SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

 Melissa LaFave

 “They are dirty and lazy.”  “They wear cheap clothes.”  “They smell.”  “They have oily, gross skin.”  Fear and ignorance was the fuel that drove me towards a need for retaliation and vindication that night.  I wanted to strike out at those who were supposedly a threat and more importantly to show my friends that I was not like them.  I wanted to gain a feeling of belonging through acting on the accepted thoughts and prejudices of my peers.

 It was the spring of my 8th grade year and the spearing season had once again begun.  We  were ready to celebrate the bounty that Mother Earth has blessed us with.  Our whole Chippewa tribe celebrates this time with food, games, and family traditions.  The controversy surrounding the spearing issue seemed to be getting worse with each passing year.  I remember the white people with their hateful signs picketing on the boundaries of our reservation making it difficult for us to go into town.  Our small town thrived on tourism.  Having a chain of 28 lakes surrounding the town, made sport anglers the mainstay of our livelihood.  The economy of the town seemed to be based solely on the success of the fishing season.  The survival of our families depended on the success of our spearing season.  We would spear only once a year in order to fill our bellies and preserve the rest to feed us for the winter to come.  I was told, when I was very young, we are only to spear what we need to survive and not be wasteful.
 Three weeks prior to the opening of the fishing season, the Chippewa Indians speared.  I watched them spear at night in power-motored boats with floodlights.  They needed to see the different markings which determine the age and sex of the fish in the dark waters.  This how the spearers were able to determine which ones to catch.  They used the newest state-of-the-art spearing device to catch the fish by the thousands. They’ve had to use the new spearing device for the last few years, as they feared they would not be able to catch enough fish, in three weeks, to feed us.  This new device was experimental and usually ended up ripping the skin off of the spearer’s hands.

  Their spearing limits were ten times of the limits of the sport angler.  Most of the focus lay on the fact that they were allowed to spear the fish just before they were able to spawn and lay their eggs.  I knew that spearing the fish before they had the chance to reproduce would only leave less for the following year.  The spearers were careful about how many young and female fish they took.  This was done in order to preserve the production of the fish in the years following.

 I remember the countless conversations on the pier during the spearing season.  Always the grumbling fisherman indicating how bad the fishing season would be this year.  As many had suspected, the fish populations had declined and the Department of Natural Resources immediately lowered the limits on the sport anglers.  We knew that after this, the typical sport angler would inevitably go to another town in which the fishing could be more productive.  The spearing wasn’t going too well as my father talked about the harassment of the protesters and police boats that were constantly patrolling around them, scaring the fish away.  I knew they weren’t doing well as I watched my mother wrap my father’s hands in linen cloth for the 6th night in a row.  I was still looking forward to going out with my friends, the next night, to watch our fathers spear.  Some of the students in our class decided to go down to the lake and protest the spearing.  “Are you coming, Missy?”  {What did I know about these Chippewa?  I saw them around town but never talked to them.  As a small child, I knew one of my mom’s friends named Robert Old Rock.  But he was a Sioux Indian.  He had to be different than these Chippewa because his skin wasn’t dirty and he didn’t smell weird.  All I remember about him was his kind and gentle dark brown face and gleaming white teeth, just like the sparkling white teeth and perfectly tanned faces I saw on the toothpaste commercial this morning.  I wanted the brown skin and sparkling white teeth that he had.}  But these people weren’t like Robert, so I decided to go.

 I met my classmates after dark at the shore of a nearby lake where they were spearing.  We all stood and watched them prepare for their hunt.  When the men started getting in the boats, some of the boys we were with, starting throwing rocks and shouting at them.  Before I even realized, I was hearing my own voice joining in and my hands picking up the rocks.  I watched in horror, as kids my own age, shouted and threw rocks at my dad and his boat.  The police had been patrolling the area and had run over as they hear the shouting.  I saw a few Chippewa girls my age come running at us also.  {I could see their gleaming white teeth a mile away.  Maybe they were part Sioux and part Chippewa.  Wait, she is wearing the same shoes I am.}   Baffled by what I saw, I started running and pedaled away on my bike.  A few boys in our group weren’t so lucky.  Some of them were taken away and put in the police cars.  I watched, almost blinded by my own tears, as many of the kids ran away as the police came.  I turned around to see my dad nursing a wound left on his head from one of the rocks.

 Those boys, who were carted off that night, weren’t in school the next day.  They had been suspended unfairly.  I found out that those boys weren’t even charged with assault even though my dad returned home with stitches and a lifelong scar.  The unfairness of it all, slapped me in the face as I knew those boys were being reprimanded for doing what the rest of us wanted to do.  They stood up for what they believed was wrong and seemed to hold their heads a little higher after the incident.  But that wasn’t the only thing that had changed for those boys after that day, our teachers started treating them as though they were troublemakers even though they had always been good students.

We didn’t have any Chippewas at our school but the stories told about them were enough for me to be thankful that I wasn’t one.  The jokes about them were always negative references to their social status, living conditions, and grooming habits.  After that night, I found more and more similarities between these Indians and myself.  I was more self-conscious as I realized  that some of those jokes included me.  In the gym locker room, I heard comments referring to how those Indians could only afford K-mart brand shoes.  I instantly remembered that I was now wearing the same K-mart brand shoes that the Chippewa girl had on that night.  The next day more of the same comments, “They have the worst BO (Body Odor) and the oiliest skin because they don’t take care of themselves.”  {Wait, I sometimes have BO and my mom bought me Clearasil the other day.}  I became so scared that my friends would notice that I was similar to those Indians.  I started to be embarrassed about everything I wore and looked at the floor in the halls just in case someone would notice that my skin was oily.  I started to withdraw more and more from my friends as my fears of not belonging guided my every thought.  I started saving my allowance to buy my own clothes and shoes.  I would buy several kinds of deodorants and perfumes, (just in case one wasn’t enough after gym class.)  My complexion became another top priority as I started buying the most expensive soaps and makeup.  That year, I started spending hours in front of the mirror trying to perfect the way I looked.

To this day, I want the golden brown skin and gleaming white teeth.  I tell my friends that they will have to call me Pocahontas after the summertime.  Why do I want to look like those Indians that are loathed so much?  Do I want to be lazy and dirty like them too?  Do I hate them or do I really hate myself?

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