“Oh, you know who's really into Indians? Stephen's really into Indians.”
I squirm as the spotlight is suddenly thrust upon me from the opposite end of the table.
Only in retrospect do I realize how insightful is this seemingly innocuous phrase, “Stephen's really into Indians” and it's not because I'm the first word. This phrase once again reveals how in our popular American mindset, Native people are often placed into their own special category, separate from any other racial, ethnic, political, or cultural group.
Nothing makes the point better than substituting in any other group. What if the phrase had been, “Stephen's really into Russians” or “Stephen's really into black people” or “Stephen's really into Lutherans.” All of these make me sound like I have some kind of weird cultural or sexual fetish because those are people!
This brings me back to the phrase itself: “Stephen's really into Indians.” It's not the word Indian itself that is problematic as my point can be made with the phrases “Stephen's really into Native Americans” or “Stephen's really into American Indians” as well.
This phrase demonstrates how in the popular American discourse, “Indians” are held to be an abstract idea, an academic subject worthy of study, a cultural trend even, anything but real modern people. It fails to recognize the humanity behind the word, the people behind the history pages, the culture behind the movie screen.
I'm reminded of the Indian dioramas in Natural History museums throughout the country- miniature nameless figures stuck in a static historical past- reinforcing the Indian as an exotic other. Like the dinosaurs, mammoths, and stuffed birds around them, they are objects of research and amusement.
This phrase is simply testament to the disparity between Indians the idea and Native people the reality. The disparity that allows non-Native people to sport Indian headdresses, place Indian logos on their products, and use Indian sweat lodges in their New Age ceremonies without giving it even a moments pause.
This phrase fails what I call the “appropriate appropriation” test which states the appropriate level of cultural borrowing is that which you can display in front of that cultural group without offending them.
I can only imagine the looks I'd get if someone used the phrase in front of any Native people. Now that would make me squirm!