Meet Taté Walker, Writer & Human Rights Activist

 
Taté Walker (right) is a writer, speaker, Indigenous rights activist, and editor of Natives Magazine.

Taté Walker (right) is a writer, speaker, Indigenous rights activist, and editor of Natives Magazine.

Taté Walker is a Lakota citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. They are a banner-waving Two Spirit feminist and Indigenous rights activist, and a published and award-winning storyteller for outlets like Everyday Feminism, Feminist Humanist Alliance, Native Peoples magazine, and Indian Country Today. Armed with a master’s degree in administrative science from the University of South Dakota, her English-communications degree from Fort Lewis College, and black coffee(!), Taté uses their 15 years of experience working for daily newspapers, social justice organizations, and tribal education systems to organize students and professionals around issues of critical cultural competency, anti-racism/anti-bias, and inclusive community building. Find out more at www.jtatewalker.com and connect with them on Twitter at @MissusTWalker.

What was your first encounter with feminism? How and why do you identify with the political movement?

I grew up around a lot of strong, Indigenous women, many of whom would scoff at the idea of being called “feminist,” since a lot of those ideals fly in the face of what it is to be Indigenous (land and money acquisition, political equality in a system set up to oppress womxn/people of color, etc.).

Feminists—especially white feminists—seek something they’ve never had, while many Indigenous womxn are concerned with reclaiming what settler colonial violence attempted to suffocate. Indigenous people aren’t monolithic and should never be lumped into a single category, but many tribal nations were matrilineal or weren’t driven by patriarchal standards, and womxn/queer community members had equitable agency.

I think my women’s studies class in college was the first real time someone associated strong womxn with the feminist politic versus simply “being.” Like, it wasn’t enough to just exist as an Indigenous womxn with the assumption of equity; I had to identify and wear the scarlet F for “feminist” on my chest to really have an impact. College is weird like that. You try on all these hats (and letters) and work with what fits, even if it feels funny.

That said, I do identify as an intersectional feminist a la Kimberlé Crenshaw, though I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with feminism because of how much work it is to explain myself as a queer Lakota womxn to non-Indigenous feminists. Not only do I have to advocate for myself and others in an oppressive and unjust patriarchal society, but also need to constantly educate [white] feminists about why they are also oppressive within the movement.

What has it been like for your daughter to grow up in an America that still holds Columbus up on a pedestal and spreads Thanksgiving myths? How do you approach these issues with her?

My daughter is like most children—she’s able and willing to soak up knowledge whenever it’s presented in an interesting and relevant way. It’s therefore my responsibility as her ina (Lakota for “mother”) and as a compassionate adult to ensure she’s provided with Indigenous and other marginalized histories and perspectives her teachers, history books, mass media, and pop culture misrepresent or erase entirely.

So, it’s not hard in the sense that she wants to learn this information. She’s a kind and caring human being—why would she idolize someone like Columbus or celebrate fairytales like Thanksgiving, stories that both glorify a white supremacy built atop Indigenous genocide?

What makes my job hard as a parent is that publishers and schools and news organization are lazy and don’t see profit in upsetting the status quo. What makes my job hard is the everyday fans of sports teams with racist and dehumanizing mascots that “honor” Natives, people who “just want to have fun” with Halloween costumes that hypersexualize Native womxn, and tax-funded school curriculums that “mean no harm” when they have kids make paper headdresses and gold buckles to wear for the Thanksgiving play. It’s so frustrating and absolutely confounding that with the all the digital, well-sourced information that now exists at our fingertips, mainstream content producers and educators still find it easier to uphold white supremacy built on false narratives like Columbus and Thanksgiving than present children with facts and products that won’t harm them psychologically. And because the status quo is so pervasively centered, I have to commit to having on-going discussions with my daughter. Every day. I have to.

Thankfully, Indigenous parenting is more than just “mom” and “dad”; I depend on grandmas and aunties and friends who we love like family all taking responsibility to build up my daughter and the next generation of thriving Indigenous youth.

Beyond Standing Rock, what political issues involving natives do you wish more Americans paid attention to?

