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.