"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Monday, December 20, 2010

American Indians in the Civil War?

Who's ready for five years of politicized, polarized, misinterpreted, and misinformed Civil War sesquicentennial fun?  (No, well you better get ready cause it starts on Monday!)

December 20th, 2010 marks the start of six years of anniversary celebrations for the American Civil War.  Exactly 150 years ago, the state of South Carolina voted to secede from the Union.  Within two months, the Confederate States of America were formally established, eventually growing to eleven states.

Why did they secede?  I'll let Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens do the talking.  Here is the famous excerpt from the cornerstone speech which puts it pretty bluntly (hint: slavery):

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

(Jefferson's) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. ... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

I was reminded of this ensuing anniversary thanks to an article over at National Parks Traveler:

American Indians in the Civil War? Petersburg National Battlefield is Part of the Story

Here is a brief excerpt:

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War is nearly here and a recent event at Petersburg National Battlefield underscored a bit of history that often escapes much notice—the role of American Indians in the conflict.

Estimates of the number of American Indians who fought for either the Union or the Confederacy vary widely; several sources cite numbers ranging from about 6,000 to over 20,000 men. One example occurred at Petersburg, Virginia, and that story has recently received some renewed attention.

The article goes on to describe Company K of the First Michigan Sharpshooters who fought at Petersburg.  Company K consisted entirely of American Indians from Michigan who enlisted in the Union Army.

According to information from the park, "The 1st Michigan Sharpshooters fought valiantly in every major battle in the Petersburg campaign. The American Indians were a memorable presence at the Battle of the Crater, where they were noticed for their composure under adversity. A Union officer described watching a group of them pull their jackets over their faces and sing their death chant when trapped in the crater under Confederate fire. 

The Park Service realized many of the dead from Company K were buried at the local cemetery and decided to contact the "the tribes to arrange a nation to nation consultation on how to move forward with the cemetery restoration project under the provisions of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act."

Eric Hemenway, a tribal repatriation specialist who works with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was one of several Native representatives who traveled to Petersburg.  Hemenway noted:

“We want to have Company K’s story told from our perspective... It’s been a local legend passed down in our community but outside of our community, it’s like a secret.  No one really knows about Company K...

Their rights aren’t fully recognized, yet they voluntarily go and fight.  They weren’t drafted or forced.  That’s kind of amazing.  In 1820, the United States Army tried to push them out of Michigan, but 40 years later, the men of Company K joined that same Army.  They went above and beyond the normal call of duty."

Hemenway finished saying:

“We’re just happy the park is being proactive and asking input from the tribes to tell their story.  We’re still here and we have a story to tell.”

This is a great article for several reasons:

1. It shows just how far the National Park Service has come in its relations with Indian people.  What was once a relationship of mistrust and hostility is slowly transforming into one of cooperation and understanding.

2. It reminds us that Indian people in the 1860s were not all stuck on the plains playing charades with Kevin Costner but rather lived side by side (and fought side by side) with a diverse lot of Americans from all backgrounds.

3. And despite this interaction, Indian people maintained and lived out their own culture and traditions within the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.

4. Lastly, it's a great reminder that Indian people not only fought in the Civil War but fought on both sides.  Just as brother fought brother in the Civil War so did Native brother fight Native brother.

Stand Watie, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (1862-1866)
Confederate Brigadier General
(Source: www.scv357.org)

For more on this topic check out the corresponding Wikipedia article which also contains a photo of Company K:


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"My Indian name is..." T-shirt Holiday Shopping Reminder

T-shirts with supposedly funny or witty tag lines that are in fact utterly demeaning are nothing new.  Take the following examples:

What is new is seeing a prominent government body call these things out for what they are...

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights released the following holiday shopping reminder on December 15:

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights reminds both retailers and shoppers that what may be funny to one person, can be offensive to another. We ask that companies refrain from selling, and that shoppers refrain from buying such items. Of particular concern are items of clothing emblazoned with messages intended to be fun, that are in fact no more than bad jokes told at the expense of others.

We ask that anyone who has already bought such an item for themselves, or who receives one as a gift, consider the effect it will have on others before wearing it in public.

One particular line of products being promoted this season is the “My Indian name is...” t-shirts and related items. While such a shirt could be worn with pride by an American Indian who has been given such a name, this clearly is not the intent of those marketing these items. Companies are suggesting such “Indian” names as “runs with beer,” “drinks like fish,” “chief of remote,” and “bets on horse.” At best, this trivializes a proud tradition of America’s Native peoples. In many instances it also promotes inaccurate and unacceptable stereotypes.

And, of course, this is by no means a uniquely American Indian issue. Too often, individuals wear something on a shirt that they would never say out loud in public. Ethnic jokes are no more appropriate when worn in public than they would be if piped in on a public address system. “Humor” that denigrates or maligns people has no place in society.

Whatever one thinks of this sort of humor, there is one inescapable fact. Many people, particularly those targeted by the message, find it to be offensive. No considerate person would promote or purchase such items for wear in public.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights simply asks that, in this season of peace, joy, and goodwill, everyone take care to ensure that their holiday cheer is not achieved at the expense of others. After all, the spirit of the season demands no less.

Thank you Michigan Department of Civil Rights for having the political guts to put out this statement and tell it like it is.

I do have one question though: Why do they keep insisting you have to be the target of the message to be offended?  I'm offended and I'm not Native.

It's also strange that they went with a "psuedo non-apology apology" reasoning for why these t-shirts are wrong.  I don't really "find it offensive" but rather think the t-shirt is itself offensive.  They seem to think it's the act of being offended that makes it wrong and not the inherent message of the t-shirt.

So does that mean if I wear it in private and not out in the public it is no longer offensive?  I suppose the Department doesn't want to get too involved in dictating personal behavior.

Then again, the problem with such a t-shirt is that it does have an impact on the non-Indian wearer.  It reinforces common stereotypes about Indian people.  It also trivializes a very serious and often misunderstood custom.  Yes, it is just a t-shirt, but all these subtle negative messages over time build up and have very real consequences.

Image: Bob King / Duluth News

Here's the contact info if you want to fire off an angry e-mail:

For more on Indians and clothing check out:

For another perspective check out this Newspaper Rock post:


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tribal Chic: Native Appropriation Appropriation?