When you get down to it, being Indigenous is political, so I wish people cared in general. Unlike all other minorities in this country, federally recognized Native American tribes are sovereign nations unto ourselves with whom the United States government entered into legally binding treaties. And—by systemic design—we’re forgotten and pushed aside, as if we don’t carry thousands of years’ worth of ancestral knowledge that could make this country infinitely better.

As a Two Spirit (queer) Indigenous womxn, I don’t know what it’s like not to be an afterthought. Decision-makers will consider the impacts to a company’s bottom line before considering the impacts to Indigenous people, lands and communities.

Non-Natives: You are on Indigenous land. Always. We should always have a seat at the table and not just as a muse for the latest fashion trend.


Non-Natives: You are on Indigenous land. Always. We should always have a seat at the table and not just as a muse for the latest fashion trend.

Your article on JK Rowling's "History of Magic in North America" had a profound influence on my perception of magic, and how magic is often portrayed as Eurocentric. What are some other subjects that go unrecognized as having Native origins?

A question like this is tough to answer, because it’s inherently coming from a non-Indigenous perspective; as in, the default origin is Western-European and any non-Native who reads my answers will demand double-sourced proof from three grant-funded university studies. So, just to be that person, I like to answer this with “EVERYTHING (obviously)!” Language, democracy, matriarchy, science and medicine, spiritual beliefs, huge metropolis areas, trade, environmentally-friendly and sustainable ecological/biological control, architecture, music, sports, large-scale transportation, food, your great-great Cherokee grandmother, and Burning Man. Just kidding on those last two.

Let’s go back to that proof thing and recall that the United States government sanctioned genocidal tactics against Native people. Genocide is meant to wipe out everything – all traces of a people, their values, culture, and language. It’s not just killing people, but killing the ideas of those people and the idea those people ever existed. Thankfully, complete annihilation by the US government against Native people wasn’t achieved and my ancestors fought for my Indigenous survival. This translates to: We still have our knowledge, but no one will believe us about it until a white person validates it.

Here’s a recent example of how genocide and the lack of understanding that EVERYTHING is Indigenous impacts us today:

My daughter wanted to do her science fair project on Lakota star knowledge. She asked the question: How did my Lakota ancestors navigate and know when to move camp? By tracking Wicákhíyuhapi (Ursa Major) through the night sky using her own nighttime observations, as well as cool star tracking apps on the computer and smartphones, my daughter was able to create an amazing project using storytelling to show how Lakota people used the position of the stars in the night sky to navigate and keep a celestial calendar.

From the beginning, her teacher was against the project and encouraged her to choose a “real” science project instead. My daughter came home dejected and considered trashing her project altogether. I took my frustrations to Twitter and received some amazing support from fellow Natives, but also from a few NASA astronomers who assured my daughter her project was indeed scientific.

Receiving these messages encouraged my daughter to continue her work. She ended up receiving high praise from not only the school principal, but also from the other students who stood in line to experience her project.

What should have been a no-big-deal, second-grade science project turned into an identity crisis for my 8-year-old when the teacher she loves and adores erased the scientific contributions of Lakota people as not “real.” Upon seeing the project in person and hearing my daughter’s full presentation, the teacher changed her mind a la “Oh now I see!” which makes me think the teacher would have approved the project had it been called, “How Ancient Greeks Used Astronavigation.”

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What is it like to be a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe?

I’m a “member” of Costco. I’m a member of the local science center and the Native American Journalists Association.

I’m a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in the same way I’m a citizen of the United State. My tribe has its own elected officials, constitution, laws and policies. It has its own lands and the power to interact government-to-government. I can use my tribal ID to fly on a plane.

We are a sovereign nation trying to survive the ongoing effects of settler colonialism. It’s where my mother and her family are from, where many of my relatives continue to live.

That said, being a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is complicated.

On the one hand, the concept of belonging to a federally recognized sovereign nation fills me with a sense of pride, responsibility, and identity. But then there’s the other hand that reminds me that federal recognition is a meaningless colonial construct established to erase the validity of the hundreds of tribes without federal recognition. At the fall of a pen my tribe’s—any tribe’s—federal recognition could be taken away. That can’t really be sovereignty. And even with this so-called sovereignty intact we’re unable to protect our treaty-promised lands from the devastation of Big Oil interests.

