race/ethnicity: American Indians/Aboriginals

In Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, James Loewen looks at monuments, highway markers, historic museums, and other physical sites that commemorate elements of U.S. history. Loewen argues that the information that is included or ignored, and the language used to describe the people or events such sites are dedicated to, often distort or even actively rewrite history, reaffirming or justifying current beliefs in the process.

Sometimes these distortions are amusing. As we’ve posted about before, the sculptor of a statue of Civil War general John H. Morgan sitting on his favorite horse, Bess, added testicles to her because he felt that a female horse just wasn’t a sufficiently heroic mount, though she carried Morgan safely through the war well enough. In other cases, museums and monuments actively obscure the extent of racial oppression or largely ignore the voices of non-Whites. For instance, Almo, Idaho, features a monument to 295 immigrants who supposedly “lost their lives in a most horrible Indian massacre” in 1861 (p. 89). Loewen points out that this event was likely entirely invented, but fit discourses about savage Indians who simply could not live peacefully alongside vulnerable, civilized Whites that were still quite resonant when the monument was erected in 1938.

The documentary Monumental Myths takes a close look at some sites of this type It features Loewen, Howard Zinn, and others discussing the stories our historical monuments tell us and the consequences of the often very distorted narratives they construct about U.S. history:

Also check out our post on whose history monuments tell.

The Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren has brought heightened attention to claims of Native American ancestry in the U.S.. Warren appears to have at times claimed such ancestry, Cherokee and Delaware in particular. The Washington Post provided a thorough round-up of the issue. From what we know thus far, there’s no clear evidence of her claim. Like many families, especially in Oklahoma, her family has a vague account of one or more American Indian ancestors. The vagueness doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true, nor does a lack of tribal records. However, there’s a well-known “Indian princess” syndrome, where notably large numbers of people in the U.S. claim a distant Native American ancestor, about whom the details are usually sketchy and inconsistent. Certainly some of these family oral histories are based in some truth, but others are likely apocryphal (though the individuals reporting them may truly believe them).

So Warren’s claim to some Native American ancestry is at least unverified, and there’s an interesting issue there in why so many Americans happily accept stories of native ancestry with little question.

But I was struck by opponent Scott Brown’s comment in one of his debates with Warren. Via abc News:

“Elizabeth Warren said she was a Native American, a person of color,” Brown said, gesturing toward Warren. “As you can see, she’s not.”

The statement implies that we can tell, just from looking, whether someone is really Native American. We can see, obviously, that she isn’t. This gets at a bigger issue about judgements of authenticity. Individuals often have preconceived ideas about what a Native American should look and act like; their Indianness is expected to be clearly visible, both physically and culturally.

Given this, I was particularly struck by a video Katrin recently sent in a link to the Represent series created by The 1491s. The videos challenge the viewer to recognize that American Indians and their cultures are still vital and vibrant. But they also illustrate the problem with assuming that anyone can easily tell who is or isn’t Native American, and how they integrate or represent that identity in their daily lives. Here are a few, but I’d check out the full set at the 1491s website.

As we enter the home stretch of the presidential campaign, there’s a steady stream of media discussions of potential turnout and differences in early voters and those who vote on Election Day, analysis of the demographics of swing states, and a flood of campaign materials and phone calls aimed at both winning us over and convincing us to actually go vote (those of you not living in swing states may be blessed with less of this).

So who does vote? And how many of us do so?

Demos.org recently released a report on voting rates and access among Native Americans. It contains a breakdown of voting and voter registration by race/ethnicity for the 2008 presidential election. That year, about 64% of all adults eligible to vote in the U.S. did so, but the rates varied widely by group. White non-Hispanics and African Americans had the highest turnout, with every other group having significantly less likely to vote. Half or less of Asians, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Hispanics voted:

For every group, the vast majority of those who register do go on to vote. But significant numbers of people who have the right to vote aren’t registered to do so, and even among registered voters (the darkest blue columns), turnout is higher among White non-Hispanics and African Americans than other groups. This could reflect lack of interest in or enthusiasm for the election or the candidates, but likely also reflects structural and organizational differences, from poverty to the lack of concerted efforts by campaigns to make voting easier by providing shuttles to the polls and otherwise getting out the vote in these communities.

Katrin sent in a delightful video by the 1491s, a sketch comedy troupe that frequently skewers popular representations of Native Americans and their various cultures. The group recently released a new video featuring footage of 1491s member Ryan Red Corn dancing at the Santa Fe Indian Market interspersed with shots of visitors to the market and examples of appropriation of Native cultures, all set to Irving Berlin’s “I’m an Indian Too,” from Annie Get Your Gun. It’s a great send-up of the whole Native-culture-as-fashion-statement trend:

Adrienne K., who blogs at Native Appropriations, recently put together a post about food products that feature stereotypical images of Native Americans. I’m reposting some of them here, but check out her original post for more.