Who wouldn't want to live in a psychadelic post-apocalyptic techno-colored tribal music scape?

Seriously who?

Because if this video appeals to you then you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself!

I've learned a few things since I started this blog of mine over 8 months ago.  First and foremost, there is a ton of stuff out there to fill the endless digital pages of Drawing on Indians.  People just can't seem to get enough Indian!

Second, it's almost impossible to separate the aesthetic and the ethnic.  True originality is damn near impossible to achieve so we are instead forced to draw upon all the various pre-existing aesthetics to construct something new.

But when you combine all these elements together you are not just mixing color and fabric and shape, you are also combining meaning, symbolism, and culture.  You are inherently bringing into the equation your own impression of that culture, whether you are conscience of it or not.

Most people don't stop to think about the deeper meaning inherent in all the aesthetics around us.  It can be a personal memory or feeling imbued in the touch of a soft blanket or the taste of a favorite meal.  Or it can be a collective or cultural memory of a national tragedy or a communal triumph.

For the sake of academic soundness, I must give credit where credit is due.  A few weeks ago I stumbled on this tumblr post:

One question for fans of the “hipster indian” look

The author goes on a rant questioning the aesthetic of the "hipster indian" look in so many current photo shoots.  And I quote:

My theory? Its because the culture being appreciated is not any particular Native American culture. It is the culture of middle class America from 30 years ago, back when if you dressed your kid up as an “indian princess” for Halloween no one would think twice about it (I’m looking at you, mom.)

You can tell because all these pictures also often exhibit artifacts of the 70s, like feathered hair and tube socks pulled up to your knees, or have orangey red faded color palettes or excessive lens flare like a flashback in a Wes Anderson movie or something.

The “more innocent time” these images are hearkening back to is not to some imagined time of pre-colombian noble savagrey but the time from my childhood when middle America felt free to stomp all over Native American culture without guilt.

And this brings me full circle back to the video.  Is the tribal chic aesthetic of the Hot-n-Fun video a true appreciation/appropriation of Native culture or just an attempt to connect with an earlier era of appropriation when playing dress up was still groovy, cool, and not only acceptable but encouraged?

What does it say about our current state of affairs if young people today are grasping for this earlier innocence?

Such is the power of memory.  If Mad Men has taught me anything, it's that earlier eras only seem happier and saner in retrospect when in fact they were just as dysfunctional as today!

I just don't understand why these young people don't complete the appropriation.  What about the violence and the oppression and the historical reality of being Native in America?

Oh yeah, that wouldn't be very "hot-n-fun."

For more on the Hipster Headdress check out this earlier post:

Hipster Indians

For a thoughtful write-up on vintage fashion check out:

On the Politics of Vintage


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Western Sky Financial: Take Two

Over 8 months ago I saw a TV commercial that got my attention.  It was for Western Sky Financial, one of those payday loan services that promises to lend you money almost instantly.  The catch of course is you pay upwards of 194% interest.

Here is the original post...

"Get Cash Fast" Indians

...and a brief look at the commercial:

Here's a longer version with a little bonus racist commentary:

I decided to re-visit this topic because of the attention it has received not only on this blog but across the internet.  The Native American content of the advertisement has provoked strong reactions ranging from racist to thoughtful and reasonable.

Most people concentrate on the financial aspect of the advertisement (source):

"Nothing like preying on people at there most desperate."

"Hey at least he's honest on the TV commercial (it's not cheap)"

But many others focus right in on the Indian angle (source):

"It was still nice to see a Native American business advertisement."

"I think America needs to realize that Indians, as they call us, will be an economic force that every nation and creed will be coming to us for mortgages, loans, cars, and whatever other business "Indians" stereotypically did not conquer in the past"

"it's not rocket science. You get approved, and once again your in debt. The reservation has it's own laws. They can do any thing they want."

"lol, well if there not in the US can you take the money and not pay it back?"

I was particularly disheartened at the large number of completely ignorant comments:

"Do they come by with peace pipes when a person doesn't pay them?" (source)

"Great Spirit say time to take advantage of the white man." (source)

"interest rate soar like eagle." (source)

"Gives new meaning to 'getting scalped'" (source)

"F*ckin' Indians..." (source)

Once again, America has proven it's wonderful track record of peace, tolerance, and understanding with Native Americans. Even when confronted with a tasteful advertisement of a man wearing a business suit, the mere mention of Native America provokes the worst sort of reactions among my fellow citizens.

Even when someone starts to write a reasonable comment they completely lose it in the end (source):

"Hey, it's not like we forced them to leave their lands, committed what is essentially mass genocide, broke treaties (which are contracts), killed their sources of food, spread highly infectious & deadly diseases amongst their animals and people, or did highly devious trades with them.. Anyway, I noticed that the APR is clearly printed at the bottom.. 139%.. lmao.. but for payday companies, that's fairly low. It's still rape."

There is one additional angle to this story that is definitely worth mentioning.  At least two sets of comments claim that this enterprise may not be what it seems.

Here is jneen commenting on the original blog posting (source):

"I am Native American,Seneca, these guys requested a copy of my Father's bank statement,driver's license. If he had gotten the loan at 199% interest,I would have paid it off. Thank-God he was turned down because of his age and credit. Yes,they do make a credit check. Also it is a loan company in California,that you deal with. The Sioux "outsourced". This is a scam,using Native people as a cover. I doubt very seriously if the Sioux will see one cent of any profit made from this company."

and user briankjohn over on youtube (source):

"This is BS!!! These guys are not Indian, they do this crap all over the country, and are currently being sued in West Virginia where the Attorney General has demanded that they stop doing business in WV."

briankjohn was probably referring to this news release from the West Virginia Attorney General's office (source):

"Today Attorney General Darrell McGraw continued his effort to curb illegal activities of payday lenders by filing two lawsuits against 12 Internet payday lenders and their collection agencies."

It does not list Western Sky Financial among the 12 Internet payday lenders.

I did find the Western Sky Financial listing on the Better Business Bureau website which lists their address as Timber Lake, South Dakota.  This backs up the claim that they are indeed a "Native American-owned business operating within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation."

