Saturday, November 02, 2013

Presidential Proclamation: National Native American Heritage Month, 2013

Let me preface my sharing of President Obama's proclamation by saying (again) that I don't think teachings about any particular group ought to be done in a specific month. American Indians are part of that "We the People" all year long and ought to be in the curriculum year-round. Emphasizing American Indians in November--the same month as Thanksgiving--generally means that teaching about us is done in the context of Thanksgiving, which means romantic laments about Indian of long-ago-and-far-away rather than the ones of us that are in the here-and-now-and-in-your-backyard.

So---how can you (parent, teacher, librarian) turn President Obama's proclamation into a here-and-now activity that can use anytime of the year?

In the first paragraph, President Obama says "When the Framers gathered to write the United States Constitution, they drew inspiration from the Iroquois Confederacy..." Do you know what he means by that? Take a look at House Concurrent Resolution 331, passed in October 1988. For information about one of the Native nations that comprise the Iroquois Confederacy, visit the website of the Onondaga Nation. If you work with middle school students, get copies of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here. He's Onondaga, and his novel is outstanding.  

In the second paragraph, President Obama says "we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured..."  You probably know about wars between the U.S. and American Indian nations, but did you know universities had research studies in which they sterilized Native people? To learn about that, read Joseph Bruchac's Hidden Roots.  Update on Sep 30 2023: I (Debbie Reese) no longer recommend Bruchac's work. For details see Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki? Did you know that in Alaska, Native children at boarding schools were used as guinea pigs for radioactive research? Take a look at Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name Is Not Easy

In the third paragraph, President Obama says "In March, I signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which recognizes tribal courts' power to convict and sentence certain perpetuators of domestic violence, regardless of whether they are Indian or non-Indian." To read about that, pick up a copy of Louise Erdrich's The Round House

In the fourth paragraph, President Obama invites Americans to "shape a future worthy of a bright new generation, and together, let us ensure this country's promise is fully realized for every Native American." Most books about American Indians are inaccurate and biased. As such, they shape ignorance in non-Native people. Let's set those ones aside and work towards that bright new future for all of us.


- - - - - - -
From Alaskan mountain peaks to the Argentinian pampas to the rocky shores of Newfoundland, Native Americans were the first to carve out cities, domesticate crops, and establish great civilizations. When the Framers gathered to write the United States Constitution, they drew inspiration from the Iroquois Confederacy, and in the centuries since, American Indians and Alaska Natives from hundreds of tribes have shaped our national life. During Native American Heritage Month, we honor their vibrant cultures and strengthen the government-to-government relationship between the United States and each tribal nation.
As we observe this month, we must not ignore the painful history Native Americans have endured -- a history of violence, marginalization, broken promises, and upended justice. There was a time when native languages and religions were banned as part of a forced assimilation policy that attacked the political, social, and cultural identities of Native Americans in the United States. Through generations of struggle, American Indians and Alaska Natives held fast to their traditions, and eventually the United States Government repudiated its destructive policies and began to turn the page on a troubled past.
My Administration remains committed to self-determination, the right of tribal governments to build and strengthen their own communities. Each year I host the White House Tribal Nations Conference, and our work together has translated into action. We have resolved longstanding legal disputes, prioritized placing land into trust on behalf of tribes, stepped up support for Tribal Colleges and Universities, made tribal health care more accessible, and streamlined leasing regulations to put more power in tribal hands. Earlier this year, an amendment to the Stafford Act gave tribes the option to directly request Federal emergency assistance when natural disasters strike their homelands. In March, I signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which recognizes tribal courts' power to convict and sentence certain perpetrators of domestic violence, regardless of whether they are Indian or non-Indian. And this June, I moved to strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships by establishing the White House Tribal Council on Native American Affairs. The Council is responsible for promoting and sustaining prosperous and resilient Native American communities.
As we observe Native American Heritage Month, we must build on this work. Let us shape a future worthy of a bright new generation, and together, let us ensure this country's promise is fully realized for every Native American.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2013 as National Native American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities, and to celebrate November 29, 2013, as Native American Heritage Day.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Encounter in an antique store: "We pay taxes!"

Last week my mom, sister, and niece were visiting me in Illinois. They wanted to go to antique shops, so we set out to visit some. For the most part, we had a good time. But... 

