I was at karaoke last weekend for my sister’s birthday at our favorite local dive karaoke spot. Unbeknownst to us, it was a “Cowboys & Indians” theme, and you know the rest of the story.
At one point, I had to go pick up some guy’s sweaty beanie to which his “headdress” was pinned, off the floor where he threw it during his horrendous rendition of some country rock song. I know it wasn’t a real headdress, but isn’t that the point? When non-Natives appropriate Native people, they relegate “us” to something inferior – something less than human that can be easily discarded and forgotten.
As he was talking me down, my boyfriend said, “He just doesn’t know any better.” Hashtag. Blank-Stare. Personally, I am sick and tired of the excuses given to justify this racist garbage we are constantly exposed to, like the Washington Redskins, the “Sioux-per Drunk” t-shirts, Chief Wahoo, and on, and on, and on, and on, and on and ENOUGH ALREADY!!
So what can “we” do?
I heard my brilliant uncle, Walter Echo-Hawk give a talk recently about how the “doctrine of discovery” and notion of “plenary power” (bedrock principles of federal Indian law) are built upon the racist notions that the Native people of these United States were (and are) “savages.” Justice Marshall, author of that famous opinion “Johnson v. M’Intosh, himself says “[t]he tribes of Indians inhabiting this country were fierce savages, whose occupation was war, whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest. To leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness.”
“Houston, we have Plenary Power. Please feel free to dispose of the savages and their land at will. Over.”
And yet, as my uncle argues, we (i.e., Indian Country) continue to cite to this case and others like it as if it is the B-I-B-L-E.
Uncle Walter’s proposition goes something like this: we need to mount an attack on this legal framework of statutes and common law that is built solidly on the principle that Native people are an inferior race, and which framework is diligently trying to annihilate us. And we should attack it using the principles of human rights found in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf
I like it! (And not just because I am related to him.)
Think about this, while we continue to work on eradicating Native mascots, stereotypes, blatantly racist t-shirts and fraternity party themes, shouldn’t we also be doing what the African American community did in the late 1800’s with Plessy v. Ferguson? That is, mount a strategic attack on the legal principles founded on the idea that another race is somehow inferior to another. If we succeed at challenging those racist legal principles I have to believe these other issues (such as Native mascots) will begin to resolve themselves.
Maybe, if the Supreme Court of the United States of America says that Native people possess human rights too… the rest of the country will start to agree.
For a more in-depth discussion about this idea, check out Walter Echo-Hawk’s website and read his books “In the Courts of the Conqueror” and “In the Light of Justice”. http://www.walterechohawk.com/
Photo credit of John Wayne Painting belongs to Bunky Echohawk