So is Western Sky Financial just a front for a California based loan company which uses Native people as cover as jneen claims above or is Western Sky Financial a legitimate Native business that simply outsources to the California company?

I'm inclined to believe the latter but there is a bigger story in this whole mess.  Regardless of the origins of this company, the comments popping up across the internet prove one thing- just how far we still have to go.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Portraying Pocahontas: or the Not-So-Modern Origins of the "Sexy Indian Princess"

One of the single most pervasive and harmful facets of the 500 year history of "drawing on Indians" remains the sexual objectification of Native women. It's an important issue that can often be lost in the sea of appropriation and faulty information that sadly marks the modern state of Native representation in the wider American culture. But it's an issue that rears its ugly head every October 31st.

"Sexy Indian Princess" anyone?

This issue is in fact part of a larger trend that extends beyond Native communities. Throughout American history, women of color have always been treated as the racialized sexual other for the white male majority.

As Whitney Teal writes in her article One Woman's Costume is another Woman's Nightmare at the Women's Rights section of Change.org:

Consider the "Chiquita Banana" stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O'Hara on the plantation. Of course, there are also sexy stereotypes for white women, but most aren't ethnicity-specific and most people don't routinely lump all white women into one category.

The fact that Native women are most commonly assaulted by non-Native men is not surprising to me, but does add a historical slant to the idea of how harmful cultural appropriation can be for women. Historically, men have used the implied "natural" sluttiness of women of color as justification for rampant rape or not-really-consensual relationships with women of color, particularly Native women who came into contact with colonists.

Many modern issues for American Indians have roots that run deep in American history. This issue is no different. Reading various articles and comments about this matter, I was reminded of a particular chapter in a particular book that shows just how far back this problem goes.

Camilla Townsend is a history professor at Rutgers University where she specializes in first contact interaction between Native people and Europeans. In 2004, she published Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma which discusses the earliest interaction between the English colonists and the Indians at Jamestown.

Before I even read the book, I fully expected to learn about this early interaction and see how it set the stage for Native-Western encounters in the ensuing 400 years of American history. What I did not realize was how important the previous 100 years were for the English colonists who left England that fateful December of 1606. Long before they set foot in the muddy tidal flats of the James River, these earliest “americans” already had an idea of Native women fixed fast in their minds.

The motley band of one hundred and forty four Englishmen who landed in Virginia in 1607 were far from uneducated. The history I learned growing up had me believe that these English gentlemen shunned hard work in favor of fruitless gold prospecting, all while stumbling about and starving in this "savage new land." While it is true they faced many obstacles, they at least had done the required reading before they left.

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589)

Indeed, it is the overview on New World literature available to the English colonists that makes Professor Townsend's book so compelling. It is in her description of these sixteenth century works that the origins of the “sexualized Indian” becomes so abundantly clear.

She writes of lurid tales of an exotic land spreading throughout Europe within the first few years of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. From the earliest illustrations, America was routinely depicted as a naked Indian woman, a metaphor not lost on the Spanish conquistadors who conquered the “virgin” lands of the New World. Even the English described the Indians in and around the failed Roanoke colony as sweet and welcoming, “devoid of all guile and treason.” (p. 28)

These works inspired hundreds if not thousands of Englishmen to risk their lives and money to journey to this land of “opportunity.” Native women were portrayed as not only accessible but willing. It was seen as practically divine mandate that these Englishmen sow their seed in the new world both literally and figuratively.

As Townsend writes:

“There is no question that John Smith and his peers- those who wrote such books, and those who read them- embraced a notion of an explorer as a conqueror who strode with many steps through lands of admirers, particularly admiring young women... the colonizers of the imagination were men- men imbued with almost mystical powers. The foreign women and the foreign lands wanted, even needed, these men, for such men were more than desirable.” (p. 29)

European men fabricated the “New World” into a perfect masculine fantasy where savagery and sexuality mingled together in a myriad of tantalizing forms.

As the title of Townsend's book suggests, a certain young Indian girl entered the equation as soon as the Englishmen arrived. Today, she stands tall as the embodiment of the sexualized Indian princess who threw herself upon the white man John Smith in order to save his life. It is also a story that bleeds more fiction than fact.

Townsend brilliantly puts Pocahontas, the woman and the myth, in their historical context:

“Pocahontas, we must remember, was a real person. She was not always a myth. Long before she became an icon, she was a child who walked and played beneath the towering trees of the Virginia woods, and then an adult woman who learned to love-- and to hate-- English men. Myths can lend meaning to our days, and they can inspire wonderful movies. They are also deadly to our understanding.” (ix-x)

The tale of Pocahontas and John Smith came to prominence thanks to Smith's publications. He happily describes the young thirteen or fourteen year-old Pocahontas in alluring terms, “nubile and sexy” joined by other naked young women. (p. 74)

The Abduction of Pocahontas (c.1618)

In reality, she was a mere ten or eleven years old. A young girl who tried to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times.

All of the depictions of Pocahontas and Smith since their real-life encounter have only served to transform the historical reality of statutory rape into something not only palatable but pleasing for readers and movie audiences alike.

One only needs to look at the more modern depictions of Pocahontas to see this myth in action:

"Pocahontas" (c.1848)

"Pocahontas" (c.1883)

Pocahontas (1995)

The New World (2005)

A young attractive teenage girl tantalizing the white man.  Not the normal eleven year old girl of history.  In essence, the myth and not reality.  And sadly a myth with very real consequences even today.

Reading the various articles about sexual violence against Native women, the countless problems with sexy Indian costumes, and the historical insights on Pocahontas really made me sit up and think this Halloween.

I hope it does the same for you.

For more information:

Native American Women and Violence at NOW

Indian Women as Sex Objects at Blue Corn Comics

Pocahontas Bastardizes Real People at Blue Corn Comics

The Pocahontas Myth at Powhatan Renape Nation


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stanton, North Dakota: The Home of Sakakawea

In the summer of 2009, I lived in a rather unremarkable small North Dakota town.  Situated just off the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, it features straight streets and tall trees.  It has a corner gas station and one bar.  It even has a small city park down by the river where on a good day the walleye are biting.

But Stanton, North Dakota is not just another prairie town.  Stanton, North Dakota is special.  Stanton, North Dakota is the Home of Sakakawea.

