Students respond to ABC’s "Children of the Plains"

December 13, 2011 — 14 Comments

“I know what you probably think of us…we saw the special too. Maybe you saw a picture, or read an article. But we want you to know, we’re more than that…We have so much more than poverty.”
I know many of you saw the Diane Sawyer 20/20 special “Children of the Plains,” and I let it pass by without much comment on the blog. I had plenty to say, but I knew a lot of folks from the community, and some of my friends, thought it was great–so I let it go, and didn’t think it was really my place to barge in with my super-critical lens on the whole thing.

But some awesome kids from Pine Ridge Rosebud, SD put together this short, but powerful video in response to the special, which I love:

Reminded me of this quote from Adam Sings in the Timber: “It often seems as if America has only two frames through which to view its Native culture: ceremony and pageantry or poverty and addiction.”

There’s a lot of power when we get to represent ourselves.

Youtube: More Than That

If you’re interested in some of the criticisms of the special:  
Indian Country Today: Children of the Plains was little more than “Poverty Porn”

The actual special:
ABC 20/20: “Hidden America: Children of the Plains”

Earlier:
Between Pageantry and Poverty: Representing Ourselves

Adrienne K.

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  • Sarah Miller

    Thanks for this. I had mixed feelings about the show, and was curious about Native reactions to the portrayals.

  • http://twitter.com/Leo_Godin leogodin217

    “It often seems as if America has only two frames through which to view its Native culture: ceremony and pageantry or poverty and addiction.” This is an interesting quote, and I think it’s true.

    I live in the Phoenix area, so I know a few Native Americans, but that is rare. Most people, will never meet a 50% or more native person. Even in Phoenix, I only know a few.

    Without exposure to the varied personalities and individual natures I’m sure exist among native people, human nature views them as a whole. Just like we view Russians, or Chinese people as a whole, we view Native Americans as a whole. The problem is when you view groups of people as a whole, stereotypes are more likely to paint the entire picture.

    The answer, in my opinion, is simple but not easy. If everyone ate dinner with people from different cultures, we’d all have a better understanding of each other. We’d probably find that most of us aren’t that different. We mostly all want to find a romantic life partner. We want to care for our families. We want to feel intimacy. etc…

  • S. Holdenbrook

    Once again, 20/20 has chosen a view in which to document something, and has exploited that view to misrepresent their subject.

  • Katie

    Just a quick note: the kids in this video are from Rosebud, not Pine Ridge. :)

    • Adrienne_K

      Fixed it, thanks!

  • Kat Desca

    Question: How do you spur people into action though? This video does NOTHING to make me pressure my government e.g. “Everything is awesome, so I’ll just sit back.” Really?

    • KookyMonkey

      I didn’t watch the special, but a lot of what I’ve heard about it has involved the words “poverty porn”, and in general I find that the poverty porn thing doesn’t really spur long term action either though. It might get you donations for a charity, but it doesn’t result in educated activists promoting respect for native rights, or programs and support to help build the communities and structures that THEY decide they need. I think it’s more likely to inspire brief pity, and then more condescension, which I suspect most Native people have had way too much of.

      I would be more interested to see a panel of native leaders and community represetatives discussing the issues in their community and some possible solutions therefor, or talking about how treaty rights are and are not respected, and why, and what can be done about it. Things that would educate people to do something that actually makes a difference. I saw a piece on TV a while back about an Algonquin-immersion elementary school, and while I didn’t have time to finish the show, and I had somewhere to be, I found it fascinating. I think watching a group of six to eight year olds chattering happily away in the traditional language of their people would be more likely to inspire someone to promote and preserve native languages than something like hearing about how tragic it is that kids don’t learn them.

  • Davide

    Adrienne, having read through a number of posts on your blog, I must say that I find you quite hypocritical. As you’ve said, you look white, and grew up in a suburban neighbourhood with all the same opportunities as the white children you were surrounded by. Now you’re studying for a Ph.D in Boston. It sounds like you have, dare I say it, led a fairly privileged life in socioeconomic terms, and your experiences have been very different from those of First Nations people, as we say in Canada, who either live on reserves or live in your generalized “white culture” and are ostracized for their obvious Native appearance. As a white person (and a male, no less) of northern Italian descent, I perfectly fit your peculiar definition of “privileged.” You may laugh or belittle a privileged white kid’s struggles, but my bright, flaming red hair essentially served to make my fourteen years of compulsory school a living hell. You, I’m sure, have no idea what it’s like to, for example, show up for your first soccer practice of the year and instantly be known to all your so-called teammates not by your name but as “carrot top” or “firecrotch” and instantly become the outcast that everyone picks on, only because of the way you look. Take every social situation you’ve ever experienced and imagine having to go through the same.

