Native Mascots and Other Misguided Beliefs
By Kevin Gover
My own experience contending with the information I was given while growing up in Oklahoma is instructive. Native history and culture was only rarely touched upon while I was in elementary school and junior high school. Though I had, of course, more than the usual interest in these subjects, I can recall only the occasional reference to American Indians, almost always accompanied by a photo of Indian people standing on a rocky hillside dressed in feathers and buckskin. I learned nothing about the history of Native people prior to contact with Europeans, save the few pages in my Oklahoma history book dedicated to the Spiro Mounds, a Caddoan-Mississippian archaeological site in eastern Oklahoma. It was as though what pre-existed Columbus’s arrival in America was uninteresting and unimportant.
Like most young people of my generation, I absorbed an odd set of information about Native history after contact with Europeans. In grade school I learned that “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He sailed, and sailed, and sailed, and sailed to find this land for me and you.” I learned of the friendly Indian Squanto who taught the Pilgrims to grow corn; of the Indian “princess” Pocahontas who saved Captain John Smith from death at the hands of her evil father; of Sacajawea, the intrepid “squaw” who guided Lewis and Clark through the Rocky Mountains; of the massacre of the gallant General Custer by savage Sioux at Little Big Horn.
Things improved somewhat in junior high school, where we did learn that all of Oklahoma had once been designated Indian Territory and of the removal of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their homes in the southeast. But we moved quickly on to more important matters such as the land rushes, the discovery of oil, the establishment of Oklahoma Territory and the entry of Oklahoma as the forty-sixth state. I don’t recall being told that all of this involved the abrogation of treaty promises that Oklahoma would belong to Indians forever.
Meanwhile, at the movies and on television, westerns were thriving. Even while knowing these stories were fictional, they wore on me. The Indians were semi-naked, mono-syllabic, and fierce (quite unlike the many Indians I knew as family and friends). The white people were smart, ethical (the heroes, anyway), and only reluctant users of violence. The racial message was consistent and powerful: Indians were stupid and violent, though noble in their savagery, and white people were civilized, principled, and heroic.
For more of Gover's positions, see Gover on Indians and Jews and Movies Teach "Racist Assumptions."
Below: "Me lik'um this essay. It heap good medicine."