Here We Go Again: American Indian Images and Racist Humor
On September 12, while “channel surfing” on my TV, I happened upon the local NBC affiliate: lo and behold, Sunday Night Football was on. To my chagrin, the teams were the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.
America’s old battle between cowboys and Indians continues today on the playing field. These images were conjured up by late 19th-century Wild West shows then perpetuated by pulp magazines and Hollywood. Why is it okay to use these worn-out images in modern sports, including their logos? Perhaps it reflects the battle that continues for rightful land ownership between peoples in a land now called America. Or is it simply institutional racism at work?
The next day, I received the September 13th issue of The New Yorker. Like many people, I tend to first flip through it to check out the renowned cartoons, hoping for a good laugh. And on the back page of each issue nowadays, this renowned magazine has a cartoon caption contest; under the “Finalist” heading usually appear three captions alongside the drawing.
That particular issue’s caption-less cartoon depicted a man with a mustache wearing a wide-brimmed hat, crouched behind a desk and talking on the phone with several arrows stuck to his desk and chair. The room was in a high-rise office building. The winning caption’s words need to capture this moment in the most humorous way possible. Yet these three captions selected as contest finalists were offensive and not at all humorous. The first made reference to circling the wagons; the second said something about High Noon; and the last stated, “Quick, give them a casino.” The third caption won: it was voted the funniest by readers, and is a hot issue in and around our Reservation Lands.
When I first saw that cartoon, in the magazine’s August 30th issue, I hoped that the submissions would not go in the direction they did. But how could they not? The cartoon figure could easily have been a depiction of a cowboy, Calvary soldier, or even General Custer, but set in a modern-day office. The arrows were symbolic of the stereotypical Indian fighting the losing battle before riding off into the sunset. I immediately shot off an email to The New Yorker citing my disgust. I remain doubtful that I will get a response.
Looking back, I think I really believed that one of the most liberal national magazines wouldn’t go in this direction. (I would expect this from a conservative magazine.) Just a few weeks earlier, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg used this same negative stereotype on an August 13th radio program, when he offered free advice to New York Governor David Paterson on how the governor should collect a tax on cigarettes from the Seneca Nation. Bloomberg said Paterson should dress up like a Wild West cowboy with shotgun in hand and enforce the law, which was slated to go into effect on September 1, with the Seneca Nation vowing to fight it.
The mayor was trying to be cute and funny by using this particular negative stereotype. But it is historically inaccurate. The mythic stereotypical cowboy came onto the American scene sometime in the latter part of the 19th century. This stereotype would brandish two pearl-handled six shooters, not a shotgun. By that time period, the Seneca Nation was living on what was left of their homelands and had already gone through the dirty deals and promises broken by the white European American. Perhaps the mayor might have made reference to a Colonial wearing a Tricorne hat with musket in hand, or a Pilgrim even, but I digress. I see now that The New Yorker is taking its cues from New York City’s mayor. This is also a confirmation that the use of negative stereotyping, when it comes to Native American Indians, is okay in both the liberal and conservative corners of America. See what happens if negative stereotypes are used when referencing African Americans, Jewish, and Asian peoples in the public arena. The outcry is audible.
Throughout U.S. history, all immigrants have had to endure a gauntlet of bigotry and racism. Just listen and look beyond the rhetoric spewing forth about stopping people coming over the U.S./Mexico border. As a person with deep indigenous ancestral roots in these lands, I have a difficult time believing that this isn’t about race and skin color.
To get through to the other side, immigrants have needed to adopt “American culture” and to learn English. The jury is still out for me on what the former is exactly and if it is a reality. I tend to go along with the old Melting Pot theory, where this country is constantly being added to with each new wave of immigrants. It is always changing. The real test is to see if these immigrants are fully accepted into this American way-of-life. And this acceptance goes beyond fast food joints serving spaghetti, tacos, fried rice, bagels, and hummus.
From my own observations, after living and working in some of our nation’s largest cities, immigrant children learn English quickly and are usually bilingual. This isn’t new or radical, as it has been the case historically. What the English-only movement and other like-minded groups do not realize, nor seem to care about, is that from a Native American Indian perspective both English and Spanish are the languages of the colonizers. They are from the same place. It makes me wonder if these angry people ever have heard of a nation called Spain, and if they know from what port city their own ancestors set sail. But it isn’t ultimately about language or whether someone is legal or “illegal.” It has something to do with a coldness of heart, a deep-seated hatred that has been brewing across this land for centuries, which boils over from time to time.
The ongoing immigration debate, one might argue, began sometime after 1492 when the Lukku-Cairi met Columbus on one of the islands now referred to as the Bahamas. It wasn’t long after that the Spaniards hauled off many of the Lukku-Cairi into slavery. This marked the beginning of Indian genocide and human enslavement in this hemisphere. This current debate is both interesting and humorous. Interesting in that, to use the tired old cliché, “It is history repeating itself.” The humor can be found in an old comic currently making the rounds: two stereotypical Indian guys with feathers saying something about white Europeans hitting the shore. It will always get a laugh and Americans will for now get time off for work to sleep in and shop on Columbus Day.
So what can be done? Today there is a movement for Native American Indian peoples to go back and learn our own languages, before it’s too late. The First Nations peoples of Canada are doing this. A friend told me he has been in Canadian villages where only Cree is spoken and is the only language the children understand. I remain hopeful that I will see this happening here, too, in my lifetime.
Until the stereotypes, cartoons, and team logos are recognized for what they really are, Native American peoples will continue to be used in “humor.” It is a complex issue when some Native people themselves do not see the above examples as harmful to their own unique cultures and traditions. But when folks stop calling me “Chief” and quit referring to the stingy as “Indian-givers,” we will have made progress. When Columbus Day is no longer recognized as a federal holiday, we will have made progress. When children do not dress up in fake, plastic, made-in-China headdresses for Halloween, we will have made progress. When one of the best literary magazines in the country — which has published Sherman Alexie extensively and been responsible in other ways — stops promoting racist humor, then there will be improvement, and perhaps my Native brothers and sisters who have internalized these negative messages can move forward with a greater sense of pride and deal exclusively with historic oppression without the overlay of ignorant, harmful images and jokes. When college kids stop asking if I still live in a tipi and my child can walk down a hallway without someone making war whoops, hammering hand-to-mouth, then there will be more hope for recovery and reciprocal understanding.
The Rev. Robert Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota) is missioner for the Department of Indian Work and also for Multicultural Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. He serves on the National Executive Council of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, a national organization founded through and in continuing relationship with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Hailing from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Two Bulls lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.