Archives For October 2012

I wasn’t going to do a Halloween post this year. I thought about it, but decided I was going to try and let my posts from last year stand on their own. I’ve tried many approaches–the emotional plea, the in-your-face-racism approach, the “I am not a Costume” campaign–but every year, the arguments are the same. No one listens, people on both sides get angry, and then the conversation gets shelved until next year. But then, oh then, I was double-checking that the descriptions I quoted from the Spirit Halloween online store last year were still there…and I found this, and I couldn’t let it go. This is their description of the “Indian Costume”:

“The Indian costume has been a part of the American Halloween scene since the beginning. Kids bedeck themselves in Indian costume jewelry and traditional Indian costumes and are able to live out a slice of American history.  

The American Indian costumes that Spirit Halloween offers vary and come with a number of accessories that can make your Indian costume the best in the tribe. The American Indian Halloween costumes for men and boys are great costumes for any party or trick or treating adventure. Just don’t eat too much candy and go on a sugar induced vision quest! 

The girl Indian costume variety is also a very popular Halloween costume idea. There are varieties for younger girls and women and similarly there are different accessories for the ladies with traditional Indian jewelry replacing the tomahawk and spear. There is also a sexy Indian costume for the more daring ladies out there trying to land their own John Smith.  

Some of the accessories that Spirit offers for these great costumes are traditional Indian tools and weapons, guns, headdresses and jewelry. All of these accessories and costumes may only be a simulation of how these noble people lived, however, showing them deference and respect by keeping their memory alive in the traditions of America, especially one as festive and inspired as Halloween, is a great thing.  

So when your kids want to don a traditional Indian costume with frays and a feather, don’t look at it as disrespectful. See it as a way to teach your little one about American history. Tell them about the rich tradition of the natives of this continent before the European invasion: the deep respect for nature, a rich, textured oral history, tribal society, etc. Let them in on the knowledge that for a thousand years, before there were cities and highways and the internet, there was a race of people living amongst the animals and trees. It will set their imagination on fire while instilling in them a sense of respect for Native Americans as well as a desire to learn more about them.  

Halloween doesn’t have to be just candy and costumes, so this year, have your kid join the noble ranks of the thousands before him or her who wore the costume they will wear and tell them about the great tradition of it.”

Here’s the full list of costumes the website describes, and notice all of them (with the exception of Geisha, which is equally offensive) are things like witch, pirate, cowboy, “sexy schoolgirl,” kids costumes, couples costumes, etc. “Indian” is the only racial group represented. The others are occupations, fantasy characters, sexual fantasies (french maid and schoolgirl, looking at you)–not an entire, diverse, contemporary, marginalized race of people.

So, I’ve taken the liberty to annotate the description for you (click to make full size):

Enjoy. Welcome to 2012, where Indians don’t exist, lived in the trees, and are super honored by trashy, “sexy,” Indian costumes. Cause if you don’t dress up like your a-historical, romanticized, fake, plastic “Indian,” no one will remember the tragic, noble savage. Right.

And for reference, a slew of previous Halloween and other costume posts (Indian costume defenders, please read them before attempting to eviscerate me):

Halloween Costume Shopping: a sampling of the racism for sale
Open Letter to the PocaHotties and Indian Warriors This Halloween 
We are not a costume
But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
Nudie Neon Indians and the Sexualiztion of Indian Women
A Cowboys and Indians Party is just as bad as a Blackface Party 
Paris Hilton as a Sexy Indian: The Halloween Fallout Begins (includes lots of links about the costume issue) 
Mid-Week Motivation: I am not your costume

I posted on Monday about some of my amazing Native friends that I got to catch up with while on campus for my college reunion. I had an incredible weekend, so much fun, but there was a bit of a dark underbelly to it all when I went to our homecoming football game.

I’ve written several times about how Stanford was the “Stanford Indians” until 1971, and how student activism was the root cause of the mascot change. Just a few months ago, when I was at the leadership team training for reunion, I posted about how heartened I was to see this passage in the training handbook, declaring that “these images perpetuate stereotypes, are hurtful and offensive to American Indians and others, and are particularly inappropriate and insensitive in light of the history of forced assimilation that American Indian people have endured in this country.”

So, imagine my surprise, when in the span of just a few hours I was able to capture all of the following images, without even really trying. I’ll include the stories with each of them–though admittedly, I was often too shocked or angered to engage in long dialogues with any of the offenders.

The image above was the second encounter (I’ll post the first in a second), a young white-looking undergrad, who seemed all-too-pleased that I wanted to take a picture of his shirt. While I wish I could have pulled off the 1491′s response, I just took the picture, and then told him “Thanks for your help, I’m documenting all of the racist mascots at the game.” I didn’t stick around to see his response.

