The negative representations of American Indians have recently caught national attention in the news and on the Internet. As a professor in American Indian Studies, I always begin my introductory course with a basic training in stereotypes to prepare young minds about the power of imagery found in the media, movies, and the news. I also teach an upper division American Indian and Indigenous Film course that allows students to evaluate mainstream and independent films, and encourage their creativity in writing and filmmaking. In nearly all of my courses I emphasize the long-standing racist views of American Indians that have influenced Federal Indian Policy, Supreme Court Cases, and the current perceptions of Indians and our communities.
I am glad that controversies over stereotypes have become more popular especially because the Indian mascot issue has been ignored for so many years. Activists like Susan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Muscogee) have fought against stereotypes since the 1960s and, with the help of other equally talented activists, had made numerous advances in Federal Indian Policy and laws like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Most agree that stereotyping is wrong, but the associated problems are much more destructive. Research by psychologist Dr. Stephanie Fryberg (Tulalip) at the University of Arizona reveals that not only do mascots lower the self-esteem of Indian children, but they also raise the self-esteem of white children. In other words, images like Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians allows for white children to feel good about dehumanizing their Indian classmates. Such environments contribute to the low performance of Indian students, leading to high drop out rates and failure in other sectors of adult life.
Stereotypes are a not a new phenomenon as negative imagery of Indigenous peoples predates the United States, Christopher Columbus, and even Christianity. University of Arizona College of Law Professor Robert Williams (Lumbee) tracks the history of the “language of savagery” to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In Savage Anxieties (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012), Williams reveals that western civilization depends entirely on the existence of imagined “savage” peoples. The west needs stereotypes. Throughout the 3000-year history of western civilization one constant has remained: the legitimization of colonizing and subjugating of so-called “savage” people. In other words, without stereotypes, western civilization would not know what to do with itself.
Probably the most damaging stereotypes are those that devalue American Indian women. Williams further asserts that the image of the “sexy savage” has contributed to the profound disrespect for Indian women as they continue to be victims of sexual violence more than any other group of people. And since a lot of American Indians have adopted assimilated or colonial ways of thinking, they have also held these same stereotypes towards their own women. The power of stereotyping is overwhelming, but recent acts of defiance have revealed that the efforts to deconstruct and protect the American Indian image and identity are flowering.
Recent attacks on Urban Outfitters, Paul Frank, The Gap, Gwen Stefani, and Victoria’s Secret demonstrations that Indians are tired of the stereotypes. Mainstream pop icons and institutions should be held accountable for perpetuating negative images of Indians, and we should hold them accountable. But if we extend our activism further, we will find that these folks are merely part of a bigger problem, and that they are not the roots. I encourage our young warrior activists to dig deeper and drive a wedge in the crack of the foundation of racism. For example, there has been much criticism about the anticipated Johnny Depp film where he plays Tonto and wears a crow on his head. The problem with Depp is not his questionable attire, but the fact that older generation Indians believed that the old racist language of “Tonto” and “chief” was finally put to rest. This movie may revive this racist language.
Furthermore, the highly anticipated movie about President Abraham Lincoln will idealize an American hero, but likely fail to mention that he ordered the mass hanging of 39 Dakota men only one month before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The hanging at Mankato, Minnesota is the largest mass execution in American history, and resulted when white trespasses squatted onto treaty-protected Dakota lands. The bodies of the 39 Dakota men were skinned and preserved by the Mayo Clinic for further “scientific” study. Where is the justice? Numerous other issues in Indian Country, past and present, are in need of attention.
Indian communities still suffer from high rates of suicide, homicide, infant mortality, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and the loss of culture, language, and spiritual practices. Indian people continue to fight to protect Indigenous rights, intellectual property, natural resource exploitation, border town hate crimes, and the unfairness of the justice system. Boarding school survivors are in need of justice, peace and reconciliation, and we need to continue to protect sacred cites, repatriate the ceremonial objects and human remains of our people, and protect our women and children from violence. Although progress has been made, the challenges of 500 years of colonization are unwavering. Today’s Indian activists must be twice as persistent.
With the passing of Russell Means it’s only fair that we revisit and reevaluate our goals as activists. Leonard Peltier is still a political prisoner and I doubt he is concerned about The Gap or Gwen Stefani. In the 1960s Indian activists stood strong in the face of gun-wielding soldiers, tanks, and fighter jets for speaking their minds and demanding justice as they challenged the system of racial oppression. I’d encourage the current activists to continue this fight. Take it to the Washington Redskins, to Whiteclay, Nebraska, and even to the United Nations. We need you.
Dr. Leo Killsback is a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and culturally and spiritual identifies as a Cheyenne person. He is an Assistant Professor in American Indian Studies at the Arizona State University.