Last Friday I headed over to the Harvard Med School (HMS) to listen to the final presentations of the students involved in HMS’s Native American High School Summer Program. I was so blown away and impressed by the students and what they managed to accomplish in three weeks, their presentations were incredible, powerful, and moving.
But back to the issue at hand, the image above. I was waiting for my flatbread pizza in the schmancy new HMS cafeteria and noticed this sign next to the ordering station. Text reads:
Did You Know?
There are only three fruits native to North America: blueberries, cranberries, and Concord grapes. Legend has it that Native Americans gave blueberries to the new settlers, helping them make it through their first winter.
Not completely outright offensive, but I still find it troublesome. The main issues I find with the ad:
- The use of the phrase “legend has it…”, which implies a mystical or mythical connection, not a historical fact. It could have easily said “historical accounts tell us” or omitted the phrase all together. To me, “legend has it…” draws up imagery of campfire story time, furthering the stereotypes of Natives as connected to myth or the mystical.
- The use of generic “Native American” instead of an actual tribe. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and again until it gets into everyone’s head–there are over 500 distinct tribes and communities. Not every tribe saved the settlers’ butts that first winter. Not every tribe used/uses blueberries traditionally.
- The fact that they chose a “fact” that relates Natives to the white settlers, rather than the numerous other connections New England area tribes have with blueberries. How about mentioning that local tribes (like Wampanoag) have used and been aware of the medicinal properties of blueberries long before America caught onto the “antioxidant” trend? Why does it have to be viewed through a colonial lens?
The best part of all of this, guess who was in the cafeteria with me while I discovered the ad? about ten Wampanoag tribal members (from both Aquinnah and Mashpee), as well as all the other Native participants in the summer program. I pointed out the ad to one of the Wampanoag mentors, who was holding her beautiful baby boy (who’s name means “brave” in their language), and she just shook her head and walked away.
It was her people who “helped” the settlers through that first winter, only to be memorialized in a generic, random ad in a university cafeteria. Imagine how that must feel.
So, I realize the ad isn’t as outright offensive as the Potowatomi Chicago ad we looked at before, but I still think it is important to interrogate and re-examine images we take at face value, and problematize how seemingly simple and benign words can carry much deeper meaning.