April 17, 2013

Natives "filed away" by stereotypes

A response to the negative media portrayal I covered in Photo Essay Maligns Wind River:

The White Media Kills Again and Again

By Lisa JonesStill, the media come to the reservation, eager for lurid stories but incurious about the people they see. A February 2012 front page New York Times story entitled “Brutal Crimes Grip an Indian Reservation,” reported: “The difficulties among Wind River's population of about 14,000 have become so daunting that many believe that the reservation ... is haunted by the ghosts of the innocent killed in an 1864 massacre.”

The article spurred 277 letters in two days. Some expressed historical outrage, while others blamed Native Americans for not lifting themselves out of their own mess. Some criticized the one-sidedness of the writing. Reservation teenager Willow Pingree, for example, wrote, “Not everything about this reservation is bad. … What many people who are not from this reservation ... don't understand is that there is a strong spiritual bond that we have with our culture and our homeland.” To its credit, the Times invited Pingree to write a longer letter in response to Williams's article.

But would it have been so hard to write a more textured, less biased story in the first place—one that tried to humanize the writer's sources? In 2010, I spoke to Wyoming Indian High School history teacher and cross-country coach Chico Her Many Horses, an Oglala Sioux who moved to the Wind River Reservation in 1990. He had seven sons, one of whom was in graduate school at Dartmouth, and his wife is also a teacher in the high school. “If we didn't think this place was good, I wouldn't be here, and my sons wouldn't be here.”

Non-Native reporters might think they're helping Native America by exposing the difficulties of Native life. But because so many people form an impression of reservation life from the media, it only makes the problems worse if reporters go to the reservation just to reinforce whatever ideas they arrived with. When reporters don't get curious, and fail to leaven their portrayal of reservation difficulties with a broader, more human picture, Native people end up being filed away in a special place in readers' brains—the file in which we put THINGS WE'D RATHER NOT THINK ABOUT. Which is where we've been putting Native Americans for five centuries.
Comment:  Excellent point here. Negative stereotypes let bystanders ignore and dismiss the plight of Indians and other minorities. Programs are reduced and funding cut because "we" don't think "they" deserve our help.

They're lazy, drunken, good-for-nothing bums, goes this train of thought. They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps before trying to take our money. And so the cycles of poverty and crime continue.

Again, stereotypes contribute directly to the problem. Fighting America's ignorance about Indians is an integral part of fighting for economic and social justice. If you don't know in your heart that Indians are the same as everyone else, you won't do anything to help them.

For more on blaming the victim, see Attawapiskat Triggers "Welfare" Stereotypes and Rubio: Entitlements "Weakened" Us.

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