Friday, December 13, 2013

Stereotypes and Reality: An Old Story for Indigenous Peoples

A high profile movie, Out of the Furnace, just came out this past weekend. As so many movies and books do, it gives a totally false representation of American Indians, in particular the Ramapough tribe (Lenape) in the mountains of New York and New Jersey. This is old news, of course, though this movie appears to be particularly awful about negative stereotyping of its Indian characters

In a New York Times article,  the chief of the Ramapough, Dwaine C. Perry, says of the movie, “The undertones are racist and personal.” The filmmakers even used common last names among the Ramapough for the villains, and several other minor characters are listed in the film credits as “Jackson White.” This is a pejorative term used by the white community against the Ramapough for generations and thus is tantamount to using the N-word to list nameless African American walk-on characters.

“As is the case with most films, the filmmakers conducted research and drew upon their own personal life experiences in creating an original screenplay, and the story and the characters are entirely fictional,” a statement by the film’s production company, Relativity Media, stated when confronted with the accusations of racist stereotyping. This is one of the problems with people writing about a culture they don’t belong to and haven’t taken the time to truly learn about. I’ve written about it before on this blog.   In such cases, all that winds up on the page or the screen are caricatures and falsehoods that have been perpetuated—sometimes by anthropologists, even—for decades and centuries.

Unfortunately, this film was last weekend’s third-highest-grossing film. Local elected officials and school personnel stated that they have been battling pervasive discrimination and stigmatization of Ramapough children in the surrounding community, only to have new outbreaks occur in the wake of this movie. Because the film shows Ramapough Indians involved in an illegal fight ring (which is totally false), they fear that groups of teens who have seen it will drive out to the remote mountain area where the tribe lives looking for Ramapough kids to fight. This is the problem with these books and films that just use tribes and individual Indian characters for exoticism and “color.” They reinforce and shore up ages-old prejudices against us and cause very real damage with lasting effects.

The thing about this film is that it’s so bad, so blatant and in-your-face about its stereotyping, that it makes an irrefutable example. No person of good mind can defend this kind of thing. But other movies and books are more subtle in their caricaturing of Indigenous cultures and therefore harder to fight against. They diminish and denigrate the cultures they ostensibly are representing through their own ignorance of those cultures. But it’s like the teams that use the Indian mascot names and yet claim to be “honoring” us. Eventually, the appropriation and exploitation of Indigenous cultures leads to blatantly racist actions such as that taken by the owner of a Sonic drive-in in Belton, Missouri.

I have never believed that writers should be censored from writing about any topic they feel drawn to write about. But—and this is a huge and important caveat—if they are going to write about another culture, they should take the time and make the effort to try to understand that culture, preferably through honest relationships with people who are living within that culture and not solely through books by others who are usually perpetuating falsehoods and negative stereotypes. And they should be ever aware of the problems of appropriation of another’s culture. Indians are real human beings currently living in this world. We are not extinct and therefore fair game for anything writers want to invent.  We don’t exist simply so that some novelist or screenwriter can have an exciting, “different” subject about which to write their books and films.

As I wrote in that earlier blog post in greater detail, this is a thorny issue. What are your thoughts on it?

NOTE: Still can’t comment on my own blog. So I will respond to comments by revising the blog below.

Denise, I don't believe that about the owner being a chief petty officer in the Navy and the sign referring to that. These racists always have to try to have some explanation, no matter how farfetched or lame it is. The whole thing was directed at Indigenous folks and referenced a number of denigrating stereotypes that are actually laughing references to the genocide our folks endured. Thank you for bringing this film issue to my attention. We need to stay on top of these things.

Alan P., yes, and unfortunately Cooper was nowhere near the worst. It's strange. I'm Cherokee and Choctaw and write a mystery series with a Cherokee protagonist, so I get constant emails from people who've self-published (mostly romance) novels with "hunky," "dark," "exotic" (all direct quotes form the authors' descriptions to me) heroes who are half-Navajo/Cherokee/Sioux/Apache/or just-plain-Indian, wanting me to blurb or review them. The covers always show half-naked dark, long-haired men in full warbonnets (though the Navajo and the Cherokee never wore them). Why in hell are these people who obviously know nothing about these tribes writing about them?

