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American Indians And Negative Stereotypes English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2036 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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I am an American Indian, and I belong to the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. My Indian name is Washkongege and I was born into the Thunder clan. I have a cultural identity and I am not afraid letting the world know about it. This makes me a target, like I have an X on my back. As soon as someone is aware of my cultural affiliation the ignorance begins. Sometimes it’s benign usually involving casino’s or blood quantum and could rapidly change gears insulting my drunk forefathers for trading millions of acres of land for beads or a copper pot. These are all stereotypes. I have just been grouped according to an ignorant idea that all Indians have a casino, measure how much Indian they are, and make bad business deals when drunk. I know this shouldn’t bother me but it always stings me right in the heart just a little. On a very serious note I think of all of my Indian ancestors that were ruthlessly and methodically disposed of. Why does someone say things like this? How can someone talk in such an ignorant and hurtful manner? The purpose of a negative stereotype is to degrade and assert a position of superiority and dominance over someone. For the last 400 years Indians in North America have been degraded, dominated and shown how inferior they are.


The genocide of Indians began 400 years ago and since then we as an Indian nation were relentlessly antagonized, raped, murdered, mutilated, kidnapped and pitted against one another for one reason, our land. The US Government in many instances allowed settlers to infringe on our property, treaties were made, lands were ceded, relocation happened. When settlers wanted the land that we had been relocated to the painful process began again, often with deadly results at our expense. These facts sent an implicit message throughout the Indian community: you don’t matter, you are nothing. This perception could not have been made any clearer and was reinforced by an interaction with the Supreme Court and the President. In Cherokee Nation V. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall and President Andrew Jackson came into conflict when Jackson openly defied Marshall’s decision allowing Cherokee Indians to stay on their land in Georgia. Jackson stated “John Marshall made his decision now let him enforce it (Katel 2006).” If the Supreme Court couldn’t do anything for Indians who could?


The first time I had ever experienced an in your face stereotype was when I was beginning my time at my duty station with the United States Marine Corps. Oddly enough this categorization of Indians was uttered by an Asian American who at that time had no idea I was an Indian. We were carpooling home from our weekend drill. He had been with the unit for little over a year and with a tour in Iraq under his belt he was definitely my senior. Somehow the conversation had turned to American Indians. “Why should they get to go to college for free? They get a casino because the Government felt guilty about taking their land. They are lazy drunks. They are nothing but a group of troublemakers.” I baited him the best I could, just to see how far he would go; I was going allow him to dig a huge hole for himself. When I couldn’t contain my joy any longer at this kids’ expense I declared: “I’m an Indian.” The look on his face was priceless. These stereotypes did not bother me and this is the reason why I let him babble on.

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I was 27 years of age when the carpool event occurred. The significance of this fact accompanies the lack of Indian culture I had experienced to that point and the indifference I had felt from those stereotypes. The only culture I knew came from two sources; forms of media: books, movies, television and my two uncles: Wabanosa and Chi Megwin. I do believe it is appropriate that I refer to my cherished uncles by using their Indian names. It shows not only a functioning traditional culture but also a culture that has survived waves of white assimilation.

Loss of Culture

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis effectively states that language is culture. My uncle, Chi Megwin is currently documenting the entire Potawatomi language which is on the verge of becoming extinct. As I write this he spends a week in Kansas, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to meet with 7 or 8 fluent speakers. In his words when they go it’s [the language] gone. An interesting and unfortunate thing has occurred in Kansas. Political infighting has prevented him from having contact with all the known available speakers. They are trying to protect what they have left of their culture, even if it means part of the culture dies in the process.

From the late 1800’s to 1960’s Indian children were forced into boarding schools. These BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools were sponsored by the US Government, mostly with funds generated from tribal land cessations (Reyhner). Children of all ages were ripped away from their families and sent to one of 500 schools across the nation. Their cultural identity stripped from them when their hair was cut, native clothes replaced with white man clothes. Children were beaten for speaking their native language. These BIA schools were performing cultural genocide (Reyhner). The mission statement for these schools: “kill the Indian save the man.”


Portrayal of Indians in movies affects how we as Indians are perceived, even to Indians with no cultural influence. Americans can readily produce such phrases like “Me smoke-um peace pipe” and with a raised hand “How” or more figurative phrases such as “many moons” and “happy hunting ground” (Meek 2006). I can think of several movies and TV shows that depict this style of speech: Peter Pan, Lone Ranger, Dances with Wolves, The Only Good Indian just to name a few. American Indians do not talk like this. Imagine for a second a tribal council meeting where a million dollar budget for the fiscal year is being discussed and some goofball says anything resembling those phrases. They would be escorted off the premises and not to kindly I’m sure. I realize that not everyone in America (including culturally deficient Indians) is able to participate in a tribal cultural event, so I can assure you this style of speech exists only on TV and movies.