It started out with Calumet baking powder:

Adrienne explains,

In my head, I thought “I could make some stereotype biscuits for breakfast!” Which got me thinking. How many products with stereotypical imagery could I fit in one imaginary breakfast?

Excluding vintage products and items that weren’t easily available, she still found an awful lot. Indian Head corn meal, anyone?

Land-O-Lakes butter:

The Sue Bee Honey logo:

Umpqua ice cream:

Pemmican beef jerky:

And you can top off your meal with Cherikee Red soda:

Adrienne explains,

In isolation, each of these would seem like no big deal–these are the “good” stereotypical images. The “noble savage.” No wild eyes or big noses, just headdresses and Indian maidens. But when taken as a collective, is it any wonder that most people in the world think of Native peoples as headdress-wearing Plains chiefs or buckskin-clad Indian women? I’m not saying there isn’t stereotypical imagery of other racial/ethnic groups in branding, but the ubiquity of Native imagery is striking.

Check out her blog for her full discussion of the problems with the repetition of these limited, anachronistic images of Native Americans.

I’m reposting this piece from 2008 in solidarity with Lisa Wade (no relation), whose (non-white) child was described by his teacher as  “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”  It’s an amateur history of the association of Black people with primates. Please feel free to clarify or correct my broad description of many centuries of thought.

The predominant colonial theory of race was the great chain of being, the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior.  That is, God, white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom.

Consider this drawing that appeared in Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). On the bottom of the image (but the top of the chain) are types of Europeans, Romans, and Greeks.  On the top (but the bottom of the chain) are “Asiatics,” “American Savages,” and “Negros.”  White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”

Nearly 70 years later, in 1868, Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte was published.  in the book, this image appeared (his perfect person, by the way, was German, not Greek):


In this image, we see a depiction of the great chain of being with Michelangelo’s sculpture of David Apollo Belvedere at the top (the most perfect human), a black person below, and an ape below him.

Notice that there seems to be some confusion over where the chain ends.  Indeed, there was a lot of discussion as to where to draw the line.  Are apes human?  Are blacks?  Carolus Linneaus, that famous guy who developed the classification system for living things, wasn’t sure.  In his book Systema Naturae (1758), he published this picture, puzzling over whether the things that separating apes from humans were significant.

In this picture (also appearing in White 1799) are depictions of apes in human-like positions (walking, using a cane).  Notice also the way in which the central figure is feminized (long hair, passive demeanor, feminized body) so as to make her seem more human.

Here we have a chimpanzee depicted drinking a cup of tea.  This is Madame Chimpanzee.  She was a travelling attraction showing how human chimps could be.

In any case, while they argued about where to draw the line, intellectuals of the day believed that apes and blacks were very similar.  In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”

The practice of depicting the races hierarchically occurred as late as the early 1900s as we showed in a previous post.

NEW! Nov ’09) The image below appeared in the The Evolution of Man (1874 edition) as part of an argument that blacks are evolutionarily close to apes (source):HLFig2
During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals.  These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction in a zoo in the early 1900s (but whose “captivity” was admittedly controversial at the time).  (There’s a book about him that I haven’t read.  So I can’t endorse it, but I will offer a link.)  Ota Benga saw most of his tribe, including his wife and child, murdered before being brought to the Bronx Zoo.  (It was customary for the people of his tribe to sharpen their teeth.)

The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for “science” or “fun.”  It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people.  If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

This is a “generalizable tactic of oppression,” by the way.  During the period of intense anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. and Britain, the Irish were routinely compared to apes as well.

So, there you have it.  Connections have been drawn between black people and primates for hundreds of years.  Whatever else you want to think about modern instances of this association — the one Wade and her child are suffering now, but also the Obama sock monkey, the Black Lil’ Monkey doll, and a political cartoon targeting Obama — objections are not just paranoia.

(I’m sorry not to provide a full set of links.  I’ve collected them over the years for my Race and Ethnicity class.  But a lot of the images and information came from here.)

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last week, the Census Bureau announced that as of July 1, 2011, for the first time the majority (50.4%) of babies under age 1 in the U.S. were not non-Hispanic Whites. Animal New York posted a video by Jay Smooth discussing the reactions to and implications of this news:

You can see the NYT article Jay Smooth parodies here, but note that the graph is mislabeled. The line labeled “White” actually only represents the data for non-Hispanic Whites, while the line labeled “Non-White” includes births to White Hispanics, so the terminology they used doesn’t accurately reflect what the graph illustrates.

Yesterday Native Appropriations featured a presentation about Urban Outfitters, cultural appropriation in fashion, and the struggle to get the clothing chain to stop labeling clothing as “Navajo.” The presentation is great both for explaining this particular case — which included the Navajo nation sending a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Urban Outfitters stop using the term Navajo in its marketing — and also because it shows how one particular story spread through social media, which increasingly have the ability to bring mainstream media attention to stories that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.