Genocide of the Mind

New Native American Writing


By MariJo Moore

Foreword by Vine Deloria

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After five centuries of Eurocentrism, many people have little idea that Native American tribes still exist, or which traditions belong to what tribes. However over the past decade there has been a rising movement to accurately describe Native cultures and histories. In particular, people have begun to explore the experience of urban Indians — individuals who live in two worlds struggling to preserve traditional Native values within the context of an ever-changing modern society. In Genocide of the Mind, the experience and determination of these people is recorded in a revealing and compelling collection of essays that brings the Native American experience into the twenty-first century. Contributors include: Paula Gunn Allen, Simon Ortiz, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Maurice Kenny, as well as emerging writers from different Indian nations.




The parts of Indian cultures that have been lost, and those we are constantly losing, are equally as valuable as the land that was taken. Those of us who choose to live in two worlds are doing what we can to keep the fires of our ancestral knowledge burning. Though a difficult task, we will not let these fires be extinguished. We often look to traditional teachings in order to make sense of a world that is seemingly going off center. Today, American Indian blood courses through the veins of many races, many cultures, and in many unknown places, yet we remind ourselves to remember who we are, where we come from, and rely heavily on spiritual advice to guide us on our paths. We hold fast to what we know, try to teach our children to respect and understand ancestral values, only to constantly realize that so much of what it means to be American Indian has been lost or misrepresented, and we are often misunderstood. Still we go forward, adding newfound embers now and then to the olden fires that have existed since time immemorial. Determined to honor those who have gone before, realizing the trivializations they endured, we ardently face the daily trials required to live in two worlds: the traditional and the modern.


Kathryn Lucci-Cooper

Sometimes at night when I cannot push aside my thoughts and find my way to sleep, I revisit my grandmother Gladys’s house. I walk through each of the rooms to recount the placement of her furniture, the crocheted doilies on the back of the couch, the rocking chair, the keepsakes in her tiny glass cabinet. I see her standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and singing, “Jesus Loves Me.” It is the song that she would sing to us each morning as she pulled away our warm quilts and fed us bowls of rice with honey and melted butter. My grandmother was a devout member of the Church of God. My grandmother was Cherokee.

It is during these walks among the ancestral spirits of my family that I try to make sense of my mixed heritage. This gathering of women, who sang gospel hymns and listened to the lulling sounds of mountain music, were also the women who sought college educations for their daughters. They did this with the same determination that allowed them to breathe forth a living from the apple trees and cornstalks growing in the midst of southern Appalachia’s coalfields. These aunties and grandmothers were also the keepers of my Cherokee heritage.

The women in my family were stubborn, high-minded oral historians. They kept each of us within the circle even as they sang hymns and listened intently to sermons by breathless preachers pounding fists upon Christian pulpits. They attended these Sunday gatherings wearing hand-covered smiles, homemade dresses, and fashionable hats. And at the close of each service they would walk the mountain paths to homes where sacred fires were kept burning, ceremonial boogers danced, and Cherokee Little People performed mischievous deeds among backyard strawberry patches. Growing up as a child, it was a reasonable coalescing of Christian principle woven within the warp and weft of Cherokee storytelling and handed down as a basket of mountain tradition. We never knew anything was different about us. We thought all people were pretty much the same, just a mixture of cultural identities.

It was not until I left this circle of sacred fires that I would realize just how personally defining those mountain paths would become for me. In 1972 I boarded a bus bound for the university and became an urban Indian. Like so many others, I would never again be laced to the cradleboard of traditional innocence or wrapped in the green quilt claiming of those hollows. Instead, I found myself competing in a world of people who could not understand the language of my thoughts. A people controlled by material wealth and enslaved by issues of time. I was compelled to conform or fail. It was my first real failure.

Becoming an urban Indian woman meant movement from a traditional circle of elder women who easily defined themselves, into a new circle of women who seemed not to have a definitive place within their community. It also meant a diminishment of self so as to become indistinct from those who were participating in this modern academic environment.

So What Would Be the Reality of This Cultural Bargain for Me?

There were two life-altering realizations that became painfully evident those early years away at college. The first one was that I was not tall. My folks had always told me how very tall I was. The women of my family were all only about four feet eleven. My sisters, all three of them, hovered within the same range of stature. I, on the other hand, was a full five feet two inches in height. I was not aware of my less than impressive size until I found myself walking on campus surrounded by women who averaged five feet five inches. I was not tall!

