In which I watch a video that (badly) attempts to explain the black legend, Native Americans and Spaniards OR No... just NO or SHOUT OUT TO MY HOPI JACKIE
I have so many qualms and quibbles with this video I don't even know where to start. So I'll start with how I found it.
My professor asked me to watch it. This is a Professor from another department who I am taking a class with this quarter. She asked for my reaction and response to the video because she was told that this video (actually this series of videos) is being used in AP History courses to help students engage with U.S. History.
As evidenced by You Tube comments like:
"I'm watching these so I can get at least a 3 on the AP Exam in 3 weeks"
PS. that person took the AP exam "and it was fcking easy." So... there's that. Perhaps expecting any sort of critical thinking to be involved in Advanced Placement history is asking too much.
Anyway, my Professor brought it to me and asked if I would be willing to tell her what I thought about the information in the video.
I told her I would watch it and give a response on the blog. So here is my response: No. Just...no.
Wanna know why? Well, it's mainly because oversimplifying history is a delicate art that not all can master (I know, I know... pot, kettle. I am as glib about history as the next person.) Second, when you make settler colonial based assumptions about history and you back them up with cute little animations that reinforce these primitive (HA, see what I did there?!) ideas about Native peoples in history rather than engaging in critical dialogue, you make an ass out of you and you make ME want to shake my head disapprovingly. Third, for students (or people) to use this video to learn what they will probably assume is a simple, easy, objective, factual, kind of history and then will probably never hear about Native people in history again, this pretends that learning from the assumptions doesn't actually have a lasting impact on the way we treat living Native peoples and their nations.
I get what the video is trying to do. It's trying to engage people in this story by making the story accessible. I agree, somewhat, with the premise of the video series. For far too long things like history, have been told from an inaccessible, stodgy, overbearing point of view. History is interesting, it's hilarious (ask any Native person and they can probably tell you a hilarious joke about history) and it's also complicated and dense.
But what about the people who don't really care and who just want to get a 3 on their AP exam (which, is fking easy by the way...)? Well, for them, and others who have many things to do, we (in my humble opinion) at least owe them a conversation that challenges their cultural assumptions while engaging their curiosity and sensibility. Also, a lot of the stuff in the video is wrong. W-R-O-N-G. No matter what the AP test says.
ASS-umption #1: When the European's arrived there were no classical style civilizations with monumental architecture and empires like the Aztecs or the Incas. Native North Americans had no metal work, no gun powder, no wheels, no written languages, and no domesticated animals. However, they did have farming, complex social political structures and widespread trade networks.
I immediately lost all hope for a pleasant surprise (like SURPRISE we aren't just making another video that forwards settler colonial ideas about Native peoples "before European arrival" in order to justify colonization and invasion of Native lands) when the video started this way (I don't mind the fast talking, the animations, the music, the "thought bubbles" - I get it dude).
Whether or not the video is attempting to acknowledge that Native peoples were more than just "primitive" peoples who were in the Americas camping out, or waiting around for someone to tell them how the wheel works, the set up of the statement (and the follow through) is actually quite successful at painting Native peoples as primitive. (The host does a lengthy take down of the term, though he then proceeds to do exactly what he says he doesn't want to do- to show Native peoples as primitive non-civilizations).
First, the comparison of one "classical style civilization" to another is, problematic, and also disingenuous. It asks students, viewers and others to believe that monumental architecture is paramount to a civilization, and that our ideas about what makes "technology" central to a "classical style" civilization is tied to "metal work" (European), "gun powder" (Western, and Eastern...mind you), wheels and written languages.
Note, however, that there were many other civilized and technological advances in Native nations which are not engaged with NOR presented in the video. For instance, aside from "complex social political structures," "farming" and "trade networks" Native peoples had (and have):
ASS-umption #2: So there had been civilizations in America but they peaked before the Europeans arrived. The Zuni and Hopi civilization... peaked about 1200 CE.
Wow. Tell that the Hopi.
