A Vision Of Hope
By Andrew Peterson
As Oneida poet Roberta Hill Whiteman grew up speaking only English, she sensed she was being denied something important. "I began to understand in elementary school that Oneidas spoke another language," she says. "And I desperately wanted to know it. But there was some reason that I couldn't. And the reason was somehow connected to the way people wanted to beat me up when I walked home from school.
"My sister and I, when we were young, we used to try to think of a language for ourselves. I mean, we sought a language. And when we asked our father if we could learn Oneida, he told us that we would have problems with it if we learned it. That was his experience, from listening to tales of how people were actually crippled if they spoke Oneida."
Whiteman is the author of a book of poems called Star Quilt and an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She's also the granddaughter of the second Native American woman physician in this country, about whom she's writing a biography.
Whiteman writes and speaks with a deeply affecting honesty about her experiences as a Native American woman, experiences that are inseparable from the struggles of her people.
"You've got to understand," she says. "My reservation is not like Arizona reservations. My reservation is six by eight miles. And there are 10,000 Oneidas. We're right near a major city and there's trouble over land. We've been under a long period of the government--the city, the county, the state--all pressuring us to assimilate. And we still haven't. I mean, I may be an urban Indian, but Oneidas haven't assimilated completely."
Whiteman grew up in Green Bay, which she describes as a "border town." Early on she experienced the virulent racism that can rise up in such towns. As a child, that environment forced her to question her own identity.
"I guess it was a confusion I felt and a resistance at times to what people thought of Indians," she says. "At times I didn't want to be an Indian person. I wanted to somehow be connected to all people. Which is, in a way, what Oneida culture teaches you anyway. I was being very Oneida in thinking I wanted to be connected."
Later Whiteman went through a period of intense anger, which she describes as being common for someone in her situation. "Like many Indian people," she says, "I left home and wandered around the country. And it was when I started to meet other Indian people that I began to understand the kind of oppression that we faced. But I guess I understood after a while that a person cannot live with anger. There has to be another kind of vision to help sustain a person besides just the anger."
Whiteman's poetry captures the slow movement from those painful experiences of racism and anger toward a vision of hope, a dialogue with a more positive future.
"What do we do?" a voice asks in one of her poems. "We hide. We bargain./We answer each question/with a difficult anger,/map the future for heartache/and rattle old bones."
But later in that same poem, she answers the question differently. "What do we do?/Balance our shadows/like oaks in bright sunlight,/stretch and tumble/as much as we're able,/eat up the light/and struggle with blindness."
"I always have to remember that we are always in some ways blind," Whiteman says. "We don't know what the future holds. When we're doing something we don't know what the ramifications of it will be. And you take a risk when you do that. I think all poets take risks that way. If you think of real oppressive regimes, the first people they'll lock up are artists and poets, writers, interviewers..."
She pauses, then laughs warmly, transforming a frightening thought into a moment of shared recognition. Through language, Whiteman fulfills her childhood need both to feel her Oneida identity and at the same time to be connected with all people.
"Things really do slowly change," she says. "As long as we keep speaking about them."