Harriet Tubman is about to change history again. After years of speculation, the famed conductor on the Underground Railroad was chosen to have her likeness grace the $20 bill. She’ll be the first woman on U.S. paper currency in over a century, and the first African American ever to be honored this way. Yet having her portrait printed on our money won’t guarantee that Americans will finally learn the truth of Tubman’s courageous evolution from being an escaped slave to a daring abolitionist to an early champion of women’s rights. For that we have Hollywood, which is currently adapting Kate Clifford’s book, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman—Portrait of an American Hero. When Clifford was asked why a film on Tubman’s life took so long to get the green light she stated, “My opinion is since we all learned about her as kids, she’s [thought of as] this juvenile, one dimensional character that was better suited for cartoons than as a serious treatment of a blood-and-flesh woman.” If you’re like me, then Clifford’s comment reminded you of the stories about numerous Native American heroes, specifically Pocahontas. The infuriating myths most people believe about Pocahontas and other Indigenous icons are reductive and often culturally marginalizing. To combat this, I use humor in my classes to stimulate discussions about cultural misappropriations. I encourage my students to gain perspective of the damage caused by stripping time, context, and culture from other revered Americans in an activity I call “George Washington in a cowboy hat.”
To be clear, I sincerely hope that Tubman’s film captures the depth and breadth of her remarkable life and personal character, or, to put it another way, that its plot doesn’t take even one step down the path traveled by Disney’s Pocahontas. In that 1995 animated film, the pre-pubescent Pocahontas is aged to womanhood, given a romantic relationship with her pseudo-father-figure John Smith, and handed the mystical ability to commune with a raccoon. The film depicts her frolicking in nature, singing songs, literally talking to a tree, and lusting for Smith—all while wearing a one shouldered dress that is both sexualizing and downright impractical. The film and its 1998 sequel ignore the reality that the real Pocahontas interceded on the older Smith’s behalf, was captured by the British, married her guard, John Rolfe, changed her name to Rebecca, and died during the return of her maiden voyage to England—all without any talking trees or raccoons involved.
Yet the film is hardly alone in perpetuating falsehoods. A few years ago, my son’s daycare teachers proudly showed me that their Thanksgiving week activities used Native American terminology. They had their students write the names of some of the items from the meal in both English and Oneida (the local tribe whose reservation was closest to the daycare center). I listened politely, and then asked if they knew that the Oneidas weren’t involved in the First Thanksgiving, or that East Coast tribes did not live in the tepees used in the classroom’s decorations, or that the headdresses the children were instructed to create were not being represented accurately? Of course they didn’t. They were just trying to improve upon the faulty lessons of their youth by adding Native American words. I listened to them and then explained that what they were doing may be well-meaning, but the results were a lot like teaching that George Washington wore a cowboy hat as he won America’s independence from Spain. I’m thrilled to report that this elicited both a laugh and some perspective on how to remedy the situation.
I then brought my daycare interaction to my students and created what has become a frequent activity on the importance of accurate cultural appropriations when relaying history. For the sake of discussion, we speculated about how George Washington donned his cowboy hat and drove off the conquistadors, while Abraham Lincoln invited Jackie Robinson to desegregate baseball and win the Pennant. Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders have stormed the beaches of Normandy, and FDR personally defeated the Germans in every Special Olympics they’ve entered.
So here’s my point: History is filled with heroes whose lives and accomplishments are often marginalized. Frequently this is not done as part of a vast conspiracy, but rather by individuals whose educational background, inability to conduct research, or desire to romanticize the truth hinders them from presenting reality. These cultural misappropriations are unacceptable, but they’re ubiquitous in the minimalizing stories that are too often told.
I’m thrilled that Harriet Tubman is getting her due. I hope she’s the first of many invaluable minority people to be honored in a way traditionally reserved for presidents and founding fathers. I’m also looking forward to the film on Tubman, and I plan to pay for my ticket with a bill that her face graces. Yet if the film gets her story wrong, I’m committed to ensuring that the truth about her legacy, and that of the Native tribes such as the Tuscarora who aided in harboring escaped slaves, is taught in my classroom. Therefore if George Washington’s metaphorical cowboy hat or Abraham Lincoln’s fictitious baseball team can help my class engage in a discussion about the true history behind the myths, then I say, “Giddyup, students. It’s time to play ball.”
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Sperling, N. (2016, May 6). Hollywood’s Harriet Tubman Problem. Entertainment Weekly. Issue 1413. 12-13.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.