The signs are everywhere:

Her name welcomes you into town...

 ...as her image graces the map

They have a city park named after her...

...and a gas station too!

View Larger Map

She even follows you as you drive down the main highway!

The woman we know today as Sakakawea or Sacagawea or Sacajawea was not born in Stanton or even in North Dakota.  She was born a Lemhi Shoshone in present-day Idaho.

She was kidnapped by a group of Hidatsa in a raid when she was all of twelve years-old.  She was taken to the Hidatsa village located today at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site just a mile north of town.  The now thirteen year-old Sakakawea was sold to the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau.  She spent four years living in a Hidatsa earthlodge toiling away for her "husband" until the storied Corps of Discovery arrived in 1804.  The rest as they say...

...is history.

Or is it?

We all know the story of Sakakawea.  She led Lewis and Clark across the plains, through the mountains, and down to the Pacific.  Her skills in finding food and translating foreign tongues proved invaluable.  Her fortuitous run-in with her Shoshone brother was practically destined.  And she did all this while carrying her infant son "Pomp".

This is the history we were all taught growing up.  It is the true story of a remarkable woman who accomplished remarkable things.  But it is so much more than just history.

The story of Sakakawea is part of our national cultural consciousness.  She is a mythic figure on par with the greats in American history.  How else could she get her own space in Statuary Hall in our nation's capitol:

Sakakawea stands second only to Pocahontas in our cultural obsession with a figure about whom we know so very little.  Not once do we hear her voice in the historical record.  Instead, we know this young woman through the writings of a select few white men, each with their own opinions, biases, and expectations.

Two hundred years after she returned to the villages of the Knife River, her image remains in that place but it is not an image she would recognize.  Two centuries worth of artists, writers, and politicians have worked together to create our common perception of this young woman.  From a handful of sources, they've carved her in stone, cast her in bronze, and painted her on canvas.  They made her physical, all while cementing her place in myth and memory.

I invite you all to stare into the eyes of Sakakawea and ask yourself one question...

...do we really know her?


Monday, October 18, 2010

Lenawee, Tecumseh, Indians: Drawing Three Deep in Michigan

Q: What sports do Indians play?

A: Soccer, basketball, volleyball, and track!

Well, at least according to this driver:

(click image to enlarge)

I snapped this quick photo many weeks ago while cruising along the highway on my way to Metro Beach to see the voyageur encampment (read about that adventure here: Tim the Fur Trade Reenactment Indian)

The stickers support the young athletes at Tecumseh High School located in the small town of Tecumseh, Michigan.  A better look at the logo can be had at the Tecumseh Indian Fan Club website:


Indian mascots remain today throughout our country as one of the most visible forms of drawing on Indians.  They range from the generic Indians to specific tribes like the Chippewas or Seminoles to more "descriptive" terms such as Warriors or Redskins.

They can also tie into much older examples of drawing on Indians.  Take this line from the Tecumseh Public Schools website about the history of the town:

"Tecumseh was one of the first settlements of the Michigan Territory, and the first in Lenawee County. It was first platted in 1824 by Musgrove Evans. Evans was deeply impressed with the culture and beliefs of the Native Americans of the area and named the settlement after the great Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh."

Thus a possible origin of the Indians mascot but the Indian borrowing goes back even further.  Tecumseh is located in Lenawee County which owes its name to the work of one Henry Schoolcraft, famed ethnographer of Michigan's Indian peoples.  According to the Michigan DNR website:

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, author and Indian agent, mixed words and syllables from Native American, Arabian and Latin languages to make up Native American-sounding words for some of the 28 counties set off in 1840. They include Alcona, Allegan, Alpena, Arenac, Iosco, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Oscoda and Tuscola.

 and Lenawee specifically is...

From a Native American word meaning "man," either from the Delaware "leno or lenno" or the Shawnee "lenawai."

Here is a map of Michigan listing all the county names and a short list of other Michigan counties with "Native American-sounding" names:

(Click to enlarge and see all the counties)


Believed to have been made up by Henry R. Schoolcraft with "al" from the Arabic for "the," "co" the root of a word for "plain" or "prairie," and "na" for excellent; thus the word is interpreted as "excellent plain."


A name made up by Henry Schoolcraft, it is a combination of the Latin "arena" (sandy) and the Native American "ac" (earth). The combined words mean "sandy place."


This was a favorite name used by Henry Schoolcraft for Native American boys and men in his writings. He interpreted the word to mean "water of light."


This word was a Henry Schoolcraft creation, originally spelled Calcasca. One suggestion is that this is a play on words. Schoolcraft's family name formerly was Calcraft. The Ks may have been added to make the name appear more like a Native American word.


Created by Henry Schoolcraft (Ottawas and Ojibwas did not use the letter L), who gave the name "Leelinau" to some Native American women in his stories.


This Schoolcraft creation is believed to be a combination of two Ojibwa words, "ossin" (stone) and "muskoda" (prairie).

Wow!  Three layers of drawing on Indians all located in one small Michigan town.

Americans have always been obsessed with giving things Indian names.  At least twenty-one states draw their names from Indian origins and the list of counties, cities, and towns that do likewise goes on forever.

I believe that this process of Indian place-naming ties into broader issues of myth-making and identity in American history.  From the earliest days of our young Republic, Americans have used the Indian as a proxy to authenticate their claim to this landscape and define themselves as Americans.  Indian place names inherently bring with them all the popular notions and qualities of "Indianness"- the same qualities we want in ourselves and our land.

The same is true with mascots.  People choose Indian mascots not because they are "honoring Native Americans" but rather to invoke that very essence of Indianness (or at least one version of it).  That means strength, honor, pride, and a "savage" nature perfectly suited for the football field.  The problem with these mascots is that they perpetuate one-dimensional stereotypes and undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions.

For more on Indian place-names check out:

The Penobscot Building

For more on Indian names in consumer culture check out:

Pemmican Brand Beef Jerky: Part II

For more on Indian mascots check out:

Mascot Indians

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happy Indigenous Americans Day!

Well, it's that time of year again- Columbus Day

Time for people to celebrate the myth of Christopher Columbus.  The man who brought western civilization to America and initiated the divinely mandated conquest of a continent.  He sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and for that we say thank you?

