Thursday, March 07, 2013

Cal State Polytechnic University: Talking about Playing Indian

On Tuesday, I flew in to California to give two lectures and visit some classes.

Before the first talk, I had lunch with two groups. One group was comprised of students who tutor Native students, and the other group was Native men and women of the San Manual Band of Mission Indians. We talked about the significance of our nations and identities as Native people, and we talked about how we are misrepresented in the materials our children are given at school. Amongst us are powerful stories of parents who stand by their children.

After lunch we headed over to the student center for my lecture, Native (Mis)Representations, which was primarily about mascots.

It is always heartening to organizers when crowds of people are streaming in and they have to call for more chairs. Irvin Harrison, the Director of the Native American Student Center at Cal State Polytechnic University, organized my two-day visit.

Here's a post-lecture photo of Irvin, myself, and Dr. Joely Proudfit. She's the Director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State University, San Marcos. We had a long conversation, sitting in the warm California sunshine, talking about youth, research, sovereignty and the work we're committed to doing.

In the lecture, I showed many examples in which someone is playing Indian. I started with mascots, pointing out the stereotypical aspects of it. We watched Trail of Cheers and What Makes the Red Man Red, noting stereotypes in it, too. That Disney clip is available online in several different languages, including French, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, and German! Sheesh!

I shifted, then, to playing Indian in a historical context.

Americans have been playing Indian a long time. Primary example: colonists dressing up as Indians at the Boston Tea Party. The thing is, they didn't wear feathers or face paint... but that is how that moment in history is shown. What they did was blacken their faces with soot from the fireplace and wear blankets around their shoulders.

I showed photographs of playing Indian in Thanksgiving reenactments in elementary school, and dressing up like Indians for Halloween and summer camps. For each one, I also showed an illustration from a children's book.

Then I showed a photo of how boy scouts in Order of the Arrow play Indian. THAT, it turned out, was the image that drew the ire of one person in the audience. He came up after the talk and kept trying to get me to say that it was ok for them to do that, because they were honoring and educating others about Native people. He is the perfect example of someone unwilling to consider the research I presented, the voices of Native people, and the misinformation perpetuated by their Order of the Arrow activities.

I asked him some questions about why they do it, and he said something like "because you [Indians] really know how to take care of the earth and do things..." I interrupted him (getting impatient) and said "some of youguys [not-Indians] know how to do that, too. That's not knowledge that belongs or belonged exclusively to us. Why don't you celebrate who you are?" And he said "but more of you do it than anyone else."

He (they?!) clearly have us on a pedestal. He may think that is honoring and respectful, but it is dehumanizing to do that to an entire group of people.

I don't want that kind of honoring or respect. What I'd rather he do is stop playing Indian and seeking ways to justify it, and start lobbying Congress. We've all--Native and not--got to write and call our Senators and Representatives and stop that Keystone Pipeline.

I may add more to this post later. For now, I've got to head off to the Redlands University. Time to start day 2.

1 comment:

Ami said...

Your last paragraphs hit on what I tried to get across to my students so often when I tried to explain why 'positive' stereotypes are still bad. All Asians are smart. All black kids are good at basketball. It doesn't give anyone a chance to be themselves. In fact, if an Asian kids stinks at math, it is as if they have failed more than any other kid who happens to be bad at it. The 'positive' stereotype is the hardest one to get rid of.