The problem with white saviors isn’t necessarily that they’re paternalistic, or dumb, it’s mostly that they aren’t dependable. Where is my white savior when I want a jar opened? Ultimately, if you give a white person too much power as an ally they will betray you.
Look at Johnny Depp; we lauded him as our next Marlon Brando, only to find he didn’t buy Wounded Knee like he promised, and he recently debuted a fragrance called “Sauvage” for Dior. You can’t trick us with your French, Johnny; the name is synonymous with ‘savage,’ not to mention your add had a buffalo, a hawk, and a coyote. Did you really need all three? If Marlon Brando could see you now, he’d send an Indian out to explain allusion and implication to you.
I really liked The Revenant. I did. Whether the protagonist was a white savior or an anti-hero is debatable. Unfortunately, Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the Golden Globes was a little too much. I mentioned in earlier work that if an ally wants to help us they should fall back let us speak our own voices. There are plenty of ways to give First Nations people a platform or recognition, but there’s too much irony to be had in giving them a shout out while the wrap-up music plays at an award show. The awards don’t care about diversity. DiCaprio is speaking on behalf of a people while he should go out of his way to create a legitimate platform for Natives to speak, where legitimate concerns aren’t rushed by music or cheering entertainers, who are possibly the worst people, period. I really hope not, but Leonardo could be the next Johnny to break our hearts.
White saviors just aren’t there for the long haul. I recently sat on a panel of up-and-coming Native writers at the Institute of American Indian Arts, called, “Native and Not: Defining Our Program and Finding Ways to Talk and Listen,” and we all went through the motions of explaining to the non-Native students how to be culturally sensitive: don’t cry when we call you racist, because we don’t want to babysit your white guilt; you don’t need to know everything about our culture in order to respect us as people, etc.
The discussion felt empowering, because, for the first time, Native students at our school were able to discuss in a public forum how difficult it is to be tokenized, objectified, and mined for information. The good feelings didn’t last long, because apparently white people were so upset with the panel that they asked for an “all white meeting,” excluding Native students for what purpose, I still don’t know. I immediately objected, saying if Non-Natives had a problem they should take it to my face, because I’m a rez girl at heart and I only saw red. Only when a white man stepped in to object to the meeting did the facilitator nix it, and that’s when I understood. Even at a Native institution like the Institute of American Indian Arts, there was still much to be learned in the way of discourse and cultural empathy. The man who objected to the meeting was white, but not a savior, merely an intelligent man who saw how asinine an all-white meeting sounded. Really, I could have used a white savior like Kevin Costner that day, to yell out a war cry and call for lunch.
I’m just saying be careful out there. There are a lot of white people with great intentions, who’ve seen Dances with Wolves a few times and think they know what they’re doing. Don’t trust them, because when you need your oil changed, or your grocer won’t redeem a coupon you were really excited about, they won’t be there. We’re on our own at every turn. We’re the only ones who can speak our truth, and no matter how charming DiCaprio is, we want a Native to win a Golden Globe and speak on their life. I’d say it’s time for that, but the world isn’t ready.
It’s sad, but nobody is going to open the jar for us, not in discourse or in politics.
Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian Band. She has been featured in Carve magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, and Burrow Press Review. She’s a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts and she is an SWAIA Discovery Fellow.