race/ethnicity: American Indians/Aboriginals

Adrienne K., who posts at Native Appropriations, let us know about the book Make It Work! North American Indians: The Hands-On Approach to History. Her friend Katie found it in the 4th-grade classroom library at the school where she teaches on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota:


As posted on Native Appropriations, Katie said,

The book purports to give a history of Native Americans and a guide to Native crafts, but what it ends up being is a veritable handbook for white kids to “play Indian.”  All the photos are of white kids dressed up as Indians!  I can’t find one picture (other than the historical ones, of course) of a Native American child.  Even more disturbingly, the descriptions make it sound as if these white kids are authentic representations of Indian clothing, etc.

Katie found it particularly odd that this book was in a classroom on a Sioux reservation. Some pages from the book:



The information is often rather vague. For instance, on one page a description of the Seminole tribe says, “The Seminole were a group formed by Creek Indians and other people from different areas.” Um, ok…that’s less than helpful.

In this image, Adrienne points out that children dressed up as a Seminole and a “Plains Warrior” (?) are playing stickball, as though the game was played by all American Indian groups (rather than mostly confined to the Southeastern region of the U.S.):


As Adrienne mentions, throughout the book, only the past tense is used, as though Native Americans are relics of the past, no longer in existence (or at least, no longer interesting).

I have seen lots of books like this. In fact, I was once given a book like this when I was a kid. At the time I thought it was awesome. The books all seem to have a common theme: American Indians are part of history in the same way that, say, the ancient Greeks [note: several readers object that ancient Greeks aren’t gone, either, since there are still Greek people around–see below] are — something to study that is interesting but no longer exists. Native cultures are presented as neat art projects for non-Native kids to create, all under the guise of learning about the history of Native Americans. But as we see here, any educational benefit the books might aim at is undermined by the conflation of many different groups and cultural features into one or two generalized “Indians” who end up combining elements of Native societies that were separated geographically and temporally.

And almost all of these books present the “Plains Warrior,” as though there was a single Plains culture made up entirely of war-lovers decked out in feather headdresses. Even as a kid I wondered what a Plains Indian was, since I’d never heard of a tribe called the Plains.

Part of what is going on here is the romanticization of Native Americans as courageous, noble, but ultimately tragic figures of the past. Modern Native Americans, those living now and wearing blue-jeans and t-shirts and perhaps eating Wonder Bread as often as homemade fry bread, just aren’t interesting. They don’t fit into our romanticized narrative. They aren’t authentic. Authentic American Indians were culturally distinct…and disappeared about the time Geronimo became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. And that makes the cultural appropriation acceptable, because it’s referring to people in the past. Creating a “Plains outfit” with burlap and a stapler is no more problematic than using a sheet to create a Roman toga.

UPDATE: As I said above, a number of commenters have asked how it’s any different to dress up like Native Americans than it is to dress up like ancient Greeks, seeing as how there are still Greeks around. I think there is a distinction. When people think about ancient Greek civilization, no one is then making Greeks who live today invisible. We do not imply that Greeks disappeared because a particular Greek society waned in influence. And we certainly don’t imply that ancient Greeks were the same as every other European civilization, with a few sartorial differences here or there. We also don’t suggest that anyone living in Greece today who doesn’t, say, worship Zeus is inauthentic, not a “real” Greek. People living in Greece aren’t stuck in time the way many people who romanticize American Indians see them.

NEW (Apr. ’10)!  Jessica S. and Lucia M.M. sent in examples of “teepees” sold for fun.

First, from Jessica, a teepee by Land of Nod (a sister company of Crate and Barrell).  The copy reads: “Our roomy teepee is the perfect place for peewees to powwow.”

Second, from Lucia, a teepee sold by Design Within Reach:


Related posts: racist mascots, Canada’s “indigenous Olympics“, ice skaters dress up like aborigines, indigenous cultures in Avatar (spoiler alert), Halloween costumes, defining “Indian art”, “my skin is dark but my heart is white“, anachronistic images of Native Americans, “My Indian name is…“, the sports mascot Chief Illini, Playmobil’s Native American family, Howe Nissan dealership statue, the “crying Indian” anti-littering PSA, Italian political party uses images of American Indians to oppose immigration, and a Native American toy set.

