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The Talking Stick: Just One More Thing White People Have Ruined

In all the extremely productive rancor over this month’s 69-hour government shutdown (nice), observers were less puzzled by the Democrats’ routine self-cucking than they were an instrument used in bipartisan negotiations: a “talking stick” provided by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). You know: It’s a stick that you have to be holding if you want to talk in a meeting. Because when a horde of crusty septuagenarians gets together to discuss immigration and budgets, it’s hard to keep them from interrupting each other.

Collins was perhaps too proud to have used the stick for talks held in her office, considering that at one point “Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee forcefully tossed the stick toward Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia after Warner interrupted him, nearly shattering a glass elephant belonging to Collins,” per Politico. Hoping to move past that visual metaphor, Collins then “suggested using a small rubber ball, and Alexander also brought his own basketball ‘because it’d be safer than a stick,’ an aide said.”

Let me just say: Jesus Christ. Not only are the leaders of the free world not to be trusted alone with a short pole, their basic operations have the atmosphere of a corporate retreat at a Sheraton in Dallas. People rightly mocked Collins for her insistence on civility in Washington when Trump has likely voided the issue for all time, but they also had nothing but contempt for the stick itself, which isn’t exactly fair. Talking sticks, feathers, and speaking staffs are important emblems of indigenous cultures — it’s just that white people ruined them, like everything else.

Collins’ stick was a gift from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, reportedly originating with the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, a tribe some writers blithely assumed to be of the Great Plains, since Heitkamp represents North Dakota. That we can’t be bothered to discern between East African and Native American cultures says a lot, as does perverting one of their shared traditions by forcing it on senile kleptocrats, yet the indignities hardly began there.

For aboriginal people, talking sticks were as much about giving everyone a chance to speak as holding long-winded talkers in check. It was a tool of democracy and mutual respect, and it conferred the opportunity to both listen and be heard. For white people, this has never been true — we only want the talking stick so we can tell someone else, “Shut up, I’ve got the talking stick.” Film, TV, and literature understand this quite well. Remember when Walter White’s family in Breaking Bad tried to stage an intervention about his erratic behavior by passing around a “talking pillow,” only to start bickering about the rules of this system and finally have Walt berate them at length once he got hold of the cushion? Or how about Lord of the Flies, when the pragmatic Piggy insists on the right to speak because he holds the precious conch, and is nonetheless casually murdered by a bunch of boys gone feral? That is extremely congressional shit.

So no, I don’t think the correct talking stick take is “lol are they in first grade,” but rather, “man, can they please just argue like the sleep-deprived racists they are instead of treating a genuine cultural artifact like a tchotchke from Pottery Barn?” Collins mistakenly believes the stick is used to “control debate” instead of opening it up, as if she’s overseeing a governing body in Star Wars; you barely need wonder if she realizes the meaning of the various colors and patterns incorporated into the design. Among Native Americans, even the type of wood denotes specific auras, and I’d guess hers isn’t oak, which is said to convey qualities like “strength of character” and “courage.” Otherwise she wouldn’t blame getting rolled by her own party on the media’s sexism.

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I know it’s a small thing to be mad about — the treatment of an inanimate object that happened to be present at the latest betrayal of what should be our national ideals — but it sure does feel symbolic of a society defined by the willfully stupid. We annihilated a civilization and turned one of their public rites into a purely infantile spectacle, the stuff of self-help seminars and intrafamilial kangaroo courts. Many problems we face today are overwhelmingly complex. This one is not, and therefore I beseech you: Come on. The headdresses at Coachella are bad enough. If you actually want to embrace the spirit of indigenous councils and community pride, try holding a damn town hall for once.