I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
Native Americans: The Invisible People was a documentary released by CNN in 1994 about the complications of Native American politics and other social issues. One of these segments, titled Stolen Treasures, discusses the looting crimes of Native American artifacts. The segment features the Santa Fe Indian Market, the things being sold at the market, and the kinds of people the business draws in. Viewers are shown scenes of predominantly white American vendors and shoppers with countless pieces of undated pottery, artwork, clothing, dolls, jewelry and other “Indian artifacts” for sale. The vendors boast how pieces sell for thousands of dollars each, and the shoppers talk about their obsession with buying – even at these prices. Then the mood of the segments shifts and viewers learn that an unknown amount of artifacts are illegally obtained and sold, often at places like this market. One of the many convicted looters in this country discusses the rock art he stripped from a wall in a canyon which earned him his felon status. The documentary argues that this is not a victimless crime, as one might think.
My first thought about this film is in regards to its title: Native Americans: The Invisible People. “Invisibility” is a modern issue, but for reasons people may not realize. Some might think Natives are invisible because they don’t think there are many if any “left”, or they’ll argue they aren’t invisible because they love “Indian art and culture”. Both of these ideas are misled.
Natives are thriving all around the country, all around North, Central, and South America, but the only way they are “visible” to the public is when they are stereotyped to satisfy American cravings. These stereotypes include Pocahontas, the Plains Indians of the American film industry, and other sentiments of racial inferiority. The Pocahontas stereotype derives from an inaccurately told story of an abducted child, resulting in an obsession with non-existent “Indian princesses”, being “one with nature”, and dressing up like “Pocahottie” for Halloween. The Pocahontas obsession is visible, but the fact that 1 in 3 Native women will experience sexual assault in her life – and that over 70% of these crimes are committed by men – that remains invisible.
Americans are obsessed with the headdress, the war paint, the warrior on the horse – stereotypes of “Indians” derived from Wild West films. Since Euro-American and Indian conflict occurred notoriously during westward expansion onto the Plains, the cultures that lived on The Frontier – namely the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota (Sioux) – have become fixations in film to represent what Euro-Americans have labeled as an entire race. Ironically, the actors in these films were predominantly white people sprayed red and wearing headbands to keep their wigs on. These characters were the noble warriors and the savages, blamed for making American expansion and Manifest Destiny a dangerous duty. This film stereotype – the same that makes up nearly all school and sports mascots – is very visible, but the diversity of an entire race remains invisible.
Today, this invisibility thrives as stereotypes teach Native youth that they can’t possibly be the doctors and engineers and teachers that they have the right as Americans to be. Americans are trained by film and limited exposure to Natives to see uneducated, wild Indians with war paint and tomahawks. They see a monoculture that they call “Indian”, and they say things like “I love Indian art!” and “I love Indian culture!”, but neither of those concepts exist. When people in Stolen Treasures talked about their obsession with “Indian art and culture”, all I could do was think about how ignorant they sound. When we learn that they are likely buying artifacts robbed from graves and cultures that they don’t really understand, I imagine non-Europeans digging up Catholic graves in England, defacing Turkish mosques, and selling stolen pieces from Holocaust museums, arguing how they “love European art and culture”. How do so many Americans understand, for example, a Polish-American taking offense to being called Russian-American, but the obsession with Indian stereotypes and “culture” – singular – doesn’t raise any red flags? As I watched the segment, I decided this attitude is why so many people can rob, vandalize, buy, sell, and disrespect cultures. They think they can get away with profiting immensely from someone else’s repeated cultural loss, because, to them, these people are invisible and less than human.
In other words, this film segment reiterated to me how little respect Americans actually have for Native Americans. Part of this is due to complete lack of education on Native histories, cultures, and intergovernmental policies. Without knowing the history, they can’t know the present either. To make matters worse, the only exposure to Natives that most Americans seem aware of include the stereotypes proliferated by film and by mascots. With this immense lack of understanding, mainstream American society doesn’t as easily recognize the wrongness behind the stereotypes, or that stereotypes are a mechanism of racism. They don’t recognize the lack of respect for cultural diversity because American history has subconsciously brainwashed American students of the importance of it. Historical American policies cared about color and race, not how one identified. There were “free”, “slave”, and “Indian” categories on census forms for most of the 19th century. The only mind any government had in identifying by tribal nation was when agreements were being made to take land or resources, or to make alliances that would later result in taking more land or resources. Where does that leave us today? Many people obsessively collecting “Indian artifacts” without understanding the histories and cultural significance behind the artifacts, without thinking about the people living today to whom those artifacts rightfully belong. All they care about is decorating their homes for themselves, or making a profit at the expense of someone who is invisible to them. They think it’s a victimless crime because they have no respect for the victim or care for the damage they’re causing.
