March 04, 2012

Wannabes obscure real Indians

Wanting To Be Indian

By Myke JohnsonOne of these traps I refer to as “wanting to be Indian.” In fact, American Indians have a name for people in this trap, the Wannabe Indians. This trap is an identification with the Indians, most likely out of our own distress or oppression, our disenfranchised desire. Indians become the “utopic other” holding the dreams we wish were true, whatever they may be. And here the romantic stereotypes take over. So for example, we might say, “In tribal cultures…women were held in respect.” “In tribal cultures…everything was shared communally.” “In tribal cultures…people lived in harmony with the earth.” And so on, filling in the blanks. We desire that utopia, want to be those romanticized Indians.

The other similar trap I call “guilt seeking redemption.” In this trap, we are aware of and acknowledge what White culture has done and reject that, but get stuck in the feeling of guilt. We desire release from the guilt of association with White culture. And so we seek out Indians to say we’re okay, to offer forgiveness, and welcome us, adopt [us] into their own better ways.

We can see an example of this trap in current movies about Indians. Movies went from those portraying Indians as the bad guys who threatened the survival of the White heroes, to a movie like “Dances with Wolves,” where the White hero is the exception to the destructiveness of White culture, and is adopted by the Indians. This trap explains the appeal of an Indian like Sun Bear who taught spirituality to White people, and started a non-Indian entity called the Bear Tribe. He was considered a sell-out by many traditional Native people. However, many White people felt welcomed and assumed a new identity as “tribal” members of a so-called Rainbow Tribe.

What are the problems with these three traps?

First of all, this redemption we find is really a cheap grace. It makes us feel better but doesn’t transform the situation of Native peoples. The injustices keep happening.

Secondly, by denying the spiritual and political autonomy of Indian people, the New Age “rainbow” people subvert whatever good intentions they may have about multicultural community. What gets created is multicultural white middle class dominance in yet another form.

Thirdly, these options perpetuate the fantasy image of the Indian, and distort the real picture. They prevent us from seeing the real lives of Native people. They obscure and drown out their voices and expression of self.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Mythical Indian = "National Mascot" and Americans = Wandering Strangers.

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