Saturday, July 11, 2009

Intersections: Alice Walker, playing Indian, and real Indians

Searching for information about Bill Wahpepah, a Kickapoo and Sauk and Fox man who worked at the Native American Survival School in the Bay Area in the 1970s, I found myself reading Alice Walker's blog post "The First Time I Saw Dennis Banks: Ojibwa Warrior Introduction." I learned that Alice Walker was involved with the American Indian Movement:

Many years later, after moving to the West Coast, I became involved in the American Indian Movement: Reading poetry with John Trudell, hosting fund raisers with Nilak Butler, Bill Wahpepah and his sculptor wife, Carol. Celebrating Un-Thanksgiving Day at Alcatraz Island, praying-in on top of Black Mesa in Arizona, and joining demonstrations and vigils for Native American rights whenever I could. However it wasn’t until a decade had passed that I once again saw Dennis. This time handcuffed, on trial for a list of crimes designated by the court, having voluntarily returned to face sentencing after leading the FBI on a chase that lasted eleven years.
Go to her blog and read the entire essay. There, she talks about her mother's grandmother, Tallulah, who was African and Cherokee. Clicking around her blog, I ended up at her website, Alice Walker's Garden, where I read her biography. This jumped out at me:

The most shaping experience of Walker’s childhood and adolescence occurred in 1952 when she was eight years old. Playing cowboys and Indians with her older brothers Curtis and Bobby, Curtis shot accidentally Walker in the eye with a BB gun. To avoid punishment, the brothers concocted a fiction and pressured their sister to accept it. The physical result was that Walker lost the sight in her right eye.

That incident played a major role in her writing. Not the playing Indian part, but the effect of agreeing to hide what happened. Read the entire biographical essay, too. She doesn't say more about Indians or playing Indian there. Maybe she does elsewhere. I'm not trying to interpret it in any way, good or bad, because I don't know her work. It just strikes me, on this July day, the ways that peoples lives intersect, how they touch each other.

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