Diana, do you see the problem with the Boy Scouts and their Tribe of Mic-O-Say, though? All these fake Indian things diminish the cultures of real people. And then you get teams like the Chiefs, who used to use a fake Indian avatar in a warbonnet. (I'll admit I don't know if they still do or not.) It's a matter of having respect for living peoples who are not extinct, no matter how much white America tried to make that our fate or might wish we were.

Reine, I'm so sorry you heard that even from friends and family. And the master's class of therapists laughing at Indians playing chess that you mentioned on Facebook. This is so common, this idea that Indians are stupid and can't possibly learn the "sophisticated" ways of the white world. It's also a very old idea. It was prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then, the five Southeastern tribes, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole, made the move to integrate the practices of the Anglo-Saxon invaders into their own lives and did it so successfully that they did better at it than the colonial peoples around them. The Cherokee had their own bilingual newspaper and over 90% literacy in their language after Sequoiah developed the syllabary--at a time when the literacy rate among white colonists was abysmal. This caused such rage and envy that they insisted on driving the tribes out and taking Indian farms and houses for their own. They've always chosen to underestimate us.

Diana, if the BSA is consulting local tribes, it's only been in very recent years--and I suspect is more PR than truth. The fact is that the Tribe of Mic-O-Say is much like the Indian sport mascots, which people claim are "honoring" Native Americans. It's white people taking what they think--or want to think--is Indian for their own uses. That's appropriation and exploitation of an oppressed culture for the purposes of the dominant culture. The big problem is that the people who've dealt with it think that the bits and pieces of real-but-out-of-context and totally fabricated practices are really what Indigenous cultures are like. (First of all, there is no one Indian culture/spirituality/practices. There are some overriding similarities and some tribes are related to others, but on the whole, each tribe has its own separate culture/spirituality/practices. And within the tribe there may be differences in certain areas based on gender or clan membership.)

Lil, yes, it makes a lot of us angry. I'm not surprised that you didn't learn anything about the Ramapough when you studied the Indians of New York in school. Most Americans don't learn much that's actually true about the Indigenous peoples whose lands were taken to make America. And that includes a lot of Indian kids in urban areas whose families have been away from the tribe for decades after forced relocations and have to depend on what the schools tell them about their own people.

Marma, you are so right, especially about the Dusten and Veronica Brown case. It got to where I couldn't stand to read comments on news articles about it because of the racist tone of so many of the comments. They could have been found in nineteenth century newspapers, and here they were again now. I do think we've seen a widespread appearance of racism of all types, sexism and misogyny, just about every kind of hate for anyone different, than we've publicly seen in decades. This troubles me. And yes, it's very extreme when applied to Indians. You're also right about the fact that most people don't know the truth. when I point out to folks that Hitler studied the US. genocide of its Indigenous population and modeled his Final Solution after it, they're shocked and stunned, but it's true and documented. He wrote about it in letters and journals. They also have no idea that there really were Indian cultures before the Europeans came or that there are real Indians living successful lives in American today. Yes, our poverty, alcholism, and illness rates are alarmingly high (not unusual for traumatized, colonized peoples), but the majority of us are living successfully in modern American society while trying to keep our ties to our cultures alive and thriving.

Diana, that's an excellent point. Yes, I think that, in the past until very recently, we were probably the group least likely to make any kind of public protest of this kind of misrepresentation. In part, that was because educational opportunities were often limited for Native Americans. That time is past, though. That was something that affirmative action and efforts to increase diversity in universities did for us. More of us have some college, degrees, or even graduate degrees now. Some of us are even faculty at the college level. The Idle No More movement is energizing and organizing Indians in a way that hasn't been seen since the AIM days. It's unlikely any more that this kind of thing will be allowed to pass without calling it out for what it is.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thoughts on Hunger, Poverty, and Violence at Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving I encourage everyone to give as generously as they can to their local food banks. With the economy the way it has been for years now, local food banks have been strapped, often running out of food to give to families in need long before the end of each month. Now, with the millions who’ve been thrown off food stamps added to their constituencies, food banks are the only thing between stark hunger and many families with elders and/or children and families of actively serving members of the military. Food banks are stretched way beyond what they can do.

I keep hearing how the economy is growing stronger, and the stock market certainly seems to show that. People are making a killing by speculation once again. But what about all those who lost their jobs in the shedding of millions of jobs that’s taken place in the last few years or all those who lost their homes (often the same people) or those who’ve had to take medical bankruptcies (again, in the millions)? What about the people whose food stamps have been cut or those whose Meals on Wheels won’t be there to help give them at least one real meal a day, all thanks to Congress’s decisions against the poor? What about the people who are not on Wall Street or giving millions to Congress? What’s the economy like for these people?

