While strolling with friends through the busy streets of Spoleto, an ancient Italian city in the province of Umbria, we stepped into the start of celebrations or carnivals called, Quaresima. This is the time that precedes the celebration of Easter or the Great Feast, and according to the Roman Rite, had 44 days (starting from Ash Wednesday), while, according to the Ambrosian practice, it lasts 40, from the Sunday after Shrove Tuesday. This period is characterized by the call to conversion to God with typical practices of Lent fasting, ecclesiastical and other forms of penance, more intense prayer and the practice of charity. It is a journey of preparation to celebrate Easter, which is the culmination of the Christian holidays.
This year’s carnival theme happened to be Cowboys and Indians. Italian actors wearing cowboy hats and bandanas, shooting shiny silver toy guns loaded with confetti into the air. While other performers were decked out in face paint, brightly colored headdresses, beads and offering war cries to on-lookers, seemed like the equivalent to blackface in minstrel shows; gives this pre-Easter holiday season an entirely new platform for immature, morally depraved, suburbanite and ignorant individuals to get away with obvious hatred and bigotry towards American Indians.
When trying to explain to the actors and my friends how disrespectful the carnival is in perpetuating Indian stereotypes, they told me I was being overly sensitive and that it was just entertainment as a means of making ME look stupid for calling them on their foolishness, when you know I was completely in the right for doing so. A few minutes later, a comment was made based on my appearance, “You don’t look Indian,” as I stood there in my wool Calvin Kline red winter coat, sneakers and short black hair.
I cut off my long black hair to protest against stereotyping. I felt my hair chained me to this country’s racialized notion of what it is to be an Indian—stoic, admired for heroism, along with the ideological construction of romanticism that evoked classic images of the noble savage, seductive squaw or the blood-thirsty Redskin. These descriptions serve as weapons in our continued subjugation ensuring our status as “backward” and “primitive.” The same perceived notion of how we should appear. Historically, American Indians have always been cosmopolitan, as a result of contact with various groups of people through travel, trade, out marriage, migration; and later slavery.
From the making of Hollywood’s Indian to race-based holidays like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and now Easter, only creates resentment and raises racial tensions given the number of individuals, who may not even realize, fuel stereotypes when dressed up as someone of another race for an occasion. Halloween is a good example. They will tell you, “We love Indians.” If you love us, then learn the truth.
The whole idea of using Native Americans as a foil for Eurocentric or Catholic Church-centric public displays of “religion” only accentuates the depravity of the Catholic so-called “missionaries” who thought, taught, and preached violence and hatred against Native Americans and authorized the whole-sale murder of an entire group of humanity. And don’t even get me started on the destruction of Native American records and medical or astronomical treatises; thus consigning to oblivion the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of millennia of Native medicine, Native astronomy, Native surgical methods, Native religions, Native legal practices, and Native cultures or worldviews.
I find the Catholic Church’s attitude toward their extermination practices of Native cultures in the Americas just as despicable as the Nazi exterminations of Jews, Gypsies, mentally impaired people, all of the non-white people of the world, and anyone else they deemed “undesirable.” They (Nazis and medieval or renaissance Catholics) are all in the same category of hate-mongers. From this experience, it is clear that the current-day Catholic Church has changed none of its stance toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (Lily of the Mohawk) notwithstanding.
The practice of charity I give for this Easter holiday season is an opportunity to act as cultural broker between the two worlds helping to educate the Italian people who we are today. I would love to call upon Alessandro Profeti and Hunkapi, two Italian-Indian organizations that advocate on the behalf on behalf of Native Americans, to help me organize a panel discussion in Spoleto on the harms of Indian stereotypes. This would help restore balance and harmony between the two cultures and help shed misconceptions about Indians— just a little something to put in your Easter basket.
Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.