I have a problem.
Next month, my husband is officiating at the wedding of a friend and co-worker. This friend is fond of the movie The Big Lebowski (which I have never seen), and asked my husband to be ordained as A Dude-ist Priest, which my husband happily did as we believe recently-created paths have just as much validity as any other. Yesterday, we met with the couple to discuss the shape of the ceremony. During our meeting, the subject of the vows came up.
“We’re going to do this cool thing with the vows,” said my husband’s friend, the groom.
“You were the one who decided we were going to do that. I think it’s a bad idea,” said the bride.
“No, it’s a great idea. It’ll be fine!” the groom insisted.
Well. I asked what the idea was. The bride explained, the groom intermittently punctuating her answer with more declarations of, “It’ll be fine! It’s a great idea!” And it turned out what the groom had in mind was a REALLY BAD IDEA both ceremonially and magically. Everyone at the table thought so…except for the groom. We got him to see the light and change his mind eventually, but it took a while. It also took having my husband–the only other male present–explain to him exactly what was wrong with his original idea.
Now personally, I consider it a bad sign that the groom didn’t immediately give up on his “really great idea” the second the bride expressed her distaste for it. But we did talk him around in the end, so okay. The vow thing isn’t the problem. My problem doesn’t involve the wedding at all, except in an almost tangential way.
My problem is with a thing I’m going to call “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.”
See, my husband’s friend teaches social studies. I do not know all the details, but apparently a few years ago he did a unit on Native American culture and practice with his students, and as often happens, my husband’s friend became enamored with what he learned. To the point that he decided–or he and the bride decided together; they’ve been partners for years and I’m unclear about this–that it would be a really great idea to adopt some of the philosophy and tradition from First Nations Peoples and create their own tribe with its own hierarchy and ceremonies based on Native American culture. This is “The Spotted Salamander Tribe.” They have a big gathering every July where they pass a pipe and induct new members and such.
My husband and I have been invited to this year’s gathering, with the prospect of being inducted as members, and I have A REAL PROBLEM WITH THIS. I had a problem with it when I first heard about it at Christmas. And I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make a huge stink with my husband’s friends and co-workers. I had never met these people before they invited us for Christmas dinner. But my problem with it keeps getting bigger and bigger. It grows when my husband’s friend refers to himself as the “Chief” and talks about wearing the “Chief’s Headdress.” It grows when the bride mentions using a Navajo rug as part of their wedding ceremony. It grows when they casually toss around the word “squaw,” and say “It’s okay because it’s just a joke between us and we don’t mean it in a sexist way,” and don’t see that it isn’t just sexist. IT’S RACIST. It’s Cultural Imperialism. It’s a bunch of White People pretending to be Indians. They’ve built the “Spotted Salamander Tribe” on the practices of living traditions of which they are not a part, and passed it off as, “It’s no big deal; it’s just a fun thing we do.” Which is demeaning to the traditions involved. I’m not sure any actual First Peoples were ever consulted, even in the original school project. I’m certain none are involved now.
THIS IS NOT OKAY. I’m not looking for any pats on the back here for declaring it’s not okay on my blog, because I haven’t done JACK SHIT about it. I meant to bring it up yesterday, and I chickened out. I meant, after we had finished discussing the wedding, to ask, “So what’s the deal with this Spotted Salamander Tribe, anyway?” and to hear them out, and to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t participate because you’re using First Nations Culture for your fun thing and no First Nations People are part of it.” And I didn’t, because hearing them talk about it in this dismissive way was too hard for me to challenge. And because, to my complete and utter horror, when they said, “It’s no big deal, it’s this just this fun thing we do,” part of me thought, “Well, maybe it’s harmless. Maybe there’s something going on here I don’t understand. Maybe it could be okay.” And because I was asked to attend, and it felt good to be asked, to be included.
But when I got home, I knew it was not okay. Not okay at all.
I’ve already pretty much decided I can’t participate in this “tribal gathering,” but as long as I’m being completely open, I’m going to admit that I still go back and forth. Because I haven’t been included in much in my life, and being included is sweet. I honestly like my husband’s friend and his partner, and I like all the other people I met at the Christmas dinner, most of whom are part of the “tribe.” And, mea maxima culpa, I don’t want to be the one to rain on their parade. I don’t want to do it. I’m always the killjoy, the one who brings up uncomfortable truths and explodes treasured icons. Good Gods, I DO NOT want to be that person in this situation. And I keep hearing the groom declare that the issue with the vows was “No big deal,” and “Fine,” when it wasn’t, and I don’t want to have to fight that fight. Not by myself. Not alone.
But then I imagine sitting there at this gathering, and seeing my husband’s friend in his “Chief’s Headdress,” and watching them “pass the pipe,” and I know I can’t do that, either. I can’t condone it. I couldn’t be silent. Even imagining it makes me sick at my stomach.
Please, if there are any Native People reading this post, please tell me what’s enough for me to do? Is it enough for me not to participate? How much do I need to confront this? Should I go to the gathering and see it for myself before I confront it? I don’t want to cause a problem between my husband and his friend, and I don’t want it to carry over to my husband’s work. I honestly feel bad putting something about it on the Internet when I didn’t speak up yesterday, because it seems cowardly. On the other hand, I need to address it. I’m just not sure how, or how much.
So there’s my problem. I’d appreciate other viewpoints than my own.
ADDENDUM, 2014 June 25
In a rather unsettling turn of events, the couple involved stumbled across this post on Facebook. It’s a risk I took, although I hoped it wouldn’t happen. Anyway, I have been un-invited to the wedding because they “felt judged.” About what I expected, and probably just as well.