That joking ended earlier this month, when I realized -- in a painfully public manner -- that my use of that North Dakota accent was in a small but undeniable way supportive of a white-supremacist account of the history of this country. The story of that episode illustrates not just the depth of the pathology of white America but also a way we white folks can -- with self-reflection and help from others -- start to transform ourselves.
For those who have never seen the 1996 movie or heard a white person from the Dakotas or Minnesota (despite the title "Fargo," which is the largest city in North Dakota, the film is set in Minnesota), the accent has an amusing sing-songy quality and trademark phrases such as, "Ah, geez" and "Yah, you betcha!" In print it may not sound particularly funny, but with the right delivery it can be a crowd-pleaser.
That is, it's a crowd pleaser in certain crowds -- such as an audience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was speaking, and where few are likely to think much about real Dakota history.
I was at the university to participate in a panel on racism and white privilege, a subject about which I've written a book, making me an alleged expert. In my introductory remarks I made reference to my upbringing in North Dakota and the accent made famous by the movie, using it for a bit of comic relief in a discussion of a difficult subject.
On that panel with me was D. Anthony Tyeeme Clark, a professor of American Indian Studies at that university and a citizen of the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. Although I didn't poll the audience, I'm pretty sure Clark was one of the few indigenous people there. (Clark told me later that of the 100-plus students and faculty who have self-identified as American Indian on campus in recent years, about 15 to 20 are citizens of Indian nations or tribal members, and even fewer are tribally connected.)
In his remarks, Clark spoke about the racism in that university's continued use of a caricatured Indian mascot, Chief Illiniwek, which is a constant reminder of the arrogance, ignorance, and cruelty of the dominant white culture.
[For examples of this manifestation of white supremacy, see websites in support of the mascot's use at http://www.honorthechief.org/ and http://www.chiefilliniwek.org/. Resources on efforts to force the university to stop using the mascot are at http://www.iresist.org/, http://www.retirethechief.org/, and http://www.prairienet.org/prc/prcanti.html. The statement of American Indian Studies faculty and the staff of the Native American House at the university is at http://www.nah.uiuc.edu/statements.htm.]
In the course of his talk, Clark made reference to the fact that in the United States, English is a foreign language. That remark set off in my head a chain of thoughts that left me resolved to never again joke about a North Dakota accent.
Let's start with the obvious: While some of the indigenous people killed or displaced by Europeans and their descendants learned to communicate in English with the settler-colonizers, they did so in a second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language. English is not a native language in the territory we now call the United States -- it's the language of a colonizing people who pursued a genocidal strategy to acquire that territory and its resources. Though I've spent some time reading about that history, it had never occurred to me think of English in that way; being part of the dominant group in a society allowed me to avoid those kinds of obvious, and harsh, realities.
As I sat at the table next to Clark, I realized what his remark meant: I don't really speak with a North Dakota accent, and to label my speech as such is to obscure that history of European colonization and barbarism toward indigenous people. What would a real Dakota accent, North or South, sound like? Nothing like the characters from "Fargo," that's for sure. That white Dakota accent is mostly Scandinavian, transplanted through colonization.
As all this ran through my head, I realized I should scrap my planned closing remarks and use my last few minutes to face this issue. I told the group that I was embarrassed that for so long I had not recognized these obvious points. I was emotional and probably not being all that clear; I looked out at the audience and saw that I wasn't explaining it well. So I went to the blackboard and wrote "North Dakota," and then erased "North." What's left? "Dakota." Who are the people today who really speak with a "Dakota" accent? Their ancestors aren't from Scandinavia or any other part of Europe.
Those people were -- and still are -- the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota, usually collectively referred to as the Great Sioux Nation. Their languages are part of a family that linguistic anthropologists call Siouan or Siouan-Catawban, which is still spoken on the Great Plains of the United States and parts of southern Canada.
I don't speak any of those languages. I can't reproduce the accent with which those peoples speak. In other words, I can't do a real Dakota accent. I can only do the settler-colonizers' accent.
In my home state, we took not only the land of the people of those nations but their name as well, and we then pretend that we are Dakotans. It's perhaps a small point, but an important one: I am not of the Dakota people. I am of the people who tried to exterminate the Dakota and who colonized their land.
And what of those original colonizers and their descendants? I can hear my people in North Dakota saying something like this: "Hey, most of those so-called colonizers were relatively poor farmers from Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe who came to the United States to scratch out a living and who built a prosperous life through a lot of hard work."
Fair enough; those folks did work hard under arduous conditions. In my family, the last immigrant from Scandinavia was my paternal grandfather, who came from Denmark as a teenager and worked hard his whole life as a blacksmith, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
But no matter what the stories of our families, two things are unavoidable. First is that the land on which those immigrants worked so hard was available only because of a genocidal campaign that eliminated most of the indigenous population. Second is that the majority of those immigrants and their descendants never challenged that injustice. Like most European immigrants who came here without much privilege, they accepted what was to be a privileged place in a white-dominant society by embracing white supremacy.
It's easy for me to sit back, writing this essay, to make all these obvious points about the white supremacy that exists out there, in the world. But the fact remains: For years I have used the "Fargo" joke without any thought to those very same points. This is a story not only of the crimes of the past and present, but of how I -- like so many white people -- can both know these things and ignore them at the same time.
So, what triggered all this as I sat on the panel at the University of Illinois? The simple answer is, Tony Clark.
Because the logo of the main university in my home state, the University of North Dakota, is the racist "Fighting Sioux" caricature, I have been studying the issue of American Indian mascots and nicknames for some time [http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/freelance/fightingsioux.htm]. Much of what Clark said was familiar to me. Yet there was something about his clarity, honesty, and passion that got to me. His presentation forced me to remember that what is for me a political issue is for him and other American Indians today also a lived reality. Clark, his Indian colleagues, and other citizens of a variety of Indian nations -- students, staff, and faculty -- walk every day on that campus and look at t-shirts and posters with a caricature that remind them that the dominant white culture doesn't really much care about them
The discussion that day made me uncomfortable, and for that I am grateful to Clark. Like anyone in a position of dominance, it's easy for me to grow comfortable with injustice, even when engaged in political activity to resist it. Listening to Clark that day I learned some things, but just as important is that I had to confront an emotional reality; it was the combination of that knowing and feeling that led me to recognize what was wrong with the jokes I've been telling about my home state's accent.
In the context of all that must happen for the United States to become a truly just multiracial society, this struggle of mine over a marginally funny joke might seem fairly inconsequential, just a small step in one person's struggle. But the bigger lesson is that I wouldn't have taken the step (1) if there had been no forum in which I could hear Clark speak, (2) if Clark had not been willing to be generous in offering to the group his knowledge in such honest fashion, or (3) if I had run away from my feeling of discomfort.
For people with privilege in an unjust world -- whether it's men in relation to women, the setter-colonizer in relation to indigenous peoples, white people in relation to people of color, the rich in relation to working and poor people, or U.S. citizens in relation to the country's domination of the rest of the world -- it's imperative that we invite into our worlds those on the other side of that privilege, not to make us feel good but precisely to challenge us to have the courage to feel uncomfortable.
If we can't do that, there is little hope for the world -- and no hope for our own souls.
I am grateful to Professor Clark for his comments and suggestions, which are reflected in this final version of the essay. For more information on his work, see http://www.nah.uiuc.edu/faculty-Clark.htm.