to be discarded, by telling the truths that need to be told about the actual history of native people in America.

Chapter 9 has a wealth of background information and observations that help put Ben’s story into the context of the history of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and in turn, help identify some of the ways in which the Ho-Chunk experiences in the Upper Midwest were consistent with those of many tribal peoples across North America.

There is much in Chapter 9 that I find both powerful and important to reflect upon. Here are three examples:

1. “Like many other American Indians, the Ho-Chunk removal represented their version of the ‘trail of tears’ as they were forcibly moved with much loss of life from violence and disease and malnutrition.”

2. “While [Ben] was in college he had read about the Jesuits’ use of shaming in their boarding schools.” Ben then writes: “[C]hildren internalize the shame and engage in self-shaming; they do it to themselves, similar to what sociologists call internalized oppression.”

3. “Many American Indians regard the 19th century as an American holocaust, leaving far more than six million dead when it was over, and reducing the land controlled by Indians to a few reservations.”

There are two reasons you may want to read “My Name Is Not Chief”. The first is to dive deeply into the life of one native person, whose story will help push out of mind any stereotype you may have that was implanted by legends we have all heard, or media portrayals. Second, Ben’s Chapter 9 historical overview goes a long way to telling us what is almost never in the history books, but what is crucial for us as white allies to know in order to do racial justice work as respectful partners to indigenous people.

“My Name is Not Chief: The Life of an American Indian”, Ben Blue & Kent Koppelman, 2015, AuthorHouse, Bloomington (IN) can be purchased at http://www.authorhouse.com, or at amazon.com.

1 “Ben Blue” is the pseudonym used by the author of this book. At the advice of his publisher, he refrained from using his real name.

2 “Winnebago” was formerly the tribal name used both in Wisconsin and Nebraska. Because the original name was being employed by white people in a disparaging way, the Wisconsin Winnebago General Council voted in 1994 to make “Ho-Chunk Nation” the tribe’s official name in this state; the Nebraska tribe name remains unchanged.

How White Supremacy Culture Causes (and Sustains) Inhumane Treatment of Immigrants and Refugees

Written by Grace Deason, La Crosse Area SURJ Member 

“This is heartbreaking. So much damage is being done right now.”
“There is something wrong with these border patrol agents. How could they do this to children?”
“When is someone going to do something? I wonder when it will end?”

Maybe you read these sentences somewhere: a Facebook post by a friend, a comment on an article. Maybe you wrote these sentences. Maybe the thoughts expressed here crossed your mind as you purchased food for your family, as you tucked your children into bed last night.

These sentences raise some troubling but revealing questions: Who is doing the irrevocable damage to children and families at the U.S. border? Who has the power to stop it? The answer, of course, is US—we did this. We are doing it. White Americans, in particular, need to come to terms with the powerlessness we feel and to recognize that powerlessness for the lie that it is.

White Supremacy Culture

Culture is the knowledge, experience, beliefs, and values shared among a group of people. Certain behaviors, attitudes, and customs come to constitute a way of life and are transmitted seamlessly from one generation to another. All of this happens without our consent, outside our control, even without our conscious knowledge—culture is the water and we are the fish, immersed in its invisible but all-encompassing presence.

White Americans have a culture. This fact is obvious to others, yet many within our group remain largely oblivious. So, what are some characteristics of the water that white people are swimming in?

Because of the power that white people have held throughout history in the U.S., white culture defines what is “normal” in the U.S., and judges deviations from that standard as “less than.” White culture justifies the exploitation, oppression, and abuse of those who are “not white” through this ideology of superiority—revealing that white culture is, in fact, a culture of white supremacy.

One feature of white supremacy culture is defensiveness. In white culture, structures are set up and energy is directed toward protecting power as it exists, rather than sharing power and accepting the best of what each person has to offer. As a result, criticism of those in power is seen as offensive and rude. New and challenging ideas are silenced, and this defensiveness reinforces an oppressive structure.

White supremacy culture is also characterized by individualism. White people believe they are responsible for solving problems alone, and feel uncomfortable working as a team. Instead, we are socialized to compete with one another for personal recognition. This can leads us to feel powerless in the face of problems that are too big for any one person to handle. Individualism also obscures white people’s understanding of their membership in a racial group. As a result, we may refuse to take responsibility for the actions of our group, even as we endorse the group’s norms and values.

