Bury my heart on Halloween
Published: Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 19:10
Many United States citizens gladly embrace holidays such as Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and President's Day as being, simply, time off from work. Some citizens might even use these days to reflect on what it means to be "American," what it means to have a history such as this nation does, at least the kind of history that is taught, or what it means to be lucky enough to live in a "free" society.
On the other hand, there are many others—Native American and First Nations groups—who have very different thoughts and feelings during times that our current society deems as celebratory.
Combine this with the fact that I rarely see Native cultures represented in popular culture outside of football season, Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving, and these depictions are almost always inaccurate and cartoonish at best, hostile at worst. Hollywood uses actors who are Greek, Italian, Indonesian or, sometimes, even painted, to portray Native Americans in western films which, inevitably, focus on the "white" characters story and "Indians are the T and A," as John Trudell said in the documentary Reel Injun.
Rarely are specific tribes portrayed or even mentioned—it is always simply "Indian" or "Native American" and never Oglala, never Lakota, never even Sioux. Tribes who have never dwelled in tipis, donned Mohawks, or used peyote are repeatedly represented as having done so and, what's worse, accused of still living such lifestyles.
The language used by popular culture in the United States in order to discuss Native history, culture and current events was orchestrated by colonization and campaigns such as Manifest Destiny and help to contribute to a public perception of Natives as strange, mythical creatures, goofy caricatures, or savage, blood-thirsty bushmen—but rarely as complex human beings, capable of imagination, emotion, language and civilization, deserving of respect and consideration, and never as being a part of a current, modern reality.
Finally, the over-sexualization of Natives, particularly of Native women, acts as a double-edged sword in aiding not only the objectification of Native Americans (remember—Natives are just "T and A") but also to the objectification of women in general. Take, for example, recent box office Hollywood hits such as Twilightand Avatar. Both films eagerly embrace the stereotype of the "mythical Indian" and the "sexual Indian" and, in the case of Avatar, eagerly campaign for conquering any such person.
When imagery of a modern-day Indian does show up in mainstream media, it usually portrays extreme poverty, alcoholism and rape. While these images and issues are very real, they do not exude a completed context and, by doing so, they only help to further a disparity between what reality is produced and distributed and an actual reality.
In fact, current trends in popular culture suggest that the public conscious views Native American culture as something of the past entirely. Scantily-clad pop singers parade around stage donning elaborate war bonnets and glittery face paint and stores such as Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 have encouraged this appropriation by mass-producing cheap replicas of sacred items and pandering the items as elements of costume in everyday dress for everyday people. In reality, objects such as war bonnets and dream catchers, and certain feathers, patterns, and colors, are just as sacred to their respective tribes as the Bible, Koran or Torah is to Christians, Muslims or Jews.
In the contexts of the treatment of Native Americans throughout history and in current media and pop culture, holidays that celebrate colonization and a continued policy of assimilate-or-annihilate tell a very different story than the one taught by public school history textbooks. Objectifying and appropriating cultures and peoples makes it easier for a society to justify certain atrocities committed against those cultures and peoples. Creating a public opinion that centers on the idea that Native Americans are something of the past makes it easier to disregard Natives altogether. Dressing up "Indian" on Halloween may seem relatively innocent, but the very fact that doing so is allowable in our society serves as part of a larger discourse.
There are, however, many groups that are campaigning, positively, to take back the media. Indian Country Todayis the leading Native American newspaper, owned and published by Oneida Nation, but relevant and distributed to Nations across North America. Websites such as Reznetnews.organd Indianz.comare online resources of Native-produced or Native-relevant articles throughout the continent.
There is also a growing community of incredibly well-spoken and well-informed bloggers that are making quite a name for themselves, not only in the blogosphere but also, slowly, in the realm of mainstream media. To name a few: Simon Moya-Smith, of the Denver Postand I Am Not A Mascot, Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations, Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literatureand Jessica Yee, cofounder of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network and contributor to Racialicious. Other blogs, such as Sociological Images and Jezebel, have recently been featuring more and more content that is Native-relevant.
Challenging and changing the accepted discourse we use when dealing with Native American and First Nations issues goes beyond actual language—it requires serious reevaluation of everything from movies and Halloween costumes to sports mascots and holidays. Most importantly, however, it requires society to begin including Native Americans and Native-produced content, such as those listed above, in the decision-making processes of the mainstream media.
For students and faculty interested in Native American culture and issues, please contact Sheena Roetman for more information on the possibility of a Native American student association.