Not everyone agrees of course.  The voices may be few and far between (in the mainstream media at least) but every second Monday in October more and more people are voicing their opinions.  More and more people are stopping to think about what this day supposedly celebrates.  More and more people are starting to reconsider:

And for those of you who think this will never happen anywhere big, here's a group of people who heeded the call back in 1990.  It's just a small little place that goes by the name of South Dakota:

Thune: Anniversary of Native Americans’ Day is cause for celebration and reflection

I encourage everyone to read a few news articles about the Columbus Day holiday with a skeptical eye.  Columbus is a sacred figure for many Americans so attacking him is tantamount to burning the flag or defacing Mount Rushmore.  But realize, history is rarely black and white.

500 years can hide a lot of dirt and Christopher Columbus is one figure whose popular image is suspiciously clean.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Got any Firewater?" or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Indian Humor

Question: How does an Indian tell which way is south?

Answer: He looks at his satellite dish.

Question: When do Indians know it is safe to go out on the ice.

Answer: When the white guys quit falling through.

Question: Why is America called the land of the free?

Answer: Because they never paid the original inhabitants for it.

-Jim Northrup

On Wednesday, September 29th I had the great pleasure to meet the award-winning Ojibwe author and poet Jim Northrup. He is the man behind the works Walking the Rez Road and Rez Road Follies. He also writes the long-running syndicated column Fond du Lac Follies.

Jim is best known for his dry wit, warm humor, and hilarious insights into life on the Rez. His writing pokes fun at both Indians and American society at large. Jim also speaks openly about his experience fighting in Vietnam and his struggles to overcome post traumatic stress disorder. No matter the topic however, a evening with Jim Northrup is sure to be two things: hilarious and insightful.

Jim reciting his poem "weegwas"

While listening to Jim speak, I was reminded of my own experience with Native humor.  It was the summer of 2008 and I was working at Grand Portage National Monument tucked away in the far northeast corner of Minnesota.  I both lived and worked on the Grand Portage Chippewa Reservation giving me a crash course in life on the Rez.

It was maybe my third week on the job.  I was fresh and new, still learning my way around the site.  I was stationed in the historic kitchen inside the trading post.  I had dressed in my usual period outfit of baggy front-flap pants, loose fitting shirt, sash, and moccasins.  Visitors would walk in the back door, I'd explain how the kitchen worked, and they would depart through the front door.  Standard operating procedure.

Kitchen (left) & Great Hall (right)

A few visitors had just left the kitchen when all of a sudden this young tall skinny Native guy comes strolling in the back door like he owns the place.  He gives me a little flick of the head and with a big smirk on his face he asks me "Hey man, got any firewater?"

I freeze.  My mind immediately fills with, "You're not supposed to say that."  I check to see if there are any visitors around.  There aren't any.  The guy walks up to me.  We're now face to face.  I'm standing motionless.  He exclaims, "Hey man, you gotta loosen up.  Geez look at you!"  He laughs.

Ha ha ha, I get it.  It's pick on the new guy day.  He was just having his fun and I don't blame him.  We actually get to talking and he tells me he's on leave from the army.  He was fighting in Afghanistan.  He's spending his time off with the family on the Rez.  Now I know why he's such a kidder.  With a life like his, I don't blame him for laughing a little.

Every time I see this guy the whole rest of the summer, the same question comes out of his mouth.  "Hey man, you loosened up yet?"  He will never let me live it down.

So I learned my lesson that day.  Sometimes you just gotta laugh.  It's like what another one of my co-workers once told me, "you're laughin' to keep from cryin'."  Humor is a very powerful force and if you can't laugh about life then life ain't truly worth living.

For more tales from Grand Portage check out my previous post:

Tales from Grand Portage: The Great Hall Spirits

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Onion Parodies Amazon "Civilization"

The satirical magazine The Onion, which bills itself as "America's Finest News Source," has just come out with a new article about the "lousiest civilization ever."  Here is a brief snippet:

Archaeologists Unearth Lousiest Civilization Ever

Archaeologists working in a remote section of the Amazon Rainforest announced Tuesday that they have discovered the ancient remnants of what they claimed may be the lousiest civilization in human history.

According to Dr. Ronald Farber, a professor from the University of Minnesota who is leading the excavation, the "half-assed" culture existed from about 450 B.C. until 220 B.C., when it abruptly disappeared—an event he said was "honestly no big loss" for our understanding of human culture.

"From what we've unearthed so far, it appears this pre-Columbian civilization was pretty much just copying what other, more superior groups nearby were doing—albeit to a much shittier degree," Farber said. "They sucked. You should see the useless mess of a calendar these dumbasses came up with."

The article goes on to reference all manner of "half-assed" attempts at copying other Pre-Colombian civilizations.  It references "inefficient" aqueduct systems, "piece of shit" pipes, "asinine" agricultural methods, and a massive sun temple whose alignment with the Summer solstice was off by two feet.  Apparently, they all "went blind" from staring into the solar eclipses they predicted.

Here is another line that rips on the archaeologists:

An ancient ceremonial headdress, believed to belong to the ruler of the civilization, is reportedly the only artifact from the site that has captured the interest of the scientific community. However, the find was only deemed worthwhile after one of the archaeologists donned the feather diadem while prancing around and shouting, "Duh! Look at me, I'm King Fuckstick, Leader of the Numbskulls!"

The article is clearly meant to be parody.  It satirizes the traditional stereotype that the Amazon was full of backwards savages and cannibals incapable of creating or sustaining any hint of civilization.  The article references all the great achievements of the Pre-Columbian Americans such as advanced knowledge of astronomy, massive public works, written languages, and the fine arts.

I suspect this parody was written in direct response to this recent article in The Washington Post about new discoveries of Amazon civilization:

Scientists find evidence discrediting theory Amazon was virtually unlivable
By Juan Forero

To the untrained eye, all evidence here in the heart of the Amazon signals virgin forest, untouched by man for time immemorial - from the ubiquitous fruit palms to the cry of howler monkeys, from the air thick with mosquitoes to the unruly tangle of jungle vines.

