"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, July 26, 2010

“Stephen's really into Indians” (Oh, mom...)

So there I was at a big family dinner with all my relatives. My mother is seated at the opposite side of the table talking with family when somehow I become part of the conversation. Someone happens to make a reference to Native Americans when my mother decides to impart:

“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!


  1. As I grew up, Indian was the word that we used to describe the people who lived here long before Columbus or the Vikings etc. We did not use the term in a derogatory way...as you seem to think. Now we must use the term Native American...ok. But I take acception to your belief that we do not think of them as real people, I do, and I would venture to guess your mom does also. Perhaps some of us are not as educated as you in the history and culture of the Native American but we definately do think of them as real people...not comic relief.

  2. Well, my point was about the subtle use of the words and the broader meaning behind them, not to attack anyone personally. The legacy of Indian appropriation and stereotyping in our culture and media is strong enough to affect the way we use and understand our language today. When many people hear or use the word Indian, they most often first think of the historic, more stereotypical image. Plus, some (but certainly not all) Native people use the word Indian and do not require we use "Native American."

    As you certainly point out, everyone is different and the way we understand and interact with anything or anyone Native is always a personal, subjective thing. I'm just looking for the larger trends and the forces behind them.