These are only a few of the characteristics of white supremacy culture. Others can be found here: https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html.

Maybe you’re thinking, some of these characteristics don’t sound uniquely white. As the primary power-holders in the U.S., white people’s reality influences everyone—racially diverse folks included. Racially diverse people are socialized to compare themselves to the white-imposed standard, to fit in, to attempt to meet it in order to receive respect and resources. White supremacy culture also impacts racially diverse people through active harm—be it economic, physical, or psychological.

How White Supremacy Shows Up in U.S. Detention Camps

So, what does any of this have to do with the inhumane treatment of immigrants and refugees in U.S. custody? As unsettling as it can be to admit that a belief in white superiority—that is, racism—is fundamental to who we are, there is ample evidence to show that this is the case.

Studies show that white people are less troubled by the pain and suffering of people of color than that of white people. White children as young as seven believe that Black children are less susceptible to pain than white children (https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-racial-bias-pain-perception-appears-among-children-young-7). In a clear extension of this basic finding, a study of emergency room personnel found that Black and Hispanic children were less likely to receive pain medication than white children (https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/black-children-pain-meds-er/story?id=16231146). It’s not hard to conclude that brown-skinned children at the border are being treated more harshly than white children would be, because of their ethnicity and skin color.

White supremacy is also implicated in people’s support for the immigrant detention system as a whole. In one study, white Americans who were informed about Black people’s overrepresentation in the U.S. criminal justice system were more likely to support punitive policies like California’s Three Strikes Law (https://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/august/prison-black-laws-080614.html). Another study found that white people become more supportive of the death penalty in the U.S. after learning that it discriminates against Blacks (https://www.jstor.org/stable/4620112?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). Given these findings, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to conclude that, were the detainees along our southern border white, Americans would be renouncing the current immigration policies all the more strongly.

“But it Wasn’t Me!”

A defensive reaction is built into the system of white supremacy. Because we are socialized to see ourselves as individuals disconnected from the system we built, we feel neither responsible nor capable to make change. However, white people think and act in small ways every day that prop up the system of white supremacy—we cause and allow these harms.

The white supremacy pyramid illustrates how common, seemingly innocuous beliefs like “colorblindness” and our denial of responsibility enable overt racist acts like hate crimes and lynching. We may not always be in a position to stop a hate crime with our bare hands, but we can work on dismantling the lower levels of this pyramid. The way that we understand reality influences how we think about individual behaviors and policies. The way we think about an issue influences how we talk about it. The way we talk influences the beliefs and actions of others around us. And so on.

white-supremacy-visual

How have you come to understand immigration? Did you consciously choose what to think, or are unconscious tendencies driving your views? For example, a common temptation under white supremacy culture is to justify inhumane treatment of racially diverse people with beliefs that they did something wrong (such as enter the country illegally; https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/just-world-hypothesis/).

Sometimes the specific bias of your worldview becomes most obvious when it is challenged. For example, I felt my understanding of reality spin on its axis when I saw this meme online:

lakota law project tweet

White Americans as the Immigrants, and brown-skinned refugees as the rightful citizens of this land. This is an under-represented version of the immigration story, and one well worth considering.

Let me be clear—we are not going to complete our journey to racial enlightenment. Not soon, probably not ever. Certainly not in time to end the humanitarian crisis at the border. In the words of Dr. Robin D’Angelo, author of White Fragility, “’Getting it’ when it comes to race and racism challenges our very identities as good white people. It’s an ongoing and often painful process of seeking to uncover our socialization at its very roots.”

This will be a long journey, but it’s past time to get started. Let’s take responsibility for racism and the damage it does in La Crosse and in the U.S. Let’s do the work to see behind the veil of white supremacy culture. Let’s reclaim our power to remedy this injustice.