Archaeologists, many of them Americans, say the opposite is true: This patch of forest, and many others across the Amazon, was instead home to an advanced, even spectacular civilization that managed the forest and enriched infertile soil to feed thousands.

The findings are discrediting a once-bedrock theory of archaeology that long held that the Amazon, unlike much of the Americas, was a historical black hole, its environment too hostile and its earth too poor to have ever sustained big, sedentary societies. Only small and primitive hunter-gatherer tribes, the assumption went, could ever have eked out a living in an unforgiving environment.

But scientists now believe that instead of stone-age tribes, like the groups that occasionally emerge from the forest today, the Indians who inhabited the Amazon centuries ago numbered as many as 20 million, far more people than live here today...

It is the following paragraph in particular that led me to believe the authors of The Onion article had read this one:

"I think we're humanizing the history of the Amazon," said Neves, 44, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo. "We're not looking at the Amazon anymore as a black box. We're seeing that these people were just like anywhere else in the world. We're giving them a sense of history."

Hence, The Onion article absurdly "de-humanizes" the indigenous Amazon people with its foul mouthed archaeologists, all while substantially reinforcing the very real advances of their civilization!

This certainly is one of the more humorous examples of "drawing on Indians" that I have encountered recently.  Essentially, The Onion draws upon the advances of Native civilizations in order to point out the traditional prejudices of non-Native people against the so-called "primitive" Indians.  It demonstrates the hypocrisy of continuing to think of Indians as backwards people when for thousands of years Native civilizations were just as advanced or even more advanced than those in Europe!

I was also keenly aware of the fact that the article did not once use the words Native, Indian, or indigenous.  "Civilization" and "society" make much better satire anyway when paired with the archaeologist's scholarly choice of "half-assed".

What do you think?  Effective satire or just not funny?

For another take on The Washington Post article check out this write-up from the Newspaper Rock blog:

Amazon Indians weren't savages

Friday, September 10, 2010

Indians and Knights T-Shirt

Sometimes I don't have to look very far to find interesting examples of "drawing on Indians".  Case in point is the following t-shirt my brother was wearing last week:

(Click to enlarge)

The full text on the shirt reads:

"Nature is at work. Character and destiny are her handiwork.
She gives us love and hate, jealousy and reverence. All that is ours is
the power to choose which impulse we shall follow.

The analogy between Indians and Knights is a new one for me but not at all surprising.  In the popular American imagination, both are highly romanticized chivalrous warriors of some distant long ago past.  But apparently we have to choose between the two.

I'm going to channel the fashion designer to figure this one out.  I'm guessing the "Knight" represents "strength" since he is covered in heavy armor.  That means the "Indian" represents "Honor" since he is wearing only his skin.

So then we have to choose between the two.  Will we choose the protection of the Knight or fight honorably like the Indian?   But what, I don't get any other choices?  Can't I be a ninja or a pirate or a cowboy?

This shirt stands as another fine example demonstrating how people envision and understand Native peoples.  The classic image of the Plains warrior on horseback is the go to symbol for "honor".  It reinforces the false notion that somehow honor is inherent to the "Nature" of Native Americans.  It's noble savagery through and through.

Then again, if recent examples have proven anything, many fashion designers don't actually put too much thought into the meanings of images but rather just go for the "look."  I imagine the weekly meeting at the design studio went something like this:

"Haven't you heard, the tribal look is totally selling with our young hipster clientele so we better put some Indians on t-shirts stat!  I don't care if it doesn't make any sense!  If it's savage it sells!"

How do I know?

Check out their website: http://www.tankfarmclothing.com/

And their latest design:

My brother's t-shirt is a great example for one other reason: I bought it for him!  It was the Christmas holiday maybe three or four years ago.  I knew my brother needed t-shirts so I bought a few he might like at the local T.J. Maxx.

At the time, I thought absolutely nothing of the image on the shirt.  Like the fashion designer behind it, I thought it looked "cool."  Just goes to show how much I've learned in the interim.  Remember, if you don't stop to look around every once in a while and ask critical questions, you might just find yourself wearing a t-shirt with an "Indian" on it!

For more on "Indians" and clothing check out my post:
Selling Blue Jeans with Indians

For more on "Indians" as a hip fashion trend check out my posts:
Hipster Indians
Glastonbury "Indians"

Some more "Indian" t-shirts from the newspaper rock blog:

Lucky Brand sells "White Lightning" t-shirt
Indian skulls in headdresses
T-shirt shows skull in headdress
"Ur-A-Nole" t-shirt

And for real Native fashion check out the wonderful:
Beyond Buckskin blog

Monday, September 6, 2010

1930 Newsreel Mocks Indians

Check out this black and white newsreel from 1930.  The description from the website seems innocent enough...

"A 1930 newsreel of Calvin Coolidge at the dedication ceremony for the dam named after him and he smokes a peace pipe with a Pima chief and an Apache chief after a meal on top of the dam."

But go ahead and watch the video yourself:


Here are the highlights from Patrick Bateman (I mean the narrator):

"by irrigating a million acres of land, it will save hundreds of Indians from poverty and suffering."

"See the Indians there.  They're from the Pima and Apache tribes who used to be fighting each other all the time."

"After dinner is always a good time for a puff so Mr. Coolidge smoked the pipe of peace and then handed it to the chief of the Pimas.  After he had a puff, he gave it to the Apache chief who came in his best Sunday feathers.  Looks like an old cigar store sign."

Anyone else want to strangle the narrator?

The narration effectively belittles the Indians into mere stereotypes.  It positions President Coolidge as the great leader of the American people, bringing civilization to those poor backward Indians.

And worst of all, despite the claims in the video, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation on whose land the dam and reservoir now stand, remains one of the poorest in the country.

I imagine this newsreel was created as post-presidential propaganda for Mr. Coolidge.  It effectively draws on Indians to boost up his image and solidify his legacy as friend to the Indian.  But why it had to be so condescending is more a sign of the times than anything else.

Even more interesting is the keywords section on the website.  Click on "Search Related Keywords" and see how this video was classified.  Thankfully, Thought Equity Motion who hosts this video for educational and commercial purposes correctly chose these three keywords: sadness, propaganda, and spin.  Why sneaky is on there I will never know.

