Friday, June 20, 2008

Stereotypes in AAA's magazine

Today, I am pleased to share an essay written by Paulette F. Molin. Paulette is on the board of directors for Wordcraft Circle, and is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe from White Earth. Among her writings is an excellent book called American Indian Themes in Young Adult Literature. The book is available from Oyate. I've referenced it on this site before, and its on my list of recommended books, but I realized (today) that I've not written specifically about it. Tomorrow, I'll do that. For now, here's her essay.


Paulette F. Molin, June 19, 2008

Just as I was about to discard the May/June 2008 issue of Going Places: The Magazine for Today’s Traveler, a publication of AAA, a stereotypical image caught my eye, part of a pitch for Going Places’ interactive website, "Making Tracks for Kids." Looking further, I read this: "Meet Allaquippa, an Iroquois maiden named after the famous queen! Tell a tall tale, build a family tree, play a game and learn about Native American life and the history of Pittsburgh." See

If you make tracks to the May/June 2008 issue of Making Tracks, an interactive website of games and activities for kids,” to “Meet Alliquippa, an Iroquois maiden,” you will not find anything new. Instead, you will encounter the usual stereotypes about American Indians.

“Meet Alliquippa” features a cartoon “maiden,” fictionalized as a descendant of “Alliquippa, a Seneca Queen” in the piece. The historical Aliquippa, a sachem or leader of a band of Mingo Seneca near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, flourished during the first half of the eighteenth century. She garners only three sentences in “Meet Alliquippa,” described in the fictional Alliquippa’s voice: “One legend says that my ancestor Alliquippa, a Seneca Queen, set up camp many years ago where the three rivers meet near Pittsburgh. And it was there she met George Washington, who was on a military mission near her camp. The two became friends, the legend says.”

The Alliquippa cartoon image, like mascots and other caricatures, masks the actual history and contemporary status of Native people. This particular fictional “maiden” sports black hair hanging in two pig tails, wears feathers (the main one, green with red and white accents), and is decked out in a short top and slit skirt with generic Indian designs. Posed in a stereotypical stance, Aliquippa stands with her arms folded under a fringed wrap against a backdrop recognizable as a Plains star quilt design. She wears a bit of a smile, perhaps to reveal that she is friendly (in keeping with text such as, “Meet Alliquippa, our Seneca friend”). In one section, the Alliquippa figure is positioned above a photograph of an unidentified Iroquois male (actually, it is the Seneca leader Cornplanter, but he remains anonymous in the piece, with neither his name nor his history revealed).

The website’s stereotypical visual depiction is reinforced by the text, which fails to provide even the most basic information about the Seneca, such as identifying the tribal group as a member nation of the Iroquois Confederacy (the piece describes the Seneca as “one of the six tribes that make up the Iroquois Nation”). Furthermore, “Meet Alliquippa” does not identify any of the Seneca communities in the United States and Canada (among them, Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Tonawanda reservations in New York, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, and Seneca citizens in Ontario). Although the website mentions “the Iroquois’ ‘Six Nations,’ it does not adequately describe or discuss the Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”), neglecting to identify the member nations (Cayuga, Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and Tuscarora). In fact, the word “Confederacy” does not appear in the piece. “Meet Alliquippa” also overlooked an opportunity to identify and discuss the Seneca as “Keepers of the Western Door” of the Haudenosaunee or its specific role as a member nation.

“Meet Alliquippa” glosses over the role of women, especially rich among the Haudenosaunee, failing to address the contradiction between citing a historical female leader (“my ancestor Alliquippa, a Seneca Queen”) with its statement, “Men are the political leaders in our tribe.” Furthermore, the piece does not explain why the historical Alliquippa was called “Queen,” a European term of royalty. The clan system receives similar treatment (“The Seneca tribe is made up of clans: Turtle, Bear, Hawk, Heron and Wolf, among others”).

“Meet Alliquippa” also talks down to children, relying on clichés or exaggerated exclamations —“dance to the beat of your very own drum with our creative craft! “…the senators are like tribal council members who report to a chief—the president!” “A whole clan of 60 people could live in one longhouse! “ “But today, we live in houses or apartments, just like you!” The website also makes the fictional Alliquippa serve as the voice for the Seneca, substituting ersatz words for what tribal members would and could say about their own culture. The reading list offers no relief, listing only two books associated with the Seneca, both of them centered on myths or legends.

Unfortunately, the activities are along the same lines. “Create a Drum Craft” trivializes drums, which have deep religious and cultural significance in tribal societies, and reduces them to playtime craft. “Use a couple of beads,” the instructions direct, “to finish off your Iroquois drum below!” The activity is accompanied by an unidentified photograph of what appears to be a group of nineteenth-century Plains Indians, giving the impression that tribal groups are interchangeable. The text accompanying the activity conveys the notion that Europeans, not Native Americans, were settlers: “Many Native American tribes lived in Western Pennsylvania around the time it was settled. One of the tribes was the Iroquois.” In other words, Native American residence does not count as settlement in this contrived version of American history.

Another activity, “A Silly Piece of History,” is introduced by these words: “Every piece of land was ‘discovered’ by someone; from the first American who crossed over the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, to the European explorers who came later.” This self-serving narrative would have children believe that all “discoveries” are equal, neglecting to impart factual information about the European colonization of the Americas. Furthermore, it summarizes the indigenous presence in the Americas to “Bering Strait” origins, one Euro-American theory.

“Seneca Sling,” another activity, is merely a computer slingshot game, designed for participants to launch cyber rocks at animals and fish. The visual is stereotypical and cartoonish, featuring a headband-wearing, generic Indian male in a canoe. This activity is violent, playing out the killing of all manner of species and linking it to Indians. The fourth activity, “Build a Family Tree,” is introduced by these words: “History isn’t just about famous explorers and Indians.” In other words, this statement tells children that famous explorers and Indians are mutually exclusive.

Make Tracks away from this website. There are better materials available online and in print, including exciting works by contemporary Seneca and other Haudenosaunee authors.

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