The top 3 stereotypes or beliefs that people have when they walk in to my Native American Studies courses or #FileThisUnderReasonsWhyITeachNAS
I get asked a lot of random questions when I teach Native American Studies classes. People are curious. I also make them ask me questions - for points. #MuWaHaHa I've been keeping track in my head of some of the more popular things that people assume or ask me about. Mostly because I think it's interesting to see what endures in generations. And also because I think it is important that we address these things head on. So, here is my list where I look at the stereotypes and ideas about Native Americans that come up when I teach.
--The top 3 stereotypes or beliefs that people have when they walk in to my Native American Studies courses--
#3: Native Americans are poor because they want to be poor because that’s how they get all the free stuff from the government that the government gives them.
If I over analyze this I think “this is the argument of most billionaires about everybody else in the world who are not billionaires.” There is some kind of deep analytical scholarly statement to be made here about capitalism and development and the American Dream and picking yourself up by your bootstraps and people who are poor are poor because they just don’t work hard enough and this is why affirmative action is wrong and don’t we feel bad for the little rich girls who don’t get in to college because they aren’t some kind of poor minority even though those minorities are only poor because they want to be poor so they can get free stuff from the government?
I sometimes feel overwhelmed by where to begin with stuff like this. So usually I like to begin with treaties. What’s a treaty? (A treaty, they will sometimes say, is like a binding document.) Is a treaty more serious than a cell phone contract? (Yes, we hope.) Who do we make treaties with? (Other countries.) Why? (To show that we are serious about them.) What happens if another country makes a treaty with us and then they break that treaty because they could care less what we think? (We talk crap about them, won’t let people travel there, embargo them, maybe we declare war on them). How much is the United States worth? (Excuse me?) How much is the United States worth? What do you think some other country would have to pay us for the United States? (It’s like priceless. It’s like so many people are here you could never just sell all their land and stuff. They could never pay enough.)
They could never pay enough.
What kind of CAR-AZY deal would you have to make to even attempt to pay enough? What kind of forever and ever TRUST OBLIGATION would you have to set up to even get the United States to consider on any level granting our land to another country? And what kind of battles would United States citizens wage, what kind of wars would US Citizens fight, what kind of resistance would there be in attempts to prevent that other country from negotiating for the land? How many of us would never stop fighting?
Because, they could never pay enough.
But what does that have to do with being poor so you can get free stuff from the government?
Well, first, it’s not free stuff. It’s not. The United States Government made a trust agreement because the United States Government could never pay enough to Native people for the land and resources. Not ever. And there is a long (very long) and complicated (very complicated) history as to why these agreements came about, and what they were originally intended for, and how they should be interpreted but the fact of the matter is, it is not FREE stuff.
One day, I promise, I will tell you about the whole “why you stay so poor Native Americans” but I’m already getting pretty lengthy in my blog so that one will have to leave you in suspense. HINT – it has a lot to do with history, historical trauma, present day issues of education and healing, and disingenuous government to government relations.
Also PS- what’s “poor?” Poor in money? Poor in laughter? Poor in humor? Poor in family? Poor in resources? Many of us are rich in lots of really amazing ways…
#2.5 Native Americans who are not poor have casinos. Those casinos make them so rich that they buy the government off to give them things.
There are 566 federally recognized tribes. 246 of them have a casino. Many of those casinos are very small and make some profit, though not Vegas style profits. Tribes use their money for lots of things. It’s their money. If you want to talk more about Casinos message me. I’ll start on that blog entry and post it one day…
#2 If you go to a reservation you will get shot. Or beat. Or shot and beat. Or somebody will be mean to you. They will probably be mean to you and then shoot you.
Do you know why Indians were put on reservations? Sometimes students write that it was because Native peoples were so violent and so savage that they had to be corralled somewhere to be kept away from all those nice people just trying to settle the United States.
Seriously, think about it, they rob covered wagons, they scalp people, they scream at them with war whoops, they put hexes on them, they throw tomahawks at their heads and steal white women and they don’t even speak English. This of course is mostly what John Wayne’s Indians do. This is what a lot of those western Indians do. Many students lament that they haven’t really seen a Western except at their Grandparent’s house. Their Grandparents usually love John Wayne. He was “The Boss” after all. Wait, no, Bruce Springsteen is “The Boss,” John Wayne was something else. He was “The Duke”, I think. I don’t know. One time I tried to watch a John Wayne movie where he gets off his horse and shoots some Indian in the face because, he’s John Wayne! And I thought “that’s okay. I don’t need to watch Indians get shot in the face.”
