Native American Depictions in the U.S

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Perception of Native American Depictions in American Culture

There is a tendency in the U.S. to be a perception that the use of Native American depictions is acceptable and benign, whether it be in nationally-supported sports teams, food items, language, or other aspects of American culture like holiday celebrations. The individuals these representations represent, however, have a different understanding of what the majority of Americans would regard as acceptable and benign. Native Americans typically view these symbols as an insult to their cultural legacy and their identity as Americans. Native Americans themselves view this practice as culturally insensitive, despite the fact that the majority of Americans find the use of Native American images and symbols to be acceptable, bordering on racism because the use of these symbols perpetuates negative stereotypes and is a reminder of a painful history of exploitation and abuse.

The Offensiveness of Mascots and Symbol Appropriation

Some in America, when confronted with this topic will simply say something to the effect of “What’s the big deal?” The “big deal” in this case is that the use of mascots like the Washington Redskins use is offensive to many Native American people. What if the situation were reversed? Let us suppose, theoretically, that the white, mostly European, population of America had been forced off their land by the Native Americans, killed off by the tens-of-thousands, and forced to live in smaller and smaller colonies while being told it was their duty to assimilate and learn the ways and language of the Native American peoples. Now let us further suppose that the Native Americans had a professional sports team named the Washington Whitees and they had a depiction of colonial American dressed in tradition garb (the high-collared, lacy, coats with the knee-length breaches and stockings). How do you think they would feel? They would feel that they were being degraded and made fun of and this is exactly the argument that is going on over the use and appropriation of Native American symbols and culture.

Legitimized Racism in American Culture

Without taking the time to consider what Native Americans felt about the use of their images and cultural rituals, Americans have built what Native American researcher, Dwanna L. Robertson refers to as “legitimized racism” (115) into the very fabric of American culture. Robertson explains this by noting that the common use of the phrase “powwow” to mean any sort of conference or meeting undermines the deeply spiritual and religious significance of the original ritual associated with the term. Robertson goes on to state that “powwows” were “social, spiritual, and traditional events” (137) and not the informal gatherings they are associated with in modern American society. Another practice which Robertson takes exception to is that of “playing Indian” (114). She writes, “Playing Indian is actually an American tradition with its roots in colonial times” (Robertson 114) referring to when colonists dressed up as Indians during the Boston Tea Party to hide their true identities from the British. She follows this by pointing out that “Playing Indian is racist— in no way different from wearing blackface or participating in minstrel shows— because it collapses distinct cultures into one stereotypical racialized group” (Robertson 114).

Negative Impact on Native American Youth and Education

Other researchers such as Patricia D. Quijada Cerecer, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, reveal that the negative stereotypes perpetuated using Native American symbols and culture are having a detrimental effect on Native American youth especially and the Native American people in general. Her research into a group of Native American young people from a public high school with a majority population of American Indian students on a reservation in New Mexico reveals a disturbing trend of “racially charged educational environments and microaggressions emerging from these contexts” (Cerecer 592). Cerecer explains that these events negatively affect the success rates for Native American students noting that “Nationwide, just 64.2% of eligible American Indian youth graduated from high school in 2008” (591). Among the explanations, she gives for these numbers are such things as “institutionally-based assumptions of intellectual inferiority” for Native American students as well as “assumed superiority of white cultural values and communication styles” (Cerecer 592). Accordingly, and as is the opinion of many Native American researchers, American society seems to consider Native American people to be “lazy drunks who have never had to work for anything” (Robertson 129) and that Native Americans should give up “culturally deficient narratives” (Cerecer 592) and conform to the “American” way of life. These thoughts lie at the base of what upsets Native Americans about the cultural and symbolic misappropriation of their history and way of life.

Cultural Symbols and Their Impact

As noted above, American society has become so accustomed to the “legitimized racism” that Robertson described, most do not see anything wrong with things like the Washington Redskins, the Land O’Lakes Indian Girl, powwows, Thanksgiving or Columbus Day celebrations, but these symbols and events continually remind Native Americans that the society in which they live still mostly considers them as their forefathers did so long ago. Just as American society now looks down on openly using racial epithets such as nigger and spic to describe African Americans and Latinos respectively, one must wonder how long it will take for redskins, chiefs and other offensive terms to earn the same loathing status in American society and culture.

Works Cited

Cerecer, Patricia D. Quijada, “The Policing of Native Bodies and Minds: Perspectives on Schooling from American Indian Youth.” American Journal of Education 119 (August 2013): 591-616.

Robertson, Dwanna L. “Invisibility in the Color- Blind Era: Examining Legitimized Racism against Indigenous Peoples.” American Indian Quarterly / Spring 2015 / Vol. 39, No. 2: 113-153.

July 07, 2023
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