Actually, don't tell that to the Hopi because they might just punch you in the face.
Actually, yeah, try telling that to a Hopi.
So the narrative is the same that happens in "history" done by "old historians" (who the host makes fun of) who want to believe in a few fundamental facts without critically thinking about said "facts."
This "fact" is centered around the idea that somehow, in some way, Native peoples were on their way out of being populous, civilized, organized, generous, complete, whole, balanced "civilizations" and nations because of (insert reason: disease, "environmental degradation" and/or a combination of) and this means that when Europeans got here their "colonization" was in some way supported by nature and "destiny." That's right - "manifest destiny."
Now, the "selective reasoning" that goes in to this assumption of fact means that those instances that support your idea are explored and/or documented while those that do not (say, the continued growth of Native populations "pre-contact" or the complex systems of government, civilization, religion and the like that existed) are erased from the documented record either (1) because people don't WANT to see them or (2) they didn't bother to ask while they were killing/ massacring/ committing a genocide of Native people or (3) they didn't care.
"Selective reasoning" means that one can say "you see, this is an example of how Native Americans peaked and were on their way out because they lived in one place (where the Hopi's/ Zuni's lived) and then stopped living there." Even though you wouldn't tell European history as "see the Europeans peaked because at one time some of them lived in Rome and then they didn't." You can't (or shouldn't) even say that the Hopi's or Zuni's "peaked" at a certain point in history because they are STILL ALIVE.
However, thanks for giving me my new favorite comeback line to anything my Hopi friend Jackie says to me. "Yeah, well, the Hopi's peaked in 1200 CE. HISTORICAL FACT!"
ASS-umption #3: Most Native groups in most cases organized as tribes and their lives were dominated by the natural resources available where they lived. These tribal bands often united into loose confederacies or leagues the best known of which was probably the Iroquois Confederacy, also called the Great League of Peace.
Wow. Tell that to the Haudenosaunee. They were a "loose" confederacy. Dang, you are good at giving me comebacks for Native people I know. "Yeah, well, we know how those Iroquois are -- just a LOOSE confederacy."
Let me note a little about this "loose" confederacy. First, it was from this confederacy that the United States Government was modeled. Second, this "loose" confederacy was documented by the Haudenosaunee people (and I say documented because there were in fact DOCUMENTS created "pre-contact" to "document" history, which I will quibble about later). Third, seriously, tell that to the Haudenosaunee. I'd like to see it. Video it and put it on You Tube.
ASS-umption #4: In general colonizing Florida sucked because it was hot and mosquito-ey. Spain was much more successful at colonizing the American southwest.
Do you know what that means -- to be "successful" at colonizing the American Southwest? Do the students watching this video know what that means? You could add just a few sentences to let people know what that means. It is not a benign statement. To be "successful" at colonizing these areas means: enslavement of Native peoples, killing of Native peoples, displacing of Native peoples, eradicating of Native peoples.
Later this ASS-umption becomes even worse when the host states:
New Mexico is really important because it is the site of the first large scale uprising by Native Americans against Europeans. I mean, the Native people, who the spanish called Pueblos, had seen their fortunes decline significantly since the arrival of Europeans. How much decline? Well between the years 1600-1680 their population went from about 60,000 to about 17,000.
When I first heard this I had to back it up several times to figure out what he meant by "had seen their fortunes decline significantly" and I STUDY THIS TYPE OF HISTORY FOR MY JOB (although, granted, I do not have to take the AP test to get paid... but still).
"had seen their fortunes decline significantly"?? I paused, you mean like, they weren't making as much money because of the arrival of the Europeans? Like somehow the Europeans took their jobs? Like before the Europeans came the Pueblos were rolling in dough and then the Europeans came and now they can only afford one house instead of three?
But no, what he means is that their "fortunes" (like the "fortune" of being alive, not being enslaved, not being killed, not being forced to move, not having your children taken or your family raped or killed) had "declined" which you can tell because their population was decimated (octo-mated?) from 60,000 to 17,000.