The U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 has been helping to resolve this issue, but with some difficulty. The act doesn’t protect artifacts on private land, and the origin of artifacts can be hard to trace at times, but the threat of a federal offense is real. Looting has been an issue for decades, and obtaining remains of Native ancestors has been doubly troubling to modern Natives. Not only is taking the remains of someone else’s ancestors problematic, but, for Natives, it has been done for scientific testing that has been historically used against them. Starting in 1868, the United States Army Medical Museum was founded and Army surgeons performed craniological research to support theories of racial inferiority. In other words, graves were robbed and skulls were examined by the U.S. Army to allegedly demonstrate that Native Americans are less intelligent beings than the white race, based on cranial characteristics. While this act has helped put a stop to some crimes, it is still challenged by International policies and also by archaeologies and anthropologists who insist it’s their right to preserve and study artifacts of other cultures. It also doesn’t adequately protect lands from being robbed in the first place, or protect artifacts that have been looted from being broken or damaged beyond repair during their smuggling and relocation.
To really address this issue would be to truly respect the distinct cultures being tampered with, and to recognize them as existing, continuing, thriving groups with recognized sovereignty in this country. To recognize the past and present crimes committed against Native peoples. And, as Natives, to stand up for our special rights, ones that many lives were lost to protect and maintain to the present generation. Until we do these things, the stereotyping and cultural genocide of Native American communities will only continue as it has since the 1400s.
I haven’t written forever…as I wait for Internet to be installed at my new place on the Navajo reservation, please enjoy the paper I am submitting about the Miss Navajo pageant for my Culture class. We had a vague prompt to follow. Feel free to Google more about the competition! It’s awesome.
In Dinétah this past week, the Navajo Nation Fair has had the center of attention. The Fair, with its various traditional dance, rodeo, and carnival events, runs in conjunction with the Miss Navajo pageant. Miss Navajo has gained a lot of popularity in outside media over recent years for its divergence from “typical” American beauty/national pageants. Rather than heels and swimsuits, these ladies dress up in traditional moccasins and crushed velvet dresses. Their political platforms take the shape of heartfelt “save our culture” and “save our people”, rather than overly-sentimental “feed the children of Africa” and “go vegan” – although not to say they wouldn’t personally make those choices, or that these choices aren’t honorable. Indeed, while Miss America is judged on her body, Miss Navajo is judged on her ability to butcher a dibé – tasks that include handling stomach organs and breaking leg bones in front of a focused and learned audience.
Although the Miss Navajo pageant lasts several days in September, the Traditional Competition was held at the Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise this past Thursday. This segment of the competition lasted approximately three hours, with people in the audience sitting for well over four. The Traditional Competition was divided into four separate categories: Traditional Skills, Oral Presentations, Traditional Talent, and Modeling Traditional Attire. This year’s five contestants were asked to compete in each of these four categories, and they appeared in shuffled orders each time.
For Traditional Skills, each contestant had five minutes to show her skill. These skills varied from grinding corn to singing songs. For Oral Presentations, each contestant was asked to draw a slip of paper and answer a questions on the spot. For the Traditional Talent, each contestant had five minutes to demonstrate something from singing from the Bible in Navajo to explaining the pieces of a traditional baby backboard. Finally, for Modeling Traditional Attire, each lady had three minutes to show off her traditional outfit and state a platform, then an additional two minutes to answer another impromptu question.
The pageant demonstrated the importance of two major interrelated concepts: Navajo fluency, and fluency in Navajo culture other than language. These women were asked to demonstrate their ability to present on stage, represent their culture and heritage, and to represent their direct lineage (through clanship presentation as well as through wearing ancestral pieces and demonstrating skills passed down through their families). Since this pageant is for Miss Navajo, a female representative of an entire nation, it is crucial that language and culture is critiqued. Language and culture are at the heart of identity; therefore, being a Navajo woman should be defined by these things.
The Beauty Way of Life is the standards by which Navajo people live, and knowing you culture – your language, your kinship, your place in the world – is a vital role of this way of life. It is especially represented by the Western direction (é’é’aah) and its tie to k’é, to family, and to who you are as a Navajo. I may not be Navajo, but I understand the need for Navajo fluency and for fluency of Navajo culture. I now live on the Navajo reservation and work for the Navajo government, so as a guest here I must learn and respect the Navajo language and ways. Furthermore, my particular heritage(s) value the same principles: of understanding one’s origin(s) and participating as much as possible in one’s culture(s). Witnessing elements of the Miss Navajo pageant has been inspirational in a variety of ways for me, although I will admit it was a challenging competition to watch with limited language and cultural skills. Questions I have about the competition would predominantly pertain to a more detailed explanation of what was demonstrated, what was asked, and what the greater meaning behind things were.
To conclude, I know that some of the questions were very challenging in the pageant…but I also know that the contestants to varying degrees struggled with the Navajo language. It is my belief that some understood the language to a decent degree, but were not fluent. Others seemed to lack the skill to spontaneously respond at all, speaking only when given the opportunity to deliver recited words. I feel slightly hypocritical considering I do not know more than a dozen words of my own language – a language that is becoming extinct – but I do believe Miss Navajo should be completely fluent in her language. It is the heart of a culture, it is the way a culture thinks, and speaking English in a cultural event is like broadcasting assimilation in the homeland. That is just my viewpoint…but I hope that Navajo children will continue to immerse themselves in their language and their culture, forever, and that Miss Navajo 2060 will be as fluent and culturally immersed as Miss Navajo 1960.
little things and little thoughts that make up little me
"If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them and what you do not know, you will fear. What one fears, one destroys." - Chief Dan George
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