So this one I couldn’t believe. I spotted this pin within 10 seconds of being on campus, on the hat of an older gentleman walking with a cane. I couldn’t get close enough to see what was on it, but then, my friend Elena and I ended up in line next to “Barbara” who had it lovingly pinned to her name tag:

Yeah, that’s a wild-eyed tomahawk wielding Indian holding the SKIN of the Arizona Wildcat. Right, this is honoring, this is showing pride in Native peoples and traditions. I felt sick to my stomach as I took the picture. She was babbling on and on about the mascot back in the day, and honestly, my ears were roaring with shame and rage, and I missed the majority of what she said. I caught the end though; “We always said, when they got rid of the Indian, ‘well, that’s just another Indian out of a job!’” I looked at her with a blank face and turned my back.

As we were leaving the game, we walked past an alumni tailgate with a bunch of kids running around and playing football. They had traffic cones demarcating their space, and on each of them, Stanford Indian stickers:

As I was crouching down to take pictures, a woman from the tailgate walked over smiling. I looked up and said “Way to go teaching all these kids how to grow up racist. That’s really the Stanford way.” She looked confused, I pointed to the sticker, and then walked away.

Not two minutes later, spotted this couple walking across the street:

The front said “Stanford Indians.” At this point my friends got embarrassed and walked the other way, thinking I was going to confront a “cute old couple.” I didn’t.

Finally, walking back from a post-game coffee break, we ran into this couple:

They too, were delighted that I wanted to take their picture. I had to google what the Cardinal Council was, and apparently they are the “student-athlete representative body, which acts as the leison between Stanford athletes, the Athletic department, Stanford University, and the NCAA.” In other words, an officially sanctioned university committee. Believe me, they, along with the class of ’62, will be hearing from me. (UPDATE 10/25: I’ve been informed by the university that these particular shirts are not officially affiliated with the SAAC or Stanford. So if anyone knows what “Cardinal Council” this is referring to, please let me know.)

The scary and most upsetting thing to me is that all of these images are new. These aren’t some kids that dug them out of their parent’s basement, or some old alums who dusted off their vintage sweater. I felt, as I was leaving campus, that we were witnessing a scary resurgence in Stanford Indian mascot apparel.

Sure enough, the day I got home, a friend on campus forwarded me this email:

From: NIck H
Sent: Friday, October 05, 2012 11:05 AM
Sent: Friday, October 05, 2012 11:05 AMTo: Subject: 

To meet the overwhelming desire of, well…everyone, I am starting the process to make a new batch of those magnificent Stanford Indian Sweaters that people won’t shut up about. I don’t mean to toot their horn or anything, but they’re kind of a big deal…if you wear one you could potentially own many leather bound books, and your apartment MIGHT smell of rich mahogany. DON’T MISS OUT ON WHAT COULD POTENTIALLY BE THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME! Here’s the link to the google doc to fill out your name, quantity, and size:   

Here’s the link to look at the design, if you haven’t already seen one already (pfft like thats a possibility):  

The more people that get them the cheaper they are. But last time they ended up being around 25 dollars. If you’re a hipster, don’t get one, its definitely already cool to wear these.  

-Nick “but I was wearing mine before it was cool” H

The image? Here you go:

So, Nick, who was “wearing [it] before it was cool”–This is decidedly not cool. At all. The language in the email is flippant and trying oh-so-hard to be subversive and cool, and as a result, becomes even more hurtful. The fact that these are in high demand is extremely concerning to me. Oh, and that google doc? I took the liberty of doctoring it a bit:

You can click to make it bigger, but I basically wrote a note in the first column of the spreadsheet, resisting the urge to erase all the orders, reiterating all the things that I say on the blog, and leaving a list of resources. So now, anyone who clicks through will see that first…until Nick H. sees it, of course. Huzzah

But I can’t even tell you how hurtful it was for me to see those images on campus and in my inbox, and to hear the folks defending it (or celebrating it, in the case of Nick’s email) makes me so upset. The biggest thing I kept returning to was that these images erase our humanity. Mascots are animals, mythical creatures–meant to be “brave” and “vicious” (and don’t get on my case about the vikings or the fighting Irish, I’ve covered that ad nauseum, it’s not. the. same. thing. There is not current and ongoing systematic oppression and racism of Irish or “vikings” in the US)–but we are a real, diverse, and contemporary group of people. I can’t stand being equated with a “wildcat” or a bear. 

There are real issues of power here too–these people that I took the pictures of made me feel, if only for a moment, like an unwelcome outsider on my own campus. A campus of a university that I love with all of my heart, and have donated so much time and effort to, made me feel like I wasn’t deserving of a spot at reunion. In their eyes, I was a savage in a loincloth, with a big nose and wild eyes, not a Cherokee woman who graduated with a double major, has a masters, and is completing her doctorate. A campus that welcomes this kind of open marginalization, and yes, racism, of Native peoples is creating a system wherein Native students, alumni, faculty, and staff, will never be seen as equals.

