“An Indian who is as bad as the white men could not live in our nation; he would be put to death, and eaten up by the wolves. The white men are bad schoolmasters; they carry false books, and deal in false actions; they smile in the face of the poor Indian to cheat him; they shake them by the hand to gain their confidence, to make them drunk, to deceive them, and ruin our wives. We told them to leave us alone, and keep away from us; they followed on, and beset our paths, and they coiled themselves among us, like the snake. They poisoned us by their touch. We were not safe. We lived in danger. We were becoming like them, hypocrites and liars, adulterous lazy drones, all talkers and no workers. . . The white men do not scalp the head; but they do worse–they poison the heart.”
-Black Hawk Upon the Surrender of His People to the United States Army
“You white men can work if you want to. We do not interfere with you, and again you say, why do you not become civilized? We do not want your civilization! We would live as our fathers did, and their fathers before them.”
-Crazy Horse (Lakota)
“A Principle of progressive improvement seems almost inherent in human nature. . . We are all striving in the career of life to acquire riches of honor, or power, or some other object, whose possession is to realize the day dreams of our imaginations; and the aggregate of these efforts constitutes the advance of society. But there is little of this in the constitution of our savages.”
-Lewis Cass, Secretary of War, 1836 explaining Indian Removal
“Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.”
-Frederick Douglass Speech, Boston April 1865.
Just who are Indians these days and how do you form your estimate of what an Indian is and was and can be? Where do you interact with indigenous people in America?
For most Americans, and that is white Americans and even some of color who are not Native-American in origin, the representations of Indians are strongly related to what we have seen as reflected in mascots, logos, and nicknames related to these people, and especially how they were viewed and reflected both visually and rhetorically when whites were pushing indigenous people Westward, taking their land, and cementing this conquest by killing them and their leaders outright and insisting they abandon their culture and ways.
What we are left with is a highly developed stereotype set of imagery that does not reflect at all who these people are in the twenty-first century. And the American public does not ask what these people may become, other than operators of gambling casinos nationwide.
Most Americans know little of the huge contribution of indigenous people to the United States and what it became. The dominant white group and the government they led over centuries has taken what they found of use and obliterated much of the rest that they did not.
This society of ours overuses highly inaccurate stereotypes of the war whooping Indian in buckskin and feathers and warpaint carrying a Tomahawk as the dominant single image of a whole people both then and now. The Native-American is frozen in time. The first image was that of a savage, barbarian, whose culture held no value. That became the stereotypical image and it has not changed since.
The editor of Struggles for Justice has to think hard oftentimes to conjer up images of indigenous people from 2011 that accurately reflect them. But for the privilege of meeting many of these people and seeing them as they are in objective reality and not in some cartoon image or racially limiting vision, it would be impossible.
How many times have you seen in the media and read in print, and on the internet, and in person real present-day indigenous people being just who they are in all their wonderful complexity and variety having developed since the time white people first made contact with them in 1492? Compare that to the first image of Indian and Native-American and Indigenous Person that flashes into your mind. Are the two images similar or are they divergent?
It they diverge a great deal then we just have felt the impact of all those John Wayne Western movies, the Cowboys and Indians imagery that was and surprisingly remains so powerful in our larger culture today.
If you did not experience this incongurent set of imagery between the reality of Native-Americans; their lives and their cultures, and the stereotype imagery, you are exceptional. For in truth, indigenous people have been fully exposed to the stereotypes of themselves as well and they struggle with asserting their real identities as human beings and demand to be seen as something beyond the stereotypical imagery.
That they so often cannot penetrate the larger culture to challenge the stereotypes and the nicknames and mascots and logos and Cowboys and Indians white dominated morality plays of so many movies and media representations is a measure of their invisibility to the rest of us.
It is as if Native-Americans of whatever tribal nation be they Iroquois, Powhatan, Seminole and Cherokee, the Shoshone, the Lakota and Santee Sioux, the Crow, Menominee and the Potawatomi and so many others wear a kind of cloak of invisibility.
On the contrary, Germans, Irish, Italians, Scots, Welsh, Britons, Russians, the Euro-American cultural identity is secure and well established. These people can make these transitions and be seen by the larger society beyond the stereotype.
We need to begin to explore why only Indians, not the name they ever gave themselves, cannot? Why are they so invisible? Why are their concerns and needs so frequently left unaddressed and unmet? How do Native-American children reconcile their real, true, objective racial or ethnic or even national identity with the confining and stifling stereotypes they are required to accept every single day of their lives?
When Secretary of War Lewis Cass used the phrase “constitution of our savages” he reveals how little he expects of these people as nations and as distinct cultures. What Frederick Douglass told the nation in 1865 about the dangers of limiting the horizons of black people in America applies equally to Native-American people.
For a long time, it was official United States government policy to obliterate indigenous ritual, religion, culture, language, and so much more. It was thought that the native people should take up the white man’s entire culture in its place.
Whether it is the actual behavior of white Euro-Americans over centuries on this continent, policies such as the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s or the Dawes Act in the 1880s or the struggles of indigenous people on reservations after most if not all of their land was taken from them, or at schools like that at Carlisle, Pennsylvania where what made these people who they were as human beings was in effect stamped out of them, it all contributes to the crisis we find ourselves in now.
If there is to be a composite impression and respect for indigenous people in America we have to go beyond the stereotypes. Maintaining the same tired, old, race-based imagery and rhetoric, will not do.
On this very blog comments were posted that indicated that many expect no more than drunkenness and gambling from indigenous people. They have or ought to have an opportunity to have higher expectations than that. The entire way we view indigenous people has to be altered in the coming century. It will take a fundamental reordering in how these people are perceived by the rest of us. Stereotypes dating back centuries won’t do it.
In Mukwonago, a community struggling for its very soul, the 1930s included school district-wide minstrel shows with local officials and many students in full black face. Now, we would see this as hideously racist and objectionable. We rightly do. A photographic image of such a scene was scanned into the archives of the Mukwonago Historical Society just a few short years ago by members of the Mukwonago High School History Club.
But if a mimicked set of mascots, logos, images, and depictions of people misnamed as Indians continue in the manner and spirit of whites who used to perform black face minstrel shows where does that place us in regard to the Native-American? Think about it.
What do you see when you think of Indian in your mind? What do you feel and know when someone says in a memory from your childhood “let’s play Cowboys and Indians” and what comes to mind when you recall the images of all kinds of both imagery and historical rhetoric depicting indigenous people? It will tell us a lot about where we stand and where we need to go together.