Bonus Video:

Here's President Coolidge presiding over a Sioux powwow.  Coolidge claimed Indian heritage and was actually given the Indian title "Chief Leading Eagle."  Hence, the one line in the video:


And yes, he's wearing a headdress.  (which considering the context and the groups involved, actually makes sense for a change!)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles

One of the main reasons I started this blog almost six months ago was my experience with a little film by the name of AvatarIt proved so influential that my very first real blog post was all about Avatar:

Blue Monkey Indians!

Since then my experience with native cinema has expanded considerably.  There are tons of great films out there about real life indigenous struggles yet Avatar gets all the hype!  Not fair.  With that in mind I put together the following list:

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles

I chose films that both fit the theme and were high quality. I also picked more obscure but noteworthy films and tried to get a good geographic spread.

What do you think?  Do any of them not belong on the list?  Is the list missing any crucial films?

It is posted over at videohound's movieretriever.com

Special thanks to Mike T. for hosting the list! 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tim the Fur Trade Reenactment Indian

We all have our unique hobbies. Some people are bird watchers. Others collect stamps. Still others restore classic cars.

And some get dressed up and pretend they are living in the 1700s.

This past weekend I visited the annual Voyageur Encampment at Metro Beach Metropark in metropolitan Detroit, Michigan. I have attended these events before but this was the first one here in my home state of Michigan.

The Living History Encampment

For those of you who are not familiar with Fur Trade reenactors or even reenacting in general, I'll let Wikipedia do the talking:  “Historical reenactment is a type of roleplay in which participants attempt to recreate some aspects of a historical event or period.”  In this case, the Great Lakes Fur Trade of the 1700s.

There are as many reasons for participating in reenactments as there are reenactors. It is usually some combination of love of history, love of the reenactment community, and love of dressing up and getting away from it all. I met several fascinating individuals this weekend but there is one in particular who fits right in here at Drawing on Indians.

Tim is just your average midwestern blue collar worker pulling down his 40 hours and a steady paycheck as a pipefitter for General Motors. It's only on the occasional weekend during the summer that you realize Tim is somehow different.

Here's Tim:

(click to enlarge)

Tim immediately caught my attention because of the hair.  I jokingly asked him if he had cut it especially for the event or if this was a permanent style choice.  He told me this was a summer ritual where he would cut it into the Mohawk style when the reenactments started.

I then asked what type of individual he was portraying.  He told me he dressed to represent a Great Lakes Fur Trade era Indian.  He said he didn't know his history as well as others and was representing a more generic Great Lakes Indian and not a specific tribe.  I then of course had to ask politely if he was indeed Native himself.  The answer was both expected and unexpected.  (and I paraphrase)

"Yeah, well I'm French and Native, maybe like 1/32nd Indian but mostly French."

Tim explained how he first became interested in primitive living skills and Indian material culture back in the day which eventually led to his involvement in Fur Trade reenacting.  He actively participates in the group Great Lakes Primitives whose facebook page explains:

Primitive skills teachers and participants gather to share knowledge of our ancestors’ ancient art forms and survival technologies to preserve and pass on these traditions with new friends and renew old friendships.

The group sounds like many of the other survival schools I profiled in my post Cody Lundin and Surviving like an Indian.  These groups draw upon indigenous cultures including American Indians to teach primitive living skills.  Something new I spotted on the Great Lakes Primitives page which surprised me was the following line:

We respect all religious beliefs and practices. Due to the diversity of participants’ spiritual beliefs and the nature of this event, we ask that attendees be respectful of differences as we share our time together.

Between the line "our ancestors’ ancient art form" and the note on religious diversity, I'm wondering if there aren't active Indian members in this group.  Then again, the group could swing the other direction and simply idealize a primitive Indian lifestyle to which it makes false attachments.  All I know is that Tim did refer to some of its members as "those natural people" which made me chuckle.

Now, before anyone starts condemning Tim as a wannabe or shameless hack consider this.  One of the main goals of the Fur Trade reenactment community is to faithfully recreate the look, feel, sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes of the era.  Reenactors put hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars into their tents, gear, and clothing so that you the visitor can walk into the encampment and literally walk back in time.

From my experience, the Indian presence in the Fur Trade reenactment community is quite small and even non-existent in some places.  How then does one faithfully reenact and represent this era of exploration, trade, and cultural interaction without one half of the equation?

When talking to reenactors or listening to presentations a common phrase was "The Native Americans wore this" or "The Indians traded those" or "The Natives believed in that."  The combined effect was to reinforce the fact that there were no Indians at the event to answer these questions for themselves!

A Group of Reenactors

In an ideal world, every historic reenactment would have reenactors represent their own ethnicity or culture  (a group of French-Canadians as voyageurs, English and Scotsmen as traders, Métis as Métis, and Indians as Indians).  But such restrictions limit the openness and inclusivity of these groups.  After all, it's a hobby not a movie set!

Which brings me back to Tim.

After talking with him briefly, he seemed to have a well rounded view of historic and modern Native Americans.  He readily acknowledged the centuries of injustice against Indian people and expressed genuine concern for the loss of Indian culture, language, and traditions.  He even mentioned several acquaintances who actively work with native communities to preserve their language and culture.  Furthermore, he didn't assume a first person identity as an Indian or started lecturing me on native culture as if he'd just walked off the rez, which is always a good thing.

Then again, my conversation with him was rather short and I will never know the truth behind his claim of Indian heritage.  Therefore the question remains...

Can you or should you ever faithfully recreate the look and material culture of American Indians by dressing as an Indian?

My thoughts:

As with most issues of native appropriation, it all depends on the context.  In this particular case, I'm just not sure.

Is Tim's motivation for dressing as an Indian primarily educational to teach others about primitive skills and Indian material culture or is he simply dressing up to "be" an Indian, a human prop on display in the living history encampment.

He certainly has the authentic clothes and gear to represent a Great Lakes Indian of the 1700s (expect for the bow which he acknowledged was not quite period authentic).  Sure is a refreshing change from the stereotypical Plains Indian with full warbonnet and face paint!

I honestly see both sides on this...

What do you think?

Is this a harmless hobby or questionable cultural appropriation?

or something completely different altogether?

