Words Are Mightier Than Colonialism

Volume 24, No. 4 - Summer 2013
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WHAT’S NEXT? A Barbie doll of Jacob from the popular Twilight series—“with washboard abs and Quileute tattoo” of course. Photo illustration by Ryan Winn and Walt Pourier

Recently, the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English asked me to speak at their annual conference. The year’s theme was multicultural literature and so they thought that a presentation about American Indian fiction by a tribal college faculty member would be a nice addition to their program. I agreed that I had a perspective to share and was soon told that I should expect an attentive audience made up of high school teachers who were looking for new ideas to incorporate into their classrooms.

I’m pleased to report that the group was composed of energetic and welcoming individuals who were very familiar with mainstream American Indian fiction writers. It seemed to me that most people in the room taught every Native American short story in their course anthology, and some even incorporated Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award-winner, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, into their curriculum. As you may have guessed, a majority of them had also watched and loved Alexie’s and Chris Eyre’s film, Smoke Signals. Yet, when I asked them to name either Alexie’s or Eyre’s tribe no one even hazarded a guess. When I informed them that Alexie is Spokane/Coeur d’Alene and Eyre is Cheyenne/ Arapaho they all etched these facts into their note pads. This interaction raises questions that I would like to highlight in this column.

To put it bluntly, I find that too many well-intentioned people spread colonialism simply by failing to celebrate that all Native people are not interchangeable. I believe that teaching a student about an American Indian artist and not revealing his or her birth culture obfuscates his or her distinctive tribal identity. Sure, Alexie may employ the generalizing phrase “We Indians” as part of his engaging storytelling, but the truth of the matter is that some people seem to forget that no one can speak for all tribes. Allowing this type of postcolonial incoherence to thrive is akin to what spaghetti westerns did to a previous generation of Natives when they put headbands on all of their “Indian” actors. All Indians are not Plains Indians, nor should their cultures be substituted for one another’s. As educators, we all should work to eliminate this misconception.

Certainly it’s an uphill climb teaching the over-culture that there are 566 federally recognized tribes, but I believe that the faculty, staff, and students of tribal colleges are in a unique place to begin to educate the uninformed people we mingle with. To be clear, we all live and thrive by the missions of our respective tribal colleges, and so it should be second nature for us all to expound the problems that arise from society’s misconceptions about indigenous peoples. I think this is especially true for those of us who are trusted to lecture from behind the literal and figurative podium of academia.

We can all agree that Indigenous sports mascots are based upon the problematic and antiquated logic that they are somehow celebrating American Indian traditions. But what about the other Native representations popular media reinforce time and time again? Take, for instance, popular films in which American Indians are often depicted with long flowing hair that magically blows in the Plains wind whenever the plotline needs to emphasize the gravity of their thoughts and actions. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a western where American Indians aren’t graced by an oscillating fan blowing through their hair; those magical tuffs of air could not even escape well-known cultural impersonators like Daniel Day Lewis and Kevin Costner. Further, if you look at the marketing for Smoke Signals, you will see that the back of the DVD case shows actor Adam Beach (Saulteaux) smiling with his arms extended as the wind caresses his lengthy locks. Yet, no matter how many times you watch the film you will never find that scene in it. One could argue that the photo was used in the packaging to assure the film’s mainstream audience that the movie would not challenge the stereotype that all Indians are one with nature.

Similarly, in 2013 it’s difficult to talk about American Indian fictional characters without discussing Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. This popular book and film series tells the tale of a teenage love-triangle between White mortal Bella Swan, White vampire Edward Cullen, and Quileute werewolf Jacob Black. Meyer’s backstory on Jacob’s tribe and his werewolf ancestry is entirely fictional, but her creative liberties are troublesome because she chose a very real tribe with a very real culture to fictionalize. This column is not the place to fight that battle, but I would like to point out that the Jacob character is essentially a modern depiction of the noble, yet sexual savage stereotype. Descriptions for the action figures of these characters state it best: The fully-clothed White Edward is “intriguing and dazzlingly beautiful,” while the half-naked Native Jacob “displays washboard abs and Quileute tattoo.”

It seems to me that those of us who are affiliated with tribal colleges need to combat popular society’s attempts to marginalize American Indian culture, our students, and the important work that tribal colleges are doing. This means that we should dissect stereotypes in our classrooms, but also that we should seek and accept invitations to speak and write about misconceptions in our respective communities. I find that most people would like to learn more about their local tribes and many of us have a wealth of knowledge to share.

The question is will you help take a stand against misconceptions? Oh, and sadly there will likely not be wind blowing through your hair as you consider your response.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation, where he also serves as the humanities department chair.

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On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

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