native americans aren’t your mascots

I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.

They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.

Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.

Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.

It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.

To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.

  • The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
  • Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
  • Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
  • The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
  • The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
  • Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”
Advertisements