That is precisely the problem with the statement and this (re)telling of history. Sure dude, be glib, whatever. But at least, at least consider your word choice. When you have 11 minutes to tell me about all of the Spainards history and the Pueblo Revolt and Native peoples at least consider what you mean by "their fortunes declined significantly."
ASS-ide #1: So we focused a lot on the brutality of the Spanish toward the Indians...
Did you? He makes this ASS-ide after he reads one statement (just one) by Bartolome de las Casas about the inhumane treatment of Native peoples by the Spaniards. And it's almost like he is apologizing for reading these very damning words about what was happening in the Americas as a result of this colonization. Much more than a "decline of fortunes" that's for sure.
ASS-umption #5: As we mentioned at the beginning of today's episode American Indians didn't have writing so we don't have records of their perspective.
We do actually. We really do. There are a lot.
(1) You can look at oral narratives if you'd like, there's a LOT of history in there about "pre-contact" cultures of Native people in the Americas. ("But, but, in history we don't think oral narratives count as real historical documents!" Well, that's really to your detriment then. Because if you wanted to KNOW instead of just ASSUME you would consider the oral tradition, and you would learn how to read and understand them.)
(2) You can look at the documents of Native nations. Wampum belts, Navajo rugs, painted animal skins, baskets, canoes, carvings, rock paintings, etc.
(3) There was a lot written during the Spanish colonization and also a lot taken as testimony during Spanish colonization. So you can learn from people who told their story and it was written down, or your can learn from the stuff that was written down by various Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian and other "explorers."
(4) You could ask. There are lots of us in Native American Studies, at least some of us may be willing to help. (I don't know about the Hopi's though, they might just say "oh hey dude, I thought we PEAKED in 1200 CE!"
But why does it even matter? It's just history and stuff...
Do you know when I get students in my NAS class they usually end up writing me a reflection in which they say something like "What makes me the most upset is that I never learned these things about history before. Why didn't anyone ever tell me?!" And most of them were AP history students...
I suppose I will answer this one with a quote from the video:
One of the great things about American history is that we have a lot of written sources- this is the advantage of the US coming on to the scene so late in the game, historically speaking. But every story we hear comes from a certain point of view, and we always need to remember who is speaking, why they are speaking, and especially which voices go unheard - and why.
Maybe, had the video been held to the same standard, this "crash course" could actually benefit people who are curious enough to want to learn SOMETHING by helping them to engage with what this learning is about. Read the quote above again (said by the host at the end of the video) and note that this video is a certain point of view (western based historian) and we need to remember who is speaking (western based historian) why they are speaking (to get you tube views?) and which voices go unheard (in this case, the ones that call in to question these settler colonial western historical ASS-umptions about Native peoples.)
But also, how come. How come we don't expect more from even a short video used to help high school students access history. And shouldn't we? I know I do.
P.S. This video is supposed to be about The Black Legend, Native Americans and Spaniards and nary (yes, I said NARY) a mention of California and how the brutal treatment of Native people continued well into the 1700s by the Spanish in order to colonize Native peoples nor (yes I said NOR) a shout out for the many uprisings and rebellions of Native people in California against the mission system? Not even a "oh yeah they did this in California too!" Nada? Although the video probably would have said something like "and you know those California Indians they peaked in 1500" and then I would have had to get in my car, google where the host lives, drive for hours, find his house, knock on his door, waited until he opened it so I could look at him and say "NO, okay! JUST NO."
In Which We Find Out Why People Dress The Way They Do When They Say They Are "honoring" Native People -- OR You realize you are just dressing like a stereotype of a Native and not like an actual Native person right? OR Stop Wearing Headdresses, dummy.
