Sunday, November 29, 2009

PA Arts Sunday - Part Three - Standing Up Against the Giant

--- by Diane E. Benson

[This article first appeared in the American Indian Quarterly's Winter/Spring 2003 edition, published by the University of Nebraska Press. This is the first time the article has been made available to the general Alaska public. It is reprinted here with full consent of the author, as a response to inaccuracies and omissions from an article that appeared in the Saturday edition of the Alaska Dispatch, titled Censored on Campus?. Some formatting changes and HTML link additions have been made by PA]

Standing Up Against the Giant

The Anchorage Daily News' top three headlines on the front page on December 12, 2000, read "High Court Ruling Awaited" (regarding the Florida recount in Bush vs. Gore), followed by "Top School Post Goes to Comeau," and, finally, centered lower on the page, in equally large font, "Student Attacks Professor's Poem." The subtitle read, "'Indian Girls' described as racist, insulting." Two primary photos on the front page garnered attention, the larger being that of Elvis impersonators shoveling snow for a hockey game promotion. The other photo was the beleaguered look of a challenged local university professor postured amongst her books.

Somehow, what seemed like a rather normal school semester and typical enough poetry class ended with a tidal wave of divisive controversy and inflamed a community already teetering from volatile race relations. I was central to the controversy. I was the student.

We Tlingits have a story about the Cannibal Giant who at one time preyed on the people when they were weakened. The Cannibal Giant was once a woman but through evil became a monster. Even when she was seemingly destroyed by fire, the flame transformed her carnivorous essence from cannibal to mosquito, and thus she continues to plague the people to this day. Some say it is a metaphor for those things that would devour our sanity or our spirit. A University of Alaska classroom became another breeding ground of racial tension, an ostensible haven to a literary cannibal that feeds on the weakness of racial hatred. Like the young hunter, upon shoving the cannibal into the fire in an attempt to save the people, I watched with dismay the spread of stirring lies--the mosquitoes we must swat in futile swings of reason.

I had the audacity to defend my tribal clan through e-mail by directing the attention of family and friends to a published poem I found particularly insulting if not libelous. Much to my surprise, a reporter from the Anchorage Daily News (ADN) contacted me two days after I sent the email. Therein began the very public battle I would have for a year with the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA) and with my Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts (CWLA) poetry professor. The entire experience would cause me to postpone my long sought after master of fine arts (MFA) degree and the complete and painful alienation from my classmates. In addition would follow a public protest on campus; grade retaliation (prompting further disputes); a flurry of newspaper articles, endless letters to the editor, online hate mail, and threats; spurious charges by national, extreme right-wing, anti-multicultural media; a futile human rights grievance; and, ultimately, not only a complete change of my thesis committee but an agonizing self-evaluation and question of self-worth.

I shall detail some highlights of the experience and comment about its impact and what I learned from it. As I wrote at the end of my MFA thesis, entitled "Witness to the Stolen":

For many of us artists, art is not for art's sake. I have learned instead that I must be a thoughtful and responsible writer always speaking to truth to create my art. I have learned in spite of institutional adversity and all that took place in my apprenticeship and, due to the support of my own people, I am a better poet and better human being for it. My responsibility, as a writer, as a poet, as a human being, is to find the speech that will speak the truth and will uplift a nation. My nation. To write for any other reason is, for me, an empty choice.

It is in this spirit that I tell this story now.


The setting of the "Indian Girls" drama was primarily the university, where the visibility of Native life at the UAA College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is conspicuously minimal, discounting the cursory annual Native cultural and diversity celebration allowed once a year on campus. Although many Native students quietly attend the university, the lack of Native students in the fine arts, the lack of Native professors, and the absence of Native-influenced architecture, including any permanent Native art displays, are indicators of the embodiment of inequalities in UAA academia.

The university does not reflect the reality of the demographics. Alaska Natives, the largest minority group, conservatively make up 16 percent of the state's population. While serving on the Alaska Native Student Services Advisory Committee, I learned that Natives make up less than 5 percent of the total workforce employed at the university, and this has been the case for thirty years. When the controversy broke in December 2000, only two Alaska Natives were staff professors, and neither of these well-educated professors had made tenure. Women, on the other hand, jumped from a handful of professors in the early 1980s to making up the majority of those employed in full-time positions at the university. Not surprisingly, only one of these women was Alaska Native. It is dumbfounding to consider the effort it must take to exclude a Native population with a high number of master and doctorate graduates applying to teach each year. It is incomprehensible why such disparities exist in a state where successful Native-corporation contributions, and other monies earmarked for Native education and research, heavily supplement the university's economic foundation.

