September 01, 2011

Stereotypes justified "extreme measures"

A Song for the Horse Nation:  Typecast Indians

By Linda Martin (Navajo)As a child in the early 1970s, I conceived many notions about family, identity, and life roles by sitting in front of my grandmother’s television set. Raised in the city by my non-Native mother and grandmother, I learned about single-parenting issues from A Family Affair and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. My female role models, Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, were stylish, independent, career-minded women, much like my mother. My first impression of Native culture also came by way of television, through the genre of Hollywood Westerns. On celluloid, garishly painted, red-faced actors portrayed Natives as savage scalpers and merciless killers bent on unspeakable acts of murder and violation.

In films such as War Arrow (1953), wild “Kioways” on the warpath madly circle wagon trains of doomed pioneers. In Kit Carson (1940), other pioneers in peril are saved from Shoshone attacks as they ramble through Monument Valley, Utah. In the end, the hero—a frontier scout, cavalryman, or cowboy—gets the girl, and the Indian meets a grisly death. These death scenes, humorous and horrendous, involved dramatic feats of demoralizing comeuppance: an Indian grave shot from his war pony, somersaulting into the sagebrush, or shot and dragged behind his porn, arms flailing pitifully. Unfortunately, many other children my age drew the same conclusion about Indians as I did: we were dirty savages and merciless killers of women and children. Being the only Native American in my grade school, I became the target of hollering, war whoops, and hand-to-mouth “Indian” chanting.

Through illustration, portraiture, photography, journalism, and film, generations of Native people have been haunted by the cultural stereotypes of the past five centuries. Seventeenth-century European illustrations of Iroquois scalpers, battle reenactments in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, dime novels, and souvenir postcards, for instance, have shaped the public’s erroneous sentiments about Native Americans. Depending on the political agenda of the time—whether in Europe or North America—the evolution of Native identity in the popular press has been dominated by two extreme stereotypes: savage marauder or docile member of a conquered race.

In the United States, portraying Native Americans in a hostile light justified extreme measures in Indian policy, such as the use of brutal military force, land theft, and treaty violations. The idea of Indians as uncivilized and un-Christian also legitimized forced conversions, mandatory attendance at boarding schools, and other religious abuses.
Comment:  A Native links the "dirty savages and merciless killers" seen in the media with the "hollering, war whoops, and hand-to-mouth 'Indian' chanting" she received as a child. Many Natives could relate similar stories. So why are non-Natives still denying the harm of Native stereotyping? How arrogant do you have to be to say stereotyping isn't harmful when people tell you the harm explicitly?

Martin also links Native stereotyping to broad policy decisions: brutal military subjugation, forced religious conversions, abused children in boarding schools, etc. The media portrayed Indians as savages and that's all people knew about them. No doubt many Americans made the link explicit: "If they're going to act like savages, we'll treat them like savages."

And it's still happening today. Whenever a court decision or Congressional bill goes against Native interests, you can detect a whiff of stereotypical thinking. It goes something like this:

"These people live out in the desert somewhere, worshiping rocks and trees, and living off welfare checks. We don't have to treat them like full-fledged Americans because they aren't full-fledged Americans, really. They're more like the slaves in the Old South were--i.e., three-fifths of a person. So we'll give them three-fifths of the services we give to real Americans. They're so primitive and out-of-touch they probably won't even notice."

A good example is the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement. Most claimants thought they were entitled to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars--a century-plus of royalties and interest. Instead they're getting tens or hundreds of dollars. It's because politicians are thinking they didn't really need or earn the money. "They're only savages scrabbling in the dirt somewhere, not real Americans with jobs and families. We took care of them as wards of the state and that's payment enough for them."

Why do we develop their sacred sites? Because their religions aren't "real" religions. Why do we use them as stereotypical logos and mascots? Because their feelings aren't "real" feelings. Savages aren't real people like you and me.

For more on the subject, see Conservatives Use "Language of Savagery" and Grinding Indians into the Ground.

Below:  "Early 20th-century postcard of Cree man in traditional dress on horseback."


Shadow Wolf said...

The author does brings up a valid point with regards to Indian Policy. But lets get something straight.
For those that think we are not "real" people "like you" and the oppressors that might be reading this, are truly nothing short of "real" idiots. The simple fact to claim we're not *real* people today, as well as in history is beyond stupidity and logical comprehension. Otherwise, why we working for the POTUS? Why do we work for the federal governemt? Why are we working on a "government to government" basis? We do have tribal colleges? Why do we own and operate casinos? Why do we have a higher ethnic enlistment in the U.S. Military? And so on and on. Simply put--if we are not "real" people, none of these action are made possible. I wouldn't be posting in here to admonish your "paraphrasing" racism at Native Americans. Nonetheless, this simple-minded concept expressed by those who barhor these inane stereotypes, are the ones that are not "real" people with "real" visions. That's precisely because their fantasy ideas about Native Americans is unrealistic at best---straight from the movies.

Shadow Wolf said...

Typos correction:

"Harbor" and "action[s[".