You may say you’re “honoring” us–but I’m telling you, as a Native person, that this in no way honors me. My amazing friend M. posted this on Facebook yesterday, and I think this sums it up beautifully: 
We would like to be honored by seeing our culture taken down from the shelves of costume shops. We would like to be honored by being consistently included as a whole racial demographic in social and scientific research. We would like to be honored by not being accused of taking some other student’s place at Stanford simply because we’re Native (even though we’re often accused of not looking Native enough). I, and so many others, would be honored if we could – someday soon – stop explaining why we are so deeply offended.

Exactly. I would add that we would like to be honored by the recognition of our treaty rights and tribal sovereignty as well. 

So this trend is extremely troubling. I’ll be writing to the head of Reunion Homecoming, and I feel that a letter to the administration is necessary as well. This needs to be stopped, these images and actions are completely unacceptable. 

This case at Stanford by no means exists in isolation. DeeJay NDN of A Tribe Called Red has been battling a local football team called the “Redskins” in Ottawa for the last few months, and the overt racism and scathing commentary he’s received shows how close to the surface racism against Native peoples truly is. The 1491s also hit up University of Utah (their mascot is the Utes) recently, and had some interesting conversations with tailgaters. Their video is here, and definitely worth a watch.

So to the people I chatted with, Nick H., the students who ordered a Stanford Indian sweatshirt, the Cardinal Council, the Class of 1962, and anyone else who donned a Indian image without thinking twice. Just stop for a moment, and really listen. Push aside the defensive and dismissive feelings, and realize that it’s not totally your fault. You’ve been socialized in a system that has normalized racism against Native people. You’ve been raised in a society that sugar-coats its colonial and genocidal past, and ignores the modern presence of Native peoples. So maybe you weren’t personally responsible for any of that. But now, I’ve taken away your ignorance defense. You now know how hurtful and harmful these images are, you know how it feels for me, a Native person, to see them at my alma mater. It’s what you do with that information that will show your true character. Dismiss it, defend you actions, and you’re now complacent in the system. Fight it, right the wrong, and you’ve shown that you won’t stand by and let oppression continue. Bravo.

Resources and previous posts galore:

A reminder of why this blog exists, one reader’s experience (Stanford alum who changed his mind about the mascot)
The Fighting Sioux are back, my passionate plea against Indian Mascots
The Fighting Sioux Part 2, the science (citing a study done by Stanford alumna Stephanie Fryberg)
Thanks for the severed head, you’ve proved my point
Stanford Indian, then and now (showing the “official policy I quoted from above)

The Native American Cultural Center at Stanford’s mascot history
Why Indian mascots and costumes are never ok (blog post by a Stanford undergrad–and in support, I agree with the “never ok”! The comments got a little crazy, as per usual)

More resources? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

Sunrise ceremony for Indigenous Peoples Day on Alcatraz Island,
an annual tradition when I was in college

“Every Native American is a survivor, an anomaly, a surprise on earth. We were all slated for extinction before the march of progress. But surprise, we are progress.”

                         – Louise Erdrich, from First Person, First Peoples

Two years ago, I put together a series of posts about what is commonly known as “Columbus Day” here in the US. The posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here, if you’re interested in the reasons why this “holiday” is so messed up. But this year, I decided to do something different. I just got back from an incredible weekend at my 5th year college reunion, and spent some time with just a handful of my amazing Native friends and colleagues from college. I want to share some brief snippets of what they are up to, because in these friends are counter-stories to the common conceptions about Native peoples. In sharing these stories, I’m hoping to switch narrative from just talking about how horrible Columbus was, to celebrating the resilience and excellence that abounds in the Indigenous communities of the Americas. So without further ado, some awesome Natives I have the pleasure of knowing:

I spent time with my friend Waddie, who is a third generation silversmith from Cochiti Pueblo, making his family and community proud by creating gorgeous jewelry, using his Mechanical Engineering degree to combine tradition with new materials and methods. He was hustling all weekend, handing out flyers and business cards, and by the end of the weekend, even I was the proud owner of some Waddie bling.

One of my best friends J. was in town, an Oakland born and raised Apache, who after college, got her Masters in Public Health at Harvard, and is now completing her law degree at Columbia. She already has a bad-ass job offer in DC for after graduation, doing Indian Law at an awesome firm. All through it all she is the most grounded, loyal, kind, and hilarious friend I could ever ask for.