<Let me know!>

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Digital Empires: Civilization Indians

I started this blog many months ago to continue the critical analysis that began during my college years.  I had the wonderful opportunity to work with some great professors who challenged every one of my preconceived notions about U.S. History and Native America.  In so many ways, this blog is an attempt to continue this process and come to terms with my own thoughts and feelings about Native America.

Here's why:

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, far from Indian Country but not from Indians.  Despite this, I didn't know a single Native person.  My exposure to Native America was limited to the usual things- history textbooks, films, television, and videogames.  In my mind, American Indians sort of were those historic exotic far off people who existed on paper and on celluloid but not in real life.

I was recently reminded of one item that had a huge impact on my upbringing and prominently featured American Indians.  It wasn't a movie or television show or book, it was that most modern of mediums- the videogame.


As a prototypical pre-teen and teenage male, I played my share of videogames.  While I occasionally dabbled in racing simulations, first person shooters, and sports games, nothing could beat a good strategy game.  Among many great titles, nothing could compare to the critically acclaimed Civilization series.

The gameplay involves controlling a distinct civilization from the stone age through the atomic age.  It's like the board game Risk on steroids where you move your armies and expand your empire across the entire world.  You research technologies, conduct diplomacy, and build Wonders of the World.

The Civilization series is also a perfect example of "greatest hits" history.  Just as musicians release their greatest hits album, so have popular forces created a "greatest hits" list of history.  I'm talking the Pyramids of Giza, Roman armies, Alexander the Great, medieval knights, the Great Wall of China, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment etc. etc.   All the best-known names, ideas, and objects that just scream Civilization!

How many Wonders can you identify from this Civilization III screenshot?

The Civilization series has always included real civilizations in its format.  You can explore the world as the ancient Romans, sail the high seas as the English, or develop the atomic bomb as the Sioux!

Wait... what?


The American Indian in Civilization

On one hand, I fault the Civilization series for essentially stereotyping every major civilization and history in general.  This became most apparent with Civilization III when each civilization was given two unique qualities and a unique unit which provided bonuses and affected gameplay.  Previous to this, each civilization was essentially equal with just superficial differences in naming and color.

So for example, the Egyptians are considered a "religious" and "industrious" civilization, (cause they built big pyramids and had big temples), the English are "expansionist" and "commercial" (cause they had a big empire and were good merchants), and the Germans are "scientific" and "militaristic" (cause they invented stuff and liked to invade countries).  Check out the full chart here to see what I mean: Civ III chart

Here are the Civilization III stats for the 4 Native civilizations:

Aztecs- militaristic and religious (later changed to agricultural and militaristic)
Iroquois- expansionist and religious (later changed to agricultural and commercial)

Hiawatha- leader of the Iroquois from Civilization III

Incans- expansionist and agricultural
Mayans- agricultural and industrious

(notice how they're all termed agricultural but otherwise follow the pattern seen above)

Here are the unique units for the 4 Native civilizations:

Aztecs- Jaguar warrior (OK)

Iroquois- mounted warrior (Really?  Apparently, the Iroquois stood in to represent all of Native America in Civ III.  So their "great leaders" include Tecumseh, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull.  Click here)

"Iroquois mounted warrior"

Incans- chasqui scout (OK)

Mayans- javelin thrower (nothing more unique?)

On the other hand, despite being based on real history, the beauty of the Civilization series is your ability to write a new history.  It's every history buff's dream come true.  You can send the Spanish Armada to invade China, surprise Germany with a "blitzkrieg" of French tanks, or send your Iroquois musketeers to subject the native English population on some newly discovered continent!  Gotta love anachronisms!

Iroquois leader Hiawatha circa the European Renaissance

The series did hit a bump in the road with Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword which represents the 550+ distinct Native North American nations as one generic Native American Civilization.  As the official game website explains:

The "Native American" civilization in the game represents the empire that would have formed had these disparate people ever united.

Ouch!  But if you read the rest of the text it comes off a little better.  Click the link > civilizations > Native American Empire


Still, this didn't stop some enterprising modders from correcting this wrong with their new mod:

Annoyed about the fact that Native America got bundled into one? Thought the Totem Pole was inappropriate? Then I give you: Native America Expanded for VD 6


 The Apache Empire: a user-created civilization

In the latest reiteration, Civilization V the series has gotten better in expanding beyond the Western world.  You can play as India, Japan, China, Songhai, Siam, Aztecs, and Iroquois.  Despite the attempts to define each civilization with two distinct qualities, the series otherwise treats each civilization equally.  Everyone starts in the Stone Age and so has an equal chance of ruling the world.  It's a refreshing take on history that Iroquois and Aztec civilization is placed on the same level as Roman or American civilization.

Civilization IV: Colonization

The Civilization series has numerous expansion packs and spin offs that recreate distinct historical periods ranging from the Ancient World to World War II.  One recent stand-alone release was Civilization IV: Colonization.  Here's a description from the game's website:

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization is a total conversion of the Civilization IV engine into a game experience in which players will lead a European nation on their quest to colonize and thrive in the New World. Players will be challenged to guide their people from the oppressive motherland, discover a New World, negotiate, trade and fight as they acquire great power and battle for their freedom and independence.

Essentially, this is the standard American historical narrative in video game form.  Europeans come to the Americas to flee oppression and strike it rich, all while engaging in the exciting activities of discovery, trading, and fighting.  You must:

Sustain peace and support your followers as you engage in advanced negotiations with natives, other colonists and the hostile homeland -- Trade resources, gold and land as you build the foundation for a self sufficient and powerful colony.

I have never played this specific game but am sad to see the Native civilizations treated as minor characters.  I remember one "New World" scenario for Civilization III where you could play as either a European power or one of several Native civilizations, each fighting for territory with a real chance of winning.  Now that's historically accurate!

"Chief of Teton - Sioux" from Civilization IV: Colonization

I played these games throughout my youth without giving them much thought.  I know they definitely spurred my interest in history but did they influence me in any other way?  Are my views and feelings toward real peoples and "civilizations" affected by years of building digital empires and waging artificial wars?  I can only wonder...


Here's a good take on Civilization IV: Colonization from the Newspaper Rock blog:

And one from Variety.com:

And for a more general look at American Indians in video games: