August 19, 2013

Indians go from devil to mascot

In John Marshall's follow-up story about death certificates at Auschwitz, a reader makes the following point:

They Didn’t Want to Forget Either

By Josh MarshallThe Germans didn’t want to forget about the Jews. I think they wanted and intended to take credit for erasing them. They only kind of hid some of what they were doing while they did it—but mostly they were wide open about it, almost boastful. All the photography and diary keeping by Nazis engaged in extermination operations—this isn’t seen as stupidly self-incriminating swagger, the way the documentation done by the soldier-photographers of Abu Ghraib is typically seen.

One key to understanding the double-determination to exterminate and remember is to wrap one’s mind around the idea that the Nazis planned, once they got done with the Jews, to make a big Jewish museum in Prague. They were collecting artifacts and warehousing them for this grand exposition: torah scrolls and Sabbath candelabras and other ritual and/or folkloric objects. I guess they had something in mind like the American Indian collections and exhibits at the Smithsonian and the Natural History museum.
Marshall then reaches the same conclusion I've reached many times:If you look over the swath of four centuries of North American settler history there is an unmistakable change in settler or white American perceptions of Native Americans before and after they become a totally militarily defeated people and largely vanish from the physical landscape of North America. Before they range from frightening to literally satanic to a permanent ‘other’ counterpoised against America’s civilizing, industrializing mission. But after the Indian becomes part of the past, in the American national psyche, there’s a great change. The image and memory undergo a profound transformation. The idealized figure of the Indian warrior—as opposed to the marginalized and impoverished Native Americans pent up on reservations—becomes something like a mascot for the American character, supposedly embodying various American national virtues.

Remember, the US Army has a tradition of naming all its aircraft after Native American tribes. We take these things for granted. They’re natural somehow in the texture of American national memory. From an historical perspective, though, there is something a little odd and paradoxical about this. It is frightening though I must confess interesting to consider how a victorious Nazi regime might have remembered an annihilated Jewry.
Comment:  Marshall nails it. This is the same subject I explored in The Political Uses of Stereotyping.

In the American imagination, Indians are like the lion or bear trophy over the mantelpiece. Celebrating their strength and courage really means celebrating ours. As a museum piece, trophy, or mascot, Indians remind us how "wonderful" we were to conquer the "savages" and then allow them to join our "civilization."

The animal analogy is good one for how we view and treat Indians. We hate wild wolves but love domesticated dogs. Indeed, we admire many dangerous animals as long as they're safely locked in zoos (reservations). But if they show up without chains around their necks, we scream bloody murder, call Animal Control, or simply shoot them.

Don't let anyone fool you about how mascots and other stereotypical images are "harmless." America has a cultural and political agenda for remembering Indians as "noble savages." It's all about promoting the myth of Euro-Christian superiority so we can justify our crimes against humanity.

For more on the subject, see:

Why Warren wants to be Native
Indian place names = mascots
Mythical Indian = "national mascot"

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