"LITTLE RED SAMBO"
Bloodland, Dennis McAuliffe's is book about the Osage Reign of Terror in the mid-1920s during which the Indian owners Osage headrights were the richest and most murdered population in the world. Often, officials of the federal government were implicated. McAuliffe, the grandson of a murdered fullblood Osage woman, investigated his family's background and his own heritage. In doing so, as a skilled Washington Post reporter, he expresses keen insights about issues that Indians live on a daily basis without stopping to think about them. Most of the quoted language in this article is from his book.
"…[H]ow much Indian blood do you have?…I've never asked a black. I've never asked an Asian. I've never asked a Hispanic. I've never asked a European. I've never asked any hyphenated American. But I've sure asked an Indian, and I've sure been asked."
Why are we so special When the Question is directed at mixed-bloods…too often it is couched not in curiosity but in disbelief, and we are forced to answer as if our honesty, not our ethnic backgrounds, are under scrutiny. …… Can you imagine turning down a black for a job because he wasn't black enough?"
Even Interior's own Heirship Taskforce in the mid-1990s stated that racial calibration is the most insidious form of discrimination. Yet the discrimination continues. As recently as November 7, 2000, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee created the estimated 85th politically- and budget-reduction motivated definition of "Indian"when it was told that, we don't need anymore, there are "enough definitions of Indian to sink a ship."
"The main problem with the Question…is its historical intent. It may be just a bad habit now, but quantifying an Indian's 'blood' used to be the way the U.S. government planned to finally exterminate Indians, this time with math. By asking an Indian the percentage of his 'blood,' the questioner is speaking the discredited language of assimilation, and continuing the…dirty work of the U.S….helping it meet its historical goal of getting out of the Indian business.
For more than 150 years, the government bus marked "for Indians Only' was driven by Thomas Jefferson, and its destination sign above the front windshield said, 'White Plains, U.S.A.' The ultimate task of the federal…bureaucracy was to bring about Jefferson's dream to assimilate Indians into white society. The method was Jefferson's, too: whitewashing Indians' racial appearance, diluting their 'blood' by interbreeding with whites and numerically quantifying the process. Each new generation reduced the 'fraction' or 'degree' of an Indian's 'blood." Below an arbitrary 'percentage'—25 was the…benchmark—an Indian was no longer Indian. He was white, which made him ineligible for what the government regarded as generous federal benefits programs. Bloodland at p. 173.
As for "generous federal benefit programs," it is blithely overlooked by detractors that Indians paid over and over for so called "federal generosity" as well as for all federal policies that negatively impacted them from removal, cessions by treaty, allotting and termination. One Indian leader stated in the 1870s "Why is it that the Great Father can never send us our annuities, without asking us to sell and move once more? We are tired of all of this."
"The story of the Osage should serve as a cautionary tale of what happens when Indian wealth attracts white notice and envy." Variously, the phenomenon has been called the "Black Curse" [oil] or the "Osage curse." Bloodland at p.p. 183 and 161, respectively.
An associated problem is that negative distortion is used as a weapon to justify appropriation both historically and today. Ask the tribes on the Upper Missouri River. Ask the tribes whose ability to regulate their own lands and businesses thereon are being ham-strung by aggressive revisionists who take a manufactured and often self-serving view of the U.S. Constitution by reading only the portions they like and agree with which clearly don't include the Indian Commerce Clause. State jurisdiction over Indians was authorized in the Articles of Confederation and expressly not placed in the U.S. Constitution due to the fractious nature of state and tribal relations.
Fortunately, not all tribes are buying into the "blood game." They better not or tribes and Indians will go the way of the celibate, eastern Shakers, into extinction. Notably, their western, Indian Shaker counterparts are alive and thriving.
"…Each tribe is now free to set its own criteria for membership, and for many, blood quantum is not one of them. But white Americans apparently failed to read the papers the day it was reported that the government's policy of assimilation had gone the way of covered wagons. (italics added) …
Assimilation may no longer be taking place, officially, but it doesn't have to. Its ever-subtracting mathematical equations still are computing on the social and personal level, like some doomsday machine that has started its irreversible countdown. It is a virus that has invaded the national psyche and ultimately produces the disease of insensitivity towards Indians." (Italics supplied) Bloodland at p. 178.
