May 21, 2011

Gover summarizes Native stereotypes

Kevin Gover, NMAI director, gives a good overview of Indian mascots and stereotypes. He starts with how most Americans learn about Indians.

Native Mascots and Other Misguided Beliefs

By Kevin GoverOnly a very small percentage of the population has devoted extensive study to Native history, art, and culture, so their understandings are formed based on the limited information they have received from two sources: the formal education system in the United States and the popular media culture in the United States.

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.
Then he sums up the messages received:Taken together, the messages my generation received from our formal education and the popular culture were clear. Indians were interesting only in terms of their engagement with non-Indians. A good Indian was one who assisted white people in establishing civilization in the American wilderness. Native women were especially likely to see the virtues of white civilizers and assist them in their efforts. Native men, being violent and dim, resisted civilization ferociously but futilely. (Note that they were not portrayed as resisting the taking of their property and the ruin of their way of life; they were resisting “civilization” itself.) Above all perhaps, contemporary Indians were not relevant. Indians were figures of the past. It would be entirely fair for a non-Indian student in, say, Ohio to conclude that Indians simply ceased to exist. This is a powerful set of ideas being delivered over and over. They made growing up as an Indian child harder than it had to be.Gover notes the flaws found even in recent movies:Even the movies in which Indians are heroes too often engage in the old stereotypes. The large blue Indians of “Avatar” and the Indian werewolves of the popular “Twilight” series may be heroes, but note the spectacular violence of which they are capable. Note as well the addition of new stereotypes that evolved in the late twentieth century: Indians as pristine environmentalists and, even better, magic Indians.And how mascots send a similar message:Native mascots are primary offenders in perpetuating these stereotypes. Consider why a franchise or university might choose a Native image to represent its team or teams. We are told that they are meant to honor Native American qualities such as bravery, strength (physical, not mental), endurance, and pride. Certainly Native people had and have those qualities in varying degrees, though I do not believe that they had or have them in greater quantity than other peoples. And why is it that Native people are not chosen to represent positive human qualities such as intelligence, piety, generosity, and love of family? I suppose the answer is that we are far less interesting to mascot makers when revealed to be ordinary human beings, with all the virtues and failures of other human beings.Comment:  Let's reiterate the key points here. First, the source of Native stereotypes, which I've stated hundreds of times:[T]heir understandings are formed based on the limited information they have received from two sources: the formal education system in the United States and the popular media culture in the United States.And the implicit message of every chief, warrior, and mascot representing a old-fashioned Indian:Indians [are] stupid and violent, though noble in their savagery, and white people [are] civilized, principled, and heroic.Exactly.

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."


Anonymous said...

We're getting fired up over a mascot when our people have real problems with addiction; namely food addiction.

We are still the same Indians who prided themselves for living off the land and hunting buffalo. We are still the people of Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse,Black Elk, and Leonard Peltier.

Many things have changed. Yes, we can compete academically to "expand our horizons" and become lawyers and physicians. However there is still this fundamental problem that will never be corrected and that is our bodies rejection to a westernized diet.

Our bodies can't simply evolve in the span of 100 years to accomodate processed foods and salt, sugar, and glutin ladin foods! That is why we have such problems as diabetes, depression, adhd, nearsightedness, fibromylgia, alcholism, rheumatoid arthritis, and many others.

These diseases are the direct result of a poor neolithic diet. That is a diet heavy on grains and sugar. Two things that our bodies are not accustomed to. So when I see the depiction of fighting Sioux it is a memorial of what we once were and also what we should still be. It does not bother me as much as the illnesses that plague our people!

We need to go back to the hunter-gatherer diet and lifestyle we once thrived on and be the Fighting Sioux that they want to joke and make fun of. Our enemies would rather see us sick and worried about non issues than to stand up and fight against those who wish to destroy us with these chemicals of mass destruction.

Food Addiction is a serious epidemic! It can also be cured with a glutin free diet. Research Paleo-diet. The most healthy diet of all! That is us! Research celiacs disease. You will find that most modern diseases did not exist amongst our people because we had a superior diet. My how things have changed since the days when we were the Fighting Sioux.

Anonymous said...

I agree "Anon" about our diets and native health issues, but those issues blanket the complete western hemispheres culture of unhealthy intake of junk foods and alcohol. All Americans could use a crash course on diet and health.

You cannot downplay the mascot issue as a menial or trivial thing when this form of racism is institutionalized into the judicial system, the educational institutions, religious and policitical organizations that equate human beings with dead symbolism and myths that not only offend the Indian community, but remain a blank and ignorant invention of perceived privileges, rights and opportuntites that do not really exists.

The mascot issue gives false identity on both sides of the issue and keeps racism alive. Racism is acted out through crimes like the current case in Famington, New Mexico where three white boys shaved a mentally ill Navajo mans head, carving a swastika on his head and putting cigarette burns on his body.

It is to be taken as a joke, says the perpetrators.

dmarks said...

There's a lot of junk science there. Astigmatism (nearsightedness) sorry is not caused by diet. And there's also a tip of the hat to the anti-sugar maniacs.

And alcoholism has nothing to do with people liking to eat bread.

David said...

Alcoholism has everything to do with addiction or bingin. Wheat uses the same opioid receptors as alcohol and morphine. New science understands that this is where cravings come from.

Also, nearsightedness does have something to do with sugar intake. One of the side effects of diabetes is nearsightedness or myopia.

Diets high in refined starches such as breads and cereals increase insulin levels. This affects the development of the eyeball, making it abnormally long and causing short-sightedness, suggests a team led by Loren Cordain, an evolutionary biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Junk science is exactly what we are up against.

Anonymous said...

If most indians lived free of junk-food and other addictive b.s. than I'd bet dollars to donuts that nobody would even care about mascots or what the white-world thinks of us because we would be too busy hunting and looking good being fit to give a crap.

Rob said...

Hundreds of thousands of Native stereotypes, including mascots, are prime contributors to the poor self-image and self-esteem of many Indians. These psychological factors, in turn, are intimately connected to the Indians' state of physical and mental well-being.

The same is true of blacks and other minorities. Researchers have documented that minorities have worse health because of society's prejudice against them.

So mascots and other forms of racist stereotyping aren't a separate issue from Native health problems. They're one of the sources of these problems.

For more on the subject, see The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.