Probably the most insidious and immeasurable evidence of inequity is the level of fear harbored by all students and staff alike and the unspoken but clear messages that deter them from complaining. For example, the university clearly will not tolerate sexual harassment, and every catalogue specifies how to file any complaint of discrimination, based on gender or disability, to the Affirmative Action Office on campus. When I called for help, however, I was passed from office to office only to learn that no defined procedure for grievances involving racism complaints existed. Furthermore, the Office of Civil Rights contact address provided in the UAA fall 2000 catalogue was old and incorrect. The listed Seattle office address changed eleven years ago! Apparently, Native students and other students of color were not only expected to remain invisible, but their complaints of racism were to remain silent and unheard.

There were other factors contributing to my own sense of alienation that I tried to ignore, as I merely wanted to get my degree. In the years with CWLA, I was never encouraged to submit to anything but Native American publications, such as the "special" Native writers edition of the Alaska Quarterly Review (Spatz, Partnow, and Breinig 1999). (I must add, this is a wonderful text.) I was discouraged outright by one professor from submitting to non-Native publications, and as with another Native student in the CWtA poetry program, from applying for a teaching assistantship. This unexplained treatment was dispiriting. The other Native student switched programs, and like my pursuit of a bachelor of arts degree in theatre, I became the only Indigenous person in my classrooms throughout my creative writing apprenticeship.

Unlike my MFA program, the university's theatre department did not limit me to Native projects, a good thing since there generally were not any. While pursuing my bachelor of arts degree, I was, for the most part, provided the same opportunities as the other theatre students, with only occasional references to my race, that is, being called "Pocahontas" by a professor, being told to lose the "accent," and often considered "too exotic" for some acting roles.

Nevertheless, without overly compromising my own identity, I enjoyed the intense discipline of the field and the expectation of excellence. As a result, I developed a confidence and style evident in my many years of diverse theatre employment--having been hired by Native and non-Native theatres alike as an actor, playwright, director, and educator. I prefer to work with Native theatre; I am not limited to Native theatre. Therein is the fundamental difference between my theatre apprenticeship experience and my MFA apprenticeship.


The CWLA 690 Form and Theory graduate poetry workshop in the fall of 2000 contained fifteen students, all, with the exception of myself, easily identified as white. Two were attorneys, over half were women, and probably four were actual MFA poetry majors. A few students came from other states, and the rest were Alaska residents. A seemingly polite class, we were expected to share opinions and analysis of the work studied, and that is what we did.

The course was entitled "'Left Out': Four 20th Century Poets." The poets were Thomas McGrath, Eavan Boland, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Edna St. Vincent Millay (their works include Baca 1977, 1986, 1992, 1999, 2001; Boland 1995; and DesPres and DesPres 1992). "Left" implied that these poets leaned politically "left" or were otherwise separated from the mainstream and as a result of their boldness were somehow denied their just dues. I enjoyed all the poets, and the works of Jimmy Santiago Baca particularly resonated with me. Besides taking regular quizzes and doing one oral presentation, we were to write "response papers" about each poet. I received As on all papers. When I wrote my initial response on Baca, however, something I had chosen to write to Baca directly, my paper was rejected. The note written on the ungraded paper read:

Diane, I'm sure you realize that although you have every right to write to this or any other poet, this letter misrepresents my work and my current CWLA 690 class. I find it offensive. I think other students would as well, and perhaps should be asked. Do you expect to make me put a grade on this? It seems to me that you used my obligation to this assignment not to do the work but to disrespect me.

I was stunned. What had I done? Baca's poems had torn away scabs of horrible past wounds, and I was confronted with my own demons--demons that dared me to recall a horrific rape and pursuit by a gunned white man in my youth. I had chosen to write to Baca in daring truth about it. I knew he would hear the words I dared not speak. It seemed fitting. The response papers had no set criteria, and others' response papers had demonstrated such. So I told Baca in an eight-page paper about how his work provoked me, about how I needed to write, and about how I could relate to some of his terrible experiences and his subsequent growth in spite of them. But it was a tiny section of the paper that seemed likely to have set the fire:

I am to write a paper, a "response" paper as we do on each of the four poets. But in this case, I could not write. I could put nothing to paper. For a week tears instead of words came. I tried to pull myself up by my mature and controlled academic fingers out of this darkness but to no avail. Part of this comes from an overload of sitting in an all "Anglo" classroom at an institution that has a shameful record of alienating Alaska Native students. Part of this is painfully finding myself a hard fought for voice become curiously voiceless, and listening mute as an alien in my own land to ethnocentric opinions of others who would assume to know your intent. In class "discussions" of glass ceiling notions of economic class, of writing from poverty, of "prison writings" lascivious peeks at your work through feminist lens', questions of whether you are "self-realized" or "matured" and other such terms that seem to me blank and empty words.

