"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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Stephen Colbert: "Go Humans!!!"

Gotta love Stephen Colbert.

In case you missed last night's episode, Stephen Colbert took on Stephen Hawking's new television series Into the Universe, with Stephen Hawking.  Stephen questioned Hawking's belief that aliens encountering humans would not turn out well.  To quote Hawking from his show:

The outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans.

Stephen goes on to rip Hawking apart for his support of the "old liberal myth that colonization was bad for the Native Americans."  The next section is priceless including a hilarious run down of the top "Indians" that owe their existence to Columbus and the colonizers.  Let's just say it's comedy genius and the ending is perfect.  He gives the Cleveland Indians a run for their money.   Go Humans!!!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Hawking Is Such an A-Hole
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

The best part about all this comedy, it points out the absolute absurdities of these Indian stereotypes.  This is why I love satire and comedy so much, it is the perfect medium for discussing otherwise touchy issues such as cultural appropriation and the troubled history between indigenous peoples and colonizers in North America.  Satire points out the nuances that too often are lost on most people.  Thank you Stephen Colbert for reminding the millions of people who watch your show about this subject.  Let's just hope they remember the history behind the humor.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mascot Indians

In order to delve into this complicated issue I first have to answer two fundamental questions-

1. How and why do we choose mascots?

2. How and why were Indians chosen as mascots?

As with so many issues, it is good to start with working definitions. The following is the definition of mascot from the American Heritage dictionary:

mascot n. A person, animal, or object believed to bring good luck, especially one kept as the symbol of an organization such as a sports team.

It also includes a word history that I will quote in full:

“A giant strutting bird leading a cheer at the homecoming game may seem a far cry from a witch fashioning a charm or spell, but these two figures are related historically in the development of the word mascot. Mascot came into English as a borrowing of the French word mascotte, meaning "mascot, charm...” The French word in turn came from the Provençal word mascoto, "piece of witchcraft, charm, amulet," a feminine diminutive of masco, "witch." This word can probably be traced back to Medieval Latin masca, "witch, specter." Thus for all their apparent differences, yesterday's witches and today's cuddly mascots can be seen in the same light, as agents working their respective magic to bring about a desired outcome.”

In a lot of ways, this origin makes sense. We choose mascots because we want part of this power or magic for ourselves. We fixate on the desirable qualities of the symbol. We the athletes on the field or the fans in the stands want to impart in ourselves its enchanted elements. We wish to be as quick as a cougar, as fierce as a lion, as strong as a bull. It has an almost spiritual element to it.

How then do Indians fit into this picture? Throughout American history, Native Americans have been seen as an otherworldly, spiritual other. From the moment Columbus set foot in the Caribbean, the indigenous people of this continent have fascinated Europeans. Their Christian Bibles included a Europe, an Africa, and an Asia but what then was this America? And who were these people who lived with such strange customs, languages, and practices? They were exotic, they were bizarre, they did not fit. And at a time when these former Europeans were busy burning each other as witches, these strange new people, in this strange new land, certainly held their own magic. Where the lines on the map ended, the magic began.

When the colonists stormed three ships in Boston Harbor in the year 1773, why were they dressed like Indians? They were not disguising themselves but rather making a point. As the ensuing two decades saw a radical transformation in America from British colony to independent nation, non-native Americans suffered a crisis. How could these former subjects of the King emphasize that they were no longer British but instead something new.

The United States has been called the greatest experiment in human history- a nation based not on divine right but on the high ideals of democracy, liberty, and freedom. Such high ideals and abstract concepts provided little solace to the war-weary Americans. They demanded something tangible, more concrete. There existed a huge void in their identity. “If we are no longer British,” they thought, “What are we? Americans, but what does that even mean? How can we lay claim to this new land we just shed our blood for? How do we become true, authentic 'Americans'?”

The resourceful and ingenious Americans did not have to look far for their answer. From the Boston Tea Party to the present day, Americans have had a continual history of “playing Indian.” We dress up like wild Indians in our social fraternities. We put stoic Indians on our currency. We write tall tales of noble savages. We dress in buckskin and sing Indian songs at Summer camp. We dress like Pocahontas and Squanto at Halloween. We put up our tepee at Woodstock and tell everyone to be one with the earth. Like so many generations past when choosing their mascots, we choose Indians as our “agents working their respective magic to bring about our desired outcome.” We want to be that exotic, wild other. We want to live out our fantasies of a more primitive life. We want to be true, authentic Americans. We want that connection to the land that is so uniquely, mysteriously, even magically Indian.

