Genius Black, Rose and the artist Mitchell talk about the realities of life for indigenous people in Maine, respectability politics, art, leadership and mental health.
“I rub [people] in just the right way and it hurts them.”
That’s how Mitchell, a Penobscot femme artist who lives in Portland, describes the role she plays as an activist and agitator against white supremacy. Sand paper, she says, shapes an object as much as it might feel uncomfortable along the way. “When you’re making something, you’re crafting something and you’re trying to make it better, getting rid of all those rough edges and stuff—it’s just the same way, but it hurts.”
Mitch was born in Portland, and spent her adolescence going back and forth between the city and the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, known as Indian Island. Part of her work focuses on raising awareness about where indigenous people live—not just on reservations—and on the concept of ancestral lands, which span well beyond the boundaries of political states and nations.
At the same time, Mitch pushes back against the respectability politics established by white supremacy and colonial thinking. “You’re supposed to respect your elders at everything, and some people hold fast to these kind of rigid [rules],” she says. “They call them traditional rules, but traditional from where? From post-residential school? The respectability politics that were put on us by nuns and priests? Or are we going back further to live the respectability politics set forth by our own culture, by our own elders and wisdom?”
Mitch’s art, and a lot of her motivation, comes from her rage—a boiling lava that she says is like fuel. But that realization hasn’t come easily. Mitch is marking a year of recovering from a suicide attempt. She is now embracing her anger, rather than trying to push it away. “What if my purpose isn’t to be this bright, shiny light? I’m actually dark and I’m intense, and I’m angry for a reason,” she says. “And what if that is who I am?”
That sentiment resonates with Genius Black and Rose, who says she sometimes gets criticized for being negative. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. “I’m just critical,” Rose says. “And you should appreciate it, because if I’m critical towards you it means that I’m thinking about you and I want you to do better.”
When it comes to what white people should do to dismantle white supremacy, Mitch says defining that role is something white people should do themselves—rather than dropping into her DMs and asking for her labor. “If you just keep asking the question… you’re just procrastinating having to do the labor—the work that BIPOC [people] have spent our entire lives doing.”
There is a time for silence, she and the BOM hosts agree. White people need to listen closely and absorb BIPOC voices—and then they need to act. “You have to look deep inside yourself to figure out where your role is, where’s your lane, and the only way you can figure that out is if you’re actually starting to ask the question,” Mitch says.
Along the way, Genius Black says, “white guilt is a basic emotion.” It feels uncomfortable, and it hurts. But people have to move past it and do the real work. “We’ve got to stop killing the conversation that the guilt points out,” he says.
As a mother-to-be, Mitch is wrestling with how to create a fulfilling, supportive childhood for her baby, after having a very traumatic childhood herself. “Each day I have to think about, ‘Okay, how so how do I make a thing out of nothing,’” she says. “That comes from going deep inside… pulling out the DNA knowledge that’s inside. So we’re talking about intergenerational trauma, [but] we’re also talking about DNA knowledge, intergenerational knowledge and survival.”
She notes that there have been entire periods of history that were devoted to the slaughter of indigenous people—which means “there’s a lot of information stored in our DNA knowledge [about how] to survive.”
The ultimate question, she says, is: “How do I raise my child to not only know how to survive, but also know how to thrive?”