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The Effects of Stereotypes in Native American Lives


Colleagues have often asked me why I am so passionate when it comes to the stereotypical depictions of “Indians” in movies and on TV, and especially in science fiction, since I am, like several participants in this study, a fan of the genre. It is after all, as my colleagues are quick to point out, fiction. Unfortunately, movie and TV fiction have become accepted as America’s facts (and the world’s for that matter) when it comes to “Indians.” My response is that I am so passionate because these careless and universally accepted stereotypes do damage. Negative “Indian” stereotypes do physical, mental, emotional, and financial harm to First Nations inviduals.

My husband, who is also a First Nations individual, and I have been forced to put up with the fall out from so-called harmless “Indian” stereotypes all of our lives. We have been denied jobs for which we were overqualified, due to the stereotype that all “Indians” are lazy and drunks. Or as Andrew J. Orkin stated in explaining the dominate society’s attitude toward that employment of “Indians,” the stereotype that is perceived as reality is that we are “shiftless won’t-works, recipients of handouts and a drain on the national economy,” A statement made in 1816 by Cyrus Kingsbury, the founder of the Christian mission school at Brainerd, Tennessee, aptly demonstrates the Euro-American’s belief that they must assume a parental role in order “to form them [“Indians”] to habits of industry, and to give them competent knowledge of the economy of civilized life.”

We have also faced similar discrimination in academic and other areas. A law professor at a southeastern university once informed me that “Indians” had no place in a discussion of First Amendment rights. I found that rather odd, given that the First Amendment deals with such items as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, but federal government policies and do-gooders’ desires to transform “bad Indians” into “good Indians” have resulted in the denial of these First Amendment rights to First Nations individuals, even though they are U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, employment and academia rank are only two areas where stereotype-based racism applies. For example, when our home was vandalized and we reported the incident to the police, they said we were “primitive savages” and told to go “go back to where you came from,” as if we were the foreigners living on this continent. The root of this particular attitude dates back to Columbus’s arrival in the “New World,” when Europeans demonstrated that they believed they had a moral right to lay waste to the land and its people. Or as Horace Greeley so aptly expressed this attitude, “These people [First Nations individuals] must die out-there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against His righteous decree.” Greeley, as the editor of the New York Tribune, took the outrageous, inaccurate, and and sensationalized accounts of First Nations people published in colonial newspapers and ran with them, greatly contributing to the perpetuation of the “barbaric,” “cruel and cowardly,” “stealing,” “squalid and conceited, proud and worthless, lazy and lousy,” “Indian” stereotypes that Hollywood latched onto and perfected- the same labeling my husband and I have had to deal with at every turn.

In addition to being discriminated against in the workplace and in the academic world, we have been denied medical care because everybody assumes that “Indians” sponge off the government, so the government the government could take care of our medical needs.

My husband and I have also been the victims of ethnic profiling by store security and the police while shopping in a large Midwestern city, because of the stereotypes of “Indians” being thieves and criminals. My husband’s civil rights were denied him in a state court due to profiling activities by a county sheriff’s department. Constitutional rights are nonexistent in our state court system because a number of western states refuse to acknowledge the rights of any Indigenous sovereign nation. These states still actively promote ethnic profiling based on “Indian” stereotypes in order to deny First Nations individuals their federal and constitutional rights. The ideology behind the derogatory term “prairie nigger,” was used by officers of a state court system, is alive and well and continues to promote the negative stereotype of First Nations individuals among the dominate society and, in particular, law enforcement.

The “dumb Injin” categorization allows otherwise intelligent individuals to treat us First Nations people as if we have the IQ of morons. We have been told we can’t possibly know our own history. We have been told we have no right to claim being “Indian” because we didn’t study “Indians,” “Indian history,” and “Indian religion” in white schools. For that matter, dominant-society individuals insist that we can’t possibly have “Indian religion” because “Indians” don’t have the equivalent of “Sunday school” where “Indian” children can learn religion. Clinging to the “Indian” stereotypes, these non-Indigenous individuals refuse to accept that our religious education is not limited to two hours on Sunday morning or an hour on Sunday or Wednesday night. For us, religion is not restricted or compartmentalized to a particular hour or a particular day. It is part of every minute of every day for the moment we are born. We live our religions.

