I've been asked why is Protect Our Manoomin involved with this particular protest since it appears outside the norm of the work POM is associated with. And it's a fair question. But the answer isn't that complicated. Simply put - it's personal. And it's personal because it is an issue that affects the Native community that I am a part of. As such, it's an issue that affects our identity, our families, and our children.
For me, it's an issue that goes back twenty-two years. In 1992, I was part of the protest at the Super Bowl that numbered nearly 2000 protesters, when Washington played against the Buffalo Bills at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. The rally was largely organized by American Indian Movement leader Vernon Bellecourt. Vernon was the president and founder of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sport and Media which he established under the aegis of AIM in 1991.
In April 2014, U.N. Special Rapporteur James Anaya said: “I urge the team owners to consider that the term ‘redskin’ for many is inextricably linked to a history of suffering and dispossession, and that it is understood to be a pejorative and disparaging term that fails to respect and honour the historical and cultural legacy of the Native Americans in the US.”
"Redskin" is, of course, a stereotype and it is, in particular, a racial stereotype. As a stereotype, it connotes the imaginary of savagery of an entire people - an indigenous people who are not homogeneous, but rather composed of many tribes, each with their own histories, traditions, and languages.
in 1993, I wrote a 22 page booklet (out of print) for the Anoka-Hennepin Indian Education Program titled "Rethinking Stereotypes: Native American Imagery in Non-Native Art and Illustration." My intention for the booklet was to go beyond the stereotypes in sports and look deeper at stereotypes that form an aspect of institutional racism in art and education.
I've selected several excerpts from the book because what I wrote 21 years ago is still relevant today.
Pow Wow the Indian Boy, Tonto, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Cochise, Redskin, Dirty Indian, Half-Breed, Nigger, and Chief are only a few of the names that I was called by white children while I was growing up in the white suburb of Crystal in the early 1950s. These names were used to try to intimidate me into a fight or to humiliate me to feel ashamed of being Native American. These names were almost always accompanied by war whoops and/or war dances. There always seemed to be one or two name callers in every class - which was all that was needed to make my day uncomfortable. There were many parents, however, who also used these names - they thought these names were appropriate and acceptable and they used them in the same manner used for their dogs. Certainly, these names were not applied directly to me by the parents, rather they were used when speaking about my relatives from the past or my relatives who lived on the reservation. And I heard the other names these same parents used for other people who weren't white - nigger or coon for black people, wetback or spic for Mexican people, and chink or goon for Asian people, especially Korean people as this was the time of the Korean Conflict. These were yet more names that I was subjected to simply because my hair was black and my skin dark. Although the names hurt, I refused to let my agonizers see my tears or feel my anger. Instead, I turned my pain inward - part of which would result in destructive or abusive acts as a youth, and as an young adult. Although the name callers were a persistent few, the other white students and teachers had perceptions of Native Americans that were just as hurtful as the name calling. In general, my white classmates and teachers thought that my family had to get a special pass to leave the reservation in order to live in the city; that all Chippewa (sic) people lived in tar paper shacks, tipis, or wigwams; that my ancestors were uncivilized cannibals who didn't know how to take care of the land; that all my relatives were drunks, spoke broken English, and didn't know how to raise children. In school, my teachers labeled me a slow learner - not because I lacked the mental capacity to intellectualize and analyze, but simply because my hair was black and my skin reddish brown. I was a slow learner because my teachers failed to understand that Washington, Lincoln, the Revolutionary War, the War Between the States, and the Gettysburg Address had very little meaning to me as a Native American person. I wanted to learn - but not about the supposed greatness or superiority of the white race. I wasn't interested in learning about a vain, self-postering race of people who propped themselves up as being some kind of God's Chosen People. I wanted to learn about who I was, who my people were, and the history, contributions, and achievements of my race. In the classrooms of the 1950s white America, however, the histories of Native Americans were virtually non-existent, excepting for a brief derogatory paragraph or footnote in a white history/social science book, and in stereotypic paintings and drawings by European and Euro-American artists.
Forty years later and I still hear The Names. They never really left. I heard them in 1968 when our AIM brothers and sisters were defending Lakota traditional elders at Wounded Knee. I heard them as recently as 1988, in northern Wisconsin, where white anti-spearfishing protesters cursed, jeered, and spat on Ojibwe elders, women, and children. I can hear them today, on the steps of Minnesota's state capitol, where white resort owners and sports fishermen have protested the treaty rights of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe people. And I can still hear The Names in towns like Walker, Bemidji, Mankato, Rochester, Onamia, Duluth, and Minneapolis.