In a nutshell that is why Indians "are so special" and are the objects of blatant, offensive behaviors and arrogance--including the controversial "mascotism"-- that one would not think of directing at any other ethnic population.
Putting aside for the moment the basic, common sense question of why anyone would think it was appropriate to portray a human population" like animals, we run directly into the separate matter of ridicule." According to Webster's Dictionary, a mascot, by definition, is a "caricature likeness…abstracted to appear ridiculous." I know nothing about sports but I am fully familiar with that lasciviousness, if not suggestively drunken caricature, of a lobster-red male Indian face with the Paula Jones nose (pre-surgery) leering back at the viewer. Somehow, this ridiculous caricature is supposed to instill pride in a team and its fans. The entire country would fall into an apoplectic fit if WWII images of the "yellow peril" or "the 1920s and 1930s images of black face and Step N' Fetchit" were adopted by an athletic team as a "symbol "of what the appropriator/user disingenously claimed to be higher attributes all-the-while making big bucks off the negative image.
However, the teeth-gnashing part comes when others--especially bombastic Fox Network arch-conservatives, particularly, the newly-cycled five or so minority "conservatives" that they have managed to round up and fit onto the stage at national conventions in an effort to show diversity--have the unmitigated nerve to tell the principal chief of the largest tribe in the country that Indians' visceral negative reaction to such symbols is absurd. Play that out in reverse. An Indian tells an Hispanic that his offense at a cultural affront is absurd. Personally, I don't think the individual in question would believe so if the name of the team, as a close friend of mine told her Latino husband, were the "LA Beaners" and the symbol were a "brown campesino inclining in an ambiguous pose against a Sahuaro cactus implying either drunkenness or congenital laziness."
The irritated conservatives, whom I distinguish from real people conservatives, do not see Indians as ordinary people with feelings and do not want to. They add insult to the injury by trivializing Indians' statement of concern or dislike of cultural ridicule. They also fundamentally dispute even their basic entitlement to have a concern in the first place. That is epic condescension. The thought that keeps reverberating in my mind is of Moslem women in Afghanistan: they have no persona, no entity, no rights, no entitlement to dignity or respect and are not entitled to express any grievance about their plight. Moreover, those who beleaguer them are entitled to distort and appropriate, at will, anything the women have including their persona. The insult is made all the more offensive because Indians are the only population against whom our society permits cultural insult to be directed, then, tops it off by being constitutionally incapable of seeing "what the beef is about?" The phenomenon represents marginalization at its most extreme.
A great concern that I have, is that raising distinct cultural concerns such as these or even economic ones at a time of national crisis will reproduce the type of backlash that Indians experienced in the anti-communist/termination era. Unique Indian rights were represented as "un-Americun." Conveniently ignored was the fact that Indians are ultra-patriots and have the highest percentage of volunteer enlistment by population of any ethnic group in the country. Common land rights of tribes equaled communism. Wrong. But it doesn't have to be right, it only has to be sayable by an opponent with political hook and the will to use it. Indians have those opponents in spades.
Look at the legal arguments that are winning in Indian court cases. What is argued and written opinions don't even make sense (e.g. the Navajo tax case). A good below the belt argument does it every time against a non-politically powerful group. It is what unprincipled opponents pray for.
As sure as rain falls from black clouds, the solution to whatever the problem is with Indians, the answer is always the same. Give the source of the conflict, be it resource, right or authority, to the Indians' opponent. It's the historical cure all for everybody but Indians.
Frankly, I don't see the right to personal dignity as an "un-Americun" value. If anything it is "the" cornerstone of our social belief system and form of government. But it's all in how it is represented by those who have much to gain by distortion.
Regarding the actual harm from marginalization through distortion and ridiculous images, consider this: The impact of negative images on children is tragic. Children's self-perception is forged at a very early age; so are children's biases. Distorted or negative stereotypes "interfere with a child's development of a positive self-image and racial identity." This is carried into adulthood. Yet, societally, we tolerate grossly negative and distorted stereotypes that we would hunt down and root out if they were aimed at any other ethnic group.