I was writing the Wyoming Guide a few years after the National Park Service first included “Indian” traditions and cultural associations concerning the sacredness of the site known as Bear’s Lodge (disrespectfully called Devil’s Tower by Colonel Richard I. Dodge in 1875). To promote western tourism, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the volcanic butte to be the first national monument in the United States in 1906, but rock climbers have been “conquering” it since 1893. Many expressed outrage that the National Park Service would even consider allowing the Lakotas the right to hold their Sun Dance each June near their sacred site. In reaction, members of the local non-First Nations population told me that “seeing as how the ‘Indians’ had never bothered to hold any ceremonies here in the past, why all of a sudden do they want to hold them now?” Sadly, these members of the dominant society were unaware of or ignored the fact that until and after the passage of the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (yes, it was 1978), it was against federal law for First Nations people, who had been citizens of the United States since 1924 and who supposedly enjoyed all the rights and privileges of the Constitution of the United States and its amendments, to practices their religions. Despite this federal law, widespread legal persecution of First Nations individuals participating in traditional religious ceremonies such as the Sun Dance continued until the early 1990s.

Even now, many if not most non-Indigenous people have little understanding of First Nations religions. When I asked for the time off work to attend the Sun Dance, one of my coworkers wrinkled her brow and said, “That’s in Utah, isn’t it? Robert Redford runs it, doesn’t he?” She of course was referring to the location of the Sundance Film Festival, which Redford named after his movie portrayal of Harry Longabaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid. Other coworkers told me to “have a good time at the pow wow.”

Granted, certain ceremonies conducted at pow wows are deeply significant to First Nations peoples and are very religious in nature. Pow wows, however, are social gatherings and unfortunately, the congregation spot for racism in one of its worst forms -the anthropologist. Anthropologists, in broad terms, need not be professionals but simply individuals in any form at any time - the obnoxious photographers who believe they have absolute entitlement to take anybody’s picture even after the individual tells them no. As Richard Hill, a Mohawk artist, has remarked: “Nearly all Indians have been asked to ‘pose’ for a visitor’s camera, and the visitor leaves with his personal image of ‘real, live Indians.’…. Stories about White photographers entered tribal oral histories and the camera became the latest weapon to be used against Indians…. The camera was an intrusion on Indian life. The photographs were taken for outside interests, by outside people, outside of the needs of Indians themselves.

There was such a photographer at the pow wow my husband and I recently attended on the reservation. We had dressed to participate in the Grand Entrance Veterans’ songs and flag ceremony. A photographer started to take my husband’s picture without permission. When my husband told them man no pictures, the photographer tried it again from a greater distance. When that didn’t work, he got his son to try to get pictures. My husband again said no. The photographer then whined to the pow wow officials. They told the photographer he could not take anyone’s picture without first obtaining permission. It took my husband donning his Green Beret before the photographer finally decided it might not be wise to press the issue any further. But we still caught him trying to take First Nations children’s pictures who were not participating in the pow wow dances. His attitude was that every First Nations person attending the pow wow was there on display for his entertainment and edification.

Unfortunately, children today are learning the same stereotypes as their parents did. When we give talks to grade-school children, the kids start dancing around, whooping with their hands over their mouths in classic Hollywood fashion, and greeting us with the word “How!” They want to know where we tied up our horses. They ask if we live in a teepee. They demand to know why we aren’t wearing feathers. They ask to see our collection of scalps. They are shocked or surprised when we smile or laugh. And inevitably one child informs us that his or her great-great-great-granddaddy married an “Indian princess.”

Such comments, questions, and prejudicial treatment are all based on the “Indian” stereotypes presented in movies and on TV. …They are all stereotypes that all First Nations individuals must deal with daily. For the most part, they let it roll off their backs and go on with their lives as best they can. Occasionally, however, when an number of blatant discriminatory remarks and bigoted actions occur in rapid succession, patience and tolerance disappear. The “angry Indian” label is not always a stereotype. It’s sometimes a reaction to the stupidity, arrogance, and hatred displayed by the dominant society. Stereotypes do harm.

The majority of my husband’s and my personal encounters with “Indian” stereotyping discussed here have taken place within the past few years. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed Affirmative Action in 2003. Even though we are in the twenty-first century, minorities still continue to face discrimination based on five-hundred-year-old characterizations. It may be a new millennium, but it’s already filed with very old stereotypes about the Indigenous population of this country.

Excerpt from “Indian” Stereotypes in TV Science Fiction: First Nations’ Voices Speak Out by Sierra S. Adare

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