Ready for a little history lesson? A (not-so-long) time ago, this continent was full of people. People who had been here for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, since the beginning. Then around 500 years ago, some folks showed up, pretended those people didn’t exist, or deemed them “savages” unworthy of status as human. Those interlopers decided that they could just “claim” land and resources and people and whatever else they wanted by some papal doctrine that said they could, and killed millions of the original inhabitants in the process. All in a quest for land, resources, and wealth. Then they sent in their own people to illegally occupy the previously (and continuously) inhabited lands. That process continues today, it wasn’t something that ended in 1776 with the formation of the “United States of America” on top of stolen Indigenous lands. This, my friends, is settler colonialism. Say it with me. Settler colonialism. How is this different than other colonialism? The main goal is the establishment of a new sovereign entity, not to extract resources/wealth/people for the gain of another nation-state (though there was plenty of that in the early days). There has also been no process of decolonization (working on it)–y’all are still here, still answering to a foreign power on stolen lands, and still doing everything possible through institutional and structural forces to assert that your race is superior to the “savages” on whose land you hang out indefinitely.
Phew. Just had to get that off my chest. It appears that this rather watered down and basic understanding of the history and ongoing relationship with Indigenous peoples in the United States is something that even folks vying for the top leadership positions in our country are wholly unaware of.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? I have three examples from the last couple of weeks that demonstrate how deeply the invisibility and erasure of Indigenous peoples and colonial history runs in our country–and once again why representations and stereotypes matter.
Example one: Mike Huckabee connects Native peoples to “Jihadists” (basically calls Natives the “bad guys”)
The context here is that Obama reminded Christians in his speech at the National Day of Prayer that hella horrible ish has been perpetuated in the name of Christ (see opening paragraph), and it’s not something unique to radical Islam. A pretty progressive statement, actually. But of course, Huckabee couldn’t let that stand. He said,
“When I hear our current president say he wants Christians to get off their high horse so we can make nice with radical jihadists, I wonder if he can watch a western from the ‘50s and be able to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys really are.”
Yeah, read that last part again. “I wonder if he can watch a western from the ‘50s and be able to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys really are.” So, I don’t know about you, but I watch 1950’s westerns and see the bad guys encroaching on Indigenous territory, illegally bringing through their wagons and their people, I see the loss of Indigenous life as inconsequential as the bad guys shoot the Natives with abandon, and I also see the bad guys behind the camera painting up white actors to play out the worst Indigenous stereotypes imaginable.
But beyond making some kind of weird connection between Natives and terrorists, the fact that Huckabee chose “Cowboys and Indians” as his go-to for “Good Guys and Bad Guys” is very telling. He’s not thinking of Native peoples as his potential voters and constituents, he’s thinking of us as stereotypical, historic, hollywood bad guys on horses. That is a problem (more on that in a minute). You can watch the video here, at about 14:45:
The tweet that ledes this post, from another GOP hopeful, demonstrates that Marco Rubio has not even the most basic understanding of American history.
This is a line from a speech, which his staffers liked so much they tweeted it out. So really, Rubio, when genocide was being enacted against Native peoples in America, this was in a “desire to expand freedom”? In that case, we’d like the land back please. You know, for the freedomz. kthanks.
Then today, to show it comes from all sides, not just the GOP, I just saw this clip from Loretta Sanchez, Democratic Senate hopeful. She is at an Indian-American fundraiser (like, actual Indians, from India), and is telling some horrible anecdote about her mixing up “Indian-American” and “American Indian,” but does so by patting her hand over her mouth and making a racist war-whoop noise. “I was thinking I was meeting with a <claps hand over mouth make woo woo sound>.”
Video here (awkwardly sideways, but you just need the audio):
So let’s break it down, shall we?