And yet all these things are simply that, Indian.  Not Chippewa, Ottawa, Iroquois, Lakota, Abenaki, Seminole, Muscogee, Ute, Mandan, Paiute, Diné, Inuit or even Native American. Just Indian.

This is this idea of the Indian or “indianness,” separate from real Native American people and cultures but the truth is these two things can never truly be separated. The former is simply an attempt to re-envision, to remake the latter so it can be conveniently used by non-native people. Native Americans and their cultures, past and present, were simply too diverse, too complicated, too complex, too inconvenient to make a good stand in for this utter insecurity on the part of the Americans. Therefore, we pick and choose certain elements of Native Americans, building up some aspects while burying others. We create one-dimensional stereotypes that fill the void in our own lives, our own identities. American insecurities of all varieties stripped down Native Americans into an idealized, magical native creature, the Indian. It became our hero, our inspiration, our charm, our mascot.

But haven't we moved beyond all this? This is the year 2010. Sure, when the redskins name and logo were chosen decades ago, people didn't know better. People do know better today and certainly can make the distinction between a crude stereotype and a real, diverse culture. Plus, all cultures borrow elements from other cultures so why single out this example? We've all seen people with tribal symbols, celtic designs, and chinese characters tattooed on their own skin who are not even Native American, Irish, or Chinese. We all borrow clothing fashions, music styles, and slang words from people who look, speak, and act differently than us. Even look at the back of our currency and you will see symbols ranging from pyramids, to eagles, to the neo-pagan goddess herself Lady Liberty.

And yet it is different.

Whenever I think about the issue of Indian mascots, my mind always returns to this unique historical trend, this obsession with everything Indian in all its myriad forms. But it is also more than that. This is only half the story. Native Americans were continually marginalized, persecuted, and killed in the name of Manifest Destiny. A wide group of real people were demonized as savages, pushed of their land, and then carved down into a stock character, only to be used by the very people who did the demonizing and pushing. Americans glorified Indians as noble warriors and spiritual beings, while wiping these same so-called savages from the face of the earth. It is the definition of cruel irony.

And I don't think that people have moved beyond race in this country. I wince whenever someone says we live in a post-racial environment and that we all should be color-blind. Yes, I believe that today is the most racially tolerant and understanding day in American history and tomorrow will be even better. But how can we expect this trend to continue when such clear visual and meaningful stereotypes exist as the Clinton High School Redskins. It is simply wishful thinking that people will differentiate between a stereotype and reality. Images have real impact, even if the message is not on the surface.

Take this study that demonstrates how race is something even young children see:

“For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that "pink" means for girls and "blue" is for boys. "White" and "black" are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

I continue with some insightful comments from the Newspaper Rock blog:

"As the article states, parents, teachers, and society as a whole should be talking about race. And not with such namby-pamby clichés as "We're all the same." The article demonstrates how a child reacts to such vague generalities:

'To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, "Remember, everybody's equal." She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?"'

This article explains why we look for the racial messages beneath the surface. It's because people can perceive a message even if it's not overt. For instance, if Indiana Jones is the gun-wielding hero and Indians are the spear-wielding villains, it's not hard to conclude that white = noble and civilized and brown = primitive and savage. A child can see the difference even if adults try to deny it."

And take this recent study about racial attitudes. To quote the author of the study:

“Simply telling people to celebrate diversity or multiculturalism or saying, generically, that we believe in tolerance isn’t sufficient. We need to teach people about structural racism, about the ways that race still shapes people’s life chances and how the media informs our attitudes toward race.”

I honestly believe the students of Clinton High School when they say the Redskins mascot and logo are sources of pride and inspiration. But a supposedly positive stereotype is still a stereotype nonetheless. And when you look at the historical trend of the Indian image and it's use as a mascot, you cannot help but feel a bit unsettled. How can this cultural creation, whose origins are rooted in at best ironic admiration at worst genocide, continue to serve in that role today. In doing so, it only conditions the students into believing that real Native Americans are nothing more than the proud, one-dimensional warriors they lionize every Friday night. Provided few if any alternatives, (and being hounded by legions of native stereotypes in the rest of our popular culture) how can we expect these young students at a learning institution to come to an accurate and nuanced portrait of real Native Americans and real Native culture in the year 2010.

Indian mascots have real consequences for real people today. They perpetuate a constructed stereotype that was born in a process of awkward cultural appropriation over the past 500 years. They simply prevent Native Americans from defining their own culture and their own identity.

Now, one of the most common arguments used to support Indian mascots is the fact that they have real Native American support. They show polling data which clearly shows a large majority of Native Americans in support of keeping Indian mascots. I have a theory about this and I'm going to take a chance and throw it out there.