I live on the “wrong” side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, the poor side, the dark side, of this street that divides this city, racially and socioeconomically. The people in my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around us were suffering severely for at least three years before the economic crisis hit the stock market and was finally declared. It seems we only worry about the economy when it adversely affects the well-off. What does that say about us as a country?

I remember the riots of the 1960s. More people would do well to remember them. If you’re not old enough or weren’t aware enough when they occurred, Google them. And imagine them now, with the gang population in many cities much larger than it was then, with automatic weapons in the hands of much of the population. There is frustration, hopelessness, and anger of that immensity that is building in this country right now.

The riots of the 1960s were a wake-up call for the United States. As a country, we set up programs to deal with the poverty and hopelessness and racism that brought them about—programs that brought more people of color and people from poor backgrounds into the middle class than ever before, programs that brought medical care, nutritional care, education, job training and many other good things to what were essentially bad places to live one’s life.

In recent years, we’ve been dismantling the structure of safety-net services and programs that we set up after those riots. Things have been peaceful through the decades of greed. No one’s been pitching bottles or breaking windows. So we take—and take and take—from the poor and the working class and, now, even the middle class and give it all to the wealthy and the corporations. We don’t listen when people protest. The country turns its back.

My husband once knew someone who was writing a thesis called “Violence Works.” The point being exactly what a British rioter told an MSNBC reporter back after the London riots of 2011. He pointed out that the press wouldn’t be there if they weren’t being violent, that a few months earlier thousands had marched peacefully to protest, and the media had totally ignored them. If you look at the U.S.’s history, you’ll see plenty of proof of that, as well. Basically, it is when people can’t take it any longer and erupt in violence that we, as a country, wake up and do something to improve the situation. Most of our social improvements have followed that chain of events.

When we wipe out program after program designed to help people pull themselves and their families out of poverty, we are playing with fire. When we ignore the damage the economy sustains from short-sighted greed until the damage spreads to the wealthy—and then provide bailouts only to the powerful—we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. Maybe it’s time we took a look at what we truly value versus what we say we value. What kind of a country do we want to be? We are creating the future now.

As we sit at our Thanksgiving feasts, I hope we’ll all spare some thought for those who have no Thanksgiving feasts. Give to your local food banks. Volunteer to help. And give some thought to what kind of country we are becoming. If you don’t like the greedy, callous picture that conjures, give some serious thought to how we can change it without waiting for violence to force our hand.

Replies to Comments

Stacy, since Blogger won't let me comment on my own blogs (*rolls eyes and throws up hands in despair*), I have to edit the blog itself to respond. You are so right that hunger is rampant, and it is within our power to end it, certainly within this country. Instead our elected government seems dedicated to pushing more and more people out of the "just barely making it" category and into the "everyone goes to bed hungry" category. We did great work toward ending hunger and vastly decreasing poverty in this country over forty years ago, work that we've been dismantling for the past decade. That's not the direction we should be going.

Reine, the campus riots were more antiwar demonstrations and not real riots, as you noticed. The inner-city riots were something else entirely and quite frightening for a time when few people actually had guns and organized gangs were not as large a problem. But in today's America with its proliferation of powerful guns and gangs, I doubt if the damage would be confined to the inner city as it was in the 60s. Today, I think the suburbs would find the violence and fury spilling over into their quiet streets. As Langston Hughes noted in his great poem, "Harlem," a dream of a better life can only be deferred for so long before it explodes.

Reine, the relocation program of the 1950s really worked a number on the Indian nations. So many families relocated to urban areas from the reservations. Just dropped into big cities that were as foreign to them as another country--literally--and left to sink or swim. Lots sank. It's a miracle that any swam, and actually a lot of them managed that eventually. There's a wonderful documentary about it called "Urban Rez," directed by Pourier, produced by Lisa D. Olken, and narrated by Moses Brings Plenty, who runs our Indian Center in Kansas City. It was originally made for PBS and won a regional Emmy, the first Native program to earn that. That's why I write about Skeet as an urban Indian, slowly over the course of the series learning hoe to bring her heritage back into her life where it's been dormant as she learned how to succeed in the white world.