Then there is my buddy A., Navajo from AZ, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and since graduation has been working at JPL (NASA!), part of the team working with the Mars Rover. Despite his impressive job title, he’s remained committed to getting more Natives involved in science and engineering, sitting on the board of AISES, doing outreach presentations, and working to increase diversity at JPL.

My friend S. studied public policy in college, and then returned to Hawaii for law school after graduation, splitting her time between HI and DC. She now is the campaign manager for a senate campaign in Hawaii, using her skills to advocate for the rights of Hawaiian peoples.

Then I ran into my friend D., Northern Cheyenne, who I’ve known since our involvement in College Horizons when we were in high school. After graduation, she stayed on campus and got her masters (and was my intern, ha), then jetted down to New Zealand, doing some awesome work with Maori communities for almost four years. Recently she returned to her reservation, and in her short time home has already been doing incredible things. She decided, at 25, to run for tribal council, and received the most votes during the primary election. We’ve all got our fingers crossed for the upcoming election!

One of my other Native Hawaiian friends J, who studied civil and environmental engineering, is working back home at a architecture/engineering/consulting firm, and taking night classes towards her MBA. She’s also so kind and connected to her home in HI. I love spending time with her.

I’m seriously proud of my friend C., Cherokee and Catawba, who has been working in the world of undergraduate admissions for a few years now, leaving a lucrative career in business behind. She also stepped up and has been living in the Native American house on campus as a resident fellow, a position normally reserved for those much older than her 26 years. She’s been doing an amazing job, the students love her (and her husband), and I can’t imagine anyone better for the position. This year she’ll be taking on Native recruitment for the university, and I can’t wait to see the incredible students she’ll bring to campus.

I got to chat briefly with my classmate V., Navajo, who is working at an independent school in southern CA. She and I talked about the ways she’s been able to bring her Native perspective to the work, starting with small things like adding Indigenous Peoples Day to the school calendar. She has big plans, and I’m excited to see where she goes from here.

Then there’s my biggest fan and advocate, A.M., also Navajo, who got his masters in Management Science and Engineering after graduation, then went on to get a second masters in Education in NM. He’s now back in the Bay Area working at a lab, and anytime I’m feeling down about my blog or the crap I get from commenters about my identity, this kid has my back.

At our Native alum reception, I got to see my friend T., Samoan, who is off being a fancy big banker at Morgan Stanley, and is doing some awesome work with loans for low income communities. He’s also hilarious and so supportive, and managed to squeeze in some time to perform in his acapella group’s reunion show.

Along with T., I got to chat with U., who is from Hawaii, and is now back home working for Kamehameha schools, doing research and working with communities. She also got to sing with her acapella reunion. I remember watching her and T. perform when I was an undergrad, and being so proud that there were Native folks up there on the stage.

I also made a new friend, M., Blackfeet, a PhD student in performance studies, with an extensive and impressive resume already behind him in theater and film. We had a great conversation about representations of Natives in Hollywood, the politics of casting, Indian humor, identity, playing Indian, and more. He’s pushing back against stereotypes in film, and has faced a long and uphill battle. His perspective is desperately needed in hollywood, and I can’t wait to collaborate with him more in the future.

Finally, I went to dinner at the Native American house, and had the pleasure and amazing experience of chatting with the Staff of the house, all seniors, and all students that I admitted when I worked in undergraduate admissions. I got really emotional talking with all of them–I remember so vividly reading their applications, and to now see them as accomplished seniors, so grounded and connected to the Native community on campus, was so moving. I’m so proud of them, and I can’t believe they’re about to graduate this year. I know in a few years I’ll be able to add them to the list above, showing off all the fantastic and important things they’re doing, because they’re already such community leaders.

So why do I share all these stories? Because this is the Indian Country I know. These are the survivors, the anomalies, the surprises on earth. This is the progress that we represent. The side effect of the narrative of Columbus Day is an erasure of our existence back then, and an erasure of our contemporary existence now. The Americas existed before 1492, and despite the best efforts of colonization, we continue to exist, we continue to resist, and we continue to thrive. These snapshots offer just a fraction of my Native friends and colleagues, and an even smaller sliver of all of the amazing people that make up Native America. We are still here, and we’re not all sitting around in Tipi’s, wearing feathered headdresses, or speaking in broken “Tonto speak.” We are able to combine western education and traditional culture as a means to move our communities forward. When Columbus landed on the shores of the bahamas over 520 years ago, he started a legacy of genocide that nearly wiped the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas off the planet. We weren’t supposed to survive, but here we are. These young Native leaders are bringing Indigenous perspectives, innovations, and ways of knowing to science, technology, business, law, education, arts, and more, and this is something to celebrate.

So today, instead of celebrating a murdering “explorer”–I choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples.

(Thanks friends! Miss you already!)