Joseph Grady & James Welch: Building A Face
Joseph Grady, who is Blackfeet, was adopted and raised by a non-Indian family near Seattle:
"I went to school to learn that I was brown, because skin color was not a concept nurtured by my adoptive parents. I wasn’t confronted by race as a child, not directly at least until I started school.
Looking back now I know the race component was all around me. When we were children the only differences were who was slowest or fastest, and which of us had the ability to scale a wall or climb a tree.
It wasn’t until my first days in school that I began to learn about the Pilgrims, the “noble savage” and the notions of race that separated those two groups. Manifest Destiny and John Ford’s vision of the West became the new reality and it was during those earliest years in the classroom that I became red-skinned. It was then that the skin-color-lie became the tempest that chased me my entire life. It wasn’t until recently that I began interacting with my own Indigenous people and started to recognize and experience those school room lies for what they were. My goal in life is to help undo the race narrative, and to secure a more egalitarian future for our children, and many grandchildren to come."
For Grady, author James Welch represented the only Indigenous example of manhood he could relate to. The first time he read Welch's poem, "Plea To Those Who Matter," Grady glimpsed "a home, a meaning of self & social stigma" that he had never known before and wouldn’t fully understand for many years to come:
"You don’t know I pretend my dumb
My songs often wise, my bells could chase
The snow across these whistled-black plains.
Celebrate. The days are grim. Call your winds
To blast these bundled streets and patronize
my past of poverty and 4-day feasts
Don’t ignore me. I’ll build my face a different way,
A way to make you know that I am no longer
Proud, my name not strong enough to stand alone.
If I lie and say you took me for a friend
Patched together in my thin bones,
Will you help me be cunning and noisy as the wind?
I have plans to burn my drum, move out
and civilize my hair. See my nose? I smash it
straight for you. These teeth? I scrub my teeth
away with stones. I know you help me now I matter.
And I—I come to you, head down, bleeding from my smile,
Happy for the snow clean hands of you, my friends."
(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/20/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)