Forked Tongue

November 17, 2014
Want a cigar?

Want a cigar?

Several recent events have impelled me to think once again about Indians. The Native American ones. You know, Tonto, Geronimo, like that. This used to be an annual occurrence when I taught in my eighth grade classroom, for November is Native American Heritage Month.

The reaction of many, I’m afraid, is “so what.” Well, the so what happens to involve a huge chunk of the past of this nation as well as a lingering problem of accurate history (perhaps an oxymoron) versus what passes for “common knowledge.”

This current rumination began with my adult ESL class when a discussion about November turned to Thanksgiving. Many of my foreign-born students had virtually no knowledge of this holiday. Those that did received their information from their children in school. I asked them what they knew, and I got the Pollyanna version that has remained more or less unchanged since I went to elementary school. You know the one, where smiling Pilgrims in their buckled hats gather joyfully in the spirit of friendship with equally jolly Indians around a table loaded with turkey and all the fixings. They noticed me looking askance at them and asked me why.


I had some misgivings about bursting this bubble of American mythology, but when I asked if they wanted to know the real story, they insisted. I felt somewhat like the adult school version of Michael Moore as I told of the conflict between the indigenous people of this land and the foreign interlopers whose voyage had been bankrolled by merchants more interested in material gains than spiritual ones. This then led to a reexamination of Christopher Columbus whose image as the stalwart discoverer of the New World is tarnished by his abysmal treatment of the Indians (a misnomer for which he is responsible) whom he encountered and subsequently viciously subjugated. There is no mention of this in the school version either.

Additionally, since the beginning of this football season, I’ve been following the controversy that has resurfaced as of late concerning the name of the professional football team in Washington. Is Redskins an appropriate term to use, or does it smack of cultural insensitivity? This supposed “honoring” of a people who, after all, were the target of a shameful genocide, is widespread in our country. I shudder at the sight of the Cleveland Indians logo, a grotesque caricature of a Native American. Numerous universities have appropriated  the names of tribes as their own and have trivialized a proud culture for their benefit (the Florida State Seminoles and their cloying “war chant” come to mind). This is true of high schools as well with scores using Redmen or Redskins and hundreds of others Indians as their nickname. Five schools in Oklahoma are called Savages, and Aniak High School in Alaska even uses the name Halfbreeds. What other heritage is subjected to this treatment? What would the reaction be if schools were called the Blackskins or Yellowskins, the Caucasians or the Jews?


Picture your heritage here…

This may seem of little consequence on the surface, but it reflects an endemic attitude about the native peoples of this country as well as great ignorance of the facts. To me, that is troubling in a nation that insists it embraces tolerance, acceptance, and equality. The problem is reinforced in schools. The younger children are fed a diet of sugar-coated misinformation, while in the upper grades most history books have been dismissive of American Indians in a few paragraphs usually characterizing them as a temporary obstacle in the path of our journey to becoming a great nation. This in the land of the free with liberty and justice for all, none of which, however, was available to the indigenous people, a matter quite conspicuous in its absence. No mention of the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, the miserable exile on the bleak lands of the reservation, or the abjectly dismal record of one hundred percent of the more than five hundred treaties signed then broken by the United States government.

The truth is clear; an institutional effort was made to contain, remove, or eradicate the Indians. The legitimized slaughter of American Indians reflected the values of the time during which Indians were considered subhuman “savages” whose elimination was much the same as the killing of wild animals. The fact that we (in both cases) encroached on their land and declared it our own seems to be besides the point. The governments of certain states (including New Jersey) promoted this practice by offering the incentive of scalp bounties. George Washington himself compared Indians to wolves and called for their annihilation. Though these practices were eventually stopped, the mindset they fostered still lingers in many to this day.

Those who would defend these acts point to the violence committed by the Indians against the colonists and settlers. This is also fact, but it must be looked at in the perspective of the situation. I used to do this exercise with my students before the introduction of Native American Heritage Month. Entitled “Invasion of America,” I presented the following scenario. America has been invaded. The invaders have superior weapons and have captured or killed many. They are advancing and taking over most of the land. Some defenders have given up and fallen under their control and suffered great mistreatment. What would you do? Would you fight using any means necessary to protect your land and people? Years later, others who look at this will have an opinion about what happened. Who do you think they will feel was wrong in what they did, the invaders or those who resisted?

The majority responded as one might expect — they said they would fight. The invaders have no right to take our land and kill our people. It is clear that they are wrong in what they did. This happens to be the exact circumstance of the Indians, but many Americans have great difficulty in accepting the application of the conclusion above when it makes us the bad guys. However, if we are to be a truly great country, we need to acknowledge our mistakes, not cover them up or make excuses for them, for to do so merely diminishes our stature and makes us appear hypocritical (particularly when we are critical of the record of other countries in such matters).

It also doesn’t help that the portrayal of the Indian in popular culture over the years has been wildly divergent from the extremes of the “noble savage” (Tonto, Dances With Wolves) to “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (most early cowboys-and-Indians movies and TV shows). I would hope that people seek out a more accurate and balanced representation (the work of Native American writers like Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo, and N. Scott Momaday, or historical books such as Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, for example). The basic understanding that we are descendants of other nations now living on the land that once belonged to an indigenous people who are mostly stereotyped, disparaged, or forgotten should be recognized by every American who is not an Indian. That this is not the case bothers me, and until it is, we cannot truly be what we as a nation want to believe we are.


One comment

  1. Once again Donald you hit it right on the head. Besides the Native Americans, we can also include the Hispanics and other ethnicities.
    For the country that’s called the melting pot, it seems like that the Ingredients don’t always mix well. Happy Thanksgiving

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