By Chris Talbot-Heindl, exhausted mixed-race, separated Indigenous person in the United States working in an environmental nonprofit
Autumn is a hard time to be a mixed-race, separated Indigenous person in the United States working in an environmental nonprofit.
On days including and between Indigenous People’s Day and Native American Heritage Day, I feel like I run a gauntlet of aggressions, micro and macro, from white-led environmental nonprofits, white people in environmental nonprofits, and sometimes even from my kinfolk who aren’t transparent when trying to get white peoples’ money to continue their good works in their nonprofits.
It’s a tiring set of days that I wish I got hazard pay for enduring each year.
In my 20 years working and volunteering in environmental nonprofits, I’ve experienced the gamut of anti-Indigenous behavior — from an ex-co-worker who would launch into a lecture about the Bering Land Bridge Theory as a response to diminish my Indigeneity whenever it was brought up to an ex-co-worker who would fart in my office, walk by my desk, and call it the Trail of Tears. And while those two things are incredibly and obviously offensive, other actions that are more commonplace in nonprofits are just as awful. And some may be so subtle that non-Indigenous folks may not realize how offensive they are.
Let’s all go through each day of that gauntlet, what Indigenous people are often exposed to during it, and how organizations and the people in them can do (or not do) to mitigate some of that harm.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
This was not an event made for me, an actual Indigenous person. It was not one where I would feel affirmed or seen authentically as an individual. It repeated over and over again the generalized single story of the poor “Indian” who needed the white man’s help.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a day to celebrate the contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples and to recognize their sovereignty.
Last year, I started attending an event hyped as a free virtual concert celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It used phrases like “celebrating Indigenous joy” and “elevating Native voices.” Being the cynic that I am, I was a bit distrustful about the advertised line-up, which, for each advertisement I saw, included a list of white musicians and only one or two Indigenous ones. But I signed up and was excited to join.
When I started watching, it became clear that this was actually a videothon to raise funds, which would have been fine, had I known that going into it. But it was advertised as and certainly wasn’t a celebration of Indigeneity or our joy or voices. It was more accurately a celebration of white saviorism with an intended audience of white people with deep pocketbooks.
Several times in the half-hour-or-so I stomached, white people came on the screen to tell me how much they cared about my plight. They exclaimed it with concerned faces that seemed to betray that they imagined me (and all Natives) as one of the featured children in the exploitive Christian Children’s Fund commercials from my childhood. Or closer to home race-wise, the fake sob stories — that rely on some white peoples’ belief that all Indigenous homes are laden with violence, alcohol, drugs, and poverty — that St. Joseph’s Indian School uses to solicit funds.
After an amazing Afro-Indigenous musician performed, a white man came on to beg white people to give money to support “Indian kids” in getting an education. One after another, they told the single story of poor “Indian kids” that needed their white help.
Téa Leoni declared herself as an ally before unironically saying, “I amplify Indigenous voices whenever I can,” taking up space in this event…to introduce Sarah McLaughlin. I almost expected Sarah to jump into a rendition of “In the Arms of An Angel” with video recordings of dirty, unshoed niijii kids playing in the background. What she actually did, I’ll never know because I clicked out, disgusted.
This was not an event made for me, an actual Indigenous person. It was not one where I would feel affirmed or seen authentically as an individual. It repeated over and over again the generalized single story of the poor “Indian” who needed the white man’s help. It made me feel horrible for the student I saw featured — whose personal story, as told by them with nuance, didn’t reflect the narratives the white folks were spouting with their concerned looks to camera.
I wish I could say this was a white-led event. But it wasn’t. This was my kinfolks’ event. And while I respect the hustle (Do get that owed white money to send Indigenous kids to college!), not being honest about what the event was harmed me when I was looking for community to spend the day with.
I want nonprofits to be transparent about their events. Is it a celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day or is it a fundraiser centering white people? I also want everyone to consider how they do their storytelling. (Is it the deficit-based, single story, white savior version, or are you using an asset-framing that empowers and dismantles white people’s generalizations about our community?). Who does your storytelling center; whom might it harm?
Now, you might be asking, “Why is Halloween on here? What does that have to do with environmental nonprofits?” That’s an excellent question! One that was not answered before environmental nonprofits I worked for held Halloween-themed benefits.
On two separate occasions, I had the displeasure of attending and working Halloween-themed events held by white-led environmental nonprofits. These were costumed, and as you can expect when majority white folks are involved, too many of the costumes were not costumes but exaggerations of peoples’ cultures.
At one such event, a donor/volunteer dressed as a “geisha” (quotes, because you know why). Another came dressed as a “Cherokee princess” (I shit you not). And it was my responsibility to emotionally regulate and not react as a Japanese-Indigenous-white USian who was on the clock. I know it was my responsibility because a “superior” saw my dagger eyes on the offending parties and came over to tell me so. They were supporters, so I had to suck it up and not ruin their night.
As the evening wore on and I heard more than one white person compliment the “Cherokee princess” on how she made such a beautiful “Indian,” I had to ask myself why I continued to give this organization my time, energy, and expertise.
I want nonprofits to consider setting boundaries for costumes before hosting a Halloween-themed event. We would hope in the 21st century, we wouldn’t have to tell white folks that cultures are not costumes, but here we are.
White folks (everyone, but only white folks seem to have internalized it) were taught since grade school that the U.S. is a melting pot and anything they wanted to adopt, bastardize, and appropriate was fair game. After all, didn’t our teachers encourage us to pretend to be “Indians” in grade school, sitting around, creating fake paper regalia, and mimicking caricatures of Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains with no background or context? Some still do! Hell, one white teacher mocked Indigenous people while teaching a math class last October. As if her students weren’t already dealing with the anti-Indigenous micro- and macro-aggressions as commonplace in Autumn as pumpkin spice.
As nonprofits holding events where we know some white folks will come dressed as someone else’s culture unless explicitly told not to, we have to take responsibility for doing a little teaching. So, set those boundaries or stop hosting Halloween-themed events.
National Day of Mourning (aka “Thanksgiving” to white folks)
The reality is white people get to decide what parts of history they want to participate in and give recognition to… while the rest of us have to continue to live with the ramifications, erasure, and harm of that history daily.
“Thanksgiving” is a triggering time and holiday for me. The concept that people have a national holiday celebrating the attempted genocide (and cultural genocide when that didn’t work) of an entire race of people is mind-boggling. I recognize National Day of Mourning instead.
I got into it with a white woman nonprofit worker in The Before Days who insisted that because of the nature of her organization, she had to have a positively-spun Thanksgiving post. And that to have anything else (or nothing at all) was mission creep.
P.S. Her organization was a historical nonprofit. Proving once again that “mission creep” actually means including anything white folks don’t like to include.
News flash: no nonprofit, not even one centered around the holiday “Thanksgiving” (if such a nonprofit exists), needs to have a positively-spun Thanksgiving post. You can have a nuanced, true-to-history conversation with your followers without whitewashing it. Better yet, you can amplify the voices of Indigenous people (recognizing that we’re not a monolith).
The reality is white people get to decide what parts of history they want to participate in and give recognition to (as one woman of color put it while trying to mitigate the weaponized fragility I was receiving), while the rest of us have to continue to live with the ramifications, erasure, and harm of that history daily. And too often, white people decide to ignore or whitewash all the parts of history that paint their ancestors (and their accumulated generational wealth and privilege) in a negative light.
Here in Denver, things are even worse with the “Thanksgiving” racket due to the Third Colorado Cavalry’s massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people during the Sand Creek Massacre that directly followed “Thanksgiving” in 1864. Until the racial injustice protests in the summer of 2020 when Black Lives Matter activists of all races tore it down, Indigenous Coloradans were greeted at the Capitol by a member of that Cavalry with a plaque that named the Sand Creek Massacre as one of the “battles” of the Civil War. The Executive Order from Governor Evans that directly led to the massacre was still on the books until Governor Polis finally rescinded it in August 2020.
In Colorado, “Thanksgiving” is directly followed by the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk and pow wow.
And calling it a different thing, “Friendsgiving,” “National Day of Thanks,” “Tenants-giving” (a real thing that I got emailed about by the co-op space one of my workplaces occupies this year), etc., doesn’t erase the colonialism and genocide inherent in the holiday. If anything, it makes it worse, by trying to rebrand before a large-scale acknowledgment has ever happened.