At one, my mom spied a shelf of "Indian" items. She picked one up and gestured us over to see it. Quietly we agreed it was fake stuff that you get at roadside curio shops. The store owner noticed us at that shelf and came over. 

"Are you Indian?" she smiled and asked. My mom said that we are, and the woman, with great enthusiasm, said she is glad that the government gives us all the things it gives to us. Everything we "get for free" from the government, she said, was ok by her. Of course, we three Native women were not down with what she was saying... 

Then she said that she's glad that we don't have to pay taxes. 

At that point, my mom stopped her. Shaking her finger at the woman, my mom said "We pay taxes. We pay lot of taxes." The woman said "well, if you lived on a reservation, you wouldn't have to pay taxes." My mom said "We DO live on a reservation, and we DO pay taxes." 

The woman was quiet for a moment, and then talked about visiting a reservation, about how the houses and yards were run down... And my mom interrupted her again, telling her that her home is beautiful, that my dad had built it, that they have a beautiful yard, too. The woman stopped talking. We moved on to look at the antique door keys in another spot.  

My mom had checked the woman again and again, refuting the woman's narrow base of knowledge. My mom is usually very kind and generous but she lost her patience with ignorance put forth as knowledge. 

There are many times that I hesitate to disclose my identity to someone like that store owner. She meant well, but her ignorance and insistence blinded her to her actions. She was trying to be friendly, trying to prove to us just how much she knows about American Indians, but she was off the mark, and relentless, too.

It is quite an experience, being not-white at antique stores in the midwest...  Some items on the shelves are wonderful and others are horrible reminders of America's racism. Here's a few photos I snapped of "Chief Illiniwek" items. For those who don't know, "Chief Illiniwek" was once the mascot at the University of Illinois. Its supporters said over and over again how "Chief Illiniwek" was not a mascot, that it is a symbol that honors American Indians. What do you think? Are these items indicative of honor? The first three are stickers/decals that were on a lunch box. The fourth one--I don't know WHAT to call it. The last one is a seat cushion. 

In case you're wondering, the "Indian's don't pay taxes" idea has a kernel of truth. Native people who live on their reservation and work at a business located on their reservation are exempt from state income tax. Those of us who own property off the reservation pay property tax. All of us pay sales tax. And of course--the word "give" suggests a benevolent government, which it was/is not. 

I'll take this opportunity to point you to a terrific book that addresses popular misconceptions. Published by the National Museum of the American Indian, Do All Indians Live in Tipis? is a terrific resource.

Nov. 2, 2013

An online resource similar to Do All Indians Live in Tipis is the FAQ page at the Native American Rights Fund: FAQ

Vanity Fair's "Favorite" Halloween Costumes

Having my coffee this morning, my twitter feed included a link to a Vanity Fair slideshow of "favorite" costumes at an event that took place last night (Halloween). I wondered if Hamish Robertson (the photographer) and editors at Vanity Fair were aware that dressing as an "Indian" is inappropriate.

So I went to the slide show and saw this:

The caption (not shown because it has been changed) was "The Indian."*

I replied to the Robertson's tweet. Here's a screenshot of the tweets:

Reading Robertson's reply, I went back to the slideshow to see the adjustment. Here's what he did:

This time you see the caption. It says "FEATHERS" instead of "The Indian."*

That, of course, is no better.

That the photograph made its way onto a list of "favorite" costumes tells me that some people at Vanity Fair, a magazine I subscribe to, are clueless about this issue. That's a bit surprising to me, especially given the coverage of fashion designers who have been called out for appropriation of Native intellectual property. Native Appropriations has been doing an excellent job of documenting the fashion industry's appropriation (click here to get a list of posts Adrienne has done on this topic). Paul Frank responded to criticism of a fashion event by working with Native designers.

What can Vanity Fair do?

I recommend they read the report recently released by the National Congress of American Indians. While the title specifies mascots, the contents of the report have broader application. Obviously, it applies to images of American Indians in children's and young adult literature.

We (by we, I mean American society) are stuck in an ugly cycle in which this kind of stereotyping happens again and again, year after year. Unfortunately, it is a money maker for those who do it. On her Facebook page, my daughter pointed to the "Sexy Indian" costumes available from a Halloween costume company. She opened by referencing statistics about how many Native women are sexually assaulted (one in three) by non-Native men, making the point that dressing up and playing Indian are not harmless activities. These activities are indicative of an ignorant society that refuses to see American Indian people as people.

