Andrew Cuomo "Paraphrases" a "Native American Proverb"

In Andrew Cuomo, gubernatorial debate, I Hope You Don't Get Elected, Native American Proverb, NY govenor, stereotypes by Adrienne K.5 Comments

Last night was the New York Gubernatorial Debate, featuring a fantastic cast of characters who are vying for the coveted role of NY Governor. I don’t live in NY, and have more of a vested interest in what happens in CA this election cycle (I grew up in SoCal)…but I did get a tip that I should check out Andrew Cuomo’s response to a question on the environment last night. So I did. And here’s what he said (33:29 in this video, which unfortunately I can’t embed):

“The Native Americans have a proverb, which if I can paraphrase, is ‘we don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we’re loaned the earth by our children.’ so, to be good public stewards of the environment, I think, is paramount for the government…”

Yeah, about that. I can only imagine his “team” getting him prepped for the debate and making sure he was ready for the dreaded “environmental” question with a “Native American Proverb”–showing he’s both multicultural AND environmentally friendly!

Can you imagine if he started out his answer with “The African Americans have a proverb, which if I can paraphrase…” or “The Asian Americans have a proverb…” or “The Latinos have a proverb…” or even better, “The White Americans have a proverb…”–there would be outrage. Everyone would give him the side-eye and an eyebrow raise and be thinking “wtf? really?”. But apparently it’s a-ok with Natives, since all 565+ tribes and communities are exactly the same, just like all African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are the same. Right?

But then, on top of the lumping of all the distinct tribes and communities into one generic “Native American,” we of course have the fabulous stereotyping of all Natives as being the perfect environmentalists. Crying a single tear for Mother Earth (I could actually write an entire post on that commercial alone). There is just as much harm in romanticizing Native peoples (the Noble Savage) as there is in vilifying. Either end of the spectrum creates absolutes, and erases the nuance and reality of an extremely heterogeneous, diverse, and huge group of people. We are not all warring savages, we are not all peaceful envrionmentalists, we are people. Real, living people, who believe in different things and act like individuals. How ridiculous is it that I even have to type that out?

The best part is, that “proverb” might not even be Native at all. In my early morning googling, I came across varying phrasings of the same idea attributed to a “Kenyan Proverb”, a “Pennsylvania Dutch” proverb, to the leader of the Free Tibet movement, to Chief Seattle (which it’s not), or like five other “sources”. It’s a folk saying–who knows its origins, but of course, since it’s about the environment, it must be by Indians.

So, yeah. See how much privilege, colonial legacy, imperialist nostalgia, and racism can be loaded into a 5 second sound byte? So much. Welcome to my lens through which I view the world.

Full debate can be viewed here (clip is at 33:29):
Crying Indian PSA:

(Thanks Liza!)
  • as a person who is invested in the NY govenor, I was annoyed by this when I saw it. But then again, bloomberg pissed me off more with his recent comments

  • Hi – Great post! I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Seventh Generation cleaning products? If you aren’t familiar:

    This seems particularly problematic:
    The company derives its name from the Great Law of the Iroquois that states, “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

    Thanks for all your great work!

  • As usual, this is a phenomenal post. I wonder if he wins (pretty much guaranteed) whether Cuomo will still quote a “proverb” of “the Native Americans” while he violates Seneca sovereignty. I feel sick.

  • I recognized that quote, but couldn’t quite place where I knew if from… My understanding is that it’s from the voice-over of 70’s film about pollution.

    This was the best I could do in finding a write-up on the web:

  • The quote’s from what I think was a speech *attributed* to Chief Seattle or something. There’s a beautifully illustrated children’s book I used to have with it when I was small– but I heard somewhere that in fact it was not a speech he ever actually gave.