Red


By Ron Riekki

Disenfranchisement has become a franchise.

Franchise comes from Old French and Middle English for ‘free.’ You’ll notice that this word for ‘freedom’ comes from colonial languages. We aren’t told the etymological link to Algonquin because it’s an extinct language, a slaughtered language, a tongue-eviscerated language.

In English, the word sacred is a part of massacred, as if the language itself hints at the justifying of kills. And both end with red, the skin that has been in this liminal state between is aboriginal sacred roots and its colonial unoriginal genocidal ripping up of roots. But when the violence gets out of control (see the long, long list of school shootings) then we start saying we need to do something. We never do anything.

It isn’t common knowledge that mænno and friija and friddja are Saami words for ‘free,’ because all of the current Saami languages are on the UNESCO endangered languages list. I wish we cared about the Nenets in Russia or Maori in Australia the way we care about the extinction of the hawksbill turtle or Ganges River dolphin.

I used to work in a prison, at a nursing station. I volunteered at another prison, teaching writing. I found that the prisoners were just as intelligent as the students at the nearby university in Alabama. When I was at Brandeis, I cross-registered at Radcliffe. I found that the Alabama students were just as intelligent as Harvard students. Honestly, there’s no intellectual difference between a Harvard student and a prisoner. The difference is opportunity. I could do a racist-classist-sexist-homophobic-hegemonic-hermeneutics academic sentence here, but that language is becoming cliché in the way that I’ve gone to church services and heard the entire colonial-Christ language recited by what sounded like old robots. In contrast, I visited a transsexual-transvestite church in San Francisco and my girlfriend said it was the most alive church she’d ever been to because the clichés were gone, replaced with true movement and passion for community—the beauty of transvestite hallelujahs. I sometimes think academic writing needs to be set on fire and replaced with reality; I’d enjoy watching the flames dance, their salsa of orange-red.

One of the surprising things about prison is how little movement there is. The cells where I worked were solitary confinement. You could stretch your hands out and reach both sides. It was a place of madness. It seemed made to instill claustrophobia.  Claustrum comes from ‘lock.’ And the place seemed bathed in phobia. The fear of the lock. Xan, a girl in my improv class, said that her deepest fear is the inability to move freely. My girlfriend says she should be able to walk at night without every moment feeling like the deepest insides of a real haunted house.

Prison is taphophobia incarnate. It’s being buried alive. Re: Poe.

Prison is not at all a place for rehabilitation. It’s a place where you fake rehabilitation. Where prisoners are rewarded for counterfeiting what supposedly resembles rehabilitation. I had some homophobic, Islamophobic students in the south who were pro-incarceration, avid fans of prison sentences, wishing those prison sentences would turn into prison paragraphs, lives turned into prison novels. I’ve read that prisons are exponential generators of Islamic conversion, creators of sexual fluidity, that the things those Alabama students fear is being generated daily. I know gay Muslims; there is nothing to fear there. I fear the homophobic Islamophobe with their gun fetish posts much more deeply.

A friend of mine was incarcerated, twice. He said jail is community college, prison as university. It’s where you go to network, to bond with other drug dealers and learn how to deal drugs better. Robbers discuss robbery with robbers, gaining tips on how not to get caught the next time. And there is a next time. The U.S. recidivism rates are self-created, with three-quarters of released prisoners rearrested within five years. Prison creates prison. Felonies lead to more felonies. The entire prison system needs CPR. It’s begging for an AED. The very thing we think protects us is killing us. (See: guns.)  Although it’s all making private-prison Geo Group CEO George Zoley a multi-millionaire. (Geo Group is a yuuuuuge Trump supporter.)

I’m losing my place. That’s what happens, I suppose. It’s a fitting metaphor. I’ve been reading a lot of Sherman Alexie lately, listening to Native American comedy. It seems like it’s a comedy about land, books about land, about lack of land. The word land comes from the German word Land. Das Land. In French, it’s terre. Similar to terreur.  I’ve been listening to a lot of Muslim comedy as well. Dave Chappelle, Azhar Usman, and Aasif Mandvi all do an incredible job attacking the terror that is Trump.

Terror and territory and Trump.

My father told me I’m Saami. Native European. He said his grandparents were Laplanders, reindeer herders. I tried to find out if that’s true genealogically, but his parents have the brutal stories/histories of the indigenous, the gaps and slippage and absence. Alcohol is its own genocide. He said it’s true familially, as part of our handed-down ancestral narrative, our story.

The dead don’t speak. No, that’s not true. They yell to us, daily.