Growing up Native American in this country means being exposed to the same stereotypes, the same images, the same feelings about Indians as everyone else. You see all these things and know them to not be true. Yet they still have their impact. You wonder why the people like you in the movies, on television, in American culture are both simultaneously glorified and vilified. Such conflicting messages can do a number on your psychology and your self-esteem. You feel dispossessed. You feel utterly insecure.

So you look for any way to set the record straight, even if it means selling out a little of yourself. You're willing to put up with a positive Indian stereotype because you too want to take pride in that image and have others do the same. Like the students at Clinton High School, you look at the Redskins mascot and want some of that magic to rub off on yourself. It's the comfort in seeing something with which you identify being celebrated.

Thanks to the Indian stereotypes in our popular culture and the reality of two centuries worth of boarding schools that systematically shamed Native identity and culture right out of the hearts and minds of generations, many Native Americans were left in an emotional and cultural no-man's land. For this reason, I understand the logic and the emotion behind this current native support for Indian mascots. I just feel there has to be a better way.

In 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the immediate retirement of all American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities by schools, colleges, universities, athletic teams, and organizations. They released a point by point analysis of the negative aspects of Indian mascots. They concluded Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities...

“undermine the educational experiences of members of all communities-especially those who have had little or no contact with Indigenous peoples.”

“undermine the ability of American Indian Nations to portray accurate and respectful images of their culture, spirituality, and traditions”

“establish an unwelcome and often times hostile learning environment for American Indian students that affirm negative images/stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society”

“have a negative impact on the self-esteem of American Indian children”

A big part of the solution is education to teach people of all backgrounds, native and not, to better understand the reality and the complexities of the cultures around us. But this education will only go so far if the simplistic images and stereotypes it's preaching against are plastered on the very walls where this learning takes place, our own schools.

In conclusion, I fully expect people of all backgrounds to go on borrowing from other cultures. I expect people will continue to take pieces of other cultures to fill the holes in their own. I fully expect sports teams everywhere will be in need of rallying symbols, mascots, to propel their team to victory. But when that mascot has such a troubled history and the consequences are so very real for so many people, things simply must change.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Clinton Redskins Demonstration- a narrative

On Monday, April 19th I drove to Clinton, Michigan to experience first hand our constitutional rights in action. I attended a demonstration and school board meeting to address the issue of the Clinton High School mascot, the Redskins. In the course of a few hours, I learned a lot.

When I arrived, I saw a group of peaceful demonstrators holding signs and expressing their opinions. They held signs saying “teach respect, not racism,” “stop identity theft,” and “Native Americans are not mascots.” The crowded included people of all races and backgrounds. I was surprised to learn that many of the people were there not to demonstrate but rather for protection. This thought was quite unsettling as I later learned about previous actions directed against the demonstrators- dead animals left on doorsteps, people saying racial epithets under their breath, and car break lines being cut.

The evening changed when an opposing demonstration started to grow across the school entrance. It consisted of high schoolers from Clinton High proudly wearing their “Redskins forever” T-shirts. They said their “Go Redskins!” cheers with all their youthful exuberance and received “Go Redskins!” responses from many honking cars driving by. It was quite a striking image hearing these chants and seeing a giant cardboard Indian head thrust into the air when just 20 feet away stood a group of Native Americans. Somehow calling this situation ironic felt a little like an understatement. This went on until it was time for the school board meeting.

The school board meeting was inside the High School library, local residents on one side and the school board on the other. As they finished their business, it finally came time for public comment when Elspeth, who together with sister Kylista has spearheaded this movement for more than a year and a half now, spoke first. She argued the merits of her case: the history of the term Redskins, it's attachment to the murder of Native people, how mascots steal the identity from real Native Americans.

By this time the students from outside came inside and lined one entire wall of the library. They were well-behaved and some spoke in defense of the Redskins mascot. Essentially, it was thirty minutes of back and forth between supporters of keeping the mascot and supporters of changing the mascot.

Some of the arguments went as follows:

Keep the mascot:
"I don't see anything wrong with the name."
"This name was chosen to honor and respect the native people"
"I'm a card carrying member (while holding the card) of the (fill in the blank) tribe and I am ashamed of these two women bringing this up. I'm proud of my Redskins."

Change the mascot:
"I find the name truly abhorrent and it does not honor my people."
"The name Redskins is directly attached to the bounties put on native people and the murder of innocent people."
"Using Native American as mascots not only harms the self-esteem and well-being of native people, but also teaches all young people in this place of learning that it is somehow okay to stereotype an entire group of people."

