Standing at the Stairs: A Poem of Native Dance and Colonization

Note: This poem began as a graduate workshop assignment and has evolved as a response to a past conversation about native dance. This is one draft of this poem. The process of creating and posting this poem has been a healing, cathartic process for me and I hope that it is meaningful to others.

Additional Note: An audio of a reading of this poem is forthcoming.

Standing at the Stairs

1

D-Con is made of wheat,

but the devil hides in wholesomeness,

permeating good things, so that we may eat

and be destroyed.

…tell me, my child….

….is a dance worth the price of your soul?

2

An eon spent

living with the land,

habitating under sod,

eating together on the floor,

telling stories by the light of the naniq.

Dancing. And dancing. And dancing.

Then they came with weapons of paper.

3

Let us free you.

Here is bread for your table

and soap for your tongue.

Here is a skirt for your legs

and a fire for your drum.

Come to the fire, my sweet sister…

4

The land is ‘theirs’ now.

Living above ground,

eating at prescribed times on a wood slab,

reading the holiness by lantern light,

praying to be less sinful.

The light, the light.

5

That spirit that is with you

is the Evil One.

Only he can cause you to move in such ways.

Only he can turn your feet and bend your knees.

The drum is his heartbeat.

Your language is his breath.

Be still my child.

6

No sir, those ancient spirits

do not talk to us anymore,

because we live in the light now,

and drink pepsi and eat pilot bread.

7

We saved you so that

you may once again live, 

once again dwell in your culture

(with our approval)

you’re welcome

8

Tuunġaġa doubts him.

Tuunġaaq, he is looking at me.

Tuunġaaŋ, ikayuŋŋa.

Friend, let me cleanse your soul.

Ya-iay-yang-ia

You are in darkness.

Ya-iay-yang-ia

Heed my teachings…

Aiy-ia-yang-ia

…partake…no more…

Aiy-ia-yang-ia

Aiy-ia-yang-ia

Aiy-ia-yang-ia

Follow-up to “…Our Natives Have Gone Into Sin…”

First of all, Thank you

I received a lot of positive, affirming feedback in response to my previous blogpost about colonization, religion, and marriage. It is very encouraging and has motivated me to post more frequently on this blog (as well as organize it a little bit better). Thank you all for reading and sharing it.

I do have an update and some additional thoughts about the things addressed in the post, as well as details that will help to clarify some of the events described. Brace yourselves. Here I’m gonna be less image-based, less organized, a little more candid and a lot more salty.

A Prosaic Backstory of My Involvement with Ministry

I was part of an (unofficial) college campus ministry for 14 years. I began as a student member, then as a recruited student leader, then continued as an alumni volunteer/leader. I attended meetings and eventually hosted meetings, sharing my own food with the group. On several occasions, I gave the ‘message’ (something akin to a sermon).

Eventually, I was asked if I wanted to be a part of what they called the “service team.” Essentially, it was a leadership team, something akin to officers in a student organization. The big (sketchy) difference, is that we student leaders were not elected by student members (which is what would have happened in an official student organization). We were chosen by the ministry staff director and this non-student volunteer couple. We were told that we displayed “spiritual maturity.” I had a lot of hesitation about accepting this role. I was about to be done with my graduate program and had already started my teaching career. I felt too old and had too much on my plate. But I was so involved with the group that I felt like I should say yes.

So then I went through a year or so of extra weekday meetings, always scheduled in the evenings, always scheduled at the volunteer couple’s home (a 20 minute drive for me). I had a school-age child AND I was a single parent at the time. The meetings NEVER started on time so I would always have to leave early. Looking back, what was I thinking spending my time this way?

Then after a year of being in this leadership team, I can only assume that someone in the ministry found out that my partner and I were living together and decided that this was a problem for them. (This is merely speculation. This organization has never been and still refuses to be transparent about what happened.) At that point, my partner and I had made the deliberate decision to only share our living situation with our families and not share it with others because...it’s our business and not anyone else’s.

The invitations to leadership meetings abruptly stopped with no explanation. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice for a while because I had started teaching full-time (if you’ve never taught high school English….it is not for the faint of heart…)).

But then, we were each taken aside and talked to by the volunteer couple (who apparently thought they had an exemplary marriage and exemplary holy wisdom to impart, although they frequently would use their ‘message’ time to complain about each other….super awkward). During this event, I simply thought a (super nosy) friend sincerely was expressing (an unnecessary) concern for me. I had no idea that an entire conference would be assembled just to discuss me and my partner’s living situation and to decide to rescind my leadership position. (A conference that we were not a part of, and were never informed of until the decision had already been made) (Ok, here’s a dash of salt…how sex-obsessed and personally invasive is this group that they conferenced about our living situation!?!)

BUT THEN….After my marriage, and especially after it was known that we had purchased a house, suddenly we were very nicely asked if we were interested in being part of the ministry once again. But there was no acknowledgement of how the ministry had treated us….no meaningful apology…no acknowledgement that I had been removed from leadership in a surreptitious conference…until we brought it up. It appeared that they were very willing to sweep it under the rug as long as they had a place to host meetings.

