The Worst Native Problem
- Indian Comics Irregular #120
Why bother with Indian mascots and other stereotypes, people sometimes
ask? Don't Native people have more important things to worry
about--things such as healthcare, economic growth, and tribal
self-reliance? How does it hurt if a stereotypical chief, brave, or
maiden stands in for all Indians?
I've answered questions like these many times. I usually respond with
comments such as
If we "honor" Indians by painting them as warriors of the past, we
mislead people about their present lives. Millions of Americans
think Indians vanished or are vanishing--and therefore don't need
social justice--precisely because of stereotypes.
The mascot and stereotype issues have a lot to do with how people
perceive Indians, which has a lot to do with how much respect
people pay to Indian rights and sovereignty.
If you think of "other" people as less than human, then you feel
free to exploit them. So how we perceive them relates directly to
how we treat them.
So I'm glad to see the great Vine Deloria Jr. implicitly agrees with
me. A column in the Chicago Sun-Times (4/24/04) summarized his views:
Native American scholar Vine Deloria wrote that of all the problems
facing Indian people, the most pressing one is our transparency.
Never mind the staggering suicide rate among Native youth, or the
fact that Indians are the victims of violent crimes at more than
twice the rate of all U.S. residents--our very existence seems to
be in question.
"Because people can see right through us, it becomes impossible to
tell truth from fiction or fact from mythology," he wrote. "The
American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of
stereotype-land who were always THERE."
In his book "American Indians, American Justice," Deloria made the
problem more explicit:
American Indians seem an enigma to most other Americans. The
images portrayed in the movies, whether of noble red man or
bloodthirsty savage, recall the stereotypes of western history.
Newspaper stories dealing with oil wells, uranium mines, land
claims, and the occupation of public buildings and reservation
hamlets almost seem to speak of another group altogether and it is
difficult to connect the two perceptions of Indians in any single
and comprehensible reality.
It's not hard to find statements like this from thoughtful critics.
I've collected some of them at
http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stquotes.htm . But finally someone has
made the point plain.
At an UCLA symposium on Indians and the press held in April 2004,
Anthony Miranda, chairman of the California Nations Indian Gaming
Association, was the speaker. Stereotyping is "the worst problem"
facing Indians, he said. Not alcoholism, not poverty, not threats to
sovereignty, but stereotypes.
Miranda didn't go into the reasons behind his claim. With a largely
Native audience, he probably didn't have to. When people deem Indians
crude and degenerate or greedy and corrupt, they deny the Indians'
humanity. Believing Indians to be something other than good Americans
allows people to dismiss them and their concerns. If you think they're
warriors or heathens or moneygrubbers who don't fit in modern society,
their issues become their own problem--not everyone's.
All clear now? I trust Deloria and I have explained the
matter sufficiently. Please don't make us repeat ourselves. <g>
For more on the harm of stereotyping, go to
http://www.bluecorncomics.com/stharm.htm . And be sure not to miss the
Stereotype of the Month contest at
Blue Corn Comics