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Much more than teepees or totem poles

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by Erin Bad Hand

My tribal ID # is 442U068834. My name is Erin Bad Hand. I am a registered member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe, located in south central South Dakota. Though I am of mixed descent—half Lakota and half combination of Eastern Cherokee, Italian, Cuban, and French Canadian—I grew up in a “traditional” household. My father is what most would call a “medicine man.”
November is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, which is why I feel it’s appropriate to publicize that the age old game of “Cowboys & Indians,” is a thing of mockery to me. And because many of us are not recognizable as Indian people, or sometimes even pass as white, many forget that this isn’t OK. After all, our history is in the past. That’s what makes it our past, right?

A group of native students and myself got together in early September to celebrate a friends’ birthday. Another group of SAIC students were attending a Cowboys-and-Indians themed party. We were approached by one of these students and were invited to the party. He was wearing “war paint” on his face and stomach. Others in the crowd were also painted, had shredded clothing, and fake feathers that we could only assume were to be representative of “Indian.” It was offensive and hurtful. And the fact that none of us looked Indian made him feel OK. But we told him it was offensive and he seemed deeply apologetic, and we thought we ought to address the larger student body.

We just wanted to let people know that there are Native students who go to this school, and that although this insult was not intentionally malicious, we didn’t expect this degree of cultural insensitivity from the SAIC student body.
The reason I present my story to you this way is that this is the only way I know how to talk about the “American Indian” experience. All indigenous peoples have a different experience of what it is to be “Indian.” There are many similarities amongst these experiences as well as many differences. A common mistake is that we can speak for the whole of Indian people. We are all very different — we all come from different tribes, speak different languages, and have different cultural and spiritual beliefs. Some of us come from warrior cultures, nomadic tribes, farming communities, and fishing villages.

For example, I am not a “rez” Indian; I did not grow up on a reservation. I am not quite an urban Indian either, as I grew up in a small town. For now, I am somewhere in-between. Many scholars have tried to pinpoint how many indigenous people were here before Columbus, with estimates ranging from 900,000 to 100,000,000. Most scholars will say that about 12,000,000 Native Americans lived here before colonization. That number has been drastically reduced to the approximately 2,500,000 Native American/Alaskan Native people living today. This atrocious decline in population can be attributed to many factors like disease, poverty, famine, and colonization.

About the history of the reservation: most tribes were forced, after a few hundred years of genocide (yes, genocide: the systematic killing of all the people from a national, ethnic, or religious group, or an attempt to do this), to move from what American Indians considered to be their homelands, onto patches of land the government had set aside for them. There are over 500 different tribes in the U.S. at this time, federally recognized or not. There are about 300 reservations in the U.S., which means that not all tribes have their own reservation, and some tribes have more than one. Others have been forced to share the same reservation land.

The U.S. policy of creating reservations for Native Americans was established in the late 1860s during the presidential administration of Ulysses S. Grant. This was the response to the perceived “Indian problem” of growing conflicts between U.S. settlers and Native American tribes in the West. The relations between settlers and the Native people grew increasingly intense as more and more settlers encroached on the land and resources.

A century later, we come to another “Indian problem.” In the 1950s, the U.S. government began a program ambiguously called “relocation.” Some would claim that the premise was that Indians would be able to leave the poverty of reservations behind, but many elders will tell you its goal was to assimilate Indian people into a “more civilized” society. Those who “volunteered” to be relocated ended up moving from one form of poverty to another. Indian people came to cities such as Denver, Los Angeles and Chicago hoping to find jobs, but instead found the stark, isolated city-dwellings painfully lonely.

To address this loneliness and isolation, Indian people banded together and birthed the “urban Indian” community. Chicago has an estimated 30,000 Native Americans, concentrated mostly in the areas of Hyde Park and Uptown, and is considered the second-largest urban Indian community in the country. The American Indian center here in Chicago is the oldest and largest in the country. Even so, we are somewhat invisible as a population.

Many people don’t know that there are still F–irst Nations people in this country living in communities both on and off the reservations. Just because the general public does not see us, does not mean that we are not here. We are still Native American, practicing our beliefs, our spiritual ways, and there are those of us who don’t. Those who aren’t practicing need to be recognized as well. We are a diverse people. The idea this country has of Indian people is one of the past. It may be difficult for the average person to discern what a contemporary Native American looks like due to the dominant stereotype of the warrior culture of the Great Plains.

Popular culture has created an image, one that people have come to rely on. Many see movies like Dances With Wolves, which gives them their idea of American Indian culture. In terms of stereotypes, there is hardly a movie made with Indians in the cast that does not portray some version of the dominant stereotype. In almost any movie involving Indian people, the image presented is either somewhat stereotypical in a historical sense (the defeated warrior), in a spiritual sense (the medicine man) or in terms of the social problems associated with Indian people, such as alcoholism, or poverty. We are either a vanishing race (The Last of His Tribe, or The Last of the Mohicans), a wise healer (Poltergeist, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) or an alcoholic (Skins, Thunderheart). Indians seem always to be typecast and there are very few stories where Indians are just people.

The film Smoke Signals was written and directed by Native people, Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre. Even though the film portrays many stereotypes, it also breaks them down. Perhaps this is a good movie if you want to see some good old Indian humor, and at least intentional, sophisticated stereotypes. But films such as Powwow Highway, or Thunderheart are examples of insensitivity, much of which stems from the invisibility of our cultures. But our people still exist and those things are hurtful; they are offensive.

So we got together and decided to write a letter informing the SAIC community that Native American students here are willing to be part of, and exist in, a culturally diverse community that doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes, one that upholds cultural exchange based on mutual respect. We tried to send the letter out to the community first, by sending an all-school e-mail, which was reviewed and rejected. An e-mailed response suggested that we should try to go through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, so we took our letter to them. They were extremely helpful, and suggested that we put the letter in F News; if they sent an e-mail with the letter, it may not reach as many students. And so we took the letter to F News, who promptly rejected the letter and told us to send an all-school e-mail.

The resulting run-around prompted this article as another attempt to have our voices heard. The reason we were offended by the “Cowboys & Indians” theme party is that Cowboys and Indians have a very different connotation for us. The war paint and feathers many would consider costumes are important symbols to us and hold significance among our people. The feathers represent the birds we hold sacred, and the war paint is meant as a symbol of self-protection and bravery. Warriors would often paint on themselves the symbols they received in dreams. Many may not consider this, but a callous misuse of these elements may seem bastardizing in the eyes of most American Indians.
Many consider themselves a people haunted by stereotypes and minimal recognition. We are defined by what we wear in ceremony, defined by Hollywood and old western movies and books. We are an anthology of the past. To many we are historical figures, not contemporary people. But our cultures still thrive. And how do we reconcile that with the fast-moving pace of today?

Many of us grew up straddling the fence, in the sense that we have had to weave two worlds together and find a place in both of them. Those of us who have chosen the academic world are “translators” of our experience. There is the contemporary world where we go to school, where we work and live. And there is the cultural world, where we practice our rituals and we attend ceremonies.

We are much more than teepees and totem poles. We are not all the same. And no, we are not gone. This small article cannot even begin to address the multi-faceted questions surrounding Native America and all of its issues, from genocide and holocaust to the invisibility and cultural insensitivity of today, but it’s a start.

I have used many terms as they pertain to Native American people in this country, all of which we use to address each other and ourselves.

NOVEMBER 2005

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