    Yeah, I think I can relate at least a little to the plight of visible minorities in “white society.” Your appearance, as you’ve admitted, does not put you at any disadvantage in American society, and neither does your social class. The only way you yourself would encounter discrimination from a stranger would be if you wore a sandwich sign declaring that you were Cherokee.

    I used to have a huge problem with being stereotyped and I still do find it amusing that suddenly girls are all dyeing their hair red, when real redheads are picked on everywhere. It was recently reported that Danish sperm banks have stopped accepting donations from redheaded men, because women simply do not want redheaded babies. Yeah, I am white, which makes me privileged according to this interesting definition which divides people according to their genes and not their experience, but my hair colour puts me among the few groups it remains socially acceptable to openly hate and/or ridicule. I am in no way claiming that the “plight” of redheads can be compared in scale to the plight of a group of races (yes, I know that not all “native” people are the same, or even remotely so) who continue to be systematically eradicated by the Europeans who stole their land, but I would imagine that, as a Ph.D candidate, your rational side must see that all visible minorities, whether visible by skin colour, hair colour or physical differences, share many of the same basic problems, although not to the same extent, and their peculiar circumstances are obviously different.

    This has been pointed out to you, but you and other commenters on your blog consistently fall back on this interesting (and hitherto unbeknownst to me) definition of “privilege,” which I’m not going to state my opinion of, because, as I have seen in previous comments, if I do, it will automatically be incorrect and be used to discredit everything else I say.

    While I definitely agree that Pocahontas costumes and names like the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Redskins are stupid, insensitive, ignorant caricatures, I can’t agree with your assertion that such things contribute to the oppression and destruction of First Nations people and their distinct culture. They are certainly offensive, but offensive =/= destructive. Shows like Jersey Shore and The Sopranos perpetuate negative stereotypes about Italians (again, in no way am I attempting to compare the scale of caricaturing and stereotyping of Italians to that of Natives), but I very much fail to see how they are destroying my culture. It isn’t stopping me from participating in my culture, and ridiculous costumes are not stopping you from participating in yours.

    What you have thus far refused to address is that you are not a mind-reader and cannot know the intentions of a person who, for example, decides to make a dream catcher out of materials from a craft store. Is imitating something offensive in and of itself? If the person realizes that a real dream catcher is a sacred object and a real dream catcher is blessed and created in a special way by a Native craftsperson, and understands that his or her imitation dream catcher is just that, I fail to see how it devalues or makes a mockery of the genuine article. Imitation of Native art is not what is destroying your culture. And if the problem stems from the user/wearer not understanding the intended purpose of the item, then how can Native craftsmen themselves justify selling these scared artifacts to white people? The article may be genuine, but the intent is still the same, the vast majority of white people buy Native art and crafts because they’re pretty, not because they believe in Native spirituality. Non-Christians also buy souvenirs from basilicas and cathedrals which are sacred in nature (crucifixes, holy water, etc.) and many wear crucifixes as a fashion statement, but so far as I know, their sale is not prohibited to Buddhists, Hindus and atheists. Many Christians find the use of a crucifix as a fashion accessory to be offensive, but it is not preventing them from being Christian, nor is it destroying Christianity. If you can argue otherwise, I’d love to read it.

    Frankly, instead of running a blog about all the things you’re offended by, I would suggest starting a new blog about the many real issues First Nations people and their culture continue to face. The civil rights movement made minstrel shows unacceptable; an outcry against minstrel shows did not lead to the civil rights movement. People who dress up in blackface with malicious intent or out of ignorance today are ridiculed and reviled. But can you declare it empirically wrong for someone to dress up as a stereotype of another culture simply because they want to, or even out of satire? Yes, I know what the response to that is, but it’s a strawman argument to say that anyone who isn’t a member of the minority group in question is privileged. Russell Peters (Indian-Canadian comedian, look him up on YouTube) makes fun of different races all the time, but his intent is not malicious. Some people go ahead and get offended anyway because they view life as an 80-odd year long battle between People Like Them and Everyone Else, but the vast majority laugh because they know it’s only a stereotype. We need more of that spirit. “I’m an offended member of the minority group in question” doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid, unless, of course, you fall back on the [oft-]aforementioned new definition of privilege, which doesn’t hold water as a real argument because it is based in opinion. “It’s sacred” doesn’t either, because, again, the idea that obvious imitations devalue the real object is also just an opinion with which many disagree.

