Archives for category: American Indians

Tomorrow is Halloween, so I thought today would be a good time for a reminder of why it is not ok to dress up as an “Indian” for Halloween.

I recently went to the mall to do some Halloween costume shopping.  They currently have one of those Halloween pop-up stores where the old Sears used to be.  The name of this particular store is a well-known seasonal Halloween chain: Spirit Halloween.  I wasn’t in there long before coming upon this area of the store:

The Western Section

The Western Section

The Western section

The Western Section

They had 4 different women’s “Indian” outfits.  3 of which allow you to live out your fantasy of being Indian royalty, just like your Cherokee great grandmother.

Queen of the Tribe

Queen of the Tribe

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Indian Princess

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Reservation Royalty

Or you could just let your hair down, free yourself from the trappings of civilization, and be a “wild spirit.”

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Wild Spirit

Don’t worry, guys, Spirit Halloween didn’t forget about you.  Because we only have warlike stereotypes about Native American men you have a choice of two warrior costumes.  You can be a “noble warrior”

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Noble Warrior

Or, if you just want to be a warrior without all that being noble stuff you could be a plain old “Indian Warrior.”

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Indian Warrior

Spirit Halloween also offers a variety of head-wear accessories.

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Western Headband

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Headband with feather

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Western Feather Headdress

For some reasons why wearing Native American head gear is particularly problematic see the following blog post: But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?

You should also watch Reel Injun for an explanation of why the “Indian headband” is a problem.

Spirit Halloween offers some additional accessories to complete you outfit.  I especially like the “fringe boot covers” which are being worn by a model who is clearly not wearing any boots in need of being covered.

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Fringe Boot Covers

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Walking Staff, Western Beaded Choker, and Dreamcatcher Earrings

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Warrior Necklace and Native American Choker

In a different section of the store they have Tonto outfits from the recent Disney film, The Lone Ranger.

Tonto Men's Costume

Tonto Men’s Costume

Even though Tonto is a male character women can also join in by dressing up as this offensive and bizarre caricature.

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Tonto Women’s Costume

Even more disturbing is the children’s outfit.

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Tonto Children’s Costume

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Tonto Children’s Costume Wig

For the reasons why all of this is a problem see: Native Appropriations – “Repost: Step Away from the ‘Indian’ costume!”

And if you couldn’t find the exact offensive “Indian” costume you were looking for in the store, don’t worry!  Spirit Halloween has an online store with a great selection of ways for you to be a horrible human being.

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Of the state of female society among the northern Indians, I shall say little, because on a review of it, I find very little to admire, either in their collective morality, or personal endowments.  The savage state is universally found to display itself in the most striking degree in the situation, dress, personal accomplishments, and employments of females, and these evidences may be looked upon as unerring indexes to the degree of civilization,–to the mental powers, and to the moral refinements of the other sex.  Doomed to drudgery and hardship from infancy,–without the elegance of dress,–without either mental resources, or personal beauty,–what can be said in favour of the Indian women!  The custom of binding the feet of female infants in such a manner as to make the toes point inwards, gives them in after life a very awkward appearance in walking; and in regard to the absence of female beauty, I am not able, from my own observations, to make a single exception.

— Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Travels Through the Northwestern Regions of the United States (pgs 231-32)

These are just some of the thoughts Henry Rowe Schoolcraft recorded in his journal on July 15, 1820.  Schoolcraft was accompanying Michigan Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, on an expedition to the northern Great Lakes region of the United States.  The purpose of this expedition was to extend U.S. authority over Native people in the area.  After the War of 1812 there was still a lot of confusion and Native people still maintained strong British military and economic loyalties (some of these loyalties would remain into the 1840s).  Cass wanted to make it clear that the U.S. was in charge of this region and its peoples.  Schoolcraft came along as a geologist.  You may be saying to yourself, “why would there be a geologist on a diplomatic mission?”  Answer: the U.S. was trying to assess the value of these northern regions and needed a geologist to determine the mineral wealth of the area.  You see, Michigan was just starting the long process of achieving statehood (which would be achieved in 1837).  In order to do that the territorial governor, Cass, had to convince the Native people to sell their lands through treaty negotiations.  He also had to convince Washington and potential settlers that the territory was worth the hassle.  Schoolcraft was there to determine the economic value of the region with the goal of attracting interest from the federal government, investors, and white settlers; who would then strip the land of its resources (which they would do incredibly well throughout the 19th century).

