Laurel Davis-Delano: Representations of contemporary Native Americans are rare

Published: 10/13/2021 2:30:20 PM

I am a white sociologist who studies representations of Native Americans in U.S. mainstream culture, and I am writing to make a few comments about recent material in this newspaper.

First, let me say that “understanding social context” is critical. To understand the situation with the art exhibit, one needs to know that representations of contemporary Native Americans are rare in U.S. culture. Rather, what we see are misleading stereotypes about Native Americans from the past. Thus, not surprisingly, many non-Native people view Native Americans as a “people of the past.” So, in this context, when there is an image that can be interpreted (regardless of intent) to mean that Native Americans are “all deceased,” this is infuriating.

Second, it is helpful to know that white Americans have been freely representing Native Americans as they wish since colonization began, while Native people are rarely allowed access to representing themselves in mainstream U.S. culture. Thus, when non-Native people yet again represent Native Americans, while few Native Americans are able to represent themselves in a mainstream context, this is infuriating. Both of these aspects of (settler colonial) social context shape Native reactions in this situation and many other situations.

Lastly, in today’s newspaper there is “Kid Scoop” section called “Totem Poles.” Not only are the pictures of totem poles cartoonish and words like “myths” are used to refer to Native beliefs, which are affronts to what some Native Americans consider sacred, but also non-Native kids are encouraged to make their own totem poles, including with classified newspaper ads. This is an example of what is called “playing Indian.”

Many Native Americans find such practices deeply offensive. This is just one more example of white Americans taking from Native Americans: White Americans have taken Native lives, lands, power (as Native Nations strive for sovereignty), cultures (or a Hollywood version of Native pseudo-culture), and sometimes even identities.

And, white Americans continue to control representations of Native Americans. I encourage non-Native newspaper employees and readers to “stand back” and feature representations of Native Americans that are created by Native people themselves.

Laurel Davis-Delano

Northampton




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