The second rescission occurred in an anthropological methods course. I was taken from class by a favorite professor who introduced me to a Lakota, Greek Orthodox priest. He was a confident man who had been involved in the recent takeover of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. My mentor had merely wanted me to meet what he thought would be a fellow Indian. What happened was the first of what would be many instances in my life where I would be made painfully aware of the conflict between reservation-born and nonreservation Indians. This priest’s only response to our introduction was a flat dismissal: “I mean, really, is everyone around here a Cherokee?”

I didn’t know how to react to this first blow to my cultural identity. I had come from a home where a person’s spoken word was not lightly challenged, an Indian home, where respect for all people was gifted to the young by those who were older and understood the circular nature of this gift. Yet, there I stood, in that long second-floor hallway, surrounded by classrooms and feeling very small for my full five feet two inches of height. I wasn’t aware a reservation could define you. I had been taught tradition . . . ancestry . . . elders determined tribal identity.

“Just say a little prayer for him, and go on” was my grandmother’s response some weeks later when I recounted for her the details of this valued suffering. It was as though there were no real question before her. I remember the dark, sweet-smelling mixture of apple butter cooking on the open fire seemed to command more of her attention than my storytelling. How could she just wave away this incident without any emotion?

My mother was also of little help. After all, she had married my father, a Sicilian, and had thrown herself into his culture. She would only occasionally shift direction when situations surrounding her immediate family made any escape impossible. She could pass for Sicilian and often did among my father’s circle of friends. She had her own reasons for doing so. She had her own story.

I feel sure that being Cherokee in the 1920s and '30s was not easy for my mother. She faced not only the difficulties of being thought of as poor in a working-class community, but it was also a coal mining region populated, for the most part, by immigrants. A community who identified themselves proudly as a people who were “first generation this country,” while ironically my mother’s people saw themselves as First Nations people. My mother fought prejudice from all sides. She found herself needing to make a trade. She chose my father’s way.

I did not want to find myself negotiating a similar trade within my own life. I embraced the teachings of my grandmothers. I was determined not to make an either/or choice. Despite my obvious confusion, I was, however, expected to complete college.

I never did. Four years later, and twelve credit hours short of my degree in anthropology/labor studies, my husband and I gave birth to our first son and I became a full-time mom.

What Was My Community?

Moving with my husband to the city, first San Diego and then Atlanta, would bring with it a dramatic shift from the life I had been taught to live and the actualization of everyday life in yet another new urban community. There was no night sky . . . no way to acknowledge the ancestral fires. There were no evening songs from the insects . . . no cicada to announce the coming of the green corn. There was no fresh soil . . . no water beetle to bring forth the soft mud. There were no flowing rivers . . . no water to go to. There was in fact no real “place” for me to connect.

I threw myself into political activism. My father, a coal miner, was a fierce labor supporter. Growing up, our household was filled with the stories of violent labor struggles and heroes who often lost their lives while striving to provide safer working conditions in the local coalfields. These stories and the grassroots labor movement among the migrant workers of the United Farm Workers union gave me a sense of home while living in California. Not just by way of the labor struggle itself but also by being close to individuals who seemed as out of place in their present circumstances as I did in mine. Political activism became my new religion—first, among the Socialists of my college campus, then among the Communists, and finally among the anarcho-syndicalists. My prayer offerings became picket signs; political chants and slogans were my prayer songs. My two oldest sons began elementary school before they were allowed even to know the taste of grapes.

But Where Had I Placed (or Misplaced) My Remembering?

My mother would often tell me, “I’ve put all my strawberries in your basket.” I look back now upon this declaration from a renewed cultural perspective. It is an awareness made distinct through the claiming power of traditional story. Over the years, traditional storytelling has served as secret witness to my ancestral identity.

Those of us who are Indian understand that it is the telling of stories, our very breath, that brings forth tribal identity and defines purpose. Our oral tradition, which is both ceremonially sacred and ritualized through the use of language, is also living thought. The elder women of my family nourished themselves through the telling and retelling of stories. Their stories brought them merciful shelter through the spoken transformation of time and place.

