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Response to BridgeND’s ‘Cultural Colonialism’

| Thursday, October 17, 2019

I am writing in response to BridgeND’s Viewpoint, “Cultural Colonialism,” published Monday. I disagreed with several of the premises in the article, but I want to focus on one aside that was particularly inappropriate.

When criticizing the romanticism of Native American groups, the author wrote: “Those same people [liberals] are all too willing to ignore the brutal cruelties and murderous habits of certain Indian tribes, opting instead to whitewash them.” I agree with the author that it is problematic to romanticize Native people — the non-native people who do so are usually not interested in learning more about Native culture or serving as an ally in Native social movements, but are simply appropriating Native images in service of their own political aims. No one should do this. (I disagree with the author’s suggestion that this characterizes the Indigenous People’s Day movement, which is led by Native people and their allies.)

However, the author’s choice of words, “brutal cruelties” and “murderous habits,” are way out of line. To fully correct these stereotypes by giving a history lesson on the actual war-making traditions of Native people would require another essay, so in order to avoid unhelpful generalizations I will put my attitude simply: These stereotypes are completely unfounded. They were manufactured (and are manufactured) by white people who desired (and desire) Native lands. The image of Native people as particularly cruel and aggressive in warfare justified unusually cruel and dehumanizing practices throughout our nation’s history. A brief and not comprehensive overview to give you an idea:

According to Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” in the 17th and 18th centuries, many colonial state governments remunerated their citizens for every Native scalp they returned. The scalps of women, children and older people secured a lower price than prime-aged men, but the identity of the scalped Native was easily falsified. Although the true motivation for the policy was the desire to take over Native lands, it was justified by the widely held belief that Native people were inherently violent and a threat to the community. It usually did not matter what tribe the Native person belonged to or whether the colonists were at war with them.

In the 19th century, at the height of the “Indian wars,” the belief that Native people were brutal savages justified all-out war. Union troops massacred populations of unarmed Native people on several occasions. In the words of Union General Philip Sheridan, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (again, according to Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz).

From the 1890s through the earlier half of the 20th century, Native bodies were perceived as less of a threat — it was the Native culture that was “savage.” In order to “kill the Indian, save the man,” children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools far from their homes where they were often physically and sexually abused, malnourished and overworked. Because they were unable to grow up in their own language and culture, this practice constituted what many scholars term as “cultural genocide.” Native people today can tell you about their experiences in these boarding schools or about their parents’ or grandparents’ experiences. You can read about this in David Wallace Adam’s “Education for Extinction.”

Today, the belief that Native people are savage and cruel still materially affects them. Because the public doesn’t trust Native traditions of jurisprudence, Native tribal justice systems are unable to prosecute non-Native people who commit crimes on Native lands. According to a study from the Department of Justice, 56% of Native women have experienced sexual violence (versus 25% of women overall), and their cases are less likely to be prosecuted. Ninety percent of the perpetrators of these assaults are non-native. These stats are only more jaw-dropping when you zoom in on particular communities, such as Seattle.

These stereotypes also color Native relationships with law enforcement. Native men are far more likely than white men to be stopped, arrested and killed by the police. Their mortality rate in police encounters is even higher than that of African Americans. Native water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline have shared their stories of being mistreated by the police. Some white people thought it was funny to mock these water protectors by dressing up as Native “riot starters” for Halloween — showing how our perception of Native people as inherently aggressive prevents us from hearing their concerns. (You can see such images in the documentary “More Than A Word”).

In order to reshape how our system works, we must also address the racist assumptions underlying that system. I believe that the author’s racist language perpetuates stereotypes that have real consequences for Native people. It doesn’t make it much better that the author restricted her characterization to “certain” Native communities. I doubt she would casually reference the stinginess of certain Jews or the laziness of certain blacks. I doubt she thought our president was being even-handed after pointing out that “some [Latinx immigrants] are good people,” as opposed to rapists and drug mules. In the same vein, it was wrong to characterize “some” Native people this way.

I use the word “racist” with care. I am not saying the author is a hate-mongerer. I wholly believe that she is well-meaning. However, I am not concerned with the author’s intentions because the broader structure of racism that she unknowingly perpetuates is much bigger than her. If we refuse to acknowledge racism whenever we believe that the individual who perpetuates it is a nice person, we will never make any progress. That is why I find it necessary to say the word: racism.

This essay was challenging and emotional to write, and I imagine it will be challenging and emotional to read. Reaching across differences and leaning into conflict — the mission of BridgeND — is difficult work. We are all bound to royally screw up, as I frankly believe the author has in this case. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. I hope the author, and those who share her views, will read this article as an invitation to further conversation. Reader, let’s get coffee. On me.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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