Friday, March 08, 2013

Inspired by Students at University of Redlands and Sherman Indian School

On Wednesday, March 6th, I spoke at Cal State Polytechnic University in Pomona. The next day (March 7th, 2013), I spent the day at Redlands University and Sherman Indian School. My hosts at Redlands were Heather Torres and Nora Pulskamp of the Native American Student Programs office. Here we are at the end of the day:

In the morning, I gave a guest lecture to a class on Native Women taught at Redlands University by Dr. Larry Gross. I talked about depictions of Native women in the media and children's books. The students were engaged and engaging. I showed them "What Makes the Red Man Red" from Disney's Peter Pan. Their response was similar to the ones I get when I ask teachers and librarians to read aloud from selected passages of Little House on the Prairie. Surprise, that is, at how racist the depictions are, and that they do not remember those depictions from when they viewed/read these two items as children. We focused on the sexualization of Tiger Lily, and talked about the Violence Against Women Act.

From there, Heather and Nora drove us out to Sherman Indian School. It is one of the boarding schools originally designed (by the federal government) to 'kill the Indian and save the man.' Like Santa Fe Indian School, it is now a different place. Native history and culture is affirmed, for example, by the murals in the hallways:

Murals at Sherman Indian School affirm Native identity

I spent an hour with Native students. I talked with them about mascots, showing them photos of "Chief Illiniwek" (the former mascot at the University of Illinois) and stereotypes in children's literature. They were very attentive. When I showed them the photo of "Chief Illiniwek" doing the splits in mid-air, they exclaimed aloud at how ridiculous it is.

I also talked about the need to have books about American Indians, written by Native authors. My favorite example is Cynthia Leitich Smith's Jingle Dancer. I love showing that book to Native students, no matter how young or old they are. I was delighted that it slowly made its way through the group of 30 or so students, as they pored over the pages. Clearly, Cynthia's book touched them in a good way. After class was over, one young woman approached me to say she wants to be a writer. Her English teacher was also there and praised her work.

I was inspired by the students on both campuses. From them, I gained a strong sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The public lecture on campus last night reminded me that certain segments of society will not welcome them or the work they wish to do. That lecture drew Native people who live in the Redlands area, and Redlands students who tutor Native youth. All took note of the woman who entered the lecture hall wearing a "Chief Illiniwek" jacket. When she took her jacket off, I noticed she had one of the newer shirts fans of "Chief Illiniwek" wear. When the mascot was retired at Illinois, private vendors designed and sold several different kinds of shirts, including the one she wore. It has the word CHIEF in large bold letters across the front of the shirt. The woman sat alone and quiet throughout the lecture, but at the end, told us she is a Fulbright scholar who studies cultural genocide, and that "Chief Illiniwek" is not a violent mascot like the one at Florida State. She was belligerent and loud and said in her 30 years of being at Illinois, she never saw anything violent about it.

Her decision to be there, to dress as she did, to proclaim her credentials, and argue as she did, was puzzling to me. What motivated her to do that? Hate? Privilege? Both?!

Though I'm certain there are administrators at the University of Illinois who wish the mascot was still there, I think they would have been embarrassed at the behavior of this woman. She is, whether she realizes it or not, the embodiment of racism.

The students at Redlands and Sherman Indian School will encounter people like her. Change--for the better--will happen. It is never easy work, but change does happen. "Chief Illiniwek" no longer dances at Illinois because Native people and our allies fought to get rid of it. I leave California with the faces of the students in my head, inspired by each one of them.

Update at 9:45 AM, 2013
Added photo of mural from Sherman Indian School and cover of Jingle Dancer. 

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.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Two free public lectures in Redlands & Pomona this week!

This week, I'll be giving two free public lectures in which I'll talk about misrepresentations of American Indians (dates/times/locations listed at bottom of this post). In both lectures, I'll draw connections between the stereotypes of American Indians in children's/young adult literature and mascots.

While I'm out there doing that, the University of Illinois student body will be voting 'yes' or 'no' on this question:

Do you support Chief Illiniwek as the official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

For those of you who are new to AICL, here's "Chief Illiniwek" (I use quotes around that phrase because I do not want to convey any idea whatsoever that I think the mascot ought to have that title):

See the words at the bottom of the photo? The organization "Save the Chief" was active in a campaign to stop the university from getting rid of the mascot. It was/is only one of many similar organizations that, in one way or another, keep up the idea that mascots like "Chief Illiniwek" honor American Indians. They do that in spite of the fact that Native organizations, associations, and tribes have called for an end to the use of Native imagery in this way. And, thank goodness, the university chancellor said that the university will not bring it back because the university wants to go forward in being inclusive, not backward.

It is hard to chip away at the embrace of this kind of stereotyping.

American's are taught to have an affinity for this stereotype. This starts when they're young. Do you remember Clifford the Big Red Dog? Dear, dear, Clifford... I like him, too, but not when Emily Elizabeth thought he could be an Indian for Halloween:

Are you a fan of the Berenstain Bears books? Do you remember the one where Brother Bear and Sister Bear go to camp and listen to Grizzly Bob tell stories dressed this way?

I plan to incorporate research on the harm of such stereotyping in my talk. Research studies show its detrimental impact on Native students, and, its impact on non-Native students, too.

The University of Illinois finally got rid of its mascot, but it wasn't due to any concerns about it as a stereotype. It was retired because if it continued, the university would not be able to hold NCAA championships on its campus. I'm certain that some of the people responsible for actually making the decision to get rid of it understood the harm of stereotyping, but too many people did not, and too many people do not understand it.

I believe that children's books play a role in maintaining the illusion that such stereotypes are honorable.

I hope you can attend one of the talks! Please let your child's teachers know about the talks, too. And the school librarian! Displacing stereotypes with factual information about who American Indians were--and are--is going to require that more people understand stereotyping and its harm.

Wednesday, March 6, 1:00 PM
Bronco Student Center - Centaurus
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Thursday, March 7, 6:30 PM
Hall of Letters, 100
University of Redlands