Ever since this act of discrimination, I had been seriously reconsidering my connection to this ministry organization. As I alluded to in the post, I recently terminated my connection indefinitely. My reconnection depends on their response to the stipulations that I have made in a letter I emailed to the organization. One of those stipulations is that I receive a written apology detailing the incident, why it was wrong, and an assurance that it won’t happen again.

This has yet to occur. Sure it’s only been four months. All in God’s good time?

Update: Another Removal

This a quick side note but one I find hilarious and ironic. As I was writing this follow-up, I became curious as to why I hadn’t seen any updates from the ministry’s Facebook group since the release of my previous post. (Yes, I did remain in the Facebook group despite terminating my affiliation because let’s face it, I sometimes have a hard time letting things go.)

I checked the group recently, and saw this.

I cackled so loudly that my dog became concerned for my well-being. The group that had called me family has gone even further to attempt to disconnect me after I have set up boundaries.

Snarky Sarcastic Question: Should I request to re-join?

Update: An Interesting Email

I terminated my connection with this organization indefinitely after realizing that I was being tokenized by a toxic, colonizing ministry. Again, my reconnection depends on their response to the stipulations that I have made my letter.

After the post went live, I actually received several responses from people who were involved in the incident, and also people who are currently still connected to the ministry. The responses have been largely apologetic, affirming and positive, to my surprise.

But one response, sent via email, was particularly interesting. It was from an individual mentioned in the post (but of course, I will not specify at this time). The email consisted of an apology for the “deep hurt” I received (but of course not an apology for them causing the “hurt” (and of course they’re not going to admit that it was actually an act of discrimination and unprofessional practice, this is not about my feelings being hurt)). And they concluded the email with…….(drumroll)….a request to HAVE A CONVERSATION OVER COFFEE to discuss my “concerns and desires for healing.”

I am so baffled yet amused by the irony. And this person does not live in the same town as me, so they even offered to fly up for this proposed cup of coffee.

(crickets)

First of all, we are still in the midst of a pandemic.

Second, I had already made my stipulations for reconnecting with the ministry in the letter I sent them.

Third, I know that this is an attempt to gaslight me into rescinding what I have said, confessing my ‘sin,’ and for them to attempt to hide their toxic practices.

Fourth, what makes them think that it is reasonable to spend airfare, hotel, food expenses, etc. just to have a conversation with someone who has already clearly laid out their grievances and stipulations? What infuriates me even more is that the ministry makes certain members of their staff fundraise for their own income, yet they think that this proposed expenditure is acceptable?

Needless to say, I declined their offer and said that I would await the written apology.

The Concept of Sexual Sin

One thing that I find interesting, is that in pre-contact Iñupiaq culture, there was not a concept that pre-marital relations was sinful. And once a couple cohabitated, they were effectively married in the eyes of their community. To this day, in the region I am from, it is still very common for couples to live to together before having a marriage according to the laws of our colonizers, if they choose to marry at all.

Now, do I feel the need to justify my or anyone else’s decision to cohabitate? No. This is a personal decision. In my case, it was carefully thought out and has strengthened our relationship and prepared us for a healthy, happy marriage.

One of the issues here is that this organization largely consists of non-indigenous people who take it upon themselves to instruct indigenous people how to live their lives, without a clear understanding of the cultural context that indigenous people live in. But then again…cultural context and sovereignty matters very little to colonizers. What matters is the control they have.

The Sharing of Indigenous Food

The sharing of food is very significant in many indigenous Alaskan cultures. I don’t want to generalize, so I am largely going to speak from my experience as an Iñupiaq person. Food is the center of many social gatherings. And the sharing of indigenous/native foods is especially significant. Indigenous foods (in my social circles it’s more likely to be called native food, or niqipiaq in Iñupiaq) is food gathering from the land, through traditional practices passed down over generations. This is not food that can simply be bought at a grocery store.

In the event where I was told that I had been removed from leadership, I was informed that an anonymous conference attendee suggested that I could bring the food to an approved location (because, it had been said that I shouldn’t be hosting due to my marital status).

From my cultural perspective, this was a tremendous insult. I had offered to host an event in my home. I had offered to provide the food. This offer had been accepted. And then the evening before the event was to take place, a mystery group had gathered to discuss whether or not it was acceptable for me to host ministry meetings, which I had done many times before. And that someone somehow thought it would be appropriate for me to prepare the food and bring it somewhere else because my home apparently was too sinful for them?

They were willing to eat my food. But they were not willing to eat it with me in my own home.

In recent communications that I have had with those involved, there were a number of people who advocated for me and my partner. I am very grateful for these people. But…apparently, the decision was ultimately handed over to the volunteer couple. Who made that call? Executive director, do you happen to know? (Ok, that might have been a bit over-salty).

