November 30, 2012

Indians testify about negative images

On Thursday, several Indians testified at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing about countering the negative images of Indians in popular culture. Here's a bit of what they said:

Educating is Key to Reclaiming Indian ‘Image and Identity’

By Gale Courey ToensingValbuena talked about the negative stereotypes that have flourished in the wake of “misguided federal policies, hostilities, Hollywood stereotypes, and hardships suffered by American Indians”–the feathers-and-teepee Indians, the drunken Indian, the wealthy casino-tribe Indian. These stereotypes engender feelings of inferiority, shame, and low self-esteem, especially among Native youth and are linked to poor academic performance and social adjustment, high school graduation rates and high suicide and homicide rates, Valbuena said. “We recognize that we bear the responsibility of educating non-Native people about ourselves, but Congress and this Committee can and should take a couple of simple steps to help us, particularly since past federal policies have contributed to and perpetuated the stereotypes that exist today,” Valbuena said. She recommended, among other things, that the SCIA reauthorize and fund the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act, which was enacted in 2006 to preserve and increase fluency in Native American languages. “Language shapes everyone’s identity, but for Native communities there is an urgent need to protect our languages from extinction,” Valbuena said.

Mr. Andrew J. Lee, Seneca, is a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, an executive at Aetna Inc., Hartford, Connecticut, a young Global leader of the World Economic Forum and sits on several boards serving Indian country. As “a mixed race Native,” Lee said, it took him years to understand that his background and heritage were assets that allowed him to move comfortably through multiple worlds. He talked of a conversation he’d had with a man who made a horribly racist and genocidal comment about South America indigenous people. “I said nothing and walked away. But later I went out of my way to spend time with him,” Lee said. “We talked about Wall Street, history and the arts and I never brought up that repulsive comment. Over time I introduced him to Indian sovereignty. Ultimately, he became an unlikely ally. For me this experience underscored the need to build bridges of understanding across communities, cultures and sectors. Most importantly, it taught me that I can make a difference.”

Lee offered three ideas about Indian image and identity. First, he asserted that the ability to reclaim Indians’ image and identity is inextricably tied to the continued support for and exercise of self-determination. “Astonishing success is possible when Indian nations put themselves in the driver’s seat for decision making on everything from social service provision to natural resource management,” he said. Second, he said that Indian country should showcase the growing number of success stories. He cited the Winnebago Tribe, “which turned around its economy plagued by 60 percent unemployment, “ by developing diversified enterprises; the Tohono O’odham Nation, which built a skilled nursing facility that is now a national model; and the Pueblo of Zuni, who built the first ever Indian operated eagle sanctuary.
Comment:  For more on the harm of Native stereotyping, see Long-Term Effects of Stereotyping and Lakota Girl Imitates Stereotypical Images.

Below:  "Lynn Valbuena, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, testified November 29 at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing titled 'Reclaiming Our Image and Identity for the Next Seven Generations.'"

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