Ever since kindergarten, we have been fed a false, over simplified narrative of settler and Native relations. This story of cameraderie and mutual benefit, centered on the Pilgrims, is at core of our country’s identity, but it is not the truth. If we want to reconcile with the atrocities of our shared past, we need to fully unlearn the false narrative that has been normalized within our culture for generations. It is much easier on the conscience to teach elementary school children an illusory narrative of friendship and harmony, one that encourages pride for their nation rather than shame. But what is a little bit of shame compared to centuries of systemic oppression, genocide, enslavement, displacement, rape, and silence? Fully acknowledging the crimes our forefathers committed is the first step to addressing the issues that continue to ravage Native tribes and communities to this day. Why is it that the story of the people branded as the first “Americans” (rather than the tribal identifications they actually associated with) is so misrepresented and oversimplified by American history? This unlearning should begin in schools, where the original myth is first introduced, and expand to the reimagining of many parts of American culture.
In “The Invention of Thanksgiving” Philip Deloria explains the hypocrisy of elementary school staples like “This Land is Your Land” when you consider the fact that all “our” land is stolen. American classics like Little House on the Prairie detailed the perseverance of Western pioneers braving “uncharted” territories, but they forgot to mention that these lands were already inhabited, and had been for centuries prior. Native Americans were counted among the natural elements and wild animals as threats, or just another part of the frontier setting. I remember one Charlie Brown Thanksgiving episode that features a Tisquantum/Squanto who is eager to aid the pilgrims, and is grateful for the English education bestowed upon him by his kidnappers.Throughout most of American popular culture, Native Americans are portrayed as companions, allies, adversaries; anything but the resistant victims that they were. It is shocking just how many of our childhood traditions are rooted in this false narrative. School children dressed in feathers and fringe shaking hands with their hat-wearing peers may not bear any malicious intent, but it is a mark of our collective ignorance when it comes to the truth of our country’s founding. Until recently, I doubt that any of us even knew that the land around our school used to be home to the Massachusett people, or that Deer island was formerly the location of a concentration camp, and now a mass grave. Maybe these subjects aren’t appropriate to be taught as early as elementary school, but we can at least stop idolizing the people who initiated them.
In addition to educating ourselves in the broken treaties and bloodshed that comprise this nation’s history, we must also spread awareness for the many ongoing struggles of Native communities. We need to dismantle the notion that Native American’s suffering is a thing of the past, something we can briefly express our sympathies for before sitting down at our Thanksgiving tables. Even the Native American identity is portrayed as something outdated and archaic. I heard in the podcast All My Relations that when you look up any other racial group on google images, you will be met with photos of modern people and families. However, when you look up “Native American” most of the images are black and white, feature traditional clothing, and seem to be from a distant era. I was reminded of this when reading Deloria’s piece by the line “Could we acknowledge that Indians are not ghosts in the landscape or foils in a delusional
nationalist dream, but actual living people?” Dawnland even featured a clip of someone referring to Native Americans as “ancient patriots”, which sums up how our current culture regards them pretty well. As Madeline Sayet said, “‘ Americans feel like they own native culture in this really twisted way.”’
I don’t think most of us interact with Native people on a day to day basis, and it seems like news from Native communities rarely make it to mainstream news cycles. The last time I can remember this happening was at the height of the pandemic. Similar to other communities of color, Native Americans living on reservations have been facing the worst of the pandemic, as a result of preexisting inequities in healthcare. But there are so many other systemic issues that we don’t often hear about, like the government’s efforts to eradicate Native culture by capturing and assimilating their children. I knew about a similar practice happening to Aboriginal children in Australia before I learned it happened here. Hearing testimony from Wabanaki parents, victims, and seeing pictures of rows and rows of children in Dawnland really put it into perspective, and is something every American should experience. With so many children being put into abusive homes, we already knew the entire foster care system is deeply flawed, but the fact that in some states Native American children are 20 times more likely to be in the system is just appalling. The federal government needs to work harder to defend and improve legislation like ICWA in order to protect these children from being removed from their cultures. The government should also prioritize addressing the many other issues that contribute to children being taken from their families, as their destruction of Native communities is a big factor in why some parents might qualify as unfit.
I assumed that most people knew of the situation of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls after an influx of MMIWG hashtags on social media in previous years, but there is really still a lot of obscurity around the topic. Domestic and sexual violence alone does not get enough attention in our society, but Indigenous women are even more likely experience and even die from this. However, most data used by the federal government is inadequate and inaccurate to the true amount of cases. The Urban Indian Health Institute recently found that out of 5,712 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women, only 116 were logged by the Department of Justice. In addition to this, the federal government also limits tribal courts’ ability to prosecute the perpetrators of those crimes. In some tribal nations, they are only able to sentence those guilty of rape or murder to ONE year in prison. This stems from the idea that tribal courts are somehow unable to properly handle this type of case, but the federal government is clearly not managing them any better, they have failed to even recognize thousands of these women as missing. It’s infuriating that the reauthorization that would narrow the boyfriend loophole and allow tribes to prosecute stalking and sexual violence was met with opposition from Senate Republicans and the NRA, all on the grounds that it would violate 2nd Amendment rights. Hopefully with our change in administration we will be able to make some progress in these areas, and pass legislation like Savannah’s Act, which targets federal data collection. Police departments on tribal land are also severely underfunded and understaffed. They do not have the resources to monitor the areas where these crimes often take place, or to thoroughly investigate them once they do. It’s often up to the families or local activists to find out what has happened to the women who have been stolen from them. This victimization of Native women is also a result of how they have consistently been sexualized and objectified by American culture. Pocahontas is problematic for many reasons, especially for how it twists the story of a real girl, raising her age, dressing her in an ahistorical, revealing outfit, and pairing her with a white man to appeal to American audiences. Traditional Native American dress is appropriated for “sexy Indian” Halloween costumes and lingerie flaunted by models on catwalks. Not only is this offensive, but it further endangers a vulnerable population by invalidating the generations of sexual violence they have endured, similar to how certain sports team’s mascots make light of the brutal history of scalping. In Dawnland, one woman spoke of how even as a child, bullies would tell her she and other Native girls were “only good for one thing”. These stereotypes and images of Native women have a lasting impact, and we can’t be complicit in their propagation.
It would also be wrong for us to view Native Americans as no more than victims to all that has been done to them. Like any marginalized group, they are much more than just their suffering, and shouldn’t be defined by that. We must make an effort to treat individuals and their cultures with respect by rejecting stereotypes, using proper terminology, educating ourselves, supporting their art and work, and above all, just listening to Native voices and perspectives. They are the only ones who can tell us what we need to do in order to finally make amends.