by Riley Hester
Since the beginning of this course, Course Associate and former student of Dr. Heidi R. Lewis, Judy Lynne Fisher, has comforted me as a student new to Feminist and Gender Studies. As we spoke during our first class session on Black and transnational feminisms, I sat quietly in my seat, quickly realizing how naïve I was in my previous thinking about feminist movements and how I had neglected the idea and possibility of counternarratives. I was embarrassed at my ignorance, especially given my positionality as a white woman; yet, I felt compelled to voice my feelings of unfamiliarity to the class.
When I spoke, Fisher looked at me with empathy and understanding, listening closely and nodding her head. My anxieties lessened as I realized the classroom was a safe place for discussions such as this. Since that first encounter, I’ve been lucky enough to hear vulnerable stories from Fisher related to her experience as an Indigenous woman in academia and of her impressive motivation despite it all. I have appreciated her empathy and passion for Indigenous people and other minorities. I was not surprised to find these qualities evident in her presentation on Transnational Indigenous Feminism and her research on the topic of the relationships between Indigenous people and Germany.
She began her talk by clarifying terminology. Again, as someone with little knowledge of Indigenous communities, I sat next to her relieved to be getting a clearer understanding. Her explanations of certain terms ensured that everyone could refer to herself and her people properly. However, she clarified that since these terms have been thrown around by Non-Native people for so long and since Indigenous people don’t all have the same ideals, there will always be debates over “proper” usage. When it comes to her, Fisher is a citizen of the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma. Though, she uses the term “Indian” in her research more specifically to refer to the stereotypical homogenous images people use to describe and understand Indigenous people. When referring to actual people in the community, “Indigenous” and “Native” are often used interchangeably. Through this preliminary discussion, I was reminded of the importance and power of language and specificity, something I have also come to be extra mindful of in Dr. Lewis’ course.
Before coming to class and hearing Fisher’s talk, I wondered how she could be inspired to do such meaningful work after coming to Berlin. Like many of the other speakers who visited our class, Fisher seemed to have had a moment of revelation at a somewhat random moment on her trip with Dr. Lewis in 2017. During a graffiti and street art walking tour, she noticed a bronze statue of an Indigenous man in a headdress wearing an “I Y NYC” t-shirt. She wondered what it was and how it had gotten there. Even more, she questioned what Native people were doing in Germany in the first place. When the tour guide and Dr. Lewis could not provide any information on the statue, Fisher decided to nurture her curiosity and start her own research.
Upon speaking with her family, she learned from her father that she had Indigenous family members enlisted in the U.S. military who had been stationed in Germany at some point. In fact, I learned from Fisher that Native Americans have the highest enlistment rate in the U.S. military. Growing up an “Army Brat” myself, I wondered why I had never noticed this majority. I also thought of my father who was stationed in Germany at the time I was born, and how I know little information about his time serving in Germany. Though I am proud of my father and everything he has sacrificed, I do feel that my upbringing may have censored me from realizing the unfortunate erasure and manipulation of various people and cultures at the hands of the U.S. military.
When Fisher introduced the term “Playing Indian” to the class, I was already wary of what I was about to hear and see. Like the term implies, and to my understanding, “Playing Indian” is the act of Non-Indigenous people taking and appropriating Indigenous culture and practices. With the help of Dr. Santiago Ivan Guerra, Director and Associate Professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College (CC), Fisher was pointed toward various articles and the Karl May Festival in Germany, which prompted her to further explore “Playing Indian” and hobbyism in Germany, both of which ended up being a great part of her undergraduate work. She informed us that Karl May was a German explorer and author who wrote about the Wild West and Indigenous tribes, including several adventure trilogies.
In 2019, Fisher received a grant from CC to come back to Berlin to study Indigenous Feminism in Germany, which included attending the Karl May Festival. Prior to attending the festival, Fisher explained she was surprised to see that actual Native groups would be coming to perform at the festival on its website. This meant Native people would be educating predominantly white visitors on their communities and cultures. The festival included banners supporting the freedom Leonard Peltier, who has been imprisoned since 1977. In addition, visitors were encouraged to sign postcards that would be sent to President Donald Trump in support of Peltier’s freedom. Activism such as this encouraged Fisher, who says there is hardly anything of the sort being done at similar festivals in the U.S. However, Native appropriation was still very present at the festival. Non-Indigenous adults and children scattered the fair wearing Native headdresses, jewelry, and other clothing.