Think not? Check out Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. This work is exalted as an icon of American literature. It is replete with astonishing ethnic slurs. And as far as appropriation is concerned, Little Laura's own daddy, the lionized, noble Michael Landon figure--after blatantly taking up residence on the Osage reservation as an out and out trespasser/squatter--unabashedly told her that because he and the other white settlers were there "the army would drive the Indians away" from their own reservation. Bloodland at p. 113. Since all this occurred, by my calculation, five miles from where I was born and raised, I was as amazed by this factoid as I was learn that one of the infamous Dalton brothers, Bob, had actually been the Osage chief of police. He apparently used the position as on the job training to hone his criminal skills. Id. at 161. What does that tell you about how magnificently Indians have been benefited at the hands of generous federal policies and appointments?
Indians do not all agree about the mascot issue nor are they required to. Indians know that there is no "monolithic Indian" that mythical one-size-fits-all universal Indian. In fact, the remark "Indians have bigger problems than mascots and the use of Native American images" is absolutely true. However, so is the rest of the comment that went with the prior statement: "If you can't see me as an individual, then how can you understand the problems we have as a people?" (Italics supplied) "Eliminating Indian Stereotypes from American Society: Causes and Legal Societal Solutions," Vol. 20, No. 1, American Indian Law Review, p.p. 80-81
Indians do not consent to a mantel of inferiority. They likewise do not accept the distortion and fictionalized representations of their lives, economies, rights and cultures that are propagated by Hollywood, the Western Governors' Association, Richard Blumenthal or "The Donald." Re-casting matters affecting Indians to serve the needs of third parties so that the latter derive the benefits of Indian resources for themselves is as old as Euro-Indian relations. It is part of the "cautionary tale." We have no reason to think that this will change. Indians just have to be better at fielding the flack and firing back in strategic ways when fired upon. Indians cannot permit themselves to be marginalized, politically or socially. The consequences are too great.
Even the arena of insulting Indians through mascotism and riducule and appropriation of Indian persona or resources is not without humorous aspects. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read the following text: "An Indian parent in Minneapolis…took action when his sons were embarrassed by a whooping fan dressed as an Indian at a high school basketball game. In March 1987, he hired an advertising agency to create a poster featuring pennants of fictitious teams such as the San Diego Caucasians and the Kansas City Jews next to a Cleveland Indian pennant." The state civil rights commission soon denounced use of Indian nicknames. I guess the situation falls under the heading: "a poster is worth a thousand words."
In addressing negative stereotypes and the desire of a clueless few to treat Indians, an ordinary human population, like animal mascots, I'm providing the reader with one of the greatest anecdotes I have every read. It shows that Indians even in dire times can and must demand respect.
Wah-ti-an-kah a respected Osage warrior and leader went with a tribal delegation from the Indian Territory to meet with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to express their indignation at being "fed like dogs." They wanted to be paid outright and determine for themselves use of their cession money. Wah-ti-an-kah, wrapped nearly up to the chin in a red blanket was seated with the other members in the delegation in a conference room when the Commissioner sailed in, looked at his watch and dismissively stated to the Indians, whom he obviously considered inferior, that he had another appointment and for the delegation to wait. Wah-ti-an-kah sprang to his feet, blocked the Commissioner's path out of them room and threw off the red blanket. A huge, imposing figure, Wah-ti-an-kah wore only a breechcloth and paint. He was covered with tattoos. (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.) Clearly, he was dressed for war. He ordered the interpreter, "Tell this man to sit down." The Commissioner leaped for a chair. The Osages came away from the meeting as the first American Indians to receive all of their annuities in cash. As a side note, the Commissioner in question, Hayt, was later removed from office for misuse of office for personal gain.
As the story shows, in addition to contending with starvation, murder, outlaws and crooked officials, to name only a few of the perils that Indians have had to face over the long course of Euro-Indian relations, Indians have also had to deal the pervasive contemptuousness of others in some rather unusual and unexpected ways.
In setting out Wah-ti-an-kah's story, I recalled Eleanor Roosevelt's simple observation: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Wah-ti-an-kah obviously did not consent.