Several months ago, I was helping my son with his homework. It was a literature assignment and he was reading a short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The title made me apprehensive.
At the time, my son was the only Native American boy in his class, and in a school with an all-white staff. And though I assumed his teachers knew me well by then, probably as “that Native American parent” who often vocalizes resistance to white supremacist narratives in her child’s education, his language arts teacher didn’t seem to bat an eye at the stereotype-laden story she assigned her class.
It took me only a page or so into the story to discover what it was all about. I was sick to my stomach and I told my son he didn’t have to finish the story, as it was full of racist overtones about who we are. I told him that I would be contacting his teacher and explaining to her why I object to his assignment.
I went from sick to my stomach, to infuriated. I resented that I had to contact the school, yet again, about normalized racism against Indigenous Peoples in the school curriculum. This wasn’t the first time, and the school’s past reactions led me to feel as though I was the problem, even though I knew very well that this wasn’t the truth.
After doing some quick research I learned that the story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” was published in 1910 by a white author, and yet was still being utilized in my son’s school in 2018. The protagonist of the story was a rambunctious little white boy who liked to “play Indian.” He dubbed himself, “Red Chief,” and carried on with the mockeries of the “savage Indian,” mockeries that Indigenous People are all-too familiar with, of scalping and killing indiscriminately, whooping and hollering, dancing wildly. Early in the story, the little boy was taken captive by two men who sought a ransom for his safe return. But little Red Chief played the part of “wild Indian” so well that not even the villains in the story who kidnapped him could tolerate him. At the end of the story, the captors gave up their attempt at a ransom for Red Chief, and instead paid the little savage’s dad to take him off their hands.
The story was supposed to be funny, but I wasn’t laughing. My heart was hurt, and my blood pressure rose. It was completely lost on my son’s teacher that “Indians” were the butt of the joke- our identity, no more than fodder for a silly storyline.
I contacted my son’s school. I met with the principal. This wasn’t our first conversation like this. Her face turned stone cold. As a parent, I had to appeal to her, yet again, that my son’s humanity, our humanity, was being assaulted. I had to spell out precisely how and why that story was not only extremely inappropriate and outdated, but more importantly, damaging to the self-concept of Native American children and to the growing consciousness of all children.
She heard me out, but I felt her resistance. She was a white woman, after all, so privileged to be enveloped in a society where stories about white settlers as the victors, the innovators, the courageous, and the praised pioneers, were plentiful, and meanwhile the stories of settler crimes against humanity were virtually non-existent. She could not empathize immediately, at least not without first being defensive. I don’t know if she was ever truly empathetic at all, but at least I was heard. Educators don’t have to like us to make the change that they know is necessary and just.
At the heart of this particular incident and the many others like it is the stark reality that we live in: Indigenous Peoples have been vilified, historicized, and marginalized in our own homelands, so much that many educators don’t even flinch at the dehumanizing and diminishing lessons that they likely grew up seeing as normal. The masses hardly flinch, because this is the America they know. American children are reared with normalized racist narratives, and those children become our political leaders, they become law makers and business owners. They become teachers and principals.
Indigenous Peoples, on the other hand, have historically been robbed of our ability to define ourselves, for ourselves, to tell our own stories and from our own lens. We see and experience deeply-imbedded and harmful stereotypes about us and our ancestors in school curricula, literature, pop culture, Hollywood films, in the savage Indian mascots parading across stadiums, and the hypersexualized Indian maiden Halloween costumes. When we do see modern representations of Native people in news media, we often see the same recycled stories of the “criminal Indians” in handcuffs and orange jumpsuits, “savage,” like the wagon-burning Indians of Hollywood western films, “savage,” like little Red Chief.
It’s easier to pull the trigger when it’s a savage on the other end of the gun, easier to build oil pipelines beneath the savages’ main water source. It’s easier to deliver harsher jail sentences, and to violate Indigenous women, seeing us only as the hypersexualized objects that popular culture has made us out to be.
But where are the stories of Indigenous humanity? The stories of our past and present contributions, of our complexity, of the beauty of our souls?
The evidence of anti-Indianism/anti-Indigeneity is ever-present, and as some say, Americans dehumanizing Native Americans is more American than apple pie. Rendering Indigenous Peoples invisible is just as bad.