I want nonprofits to question whether they need to make a statement. If you decide you need to comment, will the message you’ve created enable the celebration of genocide? Are you being honest about the holiday or furthering the incorrect narrative for the sake of white comfort? Is your silence on the atrocities and focus on the “positive side” of the holiday hindering meaningful change?
Native American Heritage Day
Native American Heritage Day is a day meant to celebrate Indigenous peoples’ rich cultures, accomplishments, contributions, and heritage. But for most white folks, it’s simply Black Friday or the day after “Thanksgiving.”
Unfortunately, last year, it was a day at least one white-led environmental nonprofit tried to leverage and ask for donations to fund their organization’s work they claimed overlapped with “Indigenous values.”
Even if their work legitimately overlapped with a local Indigenous Tribe’s values, why not just amplify that Tribe’s work?
Asking for donations on Native American Heritage Day ignores the relative power and the statistical fact that those white-led organizations historically and currently receive the majority share of funding due to philanthropic racism. Only 0.4% of charitable funds are awarded to Indigenous-led organizations despite Indigenous people making up 2.9% of the population in the U.S.
I want nonprofits to question when they make their asks, for what, and from who. Are your board and C-Suite at least 50% comprised of the identity meant to be centered for the holiday you’re trying to leverage? If not, don’t do it! Instead of co-opting this holiday, take time to introduce your donors to Indigenous nonprofits also moving the needle forward on the mission you have. Collaborate, generously share resources (including your supporters), and don’t compete. (And if the answer is yes, get that money! Hit up those white folks and get that cash.)
A great example of collaboration from last year is The Wilderness Society and NativesOutdoors project, where they partnered to share photo essays by Indigenous conservationists. The Wilderness Society leveraged its audience to amplify without advertising itself or asking for donations.
So what can you do as a representative in a nonprofit throughout these next two months?
- You can stop your organization from doing the things I outlined above. Indigenous people are real humans with real generational trauma that can easily be triggered during this time. Make an effort to disrupt the micro- and macro-aggressions you are aware of.
- Make an effort to amplify the voices of Indigenous people and what they think during this time. How are they asking for your allyship? Do that. Also, recognize that if sending out a “Thanksgiving” message isn’t mission creep, neither is amplifying Indigenous people on why “Thanksgiving” is harmful.
- Instead of asking for support on Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Native American Heritage Day, amplify the asks of Indigenous-led organizations you partner with. If you don’t partner with any, develop a meaningful relationship with an Indigenous-led organization (especially if you’re an environmental nonprofit. We’re not for tokenizing. We’re for partnering and valuing).
- Contract with (read: paid contract) Indigenous people for their efforts when you ask for their perspective. This includes asking for a sensitivity reading, a land acknowledgment (or better yet, a Land Back statement), or any other way you ask them to do labor for your organization. Too many times, we’re asked to do this labor for free.
- Spend the next two months learning about the people whose land you occupy. Who are they? What do they need right now? Some Tribes and Nations are still fighting for sovereignty; some have Land Back actions; some are asking for settler rent; some may need donations or food drives for the holidays. Find out what the Tribes and Nations in your area need and do it.
- Educate your co-workers, especially the decision-makers at your organization, about things they are operationalizing that cause harm.
And remember that these things apply when the two months are over. While October and November are the most brutal months to be a mixed-race, separated Indigenous person in the United States working in an environmental nonprofit (according to me), you can choose not to micro- and macro-aggress against your Indigenous community members all year round.
Chris Talbot-Heindl (they/them) is a queer, trans nonbinary, triracial artist and nonprofit employee. When they aren’t working the day job, they spend their free time editing art and literature magazines, writing and illustrating educomics to help folks affirm their nonbinary pals, creating a serial graphic novel to describe what it’s like to be nonbinary in a gender binary world, cuddling their cat and spouse, and quad skating in the park or along the Cherry Creek Trail. You can find Chris at talbot-heindl.com, on LinkedIn, and Twitter — and tip them on Venmo, PayPal, or Ko-fi.