The American Anthropological Association website on race has a great collection of the racial and ethnic categories included on Censuses throughout the world, showing how different countries formalize different racial categories.  They illustrate just how diverse ideas about race are and challenge the notion that there is one “correct” question or set of questions.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Carolyn L., who blogs at Remodel Minority, found these and other mascot costumes at Costume Shop.  They are, from left to right, the “Mexican Costume Mascot”, “Mandarin Man Chinese Costume”, “Native American Chief Costume Mascot,” “Native American Indian Costume”:

The costumes start at $887.   This reminds us that racist mascots are an industry, not just a poor choice.  It would be much more difficult to field a team called the Indians, the Gauchos, or the Orientals if there were no pre-made costumes to buy.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The 2010 Olympics logo is an altered version of traditional Arctic Inuit sculptures. This quasi-indigenous logo has been displayed in a barrage of Olympics branding. You can see two examples of this marketing in photos — from the summer of 2009 – shown below.

With this Olympics logo, and other Olympics promotional messages, marketers have been portraying the 2010 Games as ‘indigenous’ Olympics. Indigenous references are foregrounded in mass produced Olympics marketing.  The online Olympics store even sells “Authentic Aboriginal Products” (such as t-shirts and silk ties).

Some people who encounter this Olympics branding are bound to come away with the impression that natives (that is, individuals with a significant enough amount of native ancestry or culture) are respected, empowered, and well-integrated here in Canada. In other words, some viewers will view this marketing as a sign of harmonious bonds between natives and mainstream Canadian society.

Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, conveyed a much different view of Olympics marketing when he asserted that,

We’re deeply concerned about the concerted and aggressive marketing campaign advanced by Vanoc [the 2010 Olympics organization committee] which suggests the indigenous people of [British Columbia] and Canada enjoy a very comfortable and high standard of living. The Disneyesque promotional materials suggests a cosy relationship between aboriginal people of the province with all levels of government and it completely ignores the horrific levels of poverty our people endure on a daily basis.


Arctic indigenous branding on a McDonald’s cup in a
Wal-Mart store, in a city in Ontario, Canada

In British Columbia, and elsewhere in present-day Canada, natives have communicated conflicting views about how the 2010 Olympics relate to their lives, lands, and traditions. Indigenous Environmental Network campaigners have been among the more vocal critics who have opposed the 2010 Games.

Some have found the cartoonish Olympic marketing imagery to be a mockery of native traditions.  For example, critics have argued that the 2010 Olympics committee has edited and re-packaged native culture — which also has been ripped out of its traditional contexts. The Committee is highlighting Arctic indigenous imagery — yet Vancouver, the centre of the Games, is a temperate city.  Arctic indigenous peoples did not live there — or on the nearby Whistler and Cypress mountains, where some Olympic events will be held. Other indigenous populations who did live in that area of British Columbia also are not represented in the marketing iconography.

The Olympics branding denies noteworthy differences among native groups spread across these areas. Passing theatrical gestures to native peoples during the open ceremonies could be considered to be more respectful, but Olympics marketers otherwise have been mixing up North American native traditions into a soup-like caricature. Natives have been consistently oppressed, but the various peoples who are considered to be native (in some way, or to some degree) certainly are not ‘all the same.’ Tacking Arctic imagery on to Vancouver-area Games implies that there is only one native essence (in North America, if not beyond this continent).

What else is going on here? What does this superficially ‘indigenous’ rhetoric and imagery have to do with the rest of the 2010 Olympics? In other words, are indigenous populations benefiting from the 2010 Olympics in a way that might explain or justify the appropriation of Arctic imagery?

I pose these questions:

– What proportion of the profits from Olympics sales and tourism will natives groups receive?

– To what extent have native groups actively participated in Olympics organizing?

– How many of the athletes representing Canada at the Games have strong ties to native traditions and ancestors?

– Aside from the branding rhetoric and imagery discussed here, how much indigenous culture will be included in Olympic sports events and Olympics broadcasting?