The question of how to adapt to the present dominant culture while maintaining tribal values is a five-hundred-year-old conflict among First Nations peoples. When my mother said that she had put all of her strawberries into my basket, she was in effect referring to this conflict.

In the traditional Cherokee story of the origin of strawberries, an angry wife leaves her husband and home after a quarrel. The Sun, having pity for what has happened, decides to place offerings of many different fruits along the path before her. It is not until she is presented with a patch of strawberries that she stops to eat. Once nourished by these small offerings of reconciliation, the memories of home were brought back to her. As she sat among the strawberries, her face turned to the west, these memories were called forth. This “call” to home grew stronger with the passage of time. Soon she felt compelled to begin her journey back. The story ends when her grieving husband meets her kindly along the path of her return.

Like the angry wife of this story, my mother encouraged me to search for an understanding of what other worlds had to offer. But in doing so she was also reminding me to give honor to that basket of reconciliation and to always carry it with me as a means of finding my way home. She knew the longer I waited with my face turned to the west, the stronger the remembering would become for me as well. However, I was not always met “kindly” upon the path of my return.

The struggle to resolve the “quarrels” of urban demands and institutionalized education brought forth and preserved the gifts of our tradition. The women in my family overcame these urban demands through the telling and retelling of stories. These stories were not just our oral history. They were, rather, a way of establishing a connectedness between the universe and ourselves. My ancestors may have been forced to move from the mountains of western North Carolina a century earlier, but within their baskets of meager belongings my grandmothers carried with them the traditional fruit of their reconciliation. It was the fruitful offerings of their stories.

Who Are My Elders?

The grandmothers within my family held on to what they knew to be a sacred calling. My mother answered this call as best she could while tending to the needs of her children. She had responded to her cultural challenges in her own individual way, as did the women who had come before her. Each of them was forced to reconcile the rapid changes of their modern lives while preserving the sacred stories that defined where they had been. All of these brave women shielded the truth of our family behind those hand-covered smiles, and oftentimes tucked up under those fashionable hats, and always just beneath those spoken “amens” at the Church of God.

My great-grandmother Bertha suffered from tuberculosis. It was a disease that plagued several members of our family. Grandma was bedridden throughout most of my childhood. The local county Department of Health warned my parents to keep us away from her or they would be forced to confine her to a state hospital, a sanatorium. This threat sent my mother and Grandmother Gladys into a fearful panic. Any time our family attracted the attention of someone from a state agency, we were fearful. But no matter how severe the scolding, my sisters and I would nevertheless sneak into Grandma’s bedroom, where we would sit for hours, listening to the telling and retelling of our creation stories.

It was by way of my great-grandmother’s telling that I would learn the paths of escape that our ancestors took along the New River from western North Carolina through Virginia during the 1838 Removal. It was there that we learned of our Overhill Cherokee cousins who aided our escape by warning us of the troubled coming of this displacement. And it was there, beside the bed of this frail woman, that we would first learn our story of the Fire. The Fire became for us girls the way we would forever define home.

My great-grandmother gave to us our place in the world. We were not separate from the mountains or the New River. The valley itself was sacred. The Fire that passed from hand to hand was our way of staying connected to this sacred place. Each generation within our family had carried the Fire with them. The burning embers were placed within a small black pot, carefully tended, and brought to each home as they traveled during those many years of movement. We learned that our family was forced to move through the mountains year after year until they were allowed to settle almost a century later in the deep valleys along the New River in southern West Virginia. It was the Fire that kept us connected to the start of this journey, moving with us from western North Carolina and flowing northward as the New River does, in a direction peculiar to the flow of other rivers. This Fire is our living relative; just as the River and this Story are our living relatives.

These relations—the Mountains, the Rivers, the Fire, the Stories—are the center of our identity. They are also my community. The women of my family were aware of their importance. They cared for them throughout their lives. They understood the movement for our family was not yet over. They also understood the importance of defining the true community of our kinship.

Moving to North Carolina ten years ago felt like the apogee of my own circling migration. In fact, it was the very antithesis of this thought. The move for me would be a final return home. In 1999 my sisters and I with all our children in tow revisited the paths of our family’s forced migration. This journey took us through the mountain hollows of western North Carolina, along the New River, the Gauley River, and finally into the Kanawaha River valley. We gathered stones from the waters of these three great rivers as we breathed new life into the traditions of our family and spilled forth our stories to yet another generation. My grandparents may have been pushed out of the land that gave birth to them, but they never lost sight of the water or the fire that brought life to them.

