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.