Rip-Offs and Rationalizations

Children are often told, "Sticks and Stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you." But psychologists disagree with that adage, citing the consequences of verbal abuse on self-esteem. Stereotypes work the same way. From name calling to cartoons and caricatures, these broad generalizations become part of popular culture. Over time, sensibilities change and some stereotypes fall out of favor. The Frito Bandito, Amos and Andy, and other racial characterizations are no longer appropriate.But Native American images like the noble "savage" are still common, used to sell everything from chewing tobacco (Red Man) and dairy products (Land-o-Lakes) to alcoholic beverages and romance novels. Meanwhile, Native American culture and spirituality are mocked during football games and in Hollywood westerns. The results are devastating. Repeated exposure to negative images leads Native people to believe stereotypes over reality."No group in America, or possibly the world, has been stigmatized more by alcohol-related behavior than American Indians," wrote Phillip A. May in the anthology, Alcoholism in Minority Populations. "The 'drunken Indian' stereotype negatively effects most perceptions people have of Indians, both individually and corporately." In 1992, nevertheless, Heilman Brewing Company, assuming sales of a new product might be helped by the growing popularity of Native America, began marketing Crazy Horse Malt liquor. Still revered today, Crazy Horse, the legendary Lakota leader, spoke forcefully against the use of alcohol. That made using his name on a bottle of liquor even more offensive."[Alcoholism] is our number one killer," says John Funmaker, director of Eagle's Lodge, an alcoholism treatment center in Long Beach, California. "A beer manufacturer has taken Crazy Horse, our number one role model, and put him on a can of beer to market among our young people."Common words and phrases that reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans are part of America's vernacular. Examples can be found in most newspapers, reports News Watch, a project of the 1994 UNITY conference, which brought together journalists from the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and Native American Journalists Association, to discuss media issues affecting their racial groups. "Circle the wagons" was cited as an example. That phrase was used in New York Times headlines five times within one eight month period.In Asheville, North Carolina, a controversy erupted this year at a high school over a word that many Native Americans, especially women, find offensive. For 42 years, Erwin High School has been the "Home of the Warriors and Squaws." Native Americans say the word "squaw" is degrading. It translates to whore or refers to a woman's pelvic area in many native languages. Supporters of Erwin High disagree. According to Billy Carter, a member of the Erwin High Booster Club, his dictionary defines the word as "an Indian woman or wife." For American Indian women, there is no debate. "The United States Army used to call the target figure on their shooting ranges 'The Kneeling Squaw'," wrote Jake Salolywoody in Indigenous Voices, a native student publication from Eugene, Oregon. Erwin High's supporters think Native Americans are overreacting. "The name should not be changed after so many years because a certain group is offended by a name we use with no malice," said Booster Club President, Bob O'Connor. It's a familiar argument. During protests against sports teams that use an American Indian theme or mascot, activists have been told they should be "honored" by the names and the celebrations."Florida State [University] has proudly identified its athletic teams with [the Seminoles] because they represent the traits we want our athletes to have," wrote Dale Lick, former president of FSU. "The history of the Seminole Indians in Florida is the story of a noble, brave, courageous, strong and determined people who, against great odds, struggled successfully to preserve their heritage and their lives according to their traditions."But Sheridan Murphy, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement, discounts FSU's good intentions. He claims the images and stadium antics have very little to do with Seminole traditions or culture. The FSU logo, which pictures a screaming image of an American Indian male, doesn't represent a Seminole. "It looks like a Lakota that got lost in an Apache dressing room," he said.Recently, the Los Angeles, California Unified School District voted to discontinue the use of Indian theme names and mascots. For years, Native American activists had tried to convince the Department of Education that they weren't honored. Shortly after the ban went into effect, however, some non-Native fathers protested by continuing to sell T-shirts with the banned logos at football games. Their argument: it's simply "tradition."Not only the use of names and cartoon images bothers Native American activists. The sports fans in the stands demean Native spirituality by painting their faces or wearing feathers. These caricatures and parodies usually have little to do with native culture and traditions."Eagle feathers are things that you must earn," says Michael Haney, a regional representative for the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media. "They are awarded because of acts of courage, generosity, or compassion. It teaches disrespect not only to non-Indians but to our own youth when they see sacred eagle feathers desecrated in a circus-like atmosphere." Outside the sports arena, Native Americans cite other examples that show disregard for their beliefs. For instance, Three Degrees North, a mall store in South Carolina, ran an ad campaign that claimed the mall was "built on top of a Sacred Ancient Indian Burial Ground." The store had to "hold a sacrificial sale to appease the Indian spirits," the ad joked."It's hard to believe that anyone would do something like this to make a dollar," said Randy Turner, who launched a letter campaign. "Our ancestors are being used to make money for a clothing store." Turner's campaign resulted in a retraction from the newspaper that ran the ad, and an apology from the store.Such efforts sometimes make a difference. American Indian people in St. Augustine, Florida, protested a store called Teepee Town, which displayed Indian mannequins in front and invited tourists to take photographs with them. Sometimes tourists would pretend to scalp the figures. "My mannequins are my McDonald's golden arches," owner Fred Harris said. "People see the mannequins and say, 'It must be an Indian shop.'"But after weeks of protests, the mannequins were removed. A statement by one of the protesters had changed Harris' views: "He told me, 'My children can't look at those mannequins and feel good about being Indian'." This article was first published in Toward Freedom, a progressive world affairs magazine based in Burlington, Vermont.


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