– And how should we interpret the use of traditional imagery for product marketing purposes? What is the relationship between native peoples and chewing gum wrappers, sugary soda pop drink bottles, and other products which display Olympics brand logos?  Are indigenous peoples profitting from these product sales?  Are natives involved in the boardrooms of the corporations behind these sales?  And are there any other noteworthy connections between these products and any natives in present-day Canada?

Answers to those preceding questions are tied to the conditions that native peoples live under in present-day Canada. As I will explain, there are deep problems with the ‘indigenous’ Olympics rhetoric and imagery, which is very much at odds with Canadian realities.


Arctic advertising
‘Indigenous’ marketing in a major commercial square in
Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Native issues can be complex — and yet brutally straightforward, at the same time. Here are some figures that convey the highly disproportionate impoverishment, vulnerabilities, marginalization, and disempowerment of natives in present-day Canada. (Here are additional child poverty statistics.) The worst racism in Canada is reserved for indigenous peoples who are trapped between assimilation and ghettoization. Native groups ultimately are disappearing — in a nation that was established on native lands.

No marketing imagery ever could erase these ongoing legacies of a history of colonial genocide in Canada (and elsewhere).

Frankly, the ‘indigenous’ Olympics rhetoric and imagery strikes me as yet another form of liberal tokenism, given how fundamental problems are glossed over with paltry gestures (rather than a more radical redistribution of resources — or other constructive societal change).

In fact, while the Olympics imagery implies some sort of harmony between natives and non-natives in Canada, there actually are various ongoing native land claim conflicts in this country. In Ontario, indigenous activists helped to wage a defensive campaign which was a relatively high-profile land claim conflict here in Ontario, during the summer of 2009.

Native land claims are at the forefront of the issues raised by anti-Olympic protestors in Canada (who occasionally have supported tactics that I do not agree with). The phrase “No Olympics on Stolen Land” has been a common protest slogan, and indigenous imagery has been foregrounded in messages from no2010 campaigners, and other anti-Olympic activists. Although these opponents of the Olympics have not carefully distinguished between imagery from different indigenous cultures, their campaign messages surely could not be considered a tokenist form of whitewashing or conservatism — since these anti-Olympic activists have been siding with native land claims.

Protesters also have been raising concerns about how the Olympics are tied to indigenous land conflicts around the tar sands in Alberta. A recent day of action call-out from the Indigenous Environmental Network is the best example of connections drawn between the tar sands and the 2010 Games. As in some other activist campaign messages, this day of action announcement highlights financial and energy-system ties between the Olympics and tar sands pollution in Alberta — beside native lands. These tar sands operations also are the world’s worst climate threat; and the Arctic indigenous peoples alluded to in Olympics marketing actually are on the front lines of global warming impacts, which are aggravated by Olympic environmental devastation (including deforestation, which releases carbon into the world-wide atmosphere). As in other areas of the world, the most disempowered and resource-poor Canadians tend to be much more vulnerable to climate impacts.

Given all of the aforementioned gaps between pro-indigenous rhetoric and actual indigenous realities, why have so many people tolerated the native branding around the 2010 Games? After all, the Olympic brand logo was selected in 2005, and the Olympics marketing blitz was well-underway by the summer of 2009, in Canada.

Aside from the sheer monetary force behind the Olympics, there also are important cultural factors at work here. The harmonious vision conveyed through ‘indigenous’ packaging around the Olympics is an extension of mainstream Canadian visions of an outright “multicultural” “mosaic” in this country — where some claim that there is a complete lack of systemic racism, as well as equally proportioned room for all ethnic groups. In spite of arguments and evidence from critics (including scholars who are affiliated with John Porter’s The Vertical Mosaic), rhetoric about ethnic equality in Canada persists in marketing, in policy documents, and in other mainstream rhetoric. ‘Native’ Olympics marketing celebrates the Canadian status quo, in the same way.

At the same time, the ‘indigenous’ Olympics imagery provides some ethnic spice to the 2010 Games — as well as associated merchandising, and mass media spectacle. In Canada, remnants of native cultures likewise are re-packaged as decorations and tourist industry products. In much the same way, Olympics marketers have sought to increase profits with shreds of de-contextualized indigenous culture which they have appropriated.

