Conversations around race, ethnicity, and diversity continue to heat up and make headlines. Yet, discussions of race in America rarely venture beyond black and white, leaving many people’s stories untold and swept under the rug.
Like mine, for example.
Growing up and going to school in Texas, I was always taught to believe white cowboys were the good guys and Native Americans were the bad guys. Even though my father is a Muscogee Creek Nation Indian and instilled pride for our heritage in my brother and me at a young age, the external education we got often cast our heritage in a negative light.
I grew up watching Westerns, drawing the heroes I’d seen on TV, and playing with the “Cowboys and Indians” toys my father bought us. Throughout my youth, my family and I would go to Muscogee Creek Nation festivals in Oklahoma and Texas, which is where I had the chance to meet family and tribe members. It was during this time I was able to soak up a lot of knowledge tribe history – even sometimes learning the hard way with the “Indian Board of Education” paddle. It taught me quite a bit about the role my heritage played in defining who I truly was.
I can vividly remember several times when I was made aware of the negative connotations American Indians are given in our society. I don’t recall many instances when I was personally mocked for my heritage. But in situations like watching Pocahontas or Peter Pan, my classmates would mock the way Natives spoke and danced, and they were invited to do so. Those films, packaged and presented as harmless cartoons, were a horribly inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans where women were walking toothpicks, men were “red-faced” barbarians, and musical numbers sugar coated the violence, kidnapping, and exploitation of Native Americans by settlers who invaded their lands.
There was always racism going on around me that I rarely was aware of as a child. But my father was. He recently shared how he was constantly referred to as a “long hair” – a more common slur given to American Indians with long hair – up until he decided to cut it in the early ‘90s. (I’m in the process of growing mine.)
The American-Indian race isn’t dying off, exactly. Their population is growing slightly – from 2 percent of the American population in 2014 to a projected 2.4 percent in 2060. But their culture is in dire straits, and has been for a while.
It wasn’t until I had a college professor bring up the discussion of Native American culture dying off that I began to understand just how much my heritage was trivialized by a White-American majority that wished to hide its ugly past. A past where American Indians were forcibly removed from the land that they had occupied first, and stripped of their individuality and heritage so that they could assimilate easier into White-American culture. Ironically, that heritage is now appropriated as a caricature of culture by the people who sought to remove it in the first place.
American Indians are more than bows and arrows, headdresses, Halloween costumes, bad movies, or a racial-slur-turned-football-team. They are a collection of over 500 federally recognized tribes that survived an almost-extermination a century ago. And it seems time for some of the wrongdoings against them to be addressed.
Our industry has the power to help change negative stereotypes that continually show American Indians in clichéd images tied to nature. The ad industry can change the status quo and spur cultural progress. After all, its fundamental purpose is to create positive representations of the brands it stewards. It should also position all consumers it is targeting in the an honest and honorable way.
Knowing my heritage and the anger that being reduced to nothing but a stereotype causes has sharpened my observational skills. I can pick out an image or a piece of copy that might be in a position to offend, even when there is no intent to do so. American Indians have never been able to create a positive image of themselves. Their culture is portrayed as a violent community of strange speaking, dark-skinned people who never wanted to work cohesively with settlers and therefore, needed to be removed. It’s time that perception more mirrors reality.
On #NativeAmericanDay Oct. 10, here’s to working to change diversity conversations to include all Americans. Make a difference by using your voice and actions for what’s right in a country that’s riddled with so many poorly taught wrongs. Collectively, we just might make a difference. After all, having pride for one’s heritage and diversity is not a bad thing or backwards – it’s a necessary and worthy pursuit.
Mvto (muh-toh), and thanks.