But Schoolcraft had personal reasons for being on this expedition as well.  Like many other white people from New York and other East Coast locales in the early 1800s, Schoolcraft was fascinated by Native people.  Schoolcraft was one of a number of individuals who believed that Native people were disappearing and that certain aspects of their traditional culture (that which was untainted by Euro-American influence) needed to be preserved.  This is what would later come to be called “salvage anthropology.”  In addition, Schoolcraft believed Native people were in a depraved state.  But don’t worry, he could fix them.  Schoolcraft, like many others during this time, believed that Native people were simply lazy.  This, of course, could be remedied through Euro-American art, religion, writing, etc.  When Schoolcraft was made Superintendant of Indian Affairs for Michigan (the first to hold such a position) he attempted to do just that; both preserve what he viewed as traditional Native culture and bring Native people up from their perceived lowly state.

Specifically (I’m finally getting to the Native women part), Schoolcraft viewed Native women as being particularly depraved and pathetic.  The foreword to Schoolcraft’s journal states that “the inferior position of women in Indian society evoked his [Schoolcraft’s] shocked surprise.”  When I first read this passage, and the one that begins this post, I was suffering from a little bit of shocked surprise myself.

When Schoolcraft is referring to the “northern Indians” in the passage above he means the Dakota, Ottawa, and Ojibwe people he encountered while traveling along the southern shore of Lake Superior in what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Now here’s the good part.  While on this expedition, Schoolcraft befriended the Johnston family, a prominent family from Sault Sainte Marie.  John Johnston was a Scots-Irish immigrant, and his wife, Susan Johnston, or Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was an Ojibwe woman and the daughter of a prominant war chief, Waubojeeg.

During one of the treaty negotiations with the Ojibwe, Cass ripped down a British flag that one of the Ojibwe had put up, and proceeded to stomp on it.  The assembled Ojibwe men were about to kill Cass and his whole party (including Schoolcraft) when Ozhaguscodaywayquay intervened and saved their lives by acting as a mediator between the groups.  This was a pivotal moment in Michigan history and I could go on and on about the significance of this intervention and mediation, but suffice it to say, she was kind of a big deal.  Who knows what could have happened had she not intervened.  One of these “Indian women,” that Schoolcraft so lovingly refered to, had just saved his and the governor’s life while significantly shaping the course of Michigan history.

It gets better.  On this same trip Schoolcraft met John and Susan’s daughter, Jane Johnston.  Long story short, they fall in love and get married and Henry moves to Michigan to live with his wife and her family while acting as Indian Agent for the whole territory.  Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what just happened.  Henry Schoolcraft thinks Native women are not that great (to put it mildly).  Remember, he could not find a “single exception” to his observation that they all suck at being people.  Yet, he owes his life to the actions of a Native woman and then married that woman’s daughter.

What makes this worse is the fact that Jane was literate (much more so than her husband, I would argue) and most likely read Henry’s comments on Native women (his journal was published in 1821).  But wait, it gets even worse.  Henry and Jane first met on June 15th, 1820 (he wrote about it in his journal).  That means that one month after meeting his future wife Henry would go on to write that brilliant observation about Native women that opened this blog post.  Wow.  What. An. Ass.

Finally, Henry used the Johnston family to gain information on Ojibwe language, culture, and stories; most of which he then published under his own name with little or no reference or attribution to Jane and her family (even though it was clear that most of the information he gathered came directly from Jane or her mother.  In fact, Longfellow’s famous Hiawatha can be traced to Jane and her family through Henry’s writings).  He even used Jane’s brothers as interpreters.  Basically, he was wholly dependent upon the Johnston family (especially his wife and mother-in-law) for his life and livelihood, but never gave them the credit they deserved.