Let me start with why I haven't responded to or written about the whole Christina Fallin debacle of a few weeks ago or the newest, latest and greatest "Siouxper Drunk" frat party racism at the University of North Dakota. First, I'm busy. Second, Native Appropriations already wrote a really good letter in response to Christina Fallin. Third, how many "don't wear headdresses dummy" posts does one person have to do before they start to feel like they are just being trolled by spoiled, self-centered people who could care less?
I figured, my gut reaction response would probably be an effort to try and explain to Christina Fallin (daughter of Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, home to the second largest population of Native American people in the United States) and the spoiled brat racists at the University of North Dakota, why they should not wear headdresses or shirts that say racist things about Native people and how they can better, in the words of Christina Fallin, "innocently adorn" themselves in our beautiful things (blech). I would have said (1) try buying some contemporary jewelry made by contemporary Native artists and supporting this continued cultural art form rather than picking stereotypical things to wear (2) don't wear headdresses, dummy.
But, then I started feeling like I was being trolled. Especially now, when everyone is yelling at each other on Twitter and there's a bunch of spoiled brat college students wondering how they can be racist if other people are racist? That seems to be the defense "hey, other people do this too, how come we're in trouble? That means it's okay or otherwise those other people wouldn't do it!" It doesn't make any sense, don't try to make it make sense. The more they write back and favorite each other's tweets and pass around each others 140 character diatribe on "political correctness" the more I start to feel like I'm being trolled.
Maybe I just want to feel that way. I want to feel like this couldn't possibly be yet another instance of ANOTHER person who HONESTLY thinks that wearing a headdress, or a tshirt that makes fun of Native people as "drunks" and/or dressing up like an Indian is "honoring" or "respecting" Native people or "not that serious." Just as soon as we finish with a Governor's daughter who thinks she's cute because she wears a Native headdress and then thinks it's okay to be dismissive of criticism of that action we have to deal with a bunch of riled up kids from North Dakota. It all seems so attention seeking. I'd never heard of Christina Fallin, or her band (I can't remember their name) before she put a headdress on. She's in national newspapers now talking about how cool she is because Native people are protesting her and I suddenly had this thought ---
"Is offending Native people the new 'oops somebody released my sex tape, oh well I'll go with it and become famous'?" Is this an easy way to get attention, some news, and possibly your own reality show where you sit around and do nothing?
I'm feeling trolled.
This doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying to get everyone to "just stop wearing headdresses dummy", but it means that I'm trying to take a different path. I am relying on education and knowledge. I have seen, first hand, that there are many people out there who really want to learn and listen. These are not the Christina Fallins of the world. These are not the Dan Snyders of the world. Those types of people want to use Native people as props, as objects in their continued attempts to legitimize their snobby, self-centered view of the world. They believe that Native peoples are there for the consuming. Their mentality is infected by the ongoing colonization of the spaces they inhabit where Native peoples were consumed - consumed by genocide, consumed by slavery, consumed by assimilation. This country was built on the consumption of Native people. This consumption continues.
But, there are also those that benefit from and want to learn and understand Native peoples, their cultures, their survivance, their humor. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This is why I teach Native American Studies. This is why EVERY SINGLE PERSON should have to take a Native American Studies class. Not because I want to yell into the wind tunnel that is Christina Fallin, but because I know that many of the students and people I encounter are open to learning and discussion and change.
What they learn -- what I teach, is that all of these things are interconnected. The representations we have of Native people in the mass media, in our heads, in our history books, those stay with us and they contribute to contemporary issues in Native communities, into politics, into our own culture and who we are as people living here in these Indigenous spaces (all peoples, everyone, we are all affected).
So, in an effort to extend my educational reach beyond my classroom I am going to offer another presentation (as I did before) but this time we're going to talk about why people dress the way they do when they think they are "honoring" Native people. Or -- You realize you are just dressing like a stereotype of a Native and not like an actual Native person right? Or-- Stop Wearing Headdresses, Dummy.
In Which We Find Out Why People Dress The Way They Do When They Say They Are "honoring" Native People -- OR You realize you are just dressing like a stereotype of a Native and not like an actual Native person right? OR Stop Wearing Headdresses, dummy.