Calling Out Toxic Religious Organizations and Practices

The purpose of my post is not to debate someone’s idea of sin or even the concept of sin.

I shared my story because I know I am not the only one who has experienced this type of discrimination. I know I am not the only one who has experienced trauma from toxic religious practices.

Sharing our stories can help us heal.

The leaders in the ministry sought to discriminate against me based on my personal life choices. They did it in secret, without including my partner and I. And again, according to various sources that I have spoken with, this decision was instigated not by actual ministry staff, but by the volunteer couple who decided that they it bothered them.

Discriminatory acts like this need to stop.

My hope is that my post will bring awareness to the toxicity of colonizing ministry organizations such as the one I was a part of. And it is also my hope that my post will at least help spark some positive change.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Shall I reveal the name of this ministry? Not yet. Some day I will, but for the time being, I need to consider the best time and method for doing so. (Addendum: it feels silly not giving the name of this org because so many people that I have shared the previous post with know exactly which org I am referring to. Alaska is the biggest small town ever. But oh well.)

Am I still bothered by what happened to me? Hell yeah. It was messed up on so many levels. And, although I’ve brought this up with multiple staff members, including their executive director, nothing has been done. The volunteers who instigated this discrimination are still volunteers within this ministry group. The ministry still does not directly acknowledge that this happened. Their communications are infantilizing apologies, referring to my hurt, and not referring to the acts of discrimination that they are guilty of and continue to authorize.

The same people who preached the importance of truth to me are doing what they can to hide truth.

I have a strong feeling that this is a common occurrence within the ministry. What other stories are out there that people have kept to themselves because they feel like they can’t talk about it, or because they believe that it is not worth the fuss?

For years, I was bothered by how I was treated, but felt like I was making too big of a deal about it and that it wasn’t even worth sharing this story. For a while, sadly, I even felt like I deserved the treatment I received.

And then, I realized that what happened was an act of discrimination.

That realization is what prompted me to tell my story.

This organization did was they could to try to silence me and guilt me into compliance.

But I am done with that.

I am nobody’s token.

Tarra, that is all.

Some Random End Remarks (Warning: Some of These are Rather Salty and Snarky)

  • An editing oversight: After re-reading the previous post, I saw that I accidentally left one gendered pronoun in there. Oopsie.
  • Salty Comment #1: The volunteer couple who took me and my husband aside (he was given dinner, I was invited for coffee. I feel a bit cheated, haha, jk)….they are in the age range of me and my partner. But somehow they felt more knowledgeable about marriage, and felt like they were in authority to tell us how to live.
  • Salty Comment #2: One member of this couple constantly felt the need to share parenting wisdom with me. I had been a parent 5 years before them, but maybe because I was an unmarried parent, that somehow invalidated my knowledge?
  • Snarky and Salty Observation: For our wedding, we asked one member of the volunteer couple to officiate our wedding because we considered the couple to be dear friends at the time and had no idea that they instigated the move to discriminate against us. They ended up declining our request because they were pretty sure that Alaska laws says someone who is not a religious leader (like a pastor, not a ministry ‘volunteer’) can only officiate a wedding once and they had officiated a wedding the year prior. I looked up the statutes….I’m pretty sure they were lying (whether it was from ignorance, to save face or to protect our feelings…not sure…). Dude, just be honest and tell us “Umm…look….you sinners are too dirty for me to officiate your wedding, so….no.” a9But this couple still accepted the invitation to attend our wedding and partake of a pretty tasty prime rib dinner.) The same person who challenged my partner with “marry her or move out” would not officiate our ceremony….But in hindsight I am SO glad they declined. With the knowledge I have now, it would be such an ugly, triggering memory if they had accepted.
  • Incredibly snarky and petty comment coming up: This ministry at various occasions would preach against gossip (which probably fed into my hesitation to share this story for years). However, I have since learned that this ministry surprisingly has collected a lot of information about various people within their various branches through various methods. So….if there are any little birds reading this, please send them my regards. I’ll be praying for them.
  • EXTREMELY snarky comment coming up: Remember the volunteer couple who had me removed from leadership? Sorry-not-sorry but this question has been on my mind…how dry was their intimate life that they had to obsess over mine…to the point that they held a conference about it?? Yeesh, I feel violated.
  • A Ray of Positivity and Affirmation: If there are members of this particular college ministry reading this, I want you to know that you are worth more than being treated as tokens and pawns for colonizers.
  • Another Ray of Positivity and Affirmation: There are some awesome current/former ministry staff who are working/have worked to try to develop the organization into an equitable, culturally-aware institution. If you guys are reading this, just know that I value what you are trying to do and that I also would also like you to know that you are worth more than what this organization has to offer you and the way this organization treats/has treated you.
  • Last one: If those of you reading this have experiences of discrimination and /or religious trauma that you feel need to be told, I hope that you find a place to tell them, and that your storytelling brings you healing.