I think I’ll leave it there.  I could go on forever about this topic, but I think there’s enough here for you to mull over for a while.

If you want more information on Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and her writings I suggest the excellent work by Robert Dale Parker called The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky.  The title is an English translation of Jane’s Ojibwe name, Bamewawagezhikaquay.  OR, you can come hear me talk more about Jane and her family at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) annual conference at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon some time between June 13 and 15.

*Fun Fact: After Jane’s death Henry married a rich southern woman, named Mary, who wrote a racist piece of crap called Plantation Life.

I am currently reading two novels by American Indian authors; The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, and Truth and Bright Water, by Thomas King.  Both authors are very witty.  Both authors write about contemporary reservation life.  They both develop strong main characters.

I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between native authors in the past few months.  Whether it’s an autobiography, poetry, or a fiction novel, like the two mentioned above, I can tell that it was written by a native person.  And it’s not just the subject matter.  Native writers don’t all write about the same things.  It’s the style of writing that seems similar to me.  I can’t really put my finger on it though.  I haven’t figured out what it is about the style that is distinctly native.  I just know that it is there.  And it’s beautiful.  I could read this stuff all day (and often do).

Here’s an excerpt from Truth and Bright Water:

The entire east side of the church is gone.  Or at least it looks gone.  I don’t know how Monroe has done it, but he’s painted this side so that it blends in with the prairies and the sky, and he’s done such a good job that it looks as if part of the church has been chewed off.

Do you see it?  Are you getting a picture in your head of a rural, rundown church painted to look like the natural surroundings?  I am.  You could read a lot into this one passage.  Many people have.  There’s a lot of history and symbolism being conveyed here.  But what gets me is how authors like Alexie and King transport the reader to the reservation.  I have spent very little time on reservation land, or in Indian country in general, but when I read these types of texts I feel like I’m there.  I feel engaged in the experiences of the characters.  They really know how to set a scene.

Anyway, I’m not sure where I was really going with this blog post.  I just wanted to share my thoughts.  Back to reading!

I was at the Old Capital Museum in downtown Iowa City last night to experience a performative lecture by American Indian artist James Luna.  It was my first time in the building and I was quite impressed.  It’s a pretty nifty (I’m bringing nifty back) building from both the inside and outside.  I’ve been in Iowa City for 3 months now and I’ve walked by Iowa City’s most iconic landmark dozens of times without going inside (the building is across the street from my office).  I’ll have to do the whole museum tour thing sometime soon.

Anyway, the lecture was in the old Senate Chamber (the irony was not lost on Luna).  He made a grand entrance and then proceeded to talk/perform for nearly 2 hours.  He showed us a number of pictures and videos of his performances and installations.  I had no idea who he was prior to this event.  I’m not sure I’m any closer today.  He’s brilliantly weird.  He intentionally challenges and subverts common stereotypes and narratives about native people.  Of course, he does this in very colorful and provocative ways.

I think I’ll just leave it at that.  His work speaks for itself.  So, here’s a couple of Youtube videos I found of some of his work.  I was surprised at how few there were.

I recently fell in love with American Indian poetry.  I’ve appreciated American Indian writers and American Indian prose for a while, but some of the stuff I’ve read recently has been truly great.

Today in my English class we discussed Simon Ortiz’s book From Sand Creek.  The puns, the sense of imagery, and the use of history and tragedy are all well articulated and beautiful.  The collection was first published in 1981 and much of the work is a personal reflection on Ortiz’s time spent at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital (VAH) in Fort Lyon Colorado.  Just down the road is the site of the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29th 1864.  This is, of course, where he gets the title of his book from.