Reading is like trying to hold a wet fish.

History is like trying to hold a ghost.

I am worried I’m going extinct, that the easy way I can be dismissed as simply white is a way of ensuring the Saami in me will die. There is a massive conservative eraser, one that keeps scrubbing hard at the earth, at the heart, with its theater of politics, the heater of de-regulation. We went from the hope of change of Obama to the hole of climate change of Trump. Extinction happens one animal at a time, one person at a time, one identity at a time, one language at a time, one day at a time, one four-year period at a time.

Sweden attempted to make the Saami extinct through decades of compulsory sterilizations that no one seems to ever talk about. Decades of forced sterilization. Decades.

In Swedish, the word for genocide is folkmord.

I tried to take a Scandinavian folklore class at Berkeley. The teacher said it was filled, adding that I wasn’t Scandinavian. He said Finland had nothing to do with Scandinavian folklore. He asked what I’d even want to write about for the class. I was interested in the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic that’s a mesh of Finn and Karelian and Sami identity, the only book of my youth that I was told comes from the very sinus node of where I’m from, the center of the heart of my roots—Karjala and Taipalsaari and Kuusamo and more. My ancestors are eastern and northern Finns, areas that are markedly Euro-aboriginal, the same Kalevala-like Karelian/Saami interweaving. He replied I could write about how the Kalevala was stolen from Sweden. What? I remembered my speechlessness. This, mind you, was Berkeley, the land of supposed extreme liberalism, but with hypocritical, vulgarly high rent prices and high-ticket prices and high tuition prices and high gas prices and homeless-creating prices with everything. I wanted so badly to tell the instructor that the Saami were the original Scandinavians. But I kept silent. I still regret that.

When we speak of the indigenous, we’re speaking of extinction, a word tied to the late Middle English for ‘quench.’ To satisfy one’s thirst. To drink. Think Vlad the Impaler, the nut-case alive at the same time as Chris Columbus. Maybe they were the same person?

In Saami, the word north doesn’t mean the same as the colonial ‘north.’ In Saami, the word north means ‘to the coast.’ Where the water is.

I only know one Saami dance and it resembles canoeists searching for land. It is a dance that reminds me of diaspora, of displacement. I showed the dance to my Performativity class and started crying. I realized the people in my class might never meet another Saami-connected person in their entire lives. I am saola. I am pangolin.

I grew up not far from the border of the U.S. and Canada. I speak English and French. My Finnish is horrible, my Saami worse. I recently went to a Finnish church and was shocked that I understood quite a bit from the pastor. My ancestors grew up near the border of Russia and Finland. The border shifted, repeatedly, through war. I am a liminal body with liminal arteries and liminal thoughts. We’ve lived balancing on borderlines. I used to like to walk railroad tracks as a child, balancing for miles. Disequilibrium feels like home.

There is Russia’s genocide of the Karelians I could tell you about, but there isn’t time anymore.

I’m worried that there isn’t history anymore.

I’m worried there isn’t time or history at this point, that both have been taken.

I have never heard of Old Algonquin or Middle Saami.

The Saami were put in human zoos for display. Archaeologist Cathrine Baglo, a Ph.D. student in Norway, who writes about this: the Sami liked to stay in zoos.  A friend of mine said she’d like to see Cathrine Baglo in a zoo. When I walk down the street, people stop and stare at me. Some point at me. I have a body on display at all times. If you look different, you are treated as zoo animal, in grocery stores, in hospitals, in libraries, insane.

My mother complained to the city of Marquette about the zoo they had on Presque Isle. Its animals looked suicidal. They seemed to say in their eyes that God had been taken from them, replaced by the Devil of metal. Years later, the zoo was deconstructed. My mother was proud of that.

One day one of the prisoners shattered his cell’s shatterproof glass. He picked up a shard as long as his arm, swinging it back and forth. The nurses ran from the upstairs nursing station to the downstairs station. They slammed the door bolted shut and sat by me. They told me the top floor was taken hostage. We waited. I asked if the glass to our nursing station was shatterproof.

One of the most stupid ideas in the history of America is Trump’s wall. I think his dream is to have a Trump ceiling and three other Trump walls and then the entirety of America will become a Trump Tower. It will be a prison.

We all will be reading this for decades:

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Ron Riekki wrote U.P.: a novel (Great Michigan Read nominated) and edited The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Michigan Notable Book), Here: Women Writing on Michigan's Upper Peninsula (2016 Independent Publisher Book Award), and And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, 1917-2017 (Michigan State University Press, 2017).

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