These stereotypes, however, endure. Scalping endures, even though it was introduced by the Dutch. Native people are like violent savages has endured, and is built into Supreme Court Case Law as a reason why Native Peoples are not “nations” they are “domestic dependent nations.”
There is a lot of violence in many Native communities. But you know what the perpetration of that violence is often a result of historical trauma. Violence became a tool of an aggressive colonizing society who wanted the land in the United States as their very own. Violence became a way to subdue, exterminate, and subordinate Native peoples. Violence was consistent. Violence eats at people from the inside. Violence became a reaction to and was as a result of colonization. And colonization was violent.
That’s John Wayne. So people watch the movie and they go “hey, Indians are so violent, check out this John Wayne movie where they are attacking people who are innocently taking their wagons through the country side in hopes of settling all that ‘vast empty land’ that doesn’t belong to them .”
And I say “John Wayne just shot an Indian guy in the face at point blank range because he felt like it.”
#1 Everything you need to know about Native peoples you can learn by watching Disney’s Pocahontas
No seriously. Pocahontas. This comes up so much. So many students write about Pocahontas. Okay, well, Disney’s Pocahontas. Because I’ve never had a student write about the 10 year old girl who knew John Smith, married John Rolfe, travelled to England and died at the age of 22.
For me, Disney’s Pocahontas was a blip on my memory. She wasn’t my Disney Princess. I went and saw Aladdin in the theatre TWICE. I went and saw The Lion King and cried, just like any human being with a SOUL would cry when *Spoiler Alert 15 years later* Mufasa died. I can sing you just about every word, note for note, of Part of Your World in what I think (in my head) sounds exactly like Ariel sounded when she was protesting why her father wouldn’t let her go off with some strange guy she saw once on a boat who she just HAD to be with. She’s 16! She can do what she wants! I like the part where she sings “I bet they don’t reprimand their daughters…” I remember people (adults) in the theatre laughing. And I turned around and hissed and went “quiet you, Ariel is singing about how unfair it is that she can’t go do whatever she wants. But Daddy, I LOOOOOOOOOOVE HIM!”
Pocahontas though- meh. Sure she had hair that danced around in the wind and little animal friends, and a teeny tiny buckskin dress with fringe that allowed her to paint with all the colors of the wind, but she just wasn’t my bag. I mostly thought of her as like a pity Princess. Like Disney got all their people together and said “Oh, so we need an Indian princess now, besides that crab-apple Tiger Lily who is mean to other girls because girls be mean yo! So I GUESS we can do Pocahontas. Didn’t she like save some white guy from being killed and then fall in love with him and then help build a colony and then get married and go to England? Wasn’t she ACTUALLY an Indian Princess already? We should just do her. We’ve got to make our Princesses more diverse because, diversity is really IN right now.” *End Scene*
She was a pity Princess that Pocahontas. Also the songs in that movie sucked.
But there were actual Indian people involved. Which just goes to show you, we don’t all agree. And obviously I missed the meeting of all Indian people that month to decide how we felt about Disney’s Pocahontas, or they missed the meeting, either way, there were Indian people involved.
What’s my problem with Pocahontas? I’m about to get to that. Because you see many think Native people were like Pocahontas. Apparently, this is the generation who remembers that movie. This movie is their Little Mermaid (poor them). I read about how teachers in their schools use Pocahontas to TEACH them about who Native people were. I say were, because I highly doubt there was much concern to teach them who Native people ARE.
And that’s my problem. Because people are always telling me that these movies, these portrayals, these representations of Native people in the mass media are not that serious. That we, as Native people, should focus on the “real” stuff, like diabetes, or alcoholism, or drug abuse. And we take these other things too seriously. It’s just a mascot. It’s just a play. It’s just a music video. It’s just a movie. It’s just Johnny Depp literally in white face (okay striped face) pretending to be an Indian. (with a bird on his head)
Maybe it is just a movie. So I’ll say this.
If you want to watch it- go for it. And then sign up for a Native American Studies class. Or read some books. Or attend some workshops on lectures about decolonizing Native American History.
You’ll quickly come to realize, there are many better movies that could have and should have been made. Many more stories to tell…
Cutcha Risling Baldy is an Assistant Professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. She received her PhD in Native American Studies from the University of California, Davis. She is also a writer, mother, fan of "The Good Wife" and "The Walking Dead", who likes to go for long walks on long piers...
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