Resources

SURJ White Supremacy characteristics: https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html

Pyramid: https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2017/07/05/white-supremacy-overt-covert/

Everyday Feminism White Supremacy in Everyday Life: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/09/white-supremacy-everyday-life/

“Seeing white” podcast (Scene on Radio): https://www.sceneonradio.org/seeing-white/

White Fragility, by Robin D’Angelo: https://robindiangelo.com/publications/ and https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

Action

Lights for Liberty La Crosse on Friday, July 12, 2019: https://www.facebook.com/events/315010909379462/

What you can do from NYT (including list of organizations accepting donations): https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/24/opinion/border-kids-immigration-help.html

SURJ information about hosting an asylum-seeker: https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/end-family-separation.html

What to do in an encounter with ICE: https://www.nilc.org/get-involved/community-education-resources/know-your-rights/

Kickapoo Coffee Models Accountability

Written by Alice Benson, La Crosse Area SURJ Member

The La Crosse Area SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) chapter recently noticed Kickapoo Coffee’s decision to change their name. These local coffee roasters are taking this action based on their understanding that continuing to use their name would be an act of cultural appropriation.

From their announcement:

“When we founded Kickapoo Coffee in 2005, we chose our name with the intention of honoring the place where our business has its roots: the Kickapoo River Valley. But Kickapoo is not simply the name given to a river. The Kickapoo are a People. ⁣⁣
⁣⁣
The Kickapoo Nation is composed of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, and the Mexican-Kickapoos. By using “Kickapoo,” we claimed a name that was never ours to take. The decision to use their name, and to continue to roast under it, was an act of appropriation. In an effort to right that wrong, we have decided to change our name.⁣⁣”

SURJ is an organization committed to working toward racial and cultural equity in our community, and we thank the owners of Kickapoo Coffee for their willingness to examine their choices. We congratulate them for their understanding of the damage that can be caused by cultural appropriation. We appreciate their decision to change their name and congratulate them on the thoughtfulness of their approach. It’s always heartening when a business not only recognizes cultural appropriation, but also takes positive steps to address the issues raised. It’s especially heartening to know that Kickapoo Coffee made the decision to be accountable for this matter on their own, proactively. They had not received a complaint or any pressure from the public.

Why is cultural appropriation harmful? Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation as “the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices, and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.”

For hundreds of years, Western society has appropriated the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples all over the world for stories, art, clothing designs, and, of course, the names of sports teams. People often justify this appropriation by denying that it is stealing, insisting instead that is simply appreciating history or honoring a culture that is old and in the past. In reality, the uses are less of an appreciation for Indigenous peoples, and are instead the unauthorized use of items and expressions that are valuable and sacred within cultures that are still very much alive.

Cultural appropriation uses a piece of someone else’s heritage without permission and can perpetuate stereotypes, trivialize sacred objects and symbols, and even commercialize holy relics to make money off facets stolen from another culture. For a more thorough exploration of Cultural Appropriation, CLICK HERE.

Cultural appropriation allows privileged people and groups to profit from oppressed people’s labor and minimizes violent historical oppression. It is wrong and causes harm to the people whose culture is being stolen from them to benefit others. Thank you Kickapoo Coffee for recognizing cultural appropriation and understanding the importance of making amends. We look forward to learning your new name and to enjoying your products.

For more information see the Kickapoo Coffee Website.

“Waking Up White”: The Journey from Complacency to Understanding

Written by Ron Malzer [ronsaturday@gmail.com]
“Not so long ago, if someone had called me a racist, I would have kicked and screamed in protest. ‘But I’m a good person! I don’t see color! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!’ I didn’t think I had a race, so I never thought to look within myself for answers. … As I unpack my own white experience [I now realize that] … all Americans live within the context of one dominant culture, the one brought to this country by white Anglo settlers.Exploring one’s relationship to that culture is where the waking-up process begins.” -Debby Irving, from her Introduction to “Waking up White”
All my adult years, I’ve identified as “liberal”. To this day, I embrace both that term and the term “progressive”.

