May 26, 2010

Why Americans exploit Indians

Finders Keepers?  Adulteration of Native American Cultures in the Name of Profit

By Marchell J. WesawTo this list of uses for Indians, Berkhofer could easily have added commercial marketing. Forbes Magazine quoted a judge of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival as saying, "[American Indians are] being used to sell everything from cars to chocolate all over the world." And as Michael Dorris, a Native American author and commentator notes, "In the ever popular noble/savage spectrum, red is the hot safe color." Indians sell everything, it seems. Indians' images and symbols are used to sell sports teams, sports gear, toys, margarine, air freshener, baking soda, incense, tobacco, malt liquor, automobiles, corn chips, rice, popcorn, dinner settings, carpets, soap, towels, pizza, and paper. The "Indian concept" sells, but what and why? And exactly what is an Indian? Understanding the answers to these questions is crucial to comprehending the problems "Indian labeling" causes for Native American communities and individuals. It is the "Indian" as owned and used by White society that adulterates and trivializes Native American cultures.

The "Indian" is not the Native American/First American. The Indian and the Native American have nothing to do with each other, except maybe constant exploitation by mainstream society. The main difference, however, is that the "Indian" is a figment of the White imagination and is completely manipulated by it, while the Native American is a member of a sovereign nation that has been severely neglected and disrespected by White actions and policies. This difference can be seen in the fact that while the average non-native American citizen knows about war paint, rain dances, and war whoops, he or she knows very little, it anything at all, about Native American cultures and politics.
Why create the Indian? The "Indian" is a flexible notion capable of being whatever the White world wants or does not want. The "Indian" can be a Noble or a Savage. Indians can be evil incarnate, scalping and torturing innocents, or they can be the pure-hearted environmentalists saving the forests and weeping over urban pollution. "Indians" can be anything and everything White policies want them to be. At this level of imaging, the Indian becomes a stereotype. Then, by manipulating and exploiting the stereotype. White society attempts to make "Indianness" part of the mainstream culture, thereby, validating the appropriation of Native land and resources. By making Native American cultures more of what White society wants, by making them "Indian" and simulating the Indian into the mainstream. Whites begin to take care of the "Indian problem." The more the Indian is like the White and the White like the Indian, the less the White has to feel guilty for. By dealing in stereotype, White society does not have to confront the reality of broken treaties and stolen lands. Historically, the White imagination created an Indian which suited the purposes of justifying land theft, war, starvation, and massacres. Because the Red Savage, the drunken heathen, the lazy good-for-nothing is contrary to the manifest destiny of the Great American Way, Americans were right in their policies toward Native Americans of war, assimilation and termination.

Comment:  I'm sure logos and products using Indians far outnumber those using blacks and other minorities. Why? Because Indians hold a unique place in our collective mythology. They were the "other" we had to defeat to achieve our (manifest) destiny. They were the devils keeping us from God's glory.

We continue putting them on logos and products to remind ourselves of their our greatness. The Indian/Devil was great but we/God were greater. It's like a bear in a cage or a trophy on a wall: a symbol of our manhood, strength, and power.

Curiously, this article seems to start in the middle. And I wouldn't have distinguished between "Indians" and "Native Americans" since it's potentially confusing. I would've called the two entities the (real) Indian and the (mythical) Savage, or something similar.

Other than these minor shortcomings, though, this essay is brilliant. I've said similar things many times, but it's a great summary of the problem.

For more on the subject, see The Political Uses of Stereotyping and A Brief History of Native Stereotyping.

Below:  Would you let this drunken savage keep a third of the continent? No, of course not. That would be irresponsible. It's our duty to save the wretch from his own ignorance and folly.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing that most of that, Indians didn't have. The corn stuff, carpets, and soap, yeah. I'll allow pizza only on the grounds of tomato and bell peppers.

Americans know Sun Dances too, but they always get them wrong. They're closer to a fertility ceremony and less a test of manhood.

Speaking of which, the "symbol of our manhood" always takes me right back to psych class, reading about Freud.

Non-Immigrant said...

When you come from a bastard culture, you have to invent yourself and your culture. You take a little of this and a little of that and stir it all together, may be say a couple of moronic chants and "presto", it looks real.

Everything in American culture was adopted from something and somewhere else; from the advent of the fraternal masonics and the college "greek" systems to the adoption and use of American Indian symbolism and ceremony's witnessed and interpreted through anglo-eyes has evolved into such a ridiculous and meaningless half-witted and white-supremist by-product called American.

All non-indigenous Americans can trace their bloodlines; traditions and families from all over the globe, but replacing a foreign legitimacy with a "plastic" culture is a 200 year old dilemma non-Indians can only deal with by refusing their foreign roots.

When Ghandi successfully forced the British Empire out of India, telling them that the only way the British can rule in India is by the humiliation and oppression of the Indian people, one British officer simply replied to him in a calm and sincere manner that when all is said and done, "India is after all, British".

dmarks said...

"Non-Immigrant ..."

As a non-immigrant, that makes you a member of a group that includes 87.5% of Americans. Welcome to the club. It's a large one.

"When you come from a bastard culture..."

Well, so much for multi-culturalism. Looks like we have another culture-warrior here. This cultural hatred stuff looks bad coming from others as it does from right-wing "culture warriors". And yes, I usually do here this type of hatred and insult for entire cultures from right-wing bigots. But... not always...

"...and use of American Indian symbolism and ceremony's witnessed and interpreted through anglo-eyes..."

Facts get in the way of this bigoted and perhaps racist bashing of an "inferior" bastard culture when you look at the cultures around the world, even including East Asians, who know and use Native American stereotypes.

"Everything in American culture was adopted from something and somewhere else;"

So, what is your point? The same is true of all cultures in the world, including Native American cultures.