Reading the recent New York Times story, “Looking, Very Closely, for Voter Fraud” (September 17, 2012) an iconic image from American pop culture popped into my mind. I could see a wagon train loaded with settlers, circling up in a valiant attempt to protect itself from a marauding band of Indians. Things were bad for that wagon train. They needed help. But why did this image, evocative of white fantasies about the Old West, spring to mind in a story about Tea Party activists who are seeking to place tighter restrictions on voting rolls?
The simple answer is that the language of their effort and the stories they use to advance it are meant to evoke these images. Sometimes the words are explicit, other times they more imply an idea than state it. Regardless of whether the language is conscious or subconscious, they are racially charged and in this Tea Party rhetoric, the Indians are a threat to the American way, just as they were when Anglo-American filmmakers imagined Indians attacking the wagon train.
A story that these Tea Party activists cite as evidence of widespread fraud is the bus that magically appears at a polling place. Though election officials note that no one has ever been able to photograph such a vehicle or get its license plate number, this bus disgorges dozens of people who proceed to fraudulently register and cast illegal ballots. Some of these riders who emerge from this bus don’t “appear to be from this country,” as one activist claimed in the story. “Do you think they maybe registered falsely under false pretenses?” another activist asked of another supposed bus incident discussed in the story. Her answer: “Probably so.”
One magic bus story contends that the bus is full of Indians from a reservation and it is easy to see in that image that some Tea Party activists see Native people as a threat to American electoral integrity. It appears these activists don’t know that Native people have a right to vote; it’s as if Native people don’t “appear to be from this country”(!).
In response to this perceived threat, these activists are working to raise what they call a “cavalry” to save the integrity of the voting process in swing states. This rhetoric about sending in the cavalry to preserve order evokes classic imagery from the Hollywood Western’s heyday. Indians are a threat to the purity of the American project and the cavalry is the force that arrives to preserve that purity from being brutalized by the marauding savagery of those who live beyond the pale (as it were).
In Westerns, whiteness is the purity that the cavalry preserves; it is the white settlers they rescue. White racial superiority is an idea that Westerns continuously explore, and continuously reinforce. Even in revisionist Westerns that accord Native people a measure of humanity, it is the Indians who must die—Kevin Costner’s Dunbar rides off to live his life at the end of Dances With Wolves while Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird and his entire band die. Indians, even good ones, die in Westerns, and it is whiteness that prevails as the ordained manner to live in North America. It is whiteness blowing the bugle and charging ahead under the cavalry’s flag.
Tea Party wagons are now circling the polling places they imagine are under siege from forces inimical to the purity of the American voting process. They’ve raised the flag and are calling for a cavalry to ride to the rescue of the settlers who want nothing more than a good, pure vote, one that is safe from magic buses filled with Indians from reservations.
Voter fraud activists may not be consciously considering the ways that cavalry contains a cultural history that speaks to the righteous need to kill Indians to preserve (white) American purity, but the word carries that weight. As a teacher in American Indian Studies it is one of my goals to help students see that misrepresentations of Native people are embedded in American culture so thoroughly that we sometimes fail to even recognize them. Explicit expressions of racism are generally easy to spot, but it is the subtle ones that tell us even more about the ways violent racialized discourse is acceptable in America. Indians die in Westerns, cavalries kill them, and by invoking a Western framed rhetoric these Tea Party activists are giving voice to the same kind of genocidal rhetoric that imagined “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into one little word, but then it is the subtle forms of racism and racialized shorthand that are the hardest to root out, especially as American culture tries to mature into the diversity of peoples that call this place home and who vote here. 0
Carter Meland is a writer and teacher of White Earth Ojibwe heritage with a Ph.D. He has been teaching in the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota for more than 12 years.