Recently, someone did not believe me when I mentioned that locals had been vile toward me or others because we’re Native. They were incredulous that it would happen here. But honestly, whether it’s outright racism, disgust or degradation, it is absolutely still here. It was offensive that I had to defend my statement.
One of the most remarkable things I could recall was when I had to attend a home-buying class. Two people led the way in breaking open one of the most horrifying experiences I’ve witnessed. I was one of only a few Native people in attendance, and to be fair, the educator kept remarking how great the Native loan program was: “Better pull out your family albums. … If you don’t have it already, get your BIA card. … Remember that Cherokee grandma? Better bring that up when signing the papers!”
With every poorly chosen attempt at humor, the people in attendance grew more vocal about their disgust that “the Natives have it so good.” When it was time for the educator to take questions, the people who I knew (and who knew for certain that I was Native) raised their hands, and out fell the statements that made me boil with frustration. “That’s so unfair! Just because they’re Native, they can just show up and get a better deal on a home loan than I can? That’s so wrong. I do what I’m supposed to. I went to school. I got a degree. I worked my butt off to be educated and do what I’m supposed to do as a decent human being, and all they have to do is walk in and be Native and get a better deal?!” Then up shot the hand of the other person, and out fell an even more hideous statement about paying taxes.
The others felt it was their green light to join in. I sat in complete silence, horrified at the Pandora’s Box of ignorance that just busted wide open, officiated by an employee of a housing agency, cheered on by acquaintances and joined in by the group. I lost respect for the humans they exposed themselves to be; and me, sitting in silence knowing that one of the two had previously gloated profusely that the state had forgiven their student loan. Apparently a thankless gesture if a home loan isn’t whittled down.
This was my train of thought on their disgust:
We’re less than 50 percent of the 2 percent Native population, out of the world population. Meaning we’re less than 1 percent of the world population, and at that we’re not even 50 percent of the population in our own homeland! We’re not even 30 percent of the state population — we’re a staggering 15 percent. Not every Native is out there qualifying for this program, looking to buy a $400,000 house — like the ones these two were constantly remarking that they wouldn’t buy one any lower than that price. This is not “free money.” It’s a LOAN. Money given, but at a price that has to be paid back. Generally, people qualify in the program for a home that is less than $300,000, the majority qualify for less than $200,000. So if you’re going to be upset about “what a great deal the Natives are getting,” then please take it — but with the lower income, the ignorant remarks and the other troubles heaped on top of it.
In another instance, someone undermined the efforts of language revitalization of the Tlingit language. “Why? It’s not like anyone speaks it, and it won’t be of any economical use. It’s a waste of money to keep a program going.” My heart broke at that, but I couldn’t quite define why. It kept echoing in my thoughts. Why did that hurt so badly? Then I remembered all of the times when non-Natives discounted my culture, and wrote me off as “not so Native after all” because I didn’t speak Tlingit.
That’s when the history hit me. Our language isn’t commonplace any longer, not because we didn’t care. We weren’t allowed to speak it. Our grandparents and parents were placed in schools where they were shamed and punished for not speaking in English. Our language was, and is, our culture. Lack of language is the product of historical racism and forced assimilation. It is painful at times when you ask people of the generation prior about words and meaning, but they don’t know. Some have admitted that they feel shame for not having learned, and why would you poke a wound like that? They carry those wounds, whether realized or not. It’s not like a language for people from other countries. They have a home they can go back to where there are fluent speakers and many resources to revitalize their connection to the language. Unfortunately, not only was our language solely a spoken one (previously), but there is not a place we can go to in order to learn or reconnect in a daily, colloquial way. Lack of language does not define our level of culture. Rather, it speaks volumes of the success of historical racism and forced assimilation.
Still, to others in this community, racism doesn’t exist. But it does. Why aren’t there any longhouses on the historical registry of homes? Does anyone wonder why I can’t name a Native-owned home on the historical registry?
In recent weeks I’ve heard people boasting about their family’s historical house, and how long their family has been here, and how their family was such a key piece in the history of our town, while completely turning a blind eye to the fact that not only are there not any historically notable Native homes, but there aren’t any historically notable Native families.
Savikko Park, Douglas Harbor, the State Office Building, Centennial Hall: all of those areas were once Native neighborhoods. But clearly, none of them stand there today except a small, dilapidated few near the Andrew Hope building. In a way, my grandfather was lucky. The state-enforced eminent domain forced him off his land where the State Office Building’s parking lot now sits. Even then the writing was on the wall. Non-Native families came in and built their homes right over the properties of Native families, building in such a way that made it difficult for Natives to access their homes, eventually only accessible by alleys. My grandfather’s home even lost the driveway because they built so close. But again, he was lucky to have been offered any sum of money, unlike the people of Douglas Island; they just came home one day and everything was gone. So even though $2,000 was an insulting amount of money for an entire home that had once been nice and valuable with a driveway, at least he knew he was losing his home and had a small sum in exchange.
I spoke with others about their childhood homes. They too had lived in the area, and not everyone was given a sum of money, some were just forced out. Many moved into trailers at the foot of the bridge where the Department of Labor and Fish and Game.
Is that how we ended up where we are now? These people had land, homes, assets ripped from beneath them. An act which today would (and has) sunk an entire economy. You take away real estate of an entire community, erasing the only tangible equity they have, and two generations later wonder why there are so many low-income families from that demographic. Then compound that issue by creating low-income housing that is not ownership available, but rather a rental only, continuing the cycle of diminished equity. Then mock these people for being low-income. “Affordable Housing”, putting an entire population of people on a hamster wheel of always being below the mark.
I could go on, but I’ll let that sit here for now. No, racism doesn’t exist, but neither do longhouses, historical Native homes, our language barely does, and the home loans for Native qualifying families proves that we have it so good.
• Jennifer Quinto is a Juneau resident.