First, close your eyes and draw a picture of a Native American in your head. What does your Native American look like?
Lemme guess. He/She looks like this: (I know, I know, many of you will say "but mine looked a little different." It's okay. Go with me.)
What do these Native people have in common? Here we go:
Now watch this:
Disney's "Peter Pan": "What Makes the Redman Red?" (1953)
Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. Take notes. Keep track of what the Native people look like and what the story of the song is.
Okay first - what is the story of the song?
This song is part of the movie Peter Pan, where Peter has rescued Tiger Lily from Captain Hook. In response, Tiger Lily's father is very happy and grateful that his daughter wasn't drowned in the ocean by a Pirate (which shows, to me, he has human emotion, good for him). Now, in response he decides to give Peter Pan an Indian name ("Flying Eagle") and this makes Peter Pan very happy. After that he offers to teach the visiting little children about Native Americans and the children proceed to ask him racist questions like:
Short answer: he kissed a pretty girl and that made him blush, then saw his mother in law and that made him say "ugh!" and he asked a lot of questions about how things work so he could learn stuff.
To help my students dissect this video we first talk about what the Natives look like. But there soooo much going on in this video I feel like I can't skip over it so let's start with the sound. The music here is supposed to represent Native people and culture. It's a deep, dark sounding drum with ugh and mumbling sounds and it mirrors this idea that Native peoples music was always war like and full of menace. The Indians here hoot, hollar, jump around, act crazy, sing about nonsense and offer children pipes to smoke while also ordering around women and allowing the men to play.
The fantasy here is that Native people allow a stuffy, uppercrust group of children to chillax for a minute and dance around fires while singing. Except Wendy, who doesn't like that in this society she is nothing more than a "squ*w" and so she storms off. Also Wendy is really uptight.
Now, let's look at what the Native people are wearing...
Next... video number 2.
Judy Garland - "I'm an Indian Too" from Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
Are you gonna spend the rest of the day singing "I'm an Indian too!" or is that just me? Actually I sing that sometimes to myself when I do something like put the dishes away. There's me, super Indian, putting dishes away cause "I'm an Indian too!"
Okay, what's the story in the song?
The story is there is this little woman who wants to be an Indian. So the Chief tells her she is an Indian now and she sings a song about what she will do now that she is an Indian too. This consists of - having a lot of Indian stuff like totem poles, running off with men and having lots of babies (the full song, not what Judy Garland sings, mentions these plans even more).
So why is being an Indian so cool? Because then she doesn't have to be uptight and tied in to societies expectations of her. Again, it's a rejection of these norms, saying that being an Indian means that you don't have to worry about the pressure of society and instead you can live in whatever wild, and crazy way you want. There is a deep longing here for freedom, something that these outsiders for some reason think is tied to (1) having lots of sex and (2) having lots of babies (and /or running off with someone else).
Just like in Peter Pan the message is: you can become an Indian. If you become an Indian, you are awesome. I would say it was flattering in a really messed up way but I hate giving credit where credit isn't due.
The music. Think about the music too. The drums, the moans, the calls, the dancing around in a circle. It's all there. And how does Judy Garland become an Indian? -- they put a feather on it. (I guess they liked it... so they put a feather on it. Timely Beyonce joke for the win!)
Also -- how is she dressed? Say it with me now...
Granted, some people say "well you know this was a long time ago and it's not like we don't know this stuff is racist NOW but back then it was a different time. People didn't KNOW it was racist then. You can't be critical of it now that we know how racist it is."
Okay, so let's start with "it was a long time ago..."
Here are some videos from the last few years of high schools doing this song dressed up as Native people singing about how they are Indians too. (Notice what they wear) Not... a... long...time...ago.
PS. I'm not trying to say that these students should be ridiculed or made fun of, I'm saying, that here are just two of the many examples of this "obviously racist" portrayal of Native peoples that continues. People (supposedly) KNOW it's wrong now and they do it anyway.
