Experiment: Conversations with 6yr olds, 2014, middle class, majority white, Ohio, during Native American Heritage Month
(Shows a picture of Chief Stephen Adkins) “Do you know who this is?”
“This is Chief Stephen Adkins he along with 11 other people called a tribal council lead the Chickahominy tribe. We should also call him a Native American rather than an Indian.”
“What do Native Americans live in?”
“a tipi/ the woods/ a fort”
“No I mean today, right now not a long time ago.”
“Well, where do you live?”
“house/ apartment/ with my grandma!”
“That is where Native Americans live as well.”
“What kind of jobs do they have?”
“Hunters/ warriors!” kids started running around slapping their mouths.
“Ok, I am sure some Native Americans hunt as a job and I know many are in the United States military, so they are warriors, but they are also lawyers, doctors, writers, police officers, cashiers and a ton of other jobs. Also, doing that with your mouth isn’t very nice.”
I was frustrated, not with the little ones, but that this is what they know of an entire culture of people. I understand this is not the same answer I would get if I lived in a different part of the United States, but really? Luckily, I made a slight difference. The next time I saw them I was told that one of the kids went up to their teacher and told her that Indians don’t live in a tipi and also they don’t like to be called indians, we should call them Native Americans. I’ll take it.
When I was little I barely understood that Native Americans existed let alone that some still lived in impoverished conditions on reservations that were forced on their ancestors. How did a girl that went to a blue ribbon school in an affluent town not know about modern day native culture? Even stranger was that Russell Means, one of the most well known AIM (American Indian Movement) members lived in Cleveland and started a chapter of AIM here in the 70s. His hand print is all over this city and I didn’t have any idea until I started doing my own research into Native American culture for a character I was developing over a year ago. Where for the past 20 years a man named Robert Roche along with several others dedicated thousands of hours in protest and education to change the MLB Indians team name and develop their community in a land that tribes/ tribal law were forced out years ago.
Back to my point, I want to talk about White America as a whole and our understanding of Native American culture. We watch movies that portray Native Americans as savages or silly sidekicks and follow sports teams that use the culture as a caricature. Ultimately painting the wrong picture. Of course there are movies about amazing Native Americans that don’t portray this, but they are far and few between. That coupled with my later argument will neatly wrap up why there is a stigma.
Other than a few, the proverbial wool is pulled over our eyes. We are taught in primary school that the government gave Native Americans a choice with organized treaties that would benefit everyone. We quickly glazed over battles, Wounded Knee, revolts, Trail of Tears, yet we focus on a story that Christopher Columbus was a stand up guy who sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Accept, he was a tyrant, rapist and overall dumbshit who got lost. How does this man have his own day?
This brings me to argument number two, our education system is lacking. As proven by my experiment at the beginning of this essay. I understand that it takes money and process to change a system, but when will my kids learn true history?
The solution is that I will teach them, we should teach them. I have started reading to my girls Coyote and other books that show the thriving native community it is today… the real truth.
Recently, MTV had a special called Rebel Music, it featured stories and music by Mike Cliff, Frank Waln, Inez Jasper, and Nataanii Means. They are modern day activists for their people, for their tribes and for Native America as a whole. Mixed with others in the Native American community actively trying to crush the stereotypes, like Gyasi Ross (lawyer/author/activist) and Tatanka Means (comedian/activist) promote a sober life and mentorship for native youth. Dennis Banks (notable AIM member) rode cross country to spotlight the importance of nutrition and diabetes in native culture. Artists like Virgil Ortiz (fashion/photography/sculpture) and Matika Wilbur (photographer) are proving that traditional themes can be modernized with stunning results. Leaders are emerging.
I learned that this is the 7th generation and they will start a revolution. It will not be with violence, which got past AIM activists in trouble . It seems this generation will teach by way of art and storytelling, by singing and most of all by keeping their traditions ongoing. There are 562 federally recognized tribes and over 4 million people in America self recognize as Native American. Those numbers promise change.
What I learned I will teach my daughters, show them hoop dancing and pow wows. That in this culture there is a huge importance placed on protecting their land by protesting fracking and pipelines. Fighting still for what treaties promised and the ultimate fact that Native Americans are the originals and what happened to them at the hands of men like Christopher Columbus, government officials and others needs to be rectified.
My descendents are from Europe, so what does that mean for me? I don’t have to fight for my basic rights. I do agree being a female has some disadvantages, but overall I won the American lottery. That means that as a White American I have an obligation to learn on a broader level. If not, we are missing the point.
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