One of the most striking arguments was from Jeanette Henagan, a local resident and president of the Lenawee county NAACP. When you watch this video I want you to watch not only Jeanette but the people sitting around her.

After 30 minutes had elapsed, the school board called an end to public comment (a surprise to some people) and the crowd slowly dispersed. I talked with many of the demonstrators after and learned some interesting things. The most surprising was how one person had been approached by some of the students after he left. They asked him about his position, unsure of which side he supported. This person then went ahead and challenged the students to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, even giving them copies of a paper he had written on this topic. Otherwise, the evening ended peacefully and people went their own ways.

I'm currently putting together my thoughts about the evening and the issue. They will be posted as soon as I can think it all through and write it down.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Avatar update- Cameron goes native!

From this morning's New York Times-

Amazon tribes find ally out of "Avatar"

Well, it was only a matter of time before the Avatar-Indian connection went mainstream.  In Brazil, there is a plan to build a dam in the Amazon river basin that would flood hundreds of square miles and displace thousands of indigenous people.  In many ways, this situation perfectly parallels the construction of numerous dams in the American west including the ambitious 1944 Pick-Sloan plan for the Missouri River basin.  A series of dams were built to control flooding, provide irrigation, create hydroelectric power, and regulate water levels for river traffic along the Missouri.  In the process, millions of acres of prime river bottom farmland were flooded.  Working at the Knife River Indian Villages in North Dakota, I always included the story of Garrison Dam as part of my centuries long narrative of the Three Affiliated Tribes.  That dam flooded millions of acres of their homeland and destroyed several towns including the largest city Sanish.  The wounds of this latest injustice are still fresh today and the impact of Garrison Dam is still felt in today's generations.  Need a visual?  This photo pretty much sums up the fight 70 years ago as well as the current fight in the Amazon today.

I applaud the efforts of James Cameron to bring attention to this issue, it sure is going to be a tough fight.  Be sure to check out the audio slideshow as it provides even more insight into this Amazon case.

MCARSM- Keepin' up the Good Fight

On Saturday April 10th, I attended the 38th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Saline, Michigan.  This was the fourth Powwow I have attended in the past few years.  As soon as I walked into the Saline Middle School gym, the sights, the sounds, and the smells brought back fond memories of powwow past.  I remember living in Grand Portage, Minnesota and laying in bed at night as the distant beat of the drums echoed across the open bay from the powwow grounds many miles away.  I remember the beautiful colors and the intricate designs of the regalia at the United Tribes International Powwow I attended in North Dakota.  I remember smelling the sage, the leather, and the sweat of dancing human beings mixing in the atmosphere.  I remember the strong sense of community that is the hallmark of every powwow I have attended.  It's truly a unique and uplifting experience that everyone should experience at least once in their life.

For me the most fulfilling aspect of the Powwow (outside of the dancing of course) was meeting the fine folks from the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media (MCARSM).  This group is a grassroots coalition formed to fight against racist Native American imagery and mascots.  Through activism and information campaigns at area Powwows as well as in the wider community, they are fighting to put an end to some of the more offensive and egregious Native American references in sports and media.  In particular, I would like to bring to your attention one local example.

In the lovely little town of Clinton, Michigan there is a problem.  You might never know it driving through town or talking with the locals, but on a Friday night in the Fall you probably couldn't miss it.  As the Clinton High School football team runs onto the field to play the local rivals, the fans in the bleachers aren't hollering go bears, or go hawks, or even go warriors.  Instead, they shout at the top of their lungs, "Go Redskins!"  If this thought sends shivers down your back, good.  If it does not, let me do a little explaining.

The term "redskins" has a history dating back hundreds of years.  While no one is sure of the exact origin of the word, one of the common etymologies is that the term comes from the practice of scalping or "skinning" Native American peoples.  Thanks to centuries of misinformation and outright lies in art, literature, film, and television, most Americans define scalping as an exclusively Indian practice.  The reality could not be more different.  The practice of scalping exploded with the arrival of Europeans on the shores of North America.  Bounties were placed on the heads of native men, women, and children.  What had been an infrequent practice confined to conflicts became a bloody wave that spread across North America.  Spurred on by the lure of hard currency, Native Americans were hunted down and murdered for their bloody trophies.  Even worse, colonizing Europeans used money to spur on their Native allies to scalp rival Native Americans and Europeans.  Native cultures were warped and destroyed in this process as human being were treated no better than animals.