I continued this outpouring of torment and frustration:

No matter how I try to fight it, this poetry class eats at my Poetic insides latching on to my senses like poisonous jellyfish burning my skin. The only way to get away is to get out of the water.

If it wasn't for reading your writing, your most passionate embrace of life, survival and community, I would succumb to the weight of these humped over shoulders labored by grief and inadequacy. Your words bring my head up. I know in the deepest dark of my heart I am a poet.

These words, instead of being discussed productively in class, were used to foster dissention. This was particularly unfortunate since after an in-class discussion of a classmate's paper about race (a subject that reading Baca easily incites), I had apologized to the class ifI had offended them in any way and expressed my enthusiasm for openness. Writers face truth, I figured. I was ready for it. I was seeing an opportunity from this as a pathway to a meaningful dialogue. The professor saw and chose another path.

The last three weeks of the semester became unbearable--the professor focusing more and more on issues of "identity politics" (as she called it) and race and Marxism theory rather than poetics. Body language, rolling eyes, and ignored questions made it clear to me and the one student who attempted to speak up for me that we were outsiders. We had crossed a line.

Treatment in the classroom became a subject of contention when the article broke in the Anchorage Daily News. Fellow students claimed that tensions had been brewing between the professor and me. This was true but not something easily situated. I was as baffled as they were as to why. Maybe they had a better idea about it. I cannot help but wonder about the students - what it would have been to be a white student in that classroom, or worse, a student with a little blood of color and unidentified as such. Why could they say nothing in class? Why could they (let alone the professor) not confront me, speak to me themselves about their thoughts or their concerns? What was it with them? Did fear rule the day? Did fear of one's grade, one's status, one's future, one's income, one's social pressure, one's own demons, or one's prejudice, perhaps, play a part? How could seemingly friendly colleagues turn in unison, like a pack of wolves spotting prey, on a fellow classmate? I think fear came to play a part in its shape-changing ways, and, after all, how could it not? Look what happened to me for speaking up about a poem.


As a published poet and speaker, I do readings and public speaking from time to time and usually open with a distinct introduction in Tlingit and English:

Lxeis' yu xat duwasa'akw.
Lxeis' is my [Tlingit] name.
Diane E. Benson yu xat duwasa'akw.
Diane E. Benson is my name. Yell Naax xat sitee.
I am from Raven people. T'akdeintaan iya xat.
I am T'akdeintaan (Sea Tern clan) Ax hiddi Tax' Hit.
I come from the Snail House.

I come from the Snail House. My Tlingit name comes from Hoonah. Xunah Kwaan means "Tribe of People from the Direction of the Northwind." It is from this place that the Tax' Hit, Snail House, originates. There are not that many of us who come from this house. The Snail crest for Tlingits is much like a clan crest is to the Fraziers or the McQueens of Scotland. It is not only part of one's identity; it is also the dan's intellectual property. There are over two hundred house crests under the Tlingit Raven or Eagle moiety. Many Tlingits do not even know of the Snail House.

It is amazing that the author of "Indian Girls" a self-identified Irish descendent raised in Lynn, Massachusetts, and a recent immigrant to Alaska, chose this specific house crest out of all the house crests to speak about chiefs molesting the young. It is indeed remarkable that she did not discuss her choice of crest with the only Native student in the poetry program--a Tlingit who came from the Tax' Hit, the Snail House.

The use of my tribal house crest was my initial and personal complaint about the poem. It was on December 5, one week away from the last class for the semester and seven days before the front-page story ran, that I was shown the poem "Indian Girls" published in the winter 2000 issue of Ice-Floe, a publication founded by a former classmate, Shannon Gramse. The poem speaks of Native "girls" fleeing Native villages to get away to the city, away from the sexual abuse of their villages only to "swagger out of the / Avenue Bar at midnight with / some tonight's Honey?'

It describes Native women as wearing:

cowboy boots worn to
the cardboard heels
and their hair wants

The second stanza named my clan:

Many clans, tribes
the Snail, the Raven
many complexions, the thick
black hair. They learn
they are not my sisters.

I read the poem and thought of my clan sisters beautiful, dignified.

And I cried.

The Snail House mentioned in the poem, the suggestions that Native chiefs molest and that Native girls are mere victims, all prompted angry letters to the university leadership from my family and others, who felt directly insulted. My oldest brother's wife wrote a letter to the university emphatically stating, "My husband is no molester!"

One of my normally quiet brothers was so hurt by the words of the poem that he wrote the Anchorage Daily News on December 15, 2000, conveying the love, dignity, and decency of the men in our family in contrast to the "slanderous poem" adding, "I resent 'Indian Girls' not so much because it maligns my Tlingit forefathers but because McCarriston is using my 'sisters' as a vehicle to launch a fresh war on men."

James Brouillette, a member of the Thunderbird Clan and an officer in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and University of Alaska graduate, wrote that the university had "failed" and that he questioned the value of sending a Native student there, saying “I, at this time, would have a real hard time doing so, just because of this one issue."

The Chickaloon village chief showed up at the protest at the university to make it clear to the press that "[chiefs] are not molesters." He has since gone on to publicly promote positive images of tribal men. At a 2001 Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood Presidents Meeting in Kake, Alaska, distinguished Tlingit women leaders personally felt the insult and literally cried when they read the poem.

The reality of the social climate in which this poem appeared deserves mention.

As a Native community, we were reeling with grief over the fifth (unsolved) murder of a Native woman in the area when the poem hit the bookstands. Furthermore, our town managed to catch national television attention during the controversy due to white boys from the high school in my neighborhood videotaping themselves while randomly attacking Natives on the street by shooting them with a paintball gun. Tensions were understandably high since the only one who went to jail in the ensuing months was one of the paintball victims! The city was in a panic, and the mayor's office organized a statewide, televised panel discussion on racism. The police chief, myself, School Superintendent Comeau, and other public figures served as panelists. After the televised forum the attendee's found the parking lot littered with flyers. I pulled one off my car that read, amongst other things, "no multi-racial society is a healthy society." This was courtesy of a prominent hate group in America.

"Indian Girls" exploits the victimization of Indian women and positions Indian women as merely victims of their own nations. Furthermore, the poem draws focus to the Native villages as breeding grounds for sexual abuse rather than speaking to the epidemically high incidents of violence against Native women and men in urban areas. Unlike the victims in the poem, I did not escape to town from the village to get away from sexual abuse. In my life experience, I was abused when I came to the city, not the other way around. Like so many of my generation, I was abused when I was taken from my family and placed in unmonitored foster care. This is not to say there is not a problem with sexual abuse in rural Alaska. There is. But sexual abuse in Alaskan tribes is not "preserved as the oldest charter."

Oyate, a Native American literary organization evaluating education materials out of Berkeley, California, pointedly identified the racism they saw in "Indian Girls." In a three-page letter submitted February 15, to the university's chancellor, the College of Arts and Sciences dean, Native Student Services, and even to Northern Light (the UAA student newspaper) they wrote:

This poem is outrageous, revolting, scandalous, insulting and racist, and it was irresponsible for Ice-Floe to publish it. Had professor McCarriston written a poem called "Irish Girls," used her own name instead of Snail House and Raven Clan, and portrayed Irish women-as a group--as dirty, submissive, helpless victims of a sexual abuse that is traditional in Irish families, we doubt that this poem would ever have seen the light of day. This is not, as [the professor] maintains, an issue of free speech. It is an issue of unreconstituted racism.

Northern Light shared none of the comments from Oyate in the newspaper, however, even though it published lengthy articles about the poem, and the protesting, "drum-beating" Natives produced a full spread about the founder of the journal in which the poem appeared, and wrote hearsay and other classmates' feelings about my so-called disruptive classroom behavior. I was not interviewed. Their primary focus was whether the professor had the right to write the poem.


Perhaps to the dismay of the educational institution, I was not willing to be an Indian girl silenced by a poem or by a classroom. This yearlong experience with protecting myself from ridicule for speaking up for myself as a living Native woman, not willing to be objectified even by my professors, has been revealing. Native women speaking against "Indian Girls" never got to enter the debate about ideas or even free speech because neither the author of the poem, nor the university, nor the media, pursued honest dialogue with them. One would be hard pressed to find in the many published articles on the issue where the media allowed me to present my side of the story, for example. This treatment led me to conclude that true free speech is in jeopardy, if my experience is any indication, and that "academic freedom" is too often a buzz phrase meaning freedom for ladder-climbing bigots only.

The pandering to white paranoia that took place by my opponents in this issue about the haves and the have-nots, the distribution of goods in America--the fear that Natives, due to corporations or bingo, might have more--is at the least unsettling, and truly destructive. Racism, I believe, is not only an act of power but also an act of fear. Much of the bantering that took place over the poem was about fear over who had more.

Disturbing as it was, the literary academic community and the good people of the community were complacent and silent about the continual outcry. The more vocal easily dismissed the literary malpractice as Natives being oversensitive to hard "truths" I was appalled by not only my professor's carelessness but also the personal violations, the lack of ethics, and the invasion of privacy. This trusted mentor even used confidences I shared with her to flesh out her poem.

