When you’re invisible, every representation matters: Political edition

In Long form essays, longform takedown, Uncategorized by Adrienne K.6 Comments

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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:

Example 2: Marco Rubio has no concept of American History

The tweet that ledes this post, from another GOP hopeful, demonstrates that Marco Rubio has not even the most basic understanding of American history. Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.29.09 AM

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.

Example three: Loretta Sanchez thinks that Hollywood war whoop=Native person

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.



  1. Hope Cliver

    Yes I know. And so do most people. For some reason they don’t care. I am a white fifty year old lady. When I was in grade school on “Christopher Columbus Day” and “Thanksgiving Day” they had us draw pictures of or cut out construction paper cornucopias and headbands with feathers. This signified that the early “settlers” were grateful and were at peace with the “Indians” that were in America when they arrived. They made it sound like everyone were buddies and the key word was “sharing” and “peace”. So that went on from 1st grade through about 3rd or 4th grade. Then when I got to about 7th or 8th grade the U.S. History lessons started to teach of the “massacres” that were being inflicted on the white man by the “Indians”. Even at that young age I knew something didn’t add up. The history read like this: anytime groups of whites were killed it was called a massacre and when the “Indians” were killed it was a triumph or victory. It wasn’t even a fair fight because they had guns. I do know the truth of a lot of battles though. Even though the white man had guns the First Nation people had skills beyond what the white man had. Also they had the moral high ground. I knew then at a very young age that History is just someone’s story. One side of it and that it was being laid out it a way that was meant to propagandize the new generations of “Americans”. At that point I stopped taking part in any celebration of Thanksgiving Day. To this day I make sure I ruin Thanksgiving for as many people as possible. I knew then that America would have karmic hell to pay for what it had done in it’s origin. So I had to figure stuff out for myself. I don’t know what other people are doing. A lot of people are like ostriches and just put their head in the sand. For any white people who want to know the truth I recommend reading some history written by the great leaders that were here and had their birthright taken away. Read the books that were written by the actual person themselves not someone else. As far as what I want to do now is get the football team of our nation’s capital to change it’s name. The news it full of people chastising each other because of perceived racist slights. I mean God forbid anyone say the word nigger. Well redskin is the equivalent to that word. I don’t know what it will take for people to wake up.

    1. Jennifer Austin

      I just want to add to the second sentence in your statement, that most people DON’T know. They don’t understand why the Redskin logo is offensive, or why what Rubio said is a complete denial of actual American History, or that the way NA people are/were portrayed in movies is stereotypical and completely false. We suffer from the worst kind of racism in this country. It’s easy to identify KKK members or white supremists, or radical jihad for that matter, but the systemic and underlying racism, falsehoods and misunderstandings are the real enemy. We have to change our thinking at some of the deepest levels in order to move forward and blogs like this can help people see where they have been “thinking” wrong for most of their lives. Many people say they aren’t racist, but they really don’t understand how some things have been taken for granted or as normal for so long that they are actually hurting people.

      I know the rest of your post is in support of what Adrienne has said, so please don’t take this as critical, but I just wanted to point out that the majority of Americans may not be racist in the sense of good vs evil, but they are racist in a way that has allowed injustice to continue. Myself included. And realizing you have been wrong is the first step. I only hope others can start to see what they have for so long been blind to. It’s just like Adrienne was talking about: being invisible. Minorities in this country have to become visible to the majority, or we will continue to perpetuate the mistakes of the past.

  2. Lara Trace Hentz

    This reminds me of when Jesse Ventura was the new Gov of MN and told reporters that he doesn’t meet with special interest groups – which were the MN tribes asking to have a meeting about treaty rights when Ventura was elected. As a Native journalist, I decided that Apesanankwat was right to teach Sovereignty 101 to new legislators in Wisconsin. Good Work – Dr. K.

  3. Josh Young

    “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.”

    Do you think you are helping your cause by condescendingly labeling and stereotyping every white person that visits this blog? I guarantee most of the people who would even read this are likely open-minded people, so who the fuck is your audience supposed to be? I care about social justice and am utterly disgusted by the atrocities committed towards indigenous populations across the globe. And you have the fucking gall to call me, and every Caucasian who reads this, out as white supremacists? You may want to rethink your rhetorical strategy, unless your goal is to stir up more hate than solutions.

    1. meanneighborlady

      Josh, how do you even get that from the article? It’s about the invisibility of Native people and that the representations that people like Huckabee, Rubio and the dumb idiot on the video have are limited. The images are limited to the stupid Redskins logo and how pervasive that is and how the history of the US as one based on settler colonialism–which requires erasure in order to justify its existence—all contribute to idiocy. Where in this article did she make it about YOU?

      And if you are such a progressive, you sure have thin skin. Being a progressive takes a lot more nut than simply being “disgusted by the atrocities committed toward Indigenous populations.” It takes a commitment to owning the privilege that comes from being raised in a country on the backs and lives of people. That doesn’t mean you have to whip your own self. But if you were a REAL progressive, you sure as shit would know that. It takes a commitment to changing systems that are inherently racist and rely on that racism to exist. It takes commitment to be able to explain what that means. So buck up, Sparky. We aren’t here to make your sorry ass feel comfortable. –

    2. Zannah Merrill

      Dude, just shut the shit up. You’re not convincing anyone of your good heart or strong brain. Go on with you now.

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