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I do believe that my Marine Corps associate was practicing dysconcious racism with the use of his negative stereotypes that day. According to Kimberly Rappolo, dysconscious racism is racism that the people themselves who exhibit it are unaware of. The use of American Indian mascots falls into this category (Roppolo). In her essay “Symbolic Racism, History, and Reality: The Real Problem with Indian Mascots” Rappolo poses the theory that dysconscious racism is one of the primary reasons that we as a society are okay with a blatant stereotype like the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians. Most of us have no clue that a redskin comes from the bloody skins of Indians worth British Crown bounty money (Roppolo). It is through our ignorance as a society, that we unconsciously perpetuate negative stereotypes.

This research for this project has been difficult. It’s not easy to read about the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1838, or the events that surround Indian boarding schools. Our history is not limited to these tragic events; this is truly the first time I have ever grasped the context and degree of suffering at the hands of the white man. As I gained knowledge of the genocide of my brothers, sisters, and grandparents all over North America I have been left emotionally drained. Can you imagine the emotional toll our ancestors endured if they were left alive after any one of these events? The facts surrounding the dominance of my ancestors have truly hurt me. In one of his many documentaries, John Trudell speaks of “genetic scars.” This is when one generation of Indians suffers, and then another, and then another, and the suffering gets compounded as generations come and go. Here we are today with centuries of suffering within our souls.


Business ventures are a positive example of the success Indians are involved in today. In many instances casinos represent a beacon. 225 tribes in 28 states operate some form of gambling (Momper 2010). However, not all tribes are enjoying equivalent standards of success within the industry. The Mashantucket Pequot and their Foxwoods Casino stand out among the crowd, in stark contrast with the Oglala Sioux and their casino Prairie Winds. The Pequot’s tribal enrollment number is 870 compared to 40,000 Oglala (Akam 2009) and the amount of money generated from gaming and then poured back into the community is in the millions compared to only hundreds of thousands for the Oglala. The Seminole Indians in Florida bought the Hard Rock Café chain for $965 million in 2006 with gaming revenues (Akam 2009), again a contrast of the amount of success one tribe maintains against another. To say that Indians are the only ones benefitting is inaccurate. Federal, state and local governments took in $6.3billion in gambling related revenues in 2004 (Katel 2006). In addition to tax dollars generated, gaming provides jobs in the community and in this economy jobs are in short supply.

The availability of higher education to an Indian is abundant. In the state of Michigan any Indian who is a member of a federally recognized tribe can attend a community college or state institution and get tuition waived. While searching the National Indian Education Association’s website I counted almost 70 scholarship opportunities. The same BIA that forced Indian children into its boarding schools currently has a Higher Education Grant Program. This program not only assists Indians with associates and bachelor degrees, but also with master’s and doctorate degrees as well. Anyone can see the contrast of education standards for Indians in the 19th century and today are staggering.

Slowly American Indian stereotypes are being erased from American culture. Chief Illinewek, the University of Illinois mascot, has been eliminated. In February of 2007 trustees chose to discontinue the Chief. This could result in the potential loss of $2 million in revenue generated from the logo (Pember 2007). In 1970 more than 3,000 high schools and colleges featured American Indian imagery, as of April 2007 that number has dropped to less than 1,000 (Pember 2007). My uncle Chi Megwin talked to me about the history textbooks he had while attending school in the 1960’s. The vilification of Indians, calling them savages and killers, was rampant and he was absolutely at a loss for words when trying to express his feelings about this time in his life. He remembers the books changing viewpoints to a more favorable position as he was finishing school in the mid 70’s.


The occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 caught the attention of the US government. These events are important because Indians were speaking out against crippling poverty and squalid living conditions on Indian land. Citing neglected treaty obligations by Uncle Sam, this initiated a revolution from within the Indian community. Since then Indians are participating in a healing process. The evidence lies in our business ventures, education programs, re-establishment and continuation of our culture and the elimination of stereotypical forms of media. These efforts are not united and this is a shame since the entire race shares the same wounds. I heard one Indian say it the best in the PBS documentary “We Shall Remain.” He states that all tribes at one time or another experienced a time of horror, absolute horror. I think the Indian Nations of America could do so much more if we were united in a positive manner, not bound to the tragedies of the past.


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