Shouting Against the Storm

So about a week ago, I collected the first batch of student papers of the semester. This is never a good time. First papers are rife with errors, many of them induced by the belief that "I got A's in high school English, so I don't really need to do much more here." Never mind that, if my students' papers are any indication, high school English doesn't even require you to be able to write complete paragraphs anymore, let alone think for yourself. Never mind that I do actually require both of those skills, and a couple more besides. The wellspring of freshman self-deception never runs dry.

Before these papers were due, we spent about, oh, three or four weeks talking about representations of American Indians in popular culture. Specifically, we talked about misrepresentations, misconceptions, and stereotypes. We looked at various stereotypes and what purposes they served, and one of the ones we spent the most time on was that old favorite, the Vanishing Indian.

Ah yes. The Vanishing Indian. A stereotype so entrenched that I've had students - yes, college students - who were surprised to hear that yes, in fact, there are still Indians around. In fact, Indians are one of the fastest growing population groups in this country, but if you spend your time watching movies about Indians, you wouldn't get that. In the movies, Indians are dead and gone. Depending on the movie, that may be seen as a good thing (most Westerns) or a bad thing (Dances with Wolves), but it's almost always a fact. (There are occasional exceptions, of course, but they're few and far between.) And even if the Indians don't completely physically disappear, then their culture disappears, leaving them, well, "not really Indian anymore."

That, of course, is a load of crap. The Vanishing Indian exists (or fails to exist?) for two reasons. One, of course, is that, upon arriving in America, white settlers in many cases did their damnedest to ensure that there were no Indians any more - genocide that was not only physical (Jeffrey Amherst's gifts of smallpox-infected blankets, say, or the Sand Creek Massacre, to name only a few) but cultural (in particular through the forcible internment of Native children in boarding schools whose goal was, according to their founder, to "kill the Indian and save the man"). But while many millions were killed and many traditions were lost, the settlers did not succeed in eliminating either the original inhabitants of these lands or their culture. There has continually been and still is a clear, visible Indian presence in all states of the Union, East to West.

But in spite of the Indians' persistent refusal to vanish, the settlers decided that actually, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the Indians really had vanished. I don't know, really, how you go about writing something like Last of the Mohicans when you know there are plenty of Mohicans (or Mohegans) still around, but of course, it made things a lot easier. The settlers, after all, were on land that didn't belong to them. But if the original owners just kind of disappeared - and, better yet, if, like James Fenimore Cooper's Indians, they asked the whites who came after them to take care of the land after they were gone - well, then there's no problem taking the land, right?

Hence, the Vanishing Indian. And given that most of us in the U.S. are still living on the same stolen land, we've built a whole culture around the poor, disappeared Indians. They lost their lives, or at least their culture, and as court decisions like the famous Mashpee case show, perceived loss of culture translates conveniently to loss of claims to the land. In either case, no one needs to feel bad about stealing their land.

So, in a nutshell, that's what we spent a couple weeks talking about, picking apart, examining and debunking. Looking at the myth, figuring out why it existed, and how it contradicts the facts.

And then there were the papers. Now, I'm not sure if this particular batch of students just has some kind of trouble listening to what is said in class. I do know that on a recent quiz, when asked to answer four of the following six questions, about a quarter of the class, in blissful ignorance, answered all six. And that somehow, when I said "three page minimum, not two and a half," several decided that meant, "two and a half pages is just fine, thanks." But even that didn't prepare me for the fact that I still had three papers - and mind you, these are scholarly papers, not opinion papers, response papers, or just off-the-top-of-the-head ramblings (at least, they're not supposed to be) - that insisted that Indians or Indian culture had just somehow disappeared.


It's moments like that that make me wonder why I bother. Well, actually, moments like that make me want to beat my head against a wall, but after that impulse passes I wonder why I bother. We spent weeks discussing these stereotypes, watching Dances with Wolves and discussing how it reinforces stereotypes, reading Ward Churchill and Philip Deloria and really discussing these things in class, working through them clearly and carefully, and in spite of it all, these stereotypes have such staying power that apparently these three students heard nothing of it all, and felt it was perfectly fine to state something that is plainly wrong as, simply, a fact.

And after that moment - or hour, or day - of frustration, I remember that even if I have three students reveling in their ignorance, the majority of the class didn't reproduce that stereotype. Some of them turned in really interesting papers that showed they were thinking critically about the ways that Indians are represented in the media, and were starting to reflect on their own preconceptions about Indians. And I do know from past student comments that this course does change the way a lot of them think. They become more aware, not just about how Indians are represented, but of the kinds of images and ideologies the world around them presents them with. They tend to become more critical thinkers; they're no longer a passive audience but they listen actively and decide what they want to believe, if and how they're going to let themselves be manipulated. And I have to keep reminding myself that the majority of the class does understand that the Vanishing Indian is a stereotype designed to allow an easy acceptance of the violence and robbery that this country was founded on, and that they do know that there are Indian people and Indian cultures vibrantly alive today.

But I have to keep reminding myself of that, because sometimes, all of this just feels like shouting against the storm.



Want to know more?

If you're interested in learning more about Native American history, culture, stereotypes about Indians, or related issues, here are some books and sites I'd recommend:

Philip Deloria. Playing Indian. Why white folks "play Indian." So engaging that I've had students read chapters they weren't assigned..

"Crimes Against Humanity." Ward Churchill's biting commentary on why Indian mascots are racist.

Luci Tapahonso. Blue Horses Rush In. Tapahonso is a Navajo writer and one of my favorite poets ever; you can find some of her poems online here. Try "Hills Brothers Coffee" and "In 1864" for starters.

"I Hated Tonto (Still Do)." Sherman Alexie's essay on how media stereotypes affected him as a child.

"The Reservation Boarding School System in the U.S., 1870-1928." Article (with further links) on "the war in disguise."

Ward Churchill. Fantasies of the Master Race. Indians and their misrepresentation in pop culture.

Vine Deloria, Jr. American Indians, American Justice. The U.S. "justice" system and American Indian rights. (Incidentally, the Philip Deloria above is his son.)

Peter Rollins & John O'Connor (eds.) Hollywood's Indian. Collection of essays on Indians in various movies, from John Wayne's work to The Indian in the Cupboard.

Louis Owens. Mixedblood Messages. Essays and autobiographical reflections on "literature, film, family and place."

Incident at Oglala. Michael Apted's documentary on the incidents on the Pine Ridge reservation that eventually led to Leonard Peltier's imprisonment.

Gerald Vizenor (ed.) Native American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Good collection of a wide range of Native American poetry, prose and drama.

Links to Native American History sites, maintained by the UC Riverside History Dept.

James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me. What schools don't teach - or teach wrong.

Frederick Hoxie (ed.) Indians in American History. Native American history in the context of U.S. history.

Peter Iverson. We Are Still Here: American Indians in the Twentieth Century. History and survival of Native Americans.

Brian W. Dippie. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Origins and history of the myth of the Vanishing Indian.

Storytellers: Native American Authors Online. Great gateway site to Native authors online. Links to author websites, online texts, and audio and video files of authors reading their work.

Return to index

March 20, 2002

© 2002 NoAura Productions. All rights reserved. Ask before you borrow!!