Gyasi Ross said he looks at life as a series of stories, and people can either accept or challenge those narratives.
“Stories are the most powerful thing in the world,” Ross said. “If you can change a story, you can change the world.”
Ross was the keynote speaker Wednesday evening for Native American Heritage Month. He is an author, speaker and appears regularly on television and radio shows to talk about issues affecting Native Americans. The main theme of his speech was the impact stories have on the world.
He told several stories, including the story of a man in New York who told him Native Americans couldn’t grow facial hair, despite Ross’ goatee.
“Stories are powerful, because even if we don’t know if they’re true or not, we will assume they are true if we’ve heard them properly,” Ross said.
He said the United States used to tell a story about Native Americans and it finally began to be challenged. He said the government tried to kill off Native people and the treaties signed between tribes and the government were not honored. Ross’ uncle, Billy Frank, challenged that story.
“The story was Native people have no value. We can do whatever we want to those people. We can sterilize them, kill them, starve them, steal their children,” Ross said. “And here’s this short Native man from Nesquali who says, ‘I want to challenge that story. That story doesn’t make any sense to me.’”
He said Frank began holding federal and state governments accountable for what they agreed to in the treaties and began fishing in the place his family had fished for 30,000 years. Frank was arrested 52 times over the next 29 years for fighting for what he believed in. Ross said eventually, the Supreme Court sided with Frank.
Ross focused on contemporary stories. He said he just returned from Standing Rock, North Dakota, where a large group is protesting the expansion of the Keystone Pipeline through Native American lands. The pipeline was originally slated down a different route, but it was determined there was too much risk for the mainly white community there. No such risk has been determined for the Native people along the new route.
Ross said that story shows everything has a price, but the story is being changed by the protestors.
“We’re going to challenge the story that money can buy anything,” Ross said. “No matter how much money this company offers us, it’s not going to be enough.”
He referred to a quote by Albert Einstein and said problems cannot be fixed using the same logic that created the same problem. A new way of thinking is required. Changing the story is finding that new way of thinking.
To help protesters at Standing Rock, Ross said the most ideal option is to actually go there. He said there are some important dates coming up where the protesters will need people to be there.
“And importantly, there’s going to need to be people that don’t fit the bill of being the usual suspects,” Ross said. “When it’s the usual suspects, we usually get the usual outcome.”
The next best thing is to send money to Standingrock.org or Standforstandingrock.org, Ross said. The money donated to those sites goes directly to the legal defense of the protesters or to keep them supplied with water, firewood and other necessities.
Third, Ross said people can contact their federal legislators and pressure them to demand that the pipeline’s consultation requirement be honored.
“We have to be accountable and put accountability on them,” Ross said. “It’s not good will, it’s not because they’re being generous, it’s not because they’re being sweet, it’s actually their job.”
Ross explained that capitalism works like spilled milk. If a person spills the milk, they clean it up. If they didn’t spill the milk, they don’t have to. But that story is being challenged as well. He said Millennials receive more criticism than they deserve and credited the generation for trying to change the story.
“None of you created racism,” Ross said. “None of you created global warming, but you’re the first generation that’s said, ‘I’m going to clean up this spilled milk. We’re actually going to do something about this, even though we didn’t create it.’”
Jack Olson can be reached at email@example.com