The American Indian Quarterly 27.1&2 (2003) 67-79
[Access article in PDF]
Standing Up Against the Giant
Diane E. Benson
The Anchorage Daily News's 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 [End Page 67] 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 e-mail. 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, antimulticultural 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...