As you may know, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into Native American culture. I’m about to start working on an article based on what I’ve learned so far, which with any luck will end up being published somewhere in the near future. In the meantime, I’ve still been exploring different avenues of research and trying to make connections between them. A few weeks ago, I attended the Native American Voices exhibit at the Penn Museum, and then I had the privilege of speaking with an official representative of the Nanticoke tribe in Delaware. These experiences, combined with the reading I’ve been doing, have led me to want to learn more about how issues of the past are connected to the present.
Initially, I made some connections between past and present issues of oppression. Native Americans have been oppressed in the past and are still oppressed today, and a lot of the reason has to do with the way history has depicted them. For example, in elementary school, my class learned about Native Americans in the 1600-1700s, in relation to colonial history in the United States. What we learned back then has three major issues. One, students are only taught about Native Americans from a colonial perspective, so almost nothing is taught about Native American history and culture before the Europeans arrived. However, there are thousands of years of history that go back long before Europeans ever came to these lands, and that history is far more vivid and deep than most people are taught. I’ve begun learning a bit about it by reading the Book of the Hopi, which combines Native American history and mythology with present-day archaeological research to tell a detailed account of the lives of Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. This book is just one small example, but it represents an entire ignored area in our education system. If the depth of Native American history before the colonial period were taught in schools, then their culture might not be ignored as much as it is today.
The second issue in this education is that it only depicts Native Americans in ways that are easily stereotyped and which tell us nothing about their real culture. For example, children are taught about the First Thanksgiving, but the typical depictions have led to us having a certain inaccurate image that persists in our cultural awareness.
This image, however, has been described as not only inaccurate, but as being based on a story that is completely made up. Furthermore, it presents an image of Native Americans that isn’t accurate to who they are today. We don’t think of modern day Americans as still being the same people as the pilgrims that first came here in the 1600s, but many people still view Native Americans based only on these images from the past. This leads to issues like the #NotYourTigerLily debate over the selection of white actress Rooney Mara to play the role of Tiger Lily in the upcoming live-action Peter Pan remake. In addition to protests over casting a white actress in a Native American role, there are protests against the very use of the Tiger Lily character, based on the argument that she portrays a stereotypical view of Native American women that is harmful and offensive. This view ignores the reality of modern Native American women by depicting them as a caricature rather than as people (imagine, by comparison, if modern day white women were still viewed in the images of their Puritan Protestant pilgrim ancestors). By contrast, many online activists have been posting pictures showing what real, present-day Native American women are really like, such as in this photo posted by online activist Jacqueline Keeler.
The third issue, which stems in many ways from the first two, is the complete lack of education about the present-day struggles of Native Americans. In addition to the mascot debate I’ve been researching, and the #NotYourTigerLily debate I just mentioned, Native Americans still struggle with many issues that are ignored. For example, 28.2% of Native Americans are living below the poverty line (and on reservations, that can increase to between 38% to 63%). By comparison, the National Poverty Center reports only 15.1% of Americans nationwide living below the poverty line (it is also worth nothing that the NPC page linked here includes subsets for the poverty statistics of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but doesn’t mention Native Americans). Another issue related to the media portrayal of Native Americans is that Native American women are twice as likely to be raped as women of any other race in America. One explanation for this is that Native Americans are viewed as a “conquered people,” and media portrayals of Native American women (such as in movies like Peter Pan) depict them as weak, vulnerable savages that are submissive to white men. This portrayal leads to them being more likely targets for aggressive and violent criminals. There is also the issue that many of the assailants are never prosecuted, and tribal courts often lack the legal authority of their own when state and federal courts fail to act.
These and many other present-day issues are often ignored by the general public, and awareness of these subjects seems to be low. At least part of the blame for this lack of awareness surely stems from the lack of education in mainstream schools. The schools I’ve attended, from elementary school through high school and college, educate students about plenty of other “current events” issues, including the gay marriage debate, copyright laws in the digital age, healthcare reform, and the wage gap between genders. My classes have been invariable silent, however, on any issues related to Native Americans.
While exploring all of these issues, I became very aware of my own blindness and lack of understanding. I therefore sought out the assistance of experts who could better understand the relationship between the past and the present. This is the core concept of Anthropology, which is defined as “the study of humankind, past and present.” To learn more about this, I contacted a group of Anthropology professors from Rowan University, two of whom were kind enough to take the time to assist me in my research. My next post will explore what I learned from them as I attempted to open my eyes to seeing beyond the world right in front of me and into the connections with the past.