My grandmother and great-grandmother died within a year of each other. I was living away from home, and even now their deaths don’t seem real to me. I never moved back to the mountains. Faced with the realities of today’s economics, I have continued to live within an urban environment. This compromise allows my husband and me to provide for our four sons. Although the challenges that my children and I face today are seemingly more complex than those our ancestors faced, they are in fact not so very different after all. It is the same reconciliation of traditional self-identity. It is the same call to remembrance. It is the same need to ensure that the future generations are given the gifts so carefully guarded by those who came before us. It is the same care that must be given to those burning embers that will in the future be passed from breath to hand and ignite the Fire that will then be carried home.


Mary Black Bonnet

I live in two worlds.

I was born an American Indian but removed from my birth mother when I was eighteen months old and placed in a non-Native home, where I was raised within an entirely different culture. I don’t remember my childhood before the adoption, but there were signs that I was feeling out of place. I was slow at learning to walk and talk, and for a while my adoptive parents thought I was mentally impaired or had fetal alcohol syndrome. I didn’t. I know now, as an adult, that I was suffering from severe adjustment issues. Gone were all the relatives’ faces I had known, gone were all the people who had carried me around, cuddled with me, put up, however annoyed, with my crying. Gone were the faces of my two sisters and three brothers, though my second oldest sister would come to live with me later. I can say with most certainty, I was miserable. I didn’t want to be in that new place, however “better” people thought it would be. My adoptive mother has told me repeatedly that the first time she took me into her arms I punched her in the face. I always think to myself, “That is because I must have known the horrible abuse I’d soon be forced to suffer and was getting my licks in early.”

So, I grew up in that life that was “so much better” than the poverty I came from, the “savageness” I had been saved from. But I was miserable, I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. Surrounded by nice material things and people who went to well-paying nine-to-five jobs, I attended the best schools. But I was merely going through the motions of living. I felt like something was missing but didn’t know what. It wasn’t something I could describe or see or taste. It was something I felt, an emptiness that came from the pit of my stomach. Perhaps it was because my adoptive father was horrifically physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive to me, and my mother’s presence seemed nonexistent. Maybe it was because my adoptive father continually told me I didn’t matter, so I felt insignificant in my own universe. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was a feeling that would stay with me for all of my childhood, through my teenage years, and well into adulthood.

I often dreamed of a better place. A fantasy place where there were no human beings other than me and numerous animals. To me that was a perfect life. Nature and animals. I didn’t need contact with human beings, only my creature friends.

As I grew older, thanks to being able to see the actual adoption papers when I was doing a school project, I found the answers to the questions that had riddled my childhood: Who was my birth mother? Where was I born? This was a small treasure I held quietly inside my heart. As horrible as it sounds, it was as if I were a prisoner just waiting for the moment to break out, be free, escape. So, I did. When I turned twenty-four, I took off on a two-week trip to Rosebud, South Dakota.

It was a hot, dusty August day at the Rosebud Fair and powwow when the dust blew me into Auntie’s life. I told the powwow announcer what I was doing there. He made an announcement asking anyone to please come up and give me any information they had regarding my family. I waited anxiously, watching the faces of the women sitting under the arbor. Where was my mother? Was she thrilled to know I was back; had she even come to this powwow? I continued to watch the women, seeing if any jumped up and came running toward the podium. When a male voice caught my attention, I turned to face a tall, lanky man who introduced himself as my uncle. I was extremely disappointed though I didn’t say so. I wanted my birth mom and was hoping it would be she who showed up to greet me.

The man talked of my siblings and how they were spread all over. I asked him where my mother was, and he told me she had died in 1991. I became upset and ran away. I was sitting in my tent, crying and cursing, saying I wanted to leave, nothing else mattered, that all I wanted was my birth mother, and now that she wasn’t here anymore, I didn’t want to be either. My friend who had come with me and was always the voice of reason, told me, “Well, let’s just calm down a minute. You have an uncle, and he said you have family in the area, so don’t you want to find out about them?” I was mad at her for being so rational, but at the same time I realized I’d better go find that man or I might lose contact with my birth family.