But how are indigenous traditions linked to capitalist consumption, mass advertising, mainstream media systems, or tourism? These systems are entrenched on former native lands, but are there any other noteworthy connections between native traditions and such mainstream systems?

(I don’t mean to imply that people with native ancestors will be or should be forever trapped in a receding past. Vibrant, living traditions are flexible. Yet, I do not see how native heritage could be considered to be largely optional in any conception of indigenous-ness.)

Outside of Canada, it probably is not so apparent that the disputes over the Olympics have been national-scale tensions. Anti-Olympic protests (hyper-marginalized though they may be) actually have been organized in various other areas of Canada — well beyond British Columbia. (Here is one example of anti-Olympic campaigning in a city in Ontario.) I also find it telling that, in the face of an anti-Olympic protest in the city that I live in here in southern Ontario, some people conveyed their support for the Olympics by chanting “Canada… Canada… Canada.”

In sum, mainstream Canada claims and re-packages imagery from natives to sell a vision of a present-day Canada that is a tolerant country, with a rich and interesting history; such visions have been produced for the 2010 Games – as well as other tourism and merchandising, and wider nationalism. Then, ironically, when pro-indigenous groups challenge the use of this appropriated iconography to represent ‘Canada,’ majority groups dismiss their protests by claiming a more authentic Canadian-ness. Of course, the refusal to take indigenous protests seriously is just another manifestation of disinterest in the welfare of living indigenous peoples. Even as gestures are made toward native culture, actual natives generally are ignored.


Toban Black is a Sociology PhD student specializing in environmental sociology, theory, inequality, and media.  He is also an activist, a blogger, and an amateur photographer.  He considers this guest post to be a blend of each of those four forms of communication.  Black is a frequent contributor to Sociological Images and the many posts inspired by his material can be viewed here.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

The clip below is the trailer for a movie, The Code of the West: Alive and Well in Wyoming, that appears to be part documentary, part travel/tourism advertising, and part morality play. It emphasizes the moral superiority of a simple, truly “American” life lived in the great outdoors:

The clip is a great example of the way we socially construct both places and times.  Wyoming, a stand in here for “The Old West,” is mythologized as a place where people haven’t changed much.  Just as they were in the old days, they are steadfast, hard-working, and follow an impeccable honor code.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t great people in Wyoming, but it’s always wrong to say that something is always true (see what I did there?).  Further, today it is likely that many people work indoors in blue and white collar jobs and have little time to soak in the big sky that supposedly inspires such wholehearted goodness.  But the “idea” of Wyoming nonetheless privileges the cowboys (however many are left) over the office jocks.

Further, as Rachel at The Feminist Agenda writes “omit[s] a huge chunk of history”:

In cowboy country, there was one group of people with whom we never honored our word or felt bound by a firm handshake. If your skin was brown, all bets were off. We would make agreements with you, sealed by a handshake and a written contract, which we would disregard the minute it became convenient for us. Our word was worthless if your skin was brown and your culture didn’t look like ours.

Of course Rachel makes the same mistake here that the film makes:  There were (white) cowboys who would honor a handshaking with an American Indian.  We shouldn’t demonize the past/a people any more than should romanticize it/them.  Still, Rachel’s point stands: in the big scheme of things, the new Americans were not honorable by any measure.

The fact that the romanticization of The Old West wins out over its demonization is part of the larger revisionist history that the United States encourages (in school, in politics, and in popular culture).  There is what power looks like: to the victors go control over the narrative.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Larry of The Daily Mirror sent in an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times on January 26, 1920. Here are some screencaps of the most interesting sections:

Not surprisingly, civilization means only one thing: assimilation into Anglo culture. The other option? Extinction. How do we know a tribe isn’t civilized? They still live like their “forefathers” did. It’s a theme we see a lot in terms of Native Americans: in order to be authentic (which in this case means “uncivilized”), they must not change any cultural practices. There is an expectation that “real” Indians are culturally frozen in time, as though their cultural practices and lifestyles had not changed throughout history just like every other group’s has.