A powerhouse like Vanity Fair can help interrupt that cycle by publishing an essay that takes a hard look at playing Indian/dressing Indian. They can show their readers how much it happens. This means starting with children's books and activities in which children are shown or encouraged to play Indian. It means taking on esteemed children's book authors and illustrators, and the Boy Scouts, and, the Washington Redskins, too.

That's what Vanity Fair can do.

*In my original post, I made an error. The caption was not "An Indian." It was "The Indian." My post has been edited to correct the error.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee

In 1883, D. Lothrop & Company published a book called Wide Awake Pleasure Book consisting of several volumes of a children's magazine called Wide Awake.  There are several items in it that I'll want to write about sometime, but today (Halloween), I've chosen to share "Benny's Wigwam" by Mrs. Mary Catherine Lee.

"Benny's Wigwam" was first published in Volume 17, No. 6 of Wide Awake, dated November 1883, but Google Books shows me that D. Lothrop & Company also published it in 1886 in The Little Gold Miners of the Sierras and Other Stories. You can read the story in its entirety by clicking on that link. Here's the illustration that goes with the story:

In "Benny's Wigwam," it is the first day of vacation. Benny Briggs sets out to "see the old Witch" (p. 334) that has moved into an abandoned woodcutter's hut near their home. His little sister goes (called Pettikins or Fanny) with him. When they get to the hut, Fanny exclaims over the broomstick and black cat they see at the hut. They're startled to hear her voice behind them, telling them there aren't any laws against her having a cat or a broomstick. She asks the children "What are you skeered of?" (p. 335).

With that question, they enter a conversation in which the children ask her why she's so queer. She tells them (p. 335):
"I'm exterminated. You don't know what that is, I s'pose?"
Benny stammers that it means to drive out, to put an end to, to destroy utterly. The woman tells Benny she learned what it meant back when she was the age of Fanny (p. 335):
"That's when the colonel said we must move west'ard,"said the witch, laying her pipe down on the log, leaning her elbows on her knees, and resting her bony jaws in the palms of her hands. "Injuns, before they're exterminated, stick to their homes like other folks."
Debbie's comments: The author/old woman are referring to removal. The use of the word "exterminated" can be traced to Thomas Jefferson's use of that word in 1807, when he said that "if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi." Would a Native woman have used the word "Injun" to describe herself? I kind of doubt it. That said, the author is sympathetic and her "like other folks" is an attempt to depict Native people as same-as-everyone-else. I'm curious, though, about the period. Is this old woman talking about Jefferson and the removal known as the Trail of Tears? What tribe is this old woman? Is she a Cherokee? What is she doing in the northeast?

Benny doesn't believe she's an "Injun" because she doesn't look like the pictures he's seen, and she doesn't look like the (p. 335-336)
"magnificent figures he had seen in front of the cigar stores in New Haven. Where were all her feathers and things--her red and yellow tunic, her gorgeous moccasins, her earrings and noserings and bracelets and armlets and beads? Why, she was just ragged and dirty!"
Debbie's comments: It is interesting to read about what he expected, and what formed those expectations. I wonder what pictures he'd seen? "Benny's Wigwam" came out in 1883.  Earlier in the book, there's this drawing:

The drawing is just there--no story goes with it. The artist is listed (in the table of contents) as George Foster Barnes. Benny may also be thinking of Indians he saw in Peter Parley's Tales about America, published in 1830.

As for cigar store Indians... well, there's plenty of examples of them! Do an image search and you'll find them.  

Benny asks the old woman if she really is an "Injun" and she says:
"Well, I was. I ain't nothing at all now. I ain't even a squaw, and they said they was going to make a Christian on me. I was a Chetonquin."
Debbie's comments: With that passage, we are given a tribe. Chetonquin. As far as I know, there is no tribe called Chetonquin. I'll keep reading Benny's Wigwam and see if I learn more about that. Regarding making her into a Christian, that was certainly going on! 

