(Photo © Adam Sings in the Timber)
An Acceptable Ignorance
Admittedly, we picked the photo specifically because it would feel "foreign" to most of our classmates, and I was attempting to drive home my earlier points. The other part of me was intensely curious about what their reactions would be, what details they would pick up, what questions they would have.
When we asked the class to debrief after a few minutes of writing, I was taken aback by the responses. "My initial reaction was absolute fear" one young woman stated. "I realized I know absolutely nothing about Native American culture, I didn't even know where to start." "I found myself confused and hung up on the details--What is that thing in her hand? [It's her dance fan.] Why are they there? What goes on at a powwow?" a male classmate asked. Others agreed, chiming in with their own similar reactions. The comments were not rude, they were not even unexpected, but what struck me was how acceptable this level of ignorance was. No one was embarrassed or ashamed by their lack of knowledge, no one found it out of the ordinary. They shared without any hesitation, without apology.
I wondered if I had put a picture of a Black father and child up on the PowerPoint, or Latino, or Asian, if the group would have found it acceptable to say something like "I just don't know anything about Black culture! I can't even begin to write!" or even if I had chosen a photo from an AIDS-ravaged African country, or an "exotic" National Geographic photo--would hay have jumped right in in their descriptions? I also realize my presence in the room shaped the reactions, obviously my classmates do not want to offend the only Native student in their class. But I still found it odd.
It would be interesting to show this photo, or a similar one, to students and citizens across the country. Would it cause this level of anxiety in everyone? Would it start breaking down their preconceived notions of what an Indian is? Like a fictional or live appearance of a modern-day Indian, it undoubtedly would help.
For more on the subject, see Modern Indians Are Less Native?, Photos Challenge Native Stereotypes, and "Take a Picture with a Real Indian."