And also, I’m pretty sure lots of groups have combined elements of two or more religions “without any difficulty or embarrassment,” but whatever. I’m sure they were, indeed, of immense interest to artists, scientists, and writers (also, physiognomists). And since they are of interest to them, that should definitely be taken into account when we decide what to do with them. Taos still loves Indian art.

Still, Native American cultural customs are acceptable only to the degree they are compatible with assimilation. And learning to read and write, use a stove or a sewing machine, mean giving up “the Indian life.” Again, modernity cannot be combined with existing cultural practices.

It’s a great example of how Whites felt entirely comfortable discussing what the future of American Indians should be, either romanticizing them as noble savages or insisting on their cultural backwardness, without any sense that Indians themselves might have any ideas on the issue worth paying attention to.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Gwen M. sent in a story about a performance by Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin at the Russian National Figure Skating Championships:

The pair won first place and plan to use the routine at the Vancouver Olympics next month. They explained that the routine (video below) was inspired by clips of Australian Aboriginal dance on the internet. About the idea, Domnina wrote: “I thought it was just crazy, but once we have tried it, we immediately fell in love with it.”

Bev Manton, the chair of the New South Wales Land Council thinks it’s less “crazy” and more offensive. She says:

I am offended by the performance and so our other councillors… Aboriginal people for very good reason are sensitive about their cultural objects and icons being co-opted by non-Aboriginal people – whether they are from Australia or Russia.

It’s important for people to tread carefully and respectfully when they are depicting somebody else’s culture and I don’t think this performance does.

The routine:

Sources (text; image).  Via Racilicious.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Modern Language Association has all kinds of awesome language-related data available that you can customize depending on your interests. Most basically, you can get an interactive map showing the percent or number of speakers of various languages spoken at home by county (or number by zip code). Here is English:






Notice that the scale of the maps changes, so the same color doesn’t indicate the same percent of speakers for each language. For some languages the darkest red only indicates 1 or 2 percent.

There was one odd category I noticed. This is the map for “African languages”:

African languages

I can understand why you might lump some languages from an area together if they are so rare in the U.S. that they’d barely show up. But what, exactly, is an “African” language? It doesn’t appear to include Arabic, though it is spoken in much of northern Africa. Many people in Africa speak European languages (particularly French and English) due to colonialism. Presumably this category includes “native,” non-Arabic languages. It’s a strange category.

For those of you wondering about the little pockets of African language speakers in, say, Iowa and Nebraska, I could be wrong, but I would suspect in some of those counties it might have something to do with slaughterhouses. In the last decade or so some packing houses have recruited African immigrants, particularly Somalis, to move to rural areas and work in the plants. Again, that’s just a guess, but some of the locations fit.

UPDATE: Commenter mordant.espier says,

I think you’re wrong about African languages and meatpacking in the midwest. I know that Omaha has a significant Sudanese community, about 7,000, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers.  In Minneapolis, there are a number of Somali. They are there because of the US government, and even more because religious and charitable organizations, especially the Episcopal Church and Catholic Charities, have provided support through all stages of the immigration process.  The existance of a group of refugees who are able to enlist the support of locals has created such pockets.

Anyway, moving on.You can also get side-by-side comparisons of two states. This shows the percentage of the population speaking Arabic in California and Michigan:

Arabic comparison

Number and percent of speakers of various languages:

Picture 1

You can compare the number of speakers in 2000 and 2005:

Picture 3

If you go to “Language by State” in that last link and select a language, you can then look at “ability to speak English”. Annoyingly, it only shows raw numbers, not percentages, so you have to do the calculations yourself. But here’s the breakdown for German in Michigan; clearly the vast majority of people who speak German also say they speak English “very well”:

Picture 4

You can also get an age breakdown (again, just raw numbers) for each language, by state. Here’s a partial list for Chinese:

Picture 1

I’m warning you now, the site can turn into an enormous time-suck. You think you’ll just look up the state you live in, say, and then you get started comparing things, and the next thing you know, it’s a half hour later.

UPDATE 2: Commenters have also pointed out that a) “Chinese” is as much of a thrown-together category as “African” (does it mean Cantonese? Mandarin?) and b) the site doesn’t have any information about use of American Sign Language, both great points.