But maybe they don't know that it's wrong? Another thing that people have said to me.
They probably should know it's wrong, but I get that there are contradictory messages out there. For every #NotYourTonto tweet there is some guy saying "But I asked this Native person I know and they said it was okay." For the thousands who say "No more Indian Mascots" there are the Native peoples who say "it's fine with me."
There are many images of Native peoples "out there" and most of them are messed up and deserving of criticism. Yet, they are constantly portrayed as the "norm" or socially acceptable (There are also many positive portrayals and images, and they get MUCH less attention). But even if some people are okay with it, it's still racist.
It's a great big cycle of crudity that dates back to the first movies made in Hollywood which demanded that Native peoples (1) all wear feathers and look essentially the same to make them easily identifiable to the audience; (2) all wear headbands (and this was not because Native people's wear headbands all the time, but because they needed to hold wigs on to actors heads); (3) wear costumes with fringe and (4) be primitive, lacking in humor, education, words, ideas because the movies were about displacing, killing and eradicating Native peoples and that isn't as easy to do to people who are "real." (Want to know more? Watch REEL INJUN).
Hollywood's Indian is not a real Indian. Yes, there are parts of this Hollywood Indian that comes from various tribes. Maybe some Natives wore headdresses but others wore basket caps. Maybe some wore fringed clothing, but others wore bark skirts. And they wore these things with responsibility. They did not just put a headdress on to look cute. They did not wear a feather in their hair to make a better "costume."
The costumed Indian is the Hollywood Indian. There is no tribe that fits the Hollywood stereotype because it's an imaginary abomination meant to justify genocide. When you can make a whole people into a cartoon, a caricature, you feel less tied to them, you feel far away from them, like they don't matter. Then, it's easier to dismiss them.
When people "dress up" in feathers and fringe and Halloween Costumes, and hipster costumes and rave outfits or whatever. When they have frat parties and make racist t-shirts. When they paint their face and put on "war bonnets" and head to football/baseball games they are not honoring Native people.
They are honoring Disney's "Red Man", they are honoring Hollywood's Indian. That's why their wear the headband and the feather on the back of their head. That's why they paint their face and play their music the way they do. That's why they jump and hoot and holler and say nonsensical things and act a fool -- to honor an imaginary character that does not exist. A character that we KNOW is racist. A character that is a clear demonstration of derogatory stereotypes. A character that literally makes students turn away when I play these clips in classrooms. I have seen people watch these clips through their open fingers like they are watching a horror movie.
So this "honoring" of Native people, that's not real. It's a way to erase the real Native people. Some people would rather have their non-sensical Native that they can own, than a real life Native who challenges their legitimacy and "manifest destiny."
This is why representation matters, because these images, left unchecked, lead to the dismissal of Native people as living. It leads to the dismissal of Native people as intellectuals. It leads to the dismissal of Native people as allies in education, science, technology and research. We all lose when we cannot learn from each other.
Now watch this video. (it' s not a very good version of the video, you know why, they took it down because it was racist... so this is the best I can do.)
No Doubt - "Looking Hot" (2012)
This happened in 2012.
2012. Sometimes people will say "but we know better now." And then this will happen. I already wrote about it before which you can read here.
But let's just point this out right quick. Gwen Stefani dresses up as an Indian for her music video and how is she dressed?
To No Doubt's credit, they took the video down and you can't really find very many versions of it. Of course they said the didn't KNOW it was racist when they were making it, watching it in the editing room, watching the final version, uploading it to You Tube... but they agreed to take it down because they didn't want to offend anyone.
So now we know-- this video is racist and offensive. Dressing up like a Native Person is not honoring them, it's honoring a stereotype. Take the information and run, run to your closest headdress wearing friend, sit them down, look them in the eye and with a sincere and open heart say:
Stop wearing headdresses, dummy.
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, volunteer Executive Director for the Native Women's Collective and is currently re-watching My Name is Earl...
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