I want you to picture a meeting between one of these candidates and a leader of a Native community. The Native leader is entering the meeting expecting to be treated as the leader of a sovereign nation with a government-to-government relationship with the US, but the President/Senator is instead picturing a wild-eyed savage war whooping through the plains, or in the case of Marco Rubio, not picturing that they or their Native nation continue to exist at all.
While we are sovereign nations and need to continue to push and assert that at every turn, our fates are still tied up in the hands of the federal government, and these stereotypes matter. I think about the heartbreaking Baby Veronica case in my own community, and how the first words of the Supreme Court ruling state Veronica’s blood quantum–a colonial concept that the Cherokee nation does not use to determine citizenship, but was clearly being used to determine Veronica’s “Indian-ness”. The document says, “This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee.” A supreme court that has an actual understanding of Native sovereignty and citizenship would have said, “This case is about a little girl who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation,” and would have ruled in favor of the tribe and her father. Our sovereignty continues to be eroded with each of these rulings, laws, and policies, and it is imperative we have folks in the federal government that can see beyond the stereotypes and see us as the contemporary communities that we are.
Our leaders and lawmakers in the US government are socialized in the same America that we all are–the one that teaches little to no actual Native history in schools, that erases the existence of contemporary Native peoples, that still thinks its ok to dress up like an “Indian” for whatever occasion, that still makes movies like Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six, that still has Native peoples as mascots in the capital of the United States.
Think about that. Each day, when these lawmakers come out of their offices, they are greeted with the image of a disembodied, stereotypical Indian head, accompanied by a racial slur, to represent the Indigenous nations they are supposed to be partnering with. I don’t know if you’ve been to DC, but this image is everywhere. Honestly, how the heck are we supposed to get anywhere with the federal government if we’re still being painted as “Redsk*ns” right outside their office doors?
There are moments of hope, however. In April, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a beautiful speech to a gathering in support of Native youth at the White House. In it, she said,
You see, we need to be very clear about where the challenges in this community first started.
Folks in Indian Country didn’t just wake up one day with addiction problems. Poverty and violence didn’t just randomly happen to this community. These issues are the result of a long history of systematic discrimination and abuse.
Let me offer just a few examples from our past, starting with how, back in 1830, we passed a law removing Native Americans from their homes and forcibly re-locating them to barren lands out west. The Trail of Tears was part of this process. Then we began separating children from their families and sending them to boarding schools designed to strip them of all traces of their culture, language and history. And then our government started issuing what were known as “Civilization Regulations” – regulations that outlawed Indian religions, ceremonies and practices – so we literally made their culture illegal.
And these are just a few examples. I could continue on like this for hours.
So given this history, we shouldn’t be surprised at the challenges that kids in Indian Country are facing today. And we should never forget that we played a role in this. Make no mistake about it – we own this.
This seems so basic, but these few lines were revolutionary. This isn’t a discussion that happens, well, ever in Washington.
So to sum up, the United States was formed on the genocide of Native peoples (to gain control of land/resources) and the enslavement of Blacks (to work/gain wealth from the land). Colonialism is still going on today, and part of that process are structural level policies and practices that seek to paint Native peoples as inferior. Some of the ways this plays out are tangible–through laws and supreme court cases that systematically take power from our communities–but others are harder to pin down to one instance or person, like the societal-level obsession with outdated Hollywood stereotypes that place Native peoples as in the historic past (or extinct), as war-whooping backward savages, or as imaginary creatures on the level of mermaids and fairies.
In an oft-repeated refrain on le blog, I say again: How can we expect support for our sovereignty, our tribally controlled schools, healthcare, and housing, our environmental concerns, our children, our women, our elders, or our land if 90% of America, including our government officials, only see us as these narrow stereotypes? When you’re invisible in society (which carries through to congress–only 2 Native people in the 115th congress), every representation matters. Clearly, our politicians aren’t immune to these deep-seated stereotypes, and this isn’t something minor that can just be shrugged off. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer the leader of the United States not blatantly frame Native peoples as the “bad guys” before he/she even steps into office.