What's in a name? Unlike the children's rhyme of sticks and stones, names do hurt. Ask any black child in the ghetto, ask any Mexican child in the barrio, ask any Native child in an reservation bordertown. Ask any child of color what's in a name.
Part I / Stereotypes in Visual Arts
Imagine living in a world composed of stereotypes. In this world of stereotypes, there would be many racial and ethnic peoples - niggers, coons, redskins, tree niggers, gooks, slopeheads, spics, wetbacks, and kikes (these are only a few of the many mongrel-blooded people who inhabit this world). In this world, these people would be lazy, or smell bad, or have greasy or dirty hair, be dishonest, and untrustful, commit criminal acts, have no family values or family skills, use alcohol and drugs, be greedy and selfish, of lowly intelligence - and the darker the skin, the more dangerous the individual. In this world of stereotypes, people would be judged by how they look - if their skin is too black, too brown, too red, if their noses are too flat or too wide, if their lips are too big, if they speak English differently. You would always remember who these stereotypes were by the visual/mental imagery created about them via art and literature.
Now, imagine yourself being the stereotype.
In America, for each culture, race, or ethnic group, there is a stereotype. Stereotypes are formed and developed from the art and language of dominant culture. The underlying function of stereotypes is to pass misinformation. This misinformation is passed through two forms of stereotypes - visual images created by art and pictures, and mental images created by words and books. These visual and mental forms are of two types - passive, subliminal types; and direct, derogatory types. The most common type of stereotype is the former which passes misinformation through subliminal imagery - this type of stereotype includes the incorrect use of tribal symbolism/motifs, clothing, and historical references. This type of stereotype is often difficult to recognize. The second type of stereotype - direct, derogatory imagery - are words and pictures in which physical features are caricaturized and traits and customs are demeaned. This type of stereotype forms the imagery of the racist. Sometimes these two types merge together and develop into bizarre shapes and forms. Stereotypes are derived from generalizations - these generalizations develop misconceptions that become, through pictures and words, believed racial traits, customs, and beliefs. Through dominant language and art, stereotypic imagery allows one to see, and believe, in an invented image, an invented race, based on generalizations. Stereotypic imagery formed in one generational mindset is passed on, through pictures and words, to succeeding generational mindsets. Because stereotypes are self-perpetuating, you never see nor hear the real histories of other people.
Part II / Stereotypes in Children's Illustrations
In understanding Native American stereotypes in art, it is first important to learn first what is Native American art, and what isn't Native American art. Today, it has become increasingly difficult for non-Native people to discern the differences. At present, there are two areas in which Native American cultures are represented through the visual arts: a) Native American visual art, here simply defined as Native American imagery by Native American artists; b) a pseudo Native American visual art, called Popular Indian art or kitsch Indian art, defined as Native American imagery by non-Native artists. In the former, artists are from within the culture; in the latter, artists are from outside the culture. Therefore, what Native American art is, is visual imagery by artists who are Native American (or, if you prefer, Native Americans who are artists). and what Native American art isn't, is visual imagery by artists who are non-Native. Pseudo or kitsch Native American art is an art of misinformation - misinformation that is expressed through a distorted visual image, i.e., a stereotype. Stereotypes that are specific to pseudo/kitsch Native American art include incorrect use of cultural symbolism, dress (clothing), and historical references. The art of non-Native artists, therefore, is essentially an art of stereotypes in which inaccuracy is presented as accurate. Unfortunately, the art of non-Native artists is supported and promoted by mass market publishers of children's books and western genre art prints. Consequently, the general perception of what Native Americans culturally looked like is formed from the pseudo/kitsch art of non-Native artists, i.e., non-Native people learn about tribal cultures from the art of those who outside tribal cultures.
Through education, a person who is illiterate can learn to read. Through multi-cultural education, a person who is culturally illiterate can learn to see. Becoming culturally literate means to see with a stereotypic eye. Seeing with a stereotypic eye enables one to see through the falsities, distortions, and inventions of dominant art and literature. But one must do more than just see. Because one can see and remain silent. In a nation in which the plurality of its peoples is its greatest strength, there is no greater shame than the existence and perpetuation of stereotypes. There is no excuse nor reason that after 500 years, stereotypes need to continue. Those who invent and distort must know that their pictures and words are not acceptable. For racial harmony in a nation undivided, stereotypes must cease to exist.