Bad Indian

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine

I am a Bad Indian. As in suspect. I’m not registered or enrolled, for one thing. This matters especially to the enrolled, as though Indigeneity must be blessed by the federal government before it counts.

I am also a bad Indian as in, I am not the Indigenous friend you are looking for. Not so good at cocktail parties. I am not witty or self-deprecating: I don’t talk in metaphors or share tribal legends. I actually tend to have a one-track mind and talk obsessively about the tedious subject of justice. And Jesus. I talk about Jesus a lot when I am talking about justice. 

I am an urban Indian, for another thing. I didn’t grow up on a reservation. Although I grew up in New Mexico, I didn’t even know that my father was a Pueblo, or Tewa, until more than a decade after I left the state. White folks weren’t fooled, I was teased mercilessly on the playgrounds of my childhood for being a “wide-faced Indian.” As an adult, I have been tailed in retail spaces for decades. This retail ritual has actually fallen off somewhat since my gray hair came in at about age forty. Before that, I was a prime suspect of low-tipping, shop-lifting, lease-ditching, contract-skipping in just about every context. Because of my face. The same face that caused a Wayana child to reach for me over her mother’s shoulder and her mother, smiling weakly, handed her over to me on the bumpy trip across the river the borders Suriname and French Guiana. What did my face mean to that baby girl? How could what she saw be so different from what is perceived by my own countrymen: teachers, principals, servers, store clerks, landlords, and bank managers with whom I share a country?

Bad Indian. This also means that I am not going to dish out wisdom by the spoonful, in doses that are easily digestible. I don’t play the flute and I’m not going to sing a tribal hymn in my native tongue at your church on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. I’m not saying don’t invite me to your church – in fact, please do. I will gladly preach about the global movement to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, but watch out: I will ask each and every one of you for a commitment. I guess that makes me a bad Indian too – without doubt I will make you feel uncomfortable. Bad Indian means I want justice for Indigenous Peoples everywhere, and I am pushy and difficult as I go about exploring what justice might look like and staking out a pathway for getting there.