There were a number of events that led up to the Sand Creek Massacre.  I will briefly mention two: gold and the Treaty of Fort Laramie.  Gold was discovered in Colorado in the 1850s, which led to a gold rush and an influx of white settlers into the territory.  This caused a need for more land, which leads us to the second event; the treaty.  The treaty that had guaranteed the Arapaho and Cheyenne large areas of land (which, prior to the discovery of gold was viewed as worthless) were now renegotiated to take away large chunks of it for white settlement.  But this still wasn’t enough.

On that fateful day in November 700 Colorado militia slaughtered between 100 and 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho.  Most of the casualties were women and children.  Many of the bodies were scalped, tortured, and mutilated.  There were a few white casualties, but most have been attributed to friendly fire (a number of the militiamen were drunk).  Why did the militia attack these people?  Because they were there.  Chivington, the commander of the militia, received no condemnation for his actions.  Prior to the attack Black Kettle, a chief of the Cheyenne, flew the American flag over his lodge.

Fun stuff!  Ortiz does a great job of incorporating this history into his work.  He makes it come alive.  He makes it part of the present.  I’d give you an excerpt but I left my book at the office.  You should read the whole thing for yourself anyway.  I could say a lot more, but I’ll leave it at that.

I am also reading Sherman Alexie’s book, First Indian on the Moon.  I’m only a few pages into it, but I’m already loving it.  I have to present on Alexie’s book, Indian Killer, in a few weeks and I thought I would do some background reading to prepare (I have 4 more Alexie books on my shelf to read after this one).  Alexie is brilliant and funny.  He takes horrible situations and makes you laugh about it.  He makes tragedy humorous.  Here’s Alexie talking about boners:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwiQb8OQ6dY

End of blog post.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe.  He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.  He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.  He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind.  He ought to recollect  the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

The above quote is from N. Scott Momaday’s book, The Way to Rainy Mountain.  We read the book this week for my English class.  My English class is about American literature and culture, with a focus on borders and homelands.  The majority of the authors of our readings are Native and most of the readings are about the American West.  Momaday is Kiowa.

I found this quote particularly intriguing.  We spent a little time unpacking and analyzing  it in class and I just wanted to share that interpretation.  The quote as a whole can be viewed as a meditation on landscape.  There is an interconnection between person and place.  People participate in place.  The phrase “remembered earth” gives the reader a sense that the author is claiming some kind of ownership even if they no longer live there.  There is also a moral imperative in this quote.  He uses the word “ought” five times.  He wants the reader to do something, to participate in the world around them.

All this leads me to a few questions: What is homeland?  Is it something transferable, imaginable, practiced, or processional?  How do you view, interact with, or remember landscape?  Is there a particular place that you think of as “home?”

This afternoon I am going to a lecture titled “A Plotting Maiden and a Traitor: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins and U.S. Imperialism in the ‘New Southwest’ (1848-87).”  We just finished Sarah Winnemucca’s book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, in my English class on American Literature and Culture: Borders and HomelandsThere is a quote in the book that caught my eye, so I thought I would share it.  I think it is also appropriately relevant to the recent Columbus Day holiday and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

“Oh, for shame! You who are educated by a Christian government in the art of war; the practice of whose profession makes you natural enemies of the savages, so called by you. Yes, you, who call yourselves the great civilization; you who have knelt upon Plymouth Rock, covenanting with God to make this land the home of the free and the brave. Ah, then you rise from your bended knees and seizing the welcoming hands of those who are the owners of this land, which you are not, your carbines rise upon the bleak shore, and your so-called civilization sweeps inland from the ocean wave; but, oh, my God! leaving its pathway marked by crimson lines of blood; and strewed by the bones of two races, the inheritor and the invader; and I am crying out to you for justice,—yes, pleading for the far-off plains of the West, for the dusky mourner, whose tears of love are pleading for her husband, or for their children, who are sent far away from them. Your Christian minister will hold my people against their will; not because he loves them,—no, far from it,—but because it puts money in his pockets.

The whole book is available online: http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/life_among_the_piutes/

Maybe she should join the Avengers.

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