So I have to look at my citizenship as something wholly separate from the legal aspects recognized by the United States. I have to realize my responsibilities and identity aren’t dependent upon the acknowledgement of the overlord, but result from the relationships built by my ancestors, relatives, me and the next generations. These relationships are what connect me to tribal nationhood, to community, to family, to myself, to the land, and to my spirituality. These relationships and the accountability they demand/deserve can’t be read from a book or taught in a classroom. They are memory and experience and prayer. They aren’t right or wrong.

Being Indigenous is just being.

That might sound pretty and appealing, but it’s important to note that lots of people who live and lead on my reservation (or any reservation) would disagree with that assessment. And their criticism would be valid. The lived experiences and traditional knowledge available to those like me who live in urban areas and those who live on reservations are vastly different. Many times, this complicates Indigenous identity further and makes in-community issues tough to agree upon.

In Everyday Feminism, you listed Cynthia Leitich Smith, Mari Kurisato, and VR Janis as some of your favorite indigenous authors. Why are they your favorites? What do you love about their writing?

A powerful illustration depicting racial diversity in children’s literature began circulating in mid-2016. Using 2015 publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, the image showed five children (Native American, Latinx, Asian Pacific, African American, and white) and a bunny standing in front of various mirrors; the more mirrors the child (or bunny) had in front of them, the more that demographic was depicted in children’s literature. The Native American child is holding a compact mirror in the palm of their hand—Natives showed up in fewer than 1 percent of all children’s books. This contrasts greatly with the white child, whose race made it into 73.3 percent of all books. The bunny represents all the animals, trucks and other non-human characters that made it into books—it has the second-highest number, 12.5 percent, which is nearly identical to the number for the other four races combined, 14.2 percent. Did you catch that? Children of color have a better chance of reading about a non-human character than they do reading about a person who looks like them. There’s something very wrong with that.

"Children of color have a better chance of reading about a non-human character than they do reading about a person who looks like them. There’s something very wrong with that." --Taté Walker. Illustration credit: David Huyck, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. 

"Children of color have a better chance of reading about a non-human character than they do reading about a person who looks like them. There’s something very wrong with that." --Taté Walker. Illustration credit: David Huyck, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. 

For me, the numbers in this illustration aren’t the most troubling issue (though they are, indeed, troubling). Looking again at the white kid, they are surrounded by mirrors of all shapes and sizes reflecting an assortment of characters back at them. In the mirrors the child sees themself as an astronaut, a firefighter, a superhero, royalty, young, and old. How great it must be for a child to be able to identify with such a wide array of representations—as an Indigenous person, I wouldn’t know. There’s power in that kind of media recognition. When you’re seen as multifaceted, never mind being seen at all, it’s likely others will see the issues that matter to you, and it’s also likely you’ll see yourself and the potential person you might become—a hero, a professional, or simply happy.

Compare that to the Native child depicted, whose mirror can barely reflect one whole eyeball. This is what happens to Natives beyond age and across all media platforms: We are barely there—or missing. And if not missing, then misrepresented, which is the same as being actively erased. But books aren’t the only platform lacking Native representation. Every media platform from movies to television shows to news organizations has a Native identity problem. We’re depicted as historical props and background pieces, comedic sidekicks, or fantastically supernatural—and rarely more than one-dimensional. There are thousands of unique Indigenous tribes existing across the Americas today and yet most non-Native people think “long, dark hair, headdress, and scantily-clad brown skin” when asked to describe someone Indigenous to these lands. If we’re shown in a contemporary light, you get poverty porn directed by an outside lens.

Because of how few opportunities there are for an Indigenous writer to be published (and published mainstream), and because I know their work to be invaluable toward the betterment of all Indigenous people, I tend to seek out Indigenous content producers. The authors listed (and the hundreds of others on my “favorite” lists) are talented and prolific writers. They are constantly creating, despite unwilling publishers, despite health issues, and despite limited access to sought-after MFA programs. Smith is one of my favorites because many of her books are for audiences my daughter’s age and younger; that’s important for the reasons made clear from the graphic described above. Kurisato teaches me something—usually about myself—every time I read something new from her; I am very inspired by the words she puts out into the world and being inspired is important to a content creator like me. Janis is a relative of mine from South Dakota and has refused let an inaccessible publishing industry dissuade her from self-publishing several epic fantasy series.

