Dances with Stereotypes
Marcelle Marie Gareau, an Aboriginal college professor, was ostracized by her peers for refusing to answer prying questions about Aboriginal societies after being treated as a source of information on native societies. She claimed that she was treated negatively for failing to conform to common stereotypes, and was in some cases verbally, or even physically, assaulted by fellow faculty members (196-199). The misrepresentation and marginalization of Native Americans is not restricted to old Western Kit Carson films. School textbooks are equally, or even more, liable for homogenizing and degrading First Nations by propagating colonial policy and ideology (Ashley and Ziemski 7). Modern Aboriginal students in non-native institutions are also likely to be singled out by their teachers and peers as caches of information on Aboriginal societies. This creates a sense of shame on students who may be ignorant or isolated from their own culture and history (Fleming 215).
The Chicago Blackhawks logo is a source of heated debate because of its stereotypical representation of Native Americans. Many Aboriginal peoples have tried to eliminate the presence of stereotypical Native Americans as mascots or logos, but many sports teams and spectators claim that they feel that the use of Native American representation is a way of honoring Native peoples. Cornel D. Pewewardy’s described that “many European Americans rely on these manufactured images to anchor them to the land and verify a false account of a shared history. These ‘Indians,’ however, exist only in the imagination: they provide a self-serving historical connection that leaves actual American Indian people untethered and rootless in or erased from the historical accounts of European Americans (Pewewardy 181).” These representations not only trivialize and homogenize Native American cultures but they also disavow Native Americans access to any of their own history and reduce them to the status of a symbiote whose existence lacked any meaning before European contact. The problem remains that when one claims to be honoring someone without their consultation or consent, and certainly against their express wishes not to do so, then the claim is most likely misinformed or disingenuous. In one study, Caucasian students were asked to assign pleasant or unpleasant variables to European and American mascots in comparison to Native American mascots. The results found students to have an implicit negative bias towards Native American mascots (Chaney, Burke, and Burkley 49). This asserts that the stereotypical rendering of Native Americans within sports dehumanizes and perpetuates a racially hostile environment for Aboriginal.
Even the concept of Native Americans as environmentalists is a misrepresentation of First Nation’s cultural values. It diminishes any sense of Native cultural achievement by wrongly assuming that Native peoples never left any mark on the land. Many of the most spectacular innovations carried out by First Nation’s populations were ecological in nature and intention. These innovations included garden-like forests that were created by continuous burning of local forests in order to improve growth. This had the long-run affect of attracting herds of ideal local wildlife to the area, thereby providing a teeming food supply. In fact, some anthropologists are willing to contend that the Amazon rainforest itself merits the status of a cultural artifact because it is an artificial object created as a result of environmental manipulation (Mann 283-325). David Rich Lewis describes “the grossest stereotypes depicted Indians as beings without action or agency, who left no mark on the land, who lived within the strictest of natural constraints. These ideas unintentionally denied Native Americans their humanity, culture, history, and most importantly, their modernity (53).”
The acceptance of stereotypical representations is in large part propagated by popular culture, in particular, the film industry. Films tend to marginalize and restrict vastly diversified Native American groups into the film industry’s standardized ideal of a Plains Indian, which typically bear a resemblance to either Apache, or Sioux groups. These representations should be treated with caution since they are roughly the image most people have of Native Americans in general (154). These images reduce all the diversity of the Native peoples into one incorrect image, and, unfortunately, represent the general racist and ignorant assumptions of the general population towards Native Americans.
Online blogs also serve as a medium through which racist declarations and ideologies can be covertly circulated on the Internet with great efficacy. These comments towards Native peoples can be categorized by: surprise, privilege and power, trivialization, and denigration (Steinfeldt et al 365-368). These areas tend to overlap and express the interchangeable desire to discredit, trivialize, demean, and shift responsibility from the dominant society onto Native groups. This phenomenon is startlingly akin to victim-blaming only it is applied to a minority group, and not victims of domestic abuse or rape. However, the medium that enables stereotyping can also alleviate it. Maria A. Kopacz’s assessed that, in YouTube videos, viewers gave a positive reception to actual Native American persons who did not adhere to the stereotypes commonly reproduced in popular media (252). These encouraging results are indicative that YouTube, and by extension the Internet, is likely to provide an adequate medium through which Native Americans can directly or indirectly alleviate common misconceptions of Native American groups that are held by the general public. Gulriz Buken also found that the affect of stereotypes on Native American self-image can be remediated by Native American artists whose work subverts these stereotypes by eliciting humor and serving as commentaries on those same stereotypes by juxtaposing them with their real-life counterparts (52). The adoption and incorporation by Native American artists of an image meant to dehumanize can be changed when it is infused with personal understanding of bitterness on the part of Aboriginal societies. When correctly juxtaposed with one’s own high regard for their ancestors and the rich heritage given to them, the stereotypical images are correctly rendered as the joke that colonialists sought to transform all Native Americans into.
This new-fledged art form has proven a significant source of empowerment for Native American women writers who have contributed to the establishment of Aboriginal feminism. The difference between Aboriginal feminism and popular feminism, Lajimodiere concludes, is that the overall goal of Aboriginal feminism is not simply to improve the status of Native American women, but rather to provide a more equitable society based on traditional Native American governments, with intercommunity relationships, promotion of tribal sovereignty, and the reiteration of traditional values at the center of this ideology (107). In effect, aboriginal feminism subtly combats stereotypical portrayals that revolve around the degradation, sexualization, and marginalization of Aboriginal women by emphasizing the importance of women in Aboriginal societies, whilst simultaneously interweaving itself into the widespread process of decolonization (Lajimodiere 107).
This widespread unity of Native Americans is striving towards goals such as national or tribal sovereignty, improvement of Aboriginal status and livelihood, and revitalization of traditional values and languages. This is a result of a collective awakening on the part of newer generations. This realization of sustained injustices is the very essence of adaptability in that it revolves around a widespread desire to shun the abusive yoke of oppressive dependency, and to strive for independence and the preservation of one’s own identity. Native Americans who strive for their own betterment are effective agents of adaptability in that they alter their own cultural values within the context of the present without conforming or giving into the demands of the dominant society. This allows a clear definitive boundary between the viciousness of assimilation and the pragmatism of adaptability.