We want to talk about racism in the past tense like it was something that happened rather than something that is happening. No one likes to admit that while we can send an expedition to Mars, our country still cannot overcome this disease that’s plagued us since the inception of our nationhood. Like smallpox, racism came across the ocean from Europe to infect a land and a people who had never been exposed to its deadly effects. While it’s true the indigenous people of the US were not always peaceful amongst themselves, slavery and racism was as foreign to them as the other diseases brought here by the settlers. Sure, we’d like to say none of that is relevant in 2015. It only takes this one picture to prove otherwise.
Normally the discourse of racism is centered on either African American lives or the lives of immigrants, and it’s true that those groups are subject to hate even yet today. However, the one group’s voice no one seems to hear is that of the very Native Americans from whom this country was stolen.
It’s a historical fact that Native Americans were taken from the shores of this country as slaves long before any Anglo Saxon settled. It’s also a historical fact that Columbus, while never setting foot in the United States of America, did enslave and kill countless Native people to our south. In fact, the whole idea of slavery hit our shores because Columbus designed the idea of enslaving Native people on the sugar plantations he started. Most of us know Columbus was no hero—he was just an attention seeker, lost in the world, trying to make a fortune. In the process, he committed genocidal acts. Without recounting the entire history of the US, suffice it to say Native people have been treated in the same manner as any other minority: they have been enslaved, forced to assimilate, and made into a group of “others” pushed aside and largely forgotten.
Ask my grandson who the Indians are and where they live. He is in kindergarten, and the only conversation he has really had about Thanksgiving is what he’s learned from his public school education, so he will answer “I think they’re out in the woods looking for food still”. We correct his school-led misguidance at home, but many kids don’t know any better. “Indians” are still portrayed as wild, uncivilized heathens who hunt wild animals under the cover of the forest. It’s sickening. No one tells these children the truth, but the school mascot of my grandson is the “Brave” complete with headdress, so they do learn it’s supposedly acceptable to appropriate the very culture Europeans tried so hard to eradicate. Call them uncivilized. Steal their culture when it suits our needs. That’s the Anglo-Saxon way, apparently.
Which brings me back to the picture. While walking through a Wal-Mart store (a place I despise, but that’s a different article for a different time, but yet another solid reason to boycott them), I noticed this bow and arrow hanging out for display. We’re a small, largely agricultural community, so archery equipment and guns are typical here. That’s not what bothered me. It isn’t the aspect of hunting that bothered me, either. My own family hunts. What astounded me enough that I snapped a picture were the words “Lil Sioux”. Those words punched straight through my brain into my soul. There they were in big, bold letters as if buying this plastic archery set would somehow transform the child for whom it was purchased into a Native American, and not just a random Native American, but a Sioux. It can’t be lost that many associate the strong Sioux leaders of Sitting Bull or Red Cloud with the picture of what they believe all Native people to be. Seeing this inanimate object hanging there as if one can buy what real Native hunters and warriors spent a lifetime learning made my skin crawl. It was culture for sale. Moreover, it was more false ideas of what being Native really means, as if all Indigenous people are just running around with bows. It wasn’t lost on me that while someone decided to market how great it is to be a Sioux warrior, one great Sioux warrior remains falsely imprisoned as a political prisoner yet today, having been imprisoned since the late 1970s, Leonard Peltier. We will never admit that in a public display at Wal-Mart, though. Nope. We’ll just continue to market a culture for white profit whilst committing cultural genocide on the very people from whom we steal.
I wish I could tell my grandson that racism “was,” but instead I have to tell him that it “is”. I can’t look at a display such as this and think any differently. Had this been a different type of display with pejorative, racist term about another ethnicity, it surely would have been removed. It probably would have never been displayed at all, although that’s debatable. What is glaringly obvious is that we, as a Nation, refuse to recognize our racist underbelly. We hide the seeds of racism in areas many never look, one of which is the Native American community. We let them lie nearly dormant there while we steal away from an entire people what is their own: their identity. Racism hasn’t been eradicated. Hell, it’s not even close to being wiped away. The seeds of racism are still here, hidden away in store displays and mascots, team and school names, classroom discussions and lessons, movies and depictions. One need not search hard to find them. All we have to do is open our eyes to the real meaning behind the words before us in bold print. The very people we owe our success to—we took all the land and resources from them after all, we continue to disparage, and as long as we let these seeds stay buried in our treatment of one people, they will vine out to all people. Don’t think racism matters because it doesn’t affect you? Just wait. The finger will point at you one day, too.
(Cover photo via: https://awakeningthehorse.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/culturalappropriation1final.jpg)