To use this term today as a team name and mascot imagery is unacceptable.  Perpetuating these stereotypes through their continual use demeans native communities today, undermines their efforts to define their own culture, and warps everyone's perspective on our fellow human beings.  Don't believe me?  Ask the experts.

On Monday, April 19th the Clinton School Board will be holding a regular meeting at 7:30 PM.  An hour before the meeting, MCARSM will be protesting outside the meeting place.  They will then be speaking at the school board meeting to convince the board to change the team name.  While this effort is not as high profile as the movement against professional or college sports teams, it is simply a small step in the right direction that if taken enough times can move mountains.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Get Cash Fast" Indians

Today, I caught a television commercial that made me stop in my tracks. Watching the local evening news, I have gotten used to seeing the “get cash fast” commercials that are a sad by-product of our current economic recession. What I haven't gotten used to is this...

The commercial opens with man in a business suite looking straight at the camera. His long hair rests gently on his padded shoulders as a picturesque mountain scene completes the background. He talks in the quick authoritative voice of the TV pitchman:

“How would you like up to $2500.00 almost instantly? Here at Western Sky Financial, we'll lend you this money almost instantly and with no collateral whatsoever. Sure, it's expensive, but you can pay it down quick to not pay as many fees. Call us now.”

And here's the kicker. At the bottom, in larger-than-average legal print, is this line: “100% Native American owned business.” Doing a little more internet research, I stumbled across their website.

So this got me thinking... Okay, yeah so you're 100% Native American owned but why make such a big deal out of it? I present to you three possible reasons.

#1 Marketing
Did you know that there are entire advertising agencies in the United States that specialize in marketing to specific ethnic groups. There are agencies that cater to African-Americans, others target the Latino or Spanish-speaking populations, and still others generally on the West Coast that market to Asian-Americans. Could this TV commercial possibly be an example of an advertisement aimed at Native American customers? Possibly, but probably not. First of all, is there even a big enough customer base of cash-strapped Native Americans looking to get super high-interest loans? Second, why would it be playing here in southeast Michigan where the native population is significant in absolute terms but only a fraction of the total population. Yes, Detroit was harder hit than most areas but it still doesn't explain the Indian line. Could it possibly be aimed at other populations who hold an affinity for Indians, your hobbyists and other Indian enthusiasts? Probably not since the commercial is so straightforward and the guy is wearing a business suit not a headdress! So marketing, I say probably not...

#2 Pride
At the bottom of the website in big bold letters you find the following statement, “Western Sky Financial, LLC, is a Native American-owned business operating within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.” Located in central South Dakota, the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation has some of the worst poverty in the entire country. More than half the population struggles under the poverty line with depression and despair are all too common. Just this past summer, I drove through the reservation myself experiencing the rural poverty and isolation firsthand.

With conditions like this, the people need more than a financial stimulus, they need a stimulus of the spirit. Hope is the key to turning around this downward spiral and lifting up the hearts and minds of the people. Programs that provide a safe haven for youth as well as a new health center are examples of this turn around. The TV commercial for Western Sky Financial could be a further example. You can almost feel the pride of the business owner as he tells the ad man, “Yes, I want it to say 'a Native American-owned business operating within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.'” Maybe the owner(s) of Western Sky Financial lifted themselves out of poverty and are now proud business owners. In a community where most people don't have jobs, let alone own their own businesses, this is a major accomplishment and one to be rightly proud of.

#3 Not the USA!!!!
Well, if you've been to the Western Sky Financial website by now, you may have noticed that I didn't include the full statement above. In its entirety it reads, “Western Sky Financial, LLC, is a Native American-owned business operating within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a sovereign nation located within the United States of America.” That's right, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is its own sovereign nation located within the United States of America. If you've sat through a basic High School American History class, you should know this. Then again, if you find yourself deep in debt and you are actually considering taking out a loan with 199.98% interest, you probably are one of those people who slept through history class.

This advertisement draws upon all the fears of the right-wing Tea Party movement. If you truly believe that your sovereign nation, the United States of America, is on the brink of financial meltdown, then where better to look to than another sovereign nation for help! Or maybe you actually need $2500.00 almost instantly but you wouldn't dare ask for it from one of those greedy, bailed out, stimulus-money-loving banks. Why, turn to your local neighborhood Indian reservation. They are after all their own sovereign nation, they can't possibly be connected to that fiasco in Washington! Western Sky Financial has subtlety turned anti-government angst into its own marketing strategy. (Just don't tell the customers about the billions of federal dollars and stimulus money that rightly goes to Indian Country every year, it will just ruin the illusion)

Update: New Post 12/5/2010  (click link below)

Western Sky Financial: Take Two