    I have to say that with the way you take offense at absolutely everything, you only come across as extremely insecure. I also used to become very angry/offended when morons made ignorant generalizations or assumptions or parroted falsehoods about Natives, not because I am Native but because I respect and am interested in your culture and generally dislike racism, but the symptom and the cause are the same: ignorance (and often a healthy dose of stupidity, which is something that will always exist). Young people now are much more educated (although obviously not completely) than their parents were about the real nature of both traditional and current Native culture, and eventually, with EDUCATION, people will realize how offensive their Pocahontas costumes are and stop wearing them. The mistake you also make is treating cultural appropriation as a synonym for stereotyping and racism. There are no more minstrel costumes, but there are quite definitely still upper class white boys trying to imitate the black rappers they see on MTV in dress, speech, etc. They look absolutely ridiculous, but their imitation is in admiration- albeit admiration of a negative stereotype- with no malicious intent (while the intent of blackface is obviously to ridicule), and many of them fully understand that the image they appropriate is in no way representative of black people at all, never mind as a whole. Do you REALLY think that every silly teenager who wears an “Indian” costume honestly believes that they’re accurately representing Natives, past or present? If they do, that could be construed as racism, but most of them just like the aesthetic. That’s cultural appropriation, and while emotions (“they don’t really understand [insert culture here]“) often colour our judgment and blend the two together, they’re very different, and to restate the point I’ve essentially tried to make and have no idea how I managed to use up so many words in doing so, you cannot know the intentions of someone who imitates or appropriates parts of your culture, and you have yet to show me that appropriation of Native art is destroying your culture, unless you start throwing around jingo about privilege.

    • Finette

      Sorry you were bullied, dude. So was I, and I’m a white female with no out-of-the-ordinary physical characteristics. Instead, the bullies called me “Moron” because it’s close to my given name. Some kids are cruel, and they will use ANY excuse to pick on other kids to make themselves feel superior. But I think the concept you’re missing here is institutionalized racism, which is what makes many people see Pocahontas costumes and craft-store dreamcatchers and yes, minstrel shows as acceptable. I went to grad school at the University of Illinois shortly before they phased out their mascot Chief Illiniwek, only a few short years ago, and I considered his halftime dance to be a minstrel show, plain and simple. It was a white kid in buckskins and face paint, doing a totally ludicrous dance that was a white-college-student interpretation of “Indian” dances. What ELSE would you call that but a minstrel show?

    • Apeln

      This doesn’t take away from your individual experiences, but you acknowledge this in your third paragraph and I think it should be reemphasized: carrot top name calling, bullying, and Danish sperm bank policies are really not comparable to 500 years of genocide and systemic racism, residential schools, the Indian Act, etc. Whether Adrienne has or has not experienced discrimination personally is irrelevant.

      Nor does she need to be a mind reader. I disagree with your argument on intentions. Knowing the intentions of a person who appropriates isn’t necessary because the important part isn’t the intentions someone says they have, it’s the outcomes of appropriation. So I would argue, for example, when non-indigenous artists get customers and make money off of claiming to be indigenous; when stereotypes are used as a test for legitimacy of indigeneity; when representations of indigenous peoples perpetuate the belief that many have that indigenous people no longer exist, those are negative outcomes. You refer to the “real” issues faced by First Nations but all of that is inseparable from the social context which enables racist, ignorant, colonial policies and interpersonal racism.

      Also, as an aside, I question whether Muslims, Hindus, Atheists and other non-Christians wear crucifixes as a fashion accessory. I’d say people tend to not be comfortable wearing things that they know to be of a religion that is not their own.

    • Courtney Wooten Lynn

      In your first paragraph, you lump all Natives into one category. Not all of them DO live on reserves and/or in poverty. That does not make their experience as Natives, including Adrienne’s, any less credible as Native people. My husband is a Comanche who grew up mostly in suburban Texas. His dad and step-mom both had good jobs. The Comanche reservation was dissolved in 1902, by choice of the Comanche people so he didn’t grow up on a rez. Though they do better for themselves than some other nations, they still face hardships. Diabetes, alcoholism (runs DEEP in my husband’s family!) and they are still relegated to an image based on Hollywood and the past, which cultural appropriation does nothing to help. They’re still misunderstood and treated like relics of the past though they are living, breathing WORKING human beings!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_FYA5XCPUMWW6C6SXGKCDX6UJBY Michelle Bernhard

    Thank you, I appreciate this post.

  • Bronwynstreet

    In my country, New Zealand, Maori are more often viewed and dragged out for ceremonial moments of national pride and pagentry, such as recent Rugby World cup, and we are also dragged out over the news for anything that highlights the negative aspects of our culture.. Racism is alive and well.. It is sad that people cannot view the more positive aspects of a native culture except when it is time to trundle us out for the tourists or to front the World Cup… they were full of pride then…. for what….

  • Nina Good Shield

    I’m so glad my people are trying to speak up. It makes me so proud