 

Two things happened in late 2016 and early 2017 that make those terms incomplete as identifiers for me. The first was the horrific result of the 2016 presidential election. The second was reading Debby Irving’s book “Waking up White”, followed by joining two groups that looked very closely at that book.
After reading “Waking Up White”, I still support liberal and progressive political candidates for office. I see that as extremely important work for starting to heal our sick country. What’s new is that I now also identify myself by saying that I’m starting to wake up to the deep systemic racism of America, past and present. Pushing out of power those who actively and willfully advocate policies steeped in white male supremacy is not enough. We also need to center the voices and experiences of people of color.
I’m a white male who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I was part of the anti-war movement aimed at ending America’s role in the Vietnam War. I identified as pro-feminist, and worked at carrying out those values in personal relationships as well as how I voted. And I saw “inequality” in America as lessening bit by bit. While spending 2016 dreading the worst, I told people “In the end, I think the basic decency of the American people will win out.” It didn’t. At first in a state of shock at first, then intense discouragement, and then anger, I had to re-think my core assumptions. Debby Irving’s book was extremely helpful for that.
“Waking Up White” is the story of the author’s personal journey. Growing up in a well-to-do suburban Massachusetts family, her career engaged her in activities designed to promote racial equality. Problems arose for her. She was surprised to find, for example, that arranging to bus kids of color into white dominated cultural experiences led mostly to silence and fear by those being “helped”. In interactions with adults, she was hit with pushback as people of color told her she was judgmental and lacking in understanding of their world. She then took a college course focused on racism and American history. That was part of her wake-up call, and she decided that her next step was to make racial justice education her focus. Her book is one part of that work.
Irving acknowledges that her upbringing included both race and class privilege. She indicates that her book is a call to whites about white privilege, and she limits her comments about class privilege. She does provide examples of how race and class privilege reinforce each other for those who possess both.

 

In my pre-waking-up days, I rejected terms such as “white privilege” “white male supremacy”, and even “oppression”. They were too angry for my peace-seeking instincts. I believed that we were on our way to overcoming long-standing racial barriers. And while I was never one believed that the presence of a black man of mixed racial heritage (his identifier) in the White House would move us to a post-racial society, I certainly believed that having people of color as the first family would at least weaken some of the god-awful, demeaning and hateful stereotypes people hold.
Instead, it was clear by November 2016 that the loud angry and hateful voices had taken control of the country. Now I too was angry. And the more I read, not just Debby Irving’s book, but also the writings of Ta-Nehesi Coates and James Baldwin among others, the more I realized that throughout my adult life, I had been in denial about the depth of American racism.
Reading “Waking up White” added facts to what I understood, facts that a society facing its past would have taught in school. For example, the book demonstrates how banks made sure that loans, particularly loans through the G.I. Bill, were awarded preferentially to white veterans. We see that real estate agents worked to reinforce the practice of segregating neighborhoods to be all white or all black. Segregation was not confined to the south; instead of enforcing racial segregation by law, most of the country did the same, only by financial practices.

 

Debby Irving, to her credit, limits the extent that she talks about history, and doesn’t dwell on data. We need to read other works, particularly by people of color, to get the specifics of the myriad ways that white dominance, drawing on conscious and unconscious beliefs about race, have enslaved, oppressed, and otherwise brutalized African-Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color. Irving’s book focuses on the emotional journey from denial to waking up.
“Waking up White” is now the focus of a La Crosse community read. People throughout the great La Crosse area are being invited to read the book.

 

Consider how this book and its powerful impact could be brought into your community. The possibilities include conducting group reads/discussions at your workplace or faith congregation, and approaching college or high school administrators with the request that their institutions participate in the community read.
The next phase of this community read will be in 2020. The La Crosse Public Library has partnered with the Waking Up White Collaborative, and will purchase some books to be distributed free to the public. Throughout this summer, the Library and other organizations will host discussion groups and speakers on topics raised by the book. Arrangements are being made to have, in Fall 2020, a La Crosse White Privilege Symposium, with Debby Irving as a keynoter. For more information about the “Waking Up White” community read: CLICK HERE.

Join SURJ for Beer By Bike Brigade’s March MACness!!

We’re very excited to share that the SURJ “Barrier Busters” Endowment, a scholarship/educational fund will be one of the organizations benefiting from the proceeds of this amazing event. Enjoy a variety of delicious Mac and Cheese dishes cooked and shared by many local hospitality industry partners.

