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.