Fisher had a similar experience attending the El Dorado-Templin Wild West Theme Park in Germany. Although there are opportunities for Native participants to provide education for the predominantly white European audience, the theme park still features disturbing visuals and experiences inside the park. This includes displays of Native scalps, hypersexualized Native CD cases, and soap with offensive caricatures of Black people on the packaging. These displays and these kinds of environment contribute to the erasure of Indigenous people, something Fisher continues to study as a apart of her doctoral studies.
What I also found particularly fascinating was a conversation we had about “authenticity” and how one may create an “authentic” place where a community, in this case Indigenous people, can be represented and communicated with. It is something I have spoken about in other classes in terms of modernity and what some historians have called the “Teleological Timeline.” From my previous understanding, western ideas and portrayals of minority groups, such as Indigenous people, create a set image of what a community looks like and how people in those communities should be acting. This image is usually adapted and manipulated to fit western ideas and biases in order to place these communities “behind” in terms of advancement and development. This stagnates and isolates a group of people. Therefore, no representation could be truly “authentic,” depending on one’s definition. I could not help but be reminded of this as Fisher expressed the lack of space the full humanity of Indigenous people is given due to the historicized western ideals.
Fisher used herself as an example of this, sharing that she does beading that sometimes does not fit the “typical” idea of what Indigenous beading should be. She explained that sometimes she beads memes or other silly requests from friends and family. She even beaded the book cover of In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table Talk for Dr. Lewis. As impressive and talented as her beading work is, it is sometimes seen as shocking or surprising by those who are expecting “traditional” Indigenous beading. This is most certainly due to the historicization of Indigenous people practices. When people have a set image of what something or someone should look like or act like in their heads, it is difficult to accept anything outside of this idea as “authentic.”
I think, if nothing else, Fisher wanted us to take away an understanding of and shared frustration with the lifeless image that has been placed on her people throughout history and into modern day. People are ignorant to the existence of Native people in many countries today because of such immense historicization. Indigenous communities are set in place and tied to specific land, making them seem set in particular times and places. This has greatly impacted expectations about Indigenous people. Many people do not expect to see Native people in street clothes or in the city or on the train or in the workplace or in academia. Many people only expect to see Native people wearing headdresses and making dream-catchers and in Western films and in museums and in children’s books. This makes it ever so difficult for Indigenous people to remain connected to their heritage while still living and expressing themselves today. My admiration for Fisher has only grown greater as I now have a better understanding of what she has experienced.
Even more so, I left with a greater sense of what it means to be passionate about your work, what it means to be motivated, and what it means to be constantly mindful of the representation (or lack thereof) of vulnerable communities. I also know now what it means to be understanding and forgiving, even when some people are the least deserving. Fisher’s empathy and devotion are tied to her work and also her daily interactions. I am thankful to have had the chance to speak with her in class, and better yet, to have had the chance to be on this trip with her. I look forward to reading what her published work, which focuses Indianthusiasm in Germany and explores how the figure of “the Indian” in Germany and its relationship to German colonialism.
Riley Hester is a rising junior at CC. She was born in Germany and has since lived in 6 different places, including Illinois, New York, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and now Colorado. She is a Psychology major and a double minor in English and German. She is new to Feminist and Gender Studies and hopes to expand her knowledge about the experiences of all people in Germany outside of what she has previously learned. She hopes to one day enter the clinical field of Psychology and work to change the mental health care system to make it more welcoming to and accessible. At CC, she is involved with NAMI and is a member of the swim and dive team. In her free time, she enjoys painting, writing, and exploring whatever area she is in. She’s enjoyed her time in Berlin and has valued the relationships she has built with her classmates over such a short period of time.
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