You work across so many formats: writing, photography, video, design, speaking. How has leveraging a variety of media helped you express yourself and spread your message?

Writing had always been a strength and in college someone told me I could get paid to write for newspapers looking specifically for Indigenous writers. So my undergrad was spent studying journalism in a growing digital landscape.

In a Native journalism training program, we were told newsrooms needed our tribal perspectives to not only ensure fairness and balance, but also to push for Native representation beyond the crime beat and beyond the powwow picture. The idea that I could help guide change regarding the perception of Native people (among Natives and non-Natives alike) resonated with me.

I’ve been working as a professional journalist for more than 15 years, first as a daily multimedia reporter for several Midwest newspapers, then as a multimedia freelancer for national publications, then as an editor for an international magazine, and now as a multimedia communications professional for a tribal school district. Journalism helped me find a voice that relied on facts, sources, and constitutional legality and ethics, but more importantly helped me discover my passion for storytelling, a word I use very purposefully to connect me to my people’s way of sharing knowledge—with or without written words.

Through journalism I developed a (I hope) healthy urge to remain atop the latest media trends, especially within digital technology and social media—all storytelling tools, of course. In journalism, you learn quickly that the more ways you can tell a story, the better people will hold onto it. Above all else, utilizing new media technology and sources has been the single-best strategy for growing into changing journalism roles, which for me now includes Indigenous activism and advocacy.

Standing Rock and the #NoDAPL movement showcased the power of social and visual media when helmed by Indigenous content producers. It wasn’t the New York Times or Associated Press or Huffington Post breaking the stories out of camp and exposing North Dakota’s state-sanctioned violence against Native people. That people across the globe knew anything was thanks to the many embedded Native journalists and activists who told their truths via tweets, Instagram and Facebook Live.

How does your writing/art inform your on-the-ground activism (like rioting), and vice-versa?

In an underrated tweet from 2014, Teju Cole wrote, “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” I love that sentiment and feel like it best describes what I hope to do with my writing. On my best days, the three are one in the same.

My writing on Indigenous issues often incites bullying and harassment from non-Natives. I call for folks to stop supporting racist Indian mascots and stand with Indigenous people against Big Oil and it never fails that a stranger tells me I’m oppressing them and to kill myself. Even my poems create intense backlash, so I must be doing something right/riot[ous]. I think many Black and brown folks would agree: Regardless of the platform, the demand for justice is often labeled violent and met with vitriol.

The activism and advocacy I accomplish strengthens my writing with relevance and accountability. For me, that’s important. If I can’t testify, I march. If I can’t march, I donate. If I can’t donate, I volunteer. If I can’t volunteer, I promote. Sometimes I do all these things and more, or none of these things. But always I vote. And always I write. The hope is to inspire action of some kind—even if the only person I inspire is myself.

What can readers do to support your work?

Oh, let me count the ways!

Support Native media makers whenever and however you can. Consume our work, yes, but make sure you also compensate us financially. Buy our books, subscribe to our magazines and newspapers, watch our movies, listen to our music, and make sure your local art show has Indigenous representation.

Talk to the leaders within government, education, the arts, health, etc., and ask how Indigenous people are represented at the highest level—demand our seat at the table!

Make sure to buy from legit Native vendors, not just those “inspired by” and wanting to “honor” Natives by appropriating our designs, traditions and spiritualties for profit.

Follow, like and share our content on your social media platforms—not once or twice, but always.

Learn the names of your community’s original Indigenous inhabitants. Acknowledge them as often as you can and understand that you are always on Indigenous land. Support Indigenous resistance and join local movements in your area through volunteer work, financial donations, listening, and voting.

Don’t buy that Indian princess costume, burn that chicken-feather headdress, abolish Columbus Day, retire Indian mascots, divest from banks that support Big Oil interests, and stop violence against Native womxn and Two Spirits.

Be transparent. Recognize that your intentions and the impact you have on others aren’t the same thing. Accept criticism. You will make mistakes—learn, grow, and try again. Whatever you do, do something.

There’s so much more! Not sure what to do or how to help? Ask us how!

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