I agonized over the troubling sociopolitical implications involving abuse of knowledge and power within the assumed safety of the creative writing apprenticeship. In the end, a vicious and lengthy university administrative hearing, supposedly to settle my grade dispute complaint (the only grievance that could be filed), only spurred more character scrutiny and made-for-television drama. There were no cameras, however, and unlike the professor, I had no lawyer and was allowed no witnesses outside of fellow students. Students, with their own grades on the line, begrudgingly provided meager testimony to the "discomfort" I supposedly caused them in the classroom. It was this subjective qualification of class participation that dictated for the committee a finding in the professor's favor. Eleven hours worth of testimony by witnesses selected by the professor and her heavily armed counsel (including a high-profile constitutional rights lawyer and a union representative) resulted in this important finding. I was a "disruptive" student.

These things all contributed to my rationale for filing a complaint with the rather impotent federal Office of Civil Rights. They could make no findings of racism.

Meanwhile the local media, in tune with the university, did not find value in extending me the same opportunity provided the professor to present a full "opinion" in the Anchorage Daily News. Later, I was featured in a Life Section special on the condition that I not discuss the controversy. You take what you can get sometimes. It is not unusual, however, for Natives to be excluded from the discussion if not the literary canon. Greg Young-Ing, a Canadian Cree and manager of one of the few Native publishing companies in the world, Theytus Books, relevantly explains the dichotomy:

In some regards, this has been more damaging than marginalization in other sectors because it has been the effect of silencing the Aboriginal Voice paving the way for a rash of non-Aboriginal writers to profit from the creation of a body of literature focusing on Aboriginal peoples that is based on ethnocentric, racist and largely incorrect presumptions. This has led to a situation where incorrect images, ridiculous stereotypes and highly problematic academic paradigms have created perceptions of Aboriginal peoples that are entirely based outside any reality or truth. (Armstrong 1993, 181)

In my experience with the university system, I have come to see that the onus is on us, the Other, to reform. It is expected that we shall change our language, our thinking, and our behavior to suit the mainstream, to suit the classroom. It seems it is never on the academy, the faculty, the institution, or colonial Euroamerica in general to learn about other cultures, beliefs, or ideas in order to change. Even so, I would stand up again, and again, in the face of such giants who would trample on the dignity of a people. My most important lesson was finding that when speaking for greater good, we do not stand alone.

A letter from the Alaska Native Sisterhood, Camp 87, dated May 21, 2001, stated:

We of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 87 are writing this letter in unanimous support of a fellow sister, Diane E. Benson member of Camp 87 Anchorage, and former member of Camp 4 Sitka. We would like it to be known that we are stating this support to dispute the claim that Benson "is not supported by her own people."

We hereby publicly, spiritually and politically support Diane E. Benson ... and support Benson's effort to protect her civil rights. No person should be denied equal, fair and just treatment or subjected to harassment, retaliation, or accusation for speaking their truth. We write this in the spirit of our history as ANS and ANB fighting for dignity and equality for Tlingits and all Native people.

Furthermore, we support and share in Diane E. Benson's concerns regarding the insult to the Snail House and the harmful misrepresentations of Native people through the poem, "Indian Girls" by Professor McCarriston. As we strongly defend the rights under the Constitution of the United States of America, we do not advocate censorship of the poem, or censorship in any form but neither do we support harmful ignorance and intolerance.

I believe, no matter how difficult, we must speak to the truth of experience, as truth is a fundamental clement of writing and of intellectual growth. Furthermore, if any group of people is effectively driven out of the classroom or any room and separated due to hate, intolerance, or objectification, we are eroding voice and thereby eroding the genres of literature and the foundations of society and national history that rely on the stories of truth and experience. We all lose.


Armstrong, Jeannette, ed. 1993. Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature. Penticton BC: Theytus Books.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. 1977. Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems. 5th ed. New York: New Directions.
--. 1986. Martin & Meditations on the South Valley. 8th ed. New York: New Directions.
--. 1992. Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books.
--. 1999. Set This Book on Fire! Mena AR: Cedar Hill Publications.
--. 2001. A Place to Stand. New York: Grove Press.
Boland, Eavan. 1995. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
DesPres, Reginald Gibbons, and Terence DesPres, eds. 1992. Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poems. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Spatz, Ron, Patricia Partnow, and Jeane Breinig, ed. 1999. Alaska Quarterly Review: Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers and Orators. Anchorage: University of Alaska.
COPYRIGHT 2003 University of Nebraska Press

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