“They can’t see us as human beings,” my late uncle John would say. He exacted the reason for our invisibility like this:
“We’re the evidence of the crime. They can’t deal with the reality of who we are because then they have to deal with the reality of what they have done. If they deal with the reality of who we are, they have to deal with the reality of who they aren’t.”John Trudell
Many of us grew up on these words, being emboldened by the likes of John Trudell, Wilma Mankiller, and our fiery grandmothers who never gave up. They never ceased telling us the stories that rooted us to the truth of who we are: resilient, beautiful, and multi-faceted human beings, worthy of life, worthy of joy.
And if my experience with my son’s homework assignment and the confrontation that came after is any reflection of the direction we are headed, my experience and the shared experiences of many parents says that Indigenous Peoples are not only pushing back in the fight for our humanity and in the ongoing battle for narrative change, but we are getting louder, we are growing more passionate, and we are organizing like never before.
Many Native people today speak, write, and create from our own lens. We teach our youth the history lessons we wished we had in schools. We research and we collaborate. We are building growing platforms and amassing attentive audiences.
It isn’t just a time of narrative change. It is a time of truth.
On September 24, a 124-year-old statue in San Francisco was dislodged from its granite platform and taken down. The bronze statue depicted a defeated Native American on his back with a Catholic priest above him pointing to the heavens- a symbol of glorified colonialism and oppression in a state which has buried its own genocide of countless Native Americans and entire California tribes.
On that day of the statue’s removal, Native Americans in the Bay Area celebrated, but some citizens criticized the move, calling for a preservation of the statue as a record of American history.
This statue wasn’t necessarily history though, but an artistic interpretation coming from a very specific angle, a perspective that celebrates and reinforces white supremacy. What is more is that the Native American bronzed representation was one of a Plains tribal culture and did not indicate the tribal cultures indigenous to the Bay Area.
Not only has much of history been written from the angle of white men, but history has often been written with grave inaccuracies about the diversity and complexity of the Indigenous Peoples whose land the occupiers settled.
Today, however, Indigenous Peoples and other proponents of truthful and more nuanced narratives are steering change. In some states, like Montana and Washington, schools have been mandated to change their curriculums to reflect accurate histories of Indigenous Peoples. Cities and entire states are eliminating racist holidays such as Columbus Day, and racist renderings in statues, art, and pop-culture are being shouted down and retired.
And it’s not just Indigenous Peoples that want change, but a much broader group of Americans.
In a recent survey from the Reclaiming Native Truth Project, 72-percent of Americans surveyed said they believe that there needs to be significant change to school curriculums about Native Americans. Through their extensive research, the Reclaiming Native Truth Project (RNTP) also confirmed what many Native Americans have already known, that there are deep-rooted biases in America about Native Americans, many of these stemming directly from public schools and mass media.
Yet what is still problematic is that of the Americans surveyed for the RNTP, 40-percent believed at the outset of the survey that Native Americans no longer even exist. The invisibility of Native Americans means that our issues continue to be invisible, too.
How can policy makers respond to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, to police brutality against Native Americans, to youth suicide in tribal communities, to poor mental health, to negative outcomes in education for Native youth, to fights for tribal sovereignty and fights against environmental racism, when Indigenous People are not even on their radar? When the unchecked negative portrayals of Native Americans continues to increase the level of discrimination against tribal communities while reinforcing institutional racism in spaces where modern Native Americans are known of, how can America ever call itself a country that is just?
This can no longer be the norm. Indigenous Peoples and all human beings must be seen, we must be heard, and for the totality of who we are as unique individuals with histories and experiences which have brought us all to this very American life that we know today. Native American history is American history, no question. Just like First Nations history is Canadian history, and Aboriginal history is Australian history, and Maori history is New Zealand’s history.
To society’s credit, current trends suggest that we are in a time and space where people are yearning for truth, yearning for awareness, and for answers to humanity’s most vexing problems. If there is any time that is ripe for narrative change, that time is now.
Change is in motion, and each and every one of us is a part of it. We are in it. But we must continue speaking truth to power. We must continue organizing and pushing for narrative change. Demand change, if you feel so bold, and lean in to the discomfort. For only after historical truth about Indigenous Peoples is achieved on a massive scale can we even begin speaking of reconciliation and true justice. That’s the long game.
Sarah Sunshine Manning, NDN Collective Director of Communications, is a citizen of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Idaho and Nevada, and Chippewa-Cree of Rocky Boy, Montana. Manning directs NDN Collective’s communications strategy and impact. She also serves as producer of the NDN Podcast While Indigenous and as editor of the NDN blog. Manning has Bachelor’s degrees in American Indian Studies, Social Science-History, and licensure in Secondary Education. She has a Master’s degree in journalism and mass communication.