I told him I was ashamed about running away, and he said, “No, I’m sorry. I should have handled that better.” We went to a quiet part of the grounds and talked more. We walked over to where my aunt was sitting, and he introduced us. I met my cousins, with whom I made small talk for a while before we went our separate ways. I was tired and sad, and ended up crying myself to sleep, amazed at how happy and sad I could be at the same time.

In the days that followed, Auntie took me around the reservation and showed me where my mother was buried. We had to go from cemetery to cemetery because they were not exactly sure of the burial place. Eventually, we were in this little village called Mosher, where Auntie stopped by a relative’s house to use the phone to call the woman who kept the records for the cemeteries. The man who lived there was my cousin, and he remembered me as a baby when my mom lived right across the road. It felt good to have someone validate my existence. I had been carrying this fear inside that all this was going to disappear, that I really wasn’t who I thought I was and didn’t come from where I thought. Auntie told me she had been told my mom was buried in Okreek—the same town Auntie and Uncle lived in. We went to the cemetery and Auntie pointed out the burial site, as it was an unmarked grave. There were many unmarked graves because people could not afford the cost of headstones, which is why a cemetery keeper needed to be a historian of sorts. Many of my relations were buried there, and my auntie explained who they were. I spent some time sitting beside my mother’s grave and talking to her. I told her about how I had come all the way back to the reservation from Indiana and wanted so much to see her, but as she knew by then, I was in good hands with Auntie and Uncle.

Nights were spent in Auntie’s house, as she told me stories of growing up, of the culture and history of our people, ceremonial dos and don’ts. During the hot days, we sat in her kitchen as she told me of herbs used for medicines and the sacredness of this, as well as other important teachings. The two weeks I spent there went by much too fast, and before I knew it, it was time for me to go. I didn’t want to leave; Auntie and Uncle told me I was welcome to stay with them. But I had unfinished business in Indiana before I could come back to live on the reservation. I told her I’d make a commitment to come back in a year. This was in August 2000, and by May 2001 I’d returned to my auntie’s humble home to stay.

I loved sitting and talking with Auntie: She fascinated me. Living almost as a recluse, she had a morning routine of sitting in her self-assigned chair by the window and watching the birds as she drank her coffee. Or sometimes on Saturday mornings she’d sit in bed and watch that weird painter guy on TV—the one who painted “friendly trees.” I’d climb in bed with her and we’d watch it together.

My auntie has taught me so much. Since meeting her, she’s always been there for me and supported my writing. She tells me how proud she is of me, and how far I could go. Whenever I write something, or one of my writings is published, she always wants to read it. She’s taught me so many things about life and keeping myself grounded, humble, and distanced from all the crap that goes on in a small community. And she has shown me how to deal with all the fake people in the world.

When I first started attending the tribal college, other students were really mean. They stole my backpack, threatened me, and said I thought I was better than they were because of my clothes. I was extremely upset and told Auntie. She said to me, “They are disturbed because you got to get away from all the poverty and have had the opportunities that many of them never had.” The next day I got dressed for school, wearing some old overalls. When I walked from my bedroom and Auntie saw me, she said, “Don’t you dare change the way you dress for them, I won’t allow it. Because if you change the way you dress, eventually you’ll change other things, and pretty soon you won’t be you anymore. You wear what you want and don’t worry about what they say, my girl.” She then explained how she had moved away to California for a while but had eventually come back to the reservation. While away, she had worked in the public schools and worn outfits that were appropriate for her position. So when she returned to the reservation, she continued to dress the same way, nice clothes and all. But people gave her so much crap that she began to dress down. She didn’t want me to give in as she had. I went and changed my clothes, feeling better.


On Sale
Jul 21, 2009
Page Count
352 pages
Bold Type Books

MariJo Moore

About the Author

MariJo Moore (Cherokee) is the author of Crow Quotes, Spirit Voices of Bones, Tree Quotes, Red Woman with Backward Eyes, and other stories. Her work has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times Syndicated Press.

Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) is a respected elder and the author of many books including God is Red, A Native View of Religion, and the bestselling Custer Died for your Sins.

Learn more about this author