The old woman tells Benny that her people did not want to go west. They fought the colonel. She was a little girl at the time and hid behind a tree to watch the fight. She saw her father get shot and ran to him. She got shot, too, and shows Benny and Fanny the scar, saying (p. 336):
"A bullet grazed me hard and I was stunned and blinded with the blood, and couldn't run, but my people had to."
The old woman says Colonel Hammerton (this is the first time she names him)...
"took a notion to pick me up when he rode over the ground he had soaked with the blood of my people--ground that belonged to my people," shrieked the woman, straightening herself up and shaking her fists in the air. 
Debbie's comments: I'm glad to see that the woman's command of English is pretty good. The author didn't give the woman that stilted speech pattern in which almost every word ends in "-um" and I'm also glad to see the woman speak the truth about the land itself and who it belonged to. I don't know what battle the old woman saw as a child. The only "Colonel Hammerton" that I've come up with is the one in this story. 

The old woman says that Colonel Hammerton took her to Washington where she had to stay in houses, which she didn't like. She ran away several times and they finally gave up and let her go. And since then, she's been searching for her people. She was told:
they was exterminated, every one on 'em. Yes, I've been a-going ever since, but I can't go any more.
And so, she's stopped moving and hopes she can stay in this forest. She doesn't want to be in a house because the Great Spirit won't be able to find her. She wants to be found, soon, and pleads with Benny to carry her wish to his people. He tells her not to worry, because the woods they're in belong to his relations, and he'll look after her.

Debbie's comments: White people saving or rescuing Indians is a common trope. Not a good one, I should add!

The old woman is very grateful to Benny. She looks around her, saying that when she came into this wood, she felt she was in the right place, and she almost expected to see wigwams.  She wishes she could sleep in one. Benny tells her sleeping in wigwams is something he and his friends had done when playing Indian. They know how to make them. He offers to make one for her.

Debbie's comments: Hmmm... I think is may be the oldest reference I've seen to playing Indian.  

Benny goes home to gather his friends so they can build the wigwam. He tells his parents, too, about the old woman. They're very sympathetic (p. 337):
[T]heir excellent hearts were at once filled with compassion for so forlorn a creature. Mr. Briggs had very radical theories about equal mercy and justice for each member of the human race.
Debbie's comments: There were, in fact, people like Mr. and Mrs. Briggs. During the period when removal of the Cherokee's was being discussed, there were active letter-writing campaigns in which white women objected to removal. This is referenced in the Trail of Tears episode of the PBS Series, We Shall Remain. 

Mr. and Mrs. Briggs tried to get her into more comfortable quarters than the forest, but she wanted to be there, so they left her alone, making sure she had whatever she needed to be comfortable. Over the summer, she lost touch with reality. People came to "understand and respect the sorrows of the poor creature they had talked of as a witch" (p. 338).

As winter drew near, Benny was intent on making her a wigwam. He got a person named 'Bijah to help him. 'Bijah had been to Dakota and saw "life-size" wigwams. In a chest, he's got buffalo and other kids of robes. He gets to work on them and they make one. Exhausted, Benny goes to bed and (p. 338):
dreamed he was the chief of a powerful tribe, and that he found old Winneenis, not old any longer, but a little girl like Fanny, crying in the forest because she couldn't find her way to her people, and that he took her by the hand and led her home.
Debbie's comments: Here, near the end, we learn the woman's name: Winneenis. 

In the morning, he and his friends head to the wigwam and are surprised to find the old woman asleep inside. The boys peek at her but decide to let her sleep. Hours pass and she doesn't wake. 'Bijah goes inside and comes out to report that Winneenis is dead. The final paragraph is this (p. 339):
Wandering, as was her wont at night, she had come upon Benny's wigwam, standing in the clear moonlight, and to her longing, bewildered mind, it had probably seemed the wigwam of her father. Who can ever know the joy, the feeling of peace, and rest, and relief, with which she laid her tired bones down in it, and fell asleep, a care-free child once more, and thus passed from its door into the happy hunting-grounds? And Benny always felt glad the wigwam had been built.
Debbie's comments: An interesting story... I think it is much like other writings of that time period that were sentimental pleas for tolerance, equality, and reform. It also reflects, however, the author's lack of knowledge about a specific tribal nation. Mrs. Lee (the author) uses a good many stereotypical words and ideas (like happy hunting ground). As for the opening, where the old woman is thought to be a witch... I'll have to do some reading to make sense of that! For now, I'll hit the upload button and greet the trick or treater's at my door this evening. (This is going live without a close read for typos, etc. Let me know if you see some! Or bad writing! And let me know, too, what you think of the story.)