Americana Indian — thinking twice about images that matter: Nancy Marie Mithlo at TEDxABQWomen


Translator: Tammy Lynn Pertillar
Reviewer: Elisabeth Buffard I want us to think together about images, images of American Indians. You know, the feathers, the braids,
the beads, the buckskins. Indian Warrior. Indian Chief. Fast as an Indian. Strong as an Indian.
Brave as an Indian. Indian Princess. Indian Squaw.
Indian Giver. All of these images and meanings
formed like wallpaper on the insides of our minds,
they’re ever-present, and yet invisible. These are our “Americana” Indians: the imaginative, romantic, fictional portrayals of the real Native Nations
of our country. Now, why do I care about this issue? I care because I’m American Indian. My tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches, recognize all of Southern Arizona
and New Mexico as our homelands. We are known by our tribal leaders: Geronimo, Cochise, Naiche, Lozen. You know, the Angry Ones! (Laughter) The Fighting Ones. More wallpaper.
More imaginative than real. Now you may be thinking,
“But, she doesn’t look Indian!” “Where are her braids and her buckskin?” See? There’s the wallpaper! The ever-present expectation
of “Indianness” from the Western movies
and the storybooks. These fictions create confusion
when they meet reality. These fictions can also cause harm
when they replace reality. Today, there are 4.1 million
American Indians in this country and many of them, like me, are urban. In fact, New York City has
100,000 American Indian people while here in Albuquerque there are
33,000 American Indians. Now, we don’t all look or act or behave
or believe in the same things. In fact, there’s not just one way
to look or act to be Indian. We are as diverse
as the 562 Sovereign Nations. Now, I’m a college professor,
and I’ve observed that youth culture feels very comfortable appropriating American Indian
images and dress. At Halloween, during games
with sports mascots, at “hipster” concerts. Maybe this is just innocent.
They’re just playing. But if so, why is it that
we’ve stopped dressing as Aunt Jemima and Frito Bandito, but we continue to dress as
American Indian people? And what is it about
the sexy Indian squaw that seems ever-present
in the American imagination? Now, I decided to do some
serious research on the topic, so, I did an Internet search. (Laughter) You may want to try this at break, but I typed in the words “Hispanic Girl.” And this is what I got:
beautiful young girls and women, they’re going to school, they’ve got
careers, they’ve got dreams. Then, I typed “African American Girl.”
And I got much the same: young girls and women look at the camera
lens with complete self-confidence. Then, I typed in “American Indian Girl.”
And this is what I got: The “Sexy Indian Squaw.”
The flowing hair. The nudity. This is our situation: American Indian women are the most
victimized group in the country. American Indian women have the highest
rates of sexual and physical abuse. In fact, one in three Native women
will be raped during her lifetime. For many, the question is not “if”
but “when” the abuse will occur. Now, if we go back to our slide
on American Indian girls, that ratio for demeaning images is
exactly the same: it’s one in three. It’s very difficult to draw
a direct cause and effect between media images and
harm to Native communities. But, when we look at
these outfits and the titles like, “Tribal Treat” and “Sexy Tribal Trouble,” it becomes clear that the sexualization
of Native American women is a given. The sales line, “All this fringe
was made for shaking!” takes on new meaning
in light of sexual abuse. While the consumer may be thinking
“exoticism and allure”, I am thinking:
“bruises, blood, and trauma.” Images may seem harmless but they must be interpreted
in light of social and historical context. The United States Government has long
waged a war on Native women’s bodies, including rape in military action,
boarding school abuse, forced sterilization. These demeaning images
and attitudes are learned. The “Wild Indian” has resonance across time. We may think that
these behaviors and actions are no longer present, but they are. Fall 2012 saw the designer Paul Frank,
the band No Doubt, and Victoria’s Secret
all launch ad campaigns using the feathered headdress, an item
that is sacred to Native peoples. Native advocates and their allies
were swift in their protests. All three companies later withdrew
their ads with an apology, but the damage was largely done. Internet hate and intolerance
replaced what could have been a considered conversation about
Native peoples and their culture and history. We can do better. Demeaning images and attitudes
are learned. Parents, take note: if Indian themed birthday parties
are okay for your kids, when they grow up, they’re going to
go to parties and dress as Indians. If your school sponsors events
where they ask students to dress in paper bag feathers, then these kids are going
to go to college, and they’re going to dress
in paper bag feathers. If it’s okay to play “Cowboys
and Indians” when they’re young, when they grow up as adults, they’re
going to play “Cowboys and Indians.” Let me be clear: this is offensive
to the dignity of Native peoples. But it is also shameful for those who
lack the common sense to think twice. Ladies, don’t go here: (Laughter) this is not an attractive look! Friends, don’t let friends
look stupid dressing as Indians. The United Negro College Fund
had a very successful ad campaign, and it was called,
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” The American Indian College Fund’s
ad campaign is, “Think Indian.” What I want you to do is
more than “Think Indian.” I want you to consider
the Native perspective. Then, I want you to think about
your own assumed wisdoms. I want you to have a conversation. Parents, think about your kids’ future.
Teach them to respect difference. Young people, if you have a friend
who comes to a party in a headdress, ask them, “What are you thinking?” Consumers, choose
not to buy derogatory products. Buy Native products from Native people. What I’m asking for is simple:
think twice. Speak out. Educate yourselves. Have a conversation. And when you next meet this
Native woman at your dinner table, “Think Indian,” and consider
this Native journalist who has more to offer
than just a stick of butter. Thank you. Applause

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