Bittersweet October: Fighting American Indian Stereotypes
NOTE: This is a guest post from Mike Roberts, President of the First Nations Development Institute.
As October arrives, I tend to think of two quotes in particular, the first from Thomas Merton: “October is a fine and dangerous time in America.” The second one, and perhaps more appropriate, is from Carol Bishop Hipps: “Bittersweet October.”
October, for me, is the very definition of bittersweet – pleasant, but tinged with sadness.
You see, growing up in Alaska, the cool air that fall and October bring are a welcome relief to the hotness of summer, not to mention that football season is in full swing. But October also brings us Columbus Day and leads right into November, which brings us American Indian Heritage Month and Thanksgiving.
As an Alaska Native (Tlingit) and the head of an American Indian nonprofit organization, each October and November I find myself knocking on the door of the principal and teachers of my daughters’ school, to talk about Indians. And the good news is, this almost always leads to the opportunity to go to my daughters’ classrooms and chat with their classmates about Indians. And for my daughters, this is an important part for them taking pride in their heritage.
Unfortunately, it seems that I begin each year by having to approach the school’s principal and teachers and educate them about Indians, dispel myths, and fight the stereotypes they bring to the classroom.
Each year I have educated these educators that Columbus did not “discover” America, or that the pilgrims did not feed the Indians at Thanksgiving. I have to ask teachers and principals to take down caricatures of Indians on bulletin boards – decorations that have been put up every year since, at least, I was in elementary school myself. I have to point out to these same educators that the books in their libraries about Indians, the ones written by non-Indians with copyright dates in the 1950s or so, do a horrible job of portraying Indians.
I also need to help these folks understand that headdresses with turkey feathers and art projects that include teepees are wrong on so many levels – the least of which are that they do not even represent the Indians the pilgrims encountered. But worst of all, they are in danger of eroding my children’s self-esteem and self-worth about the incredible heritage they enjoy. Most of all, I need to stop them from teaching theories, such as the “land-bridge theory,” as fact. By their very definition, theories are assumptions based on limited information or knowledge. They are a conjecture.
At First Nations Development Institute, a fair amount of our time and energy goes into building culturally competent leaders. I, and most Indian parents, spend an equal if not greater amount of energy doing so at home. We send our kids to school, with the hope that they will survive these attempts at cultural indoctrination. And while we may do so with less fear for their physical well-being than our grandparents had when sending their children off to the horrors of Indian boarding schools, our fear for their self-worth and self-esteem is just as great.
Here are a couple of things that you can do to help:
1) drop off, at your kids’ or grandkids’ school, a copy of “Rethinking Columbus,” edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Patterson; and
2) help school libraries find books that portray Indians as living, thriving cultures, not as victims of history. The American Library Association and the Office of Literacy and Outreach Services compiled “Selective Bibliography and Guide for ‘I’ is Not for Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Books for Young People.” Print it off of the web and deliver it to the principal and the school librarian.
Photo: Mike Roberts with daughters Lauren (left) and Evan, standing next to one of his favorite stereotypes, a cigar store Indian. Photo courtesy of the First Nations Development Institute.