March 2
11:00-1:00
Radisson Center
La Crosse, WI

Everyone is welcome. This is a family friendly tasting, not a competition. A donation of $5 serves as an entry fee and all proceeds from will be split to benefit three local non-profit organizations, including the SURJ Endowment Scholarship Fund.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE EVENT INFO

Keep reading for additional information about the SURJ Fund and how the monies are used:

In 2018, SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice) partnered with The Western Foundation at Western Technical College (WTC) to implement the SURJ Endowment, a scholarship/educational fund. The SURJ Endowment funding helps remove financial barriers for people of color who have been incarcerated as they transition to the community by providing educational and vocational opportunities.

Funds are directed to people of color participating in Project Proven, a re-entry program at WTC. Project Proven works in the La Crosse County Jail and on the WTC campus to assist currently and formerly incarcerated individuals with obtaining the GED, transitioning to college-level programming, and /or gaining or improving upon skills to assist in obtaining employment such as filling out applications, interviewing, resume development, job search, and networking. Project Proven also helps participants with budgeting and financial management, interpersonal skills, and basic computer skills training.

SURJ’s original goal was to create a fully endowed fund of $10,000 that would be self-sustaining, generating monies annually beginning in 2020. Because of the generosity of so many individuals and groups in our community, the fund developed more quickly than anticipated and currently stands at $21,164. This generosity allowed us to help more people sooner than anticipated. In 2018 and 2019, SURJ funds, through Project Proven, have assisted students with rent, gift cards for clothing for job interviews, a used computer for school and job searches, and other necessities that can help people find employment and finish school. The SURJ funds are an additional resource for Project Proven participants as they navigate significant systemic barriers in re-entry while pursuing education and employment, and will help increase the likelihood of a successful transition from jail into the community.

 
Why Is It Important to Support People of Color in Our Community in Their Successful Re-entry?

A criminal history can present a major obstacle to obtaining employment, housing and other crucial services, the very things needed to prevent recidivism. More successful re-entry and less recidivism make our community a healthier, safer place for everyone. Since people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in our society, including here in our state, they are faced with these challenges at much higher rates. For example, Wisconsin incarcerates the  highest percentage of African American males  in the country, and Wisconsin Department of Corrections records show incarceration rates for African American men at epidemic levels throughout Wisconsin. While African Americans make up less than 6% of our state’s population, African American men account for 42.7% of those incarcerated.

When prisoners are released, they face an environment that is challenging and full of obstacles that actively deter them from becoming productive members of society. Within three years of release, 67.8 percent of ex-offenders are rearrested, and within five years, 76.6 percent are rearrested.

According to the American Prospect, the number one barrier to a successful re-entry into the community, often, is finding a job. Approximately 60 percent of ex-offenders remain unemployed  one year after their release. The Urban Institute notes that service providers and community leaders consider employment to be the primary factor in a successful re-entry.

Race is a factor in finding employment, particularly when combined with a history of incarceration. One study found that African-American offenders were two-thirds less likely to receive offers, and African-American non-offenders were half as likely as white non-offenders to receive an offer. So African-American ex-offenders face a huge double challenge: Even if they hadn’t committed a crime, racism significantly restricts their job opportunities; since they have committed a crime, they must somehow overcome the racism and convince the employer that their ex-con status does not make them a risky hire.

Because employment is so crucial to successful re-entry, Project Proven works closely with local law enforcement officials and agencies to provide instruction and services related to finding employment to formerly incarcerated individuals; the SURJ Endowment Fund is an additional resource for Project Proven participants as they navigate significant systemic barriers and will help increase the likelihood of a successful transition from jail into the community.

We hope to see you at March MACness this Saturday!

If you can’t make it to the event, but want to donate to the fund:

To contribute online go to the Western Foundation online donation form:
https://community.westerntc.edu/givenow

Under DONATION INFORMATION select “Other” as the Designation, then enter
“SURJ” in the “Other” free text field.

Contributions can be sent by mail to the below address. Make checks payable to
Western Foundation, and include a note or a check memo stating “SURJ”.
Foundation Office
Coleman Center Room 130
400 7th Street North
La Crosse, WI  54601