American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month-The Myths Live On

Next week starts an annual observance of American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month, a yearly ritual that claims to commemorate the first citizens of this country. Although most federal agencies do their best to educate the non-Indians on their staffs about the contemporary nature of Native people in this country, the following myths about our first citizens continue to thrive in the USA.

Where did this notion that American Indians are savages come from? The Declaration of Independence describes us as “merciless Indian savages.” Thomas Jefferson defined us “as nothing human except the shape.” George Washington classified us as “as wolves and beasts and essentially untameable.” Mark Twain called us the “scum of the earth.”

We have the following American icons to thank for this moniker. Mark Twain labeled us as “skulking cowards who strike without warning.” Teddy Roosevelt noted that we are “reckless, revengeful, fiendishly cruel, they rob and murder.” Peter Pan observed that we” carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil.” Abraham Lincoln said “white people are not as a race so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our Red Brethren.”

If I had a dollar for every time I was called “chief” in my federal career, I could retire this week.

This stereotype is based on the Plains Indian chief tradition. The symbol embodies a wooden Indian in a stoic pose with their arms crossed. It was popularized in Wild West shows. They normally wear a head dress of feathers which in Indian country would have been earned in a sacred manner and not flaunted as some kind of baseball cap to cover your head with in the rain. You normally see these images in the front of cigar shops.

Indian Princess
In the spirit of equal opportunity offensiveness, let’s not forget about American Indian/Alaska Native Women.

The Indian Princess myth is rooted in this fictional context of the chief’s daughter. Does the name Pocahontas ring a bell? The story ends with a marriage to a white man who rescues an underage Indian woman from her distress.

Indian women in this role are portrayed as voluptuous sexual objects in the tradition of English royalty. It violates the cardinal rule for most Native women to not flaunt oneself.

Vanishing Indian
We can thank Colonel Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School in 1892 and a leading proponent of Indian boarding schools for this history lesson. He is famous for the statement “kill the Indian to save the man.”

I had a supervisor ask me at my agency recently if any Indians still live in the USA east of the Mississippi River.

During a campaign I led in the state of Maryland to rid our state of American Indians mascots, logos and team descriptions in public schools, an 8th grader wrote me in defense of her school’s Indian mascot. She elegantly stated “we simply chose an Indian as the emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal.”

Drunken Indians
American Indians are no more predisposed to alcoholism than any other racial or ethnic group or gender. There is no evidence to suggest that American Indians consume alcohol in amounts different from the average consumer.

Rich Casino Owners
About half of all federal recognized tribes have gaming operations and only a small subset make huge profits.

These casinos are heavily regulated by the federal government and most of them share their revenues with the host state through compact agreements that permit them to operate in state jurisdictions.

Indians Don’t Pay Taxes and Live Off the Government
American Indians pay federal taxes and most state and local taxes.

They do not receive government handouts although they do receive government services. This relationship was carved out in treaty agreements with the federal government as American Indians traded their land for government assistance.

Indians are Team Mascots
American Indians are the only racial group in the USA objectified as team mascots for sports entertainment. These offensive images negatively misrepresent our cultural, religious and historical traditions, define us in the past and psychologically cripple our self-esteem.

Happy American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month. As you swallow your last Indian taco, remember that if the meanest knuckleheads can change their views about the original citizens of the USA, you can to.

“They are loving people, without covetousness….They love their neighbors as themselves, and their speech is the sweetest and gentlest in the world.” Christopher Columbus.

“I am convinced that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.” Thomas Jefferson.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply