"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.