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Friday, November 28, 2008

Whitewashing The American Indian

At the Plimoth Plantation this year they're laying down some rules.

(CNSNews.com) – A nine-year-old girl was recently asked to remove her “Indian” costume before entering the Wampanoag Homesite of the Plimoth Plantation, a historical site that allows visitors to experience Plymouth, Mass., as it was in the 17th century.

The nine-year-old was one of thousands who flock to the colonial museum during the Thanksgiving season. She dressed as an Indian and her friend dressed as a pilgrim to celebrate the occasion.

Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, asked the girl to remove her homemade beaded costume before visiting the site, reducing the child to tears and upsetting her mother, the Boston Globe reported on Nov. 24.

“Native people find it offensive when they see a non-native person dressed up and playing Indian. It’s perceived as us being made fun of,” Coombs told CNS News.com.

“Costumes are offensive because of what has happened in history – the Hollywood pseudo Indians, the Italian actors playing Indians, the crappy dress they put them in, the Halloween costumes. When other people dress up as Native people it’s offensive, period,” Coombs said.

She compared people wearing Native American costumes to white entertainers who put on blackface in old minstrel shows.

Visitors to the Wampanoag home site are asked not only to refrain from dressing up like “Indians” – they are asked not to use words like “how” or “chief” or “squaw.”

Cultural sensitivity requests are posted on signs in front of the museum and on their Web site, plimoth.org.

The Web site also advises visitors not to refer to the Wampanoag people as either Indians or Native Americans. “The term Native American suggests that Native People were always American but this country was populated by Native People long before it was called America,” the site states.

Instead, they prefer to be called Native People or Indigenous People.

Guests are asked not to engage in stereotypical “Indian” behavior, such as war-whooping and dancing around the fire.

The museum also requests that people not ask questions like, “Are you a real Indian?” Not just because of the word “Indian,” but because of the world “real.”

“The tour guides here are real people, Native people. Our nationalities are not fodder for joke material, because then you get into the aspect of racism and historical erasure,” Coombs said.

Most people have no idea that what they say or wear might be hurtful, insulting or offensive, she said.

“That’s why we’re trying to educate people about our culture and to correct stereotypes and wrong information,” she said. “We’re here to make a bridge between people, not to just send them packing.”

The movement to ban Indian imagery from sports teams and mascots, from dressing up at school or at Halloween as a noble savage, or banning words that might offend the sensitive nature of native Americans is what I'd expect of those who are trying to eradicate any memory of the stone age culture Europeans found on America's shores. Consider this - No one walks around in a Nazi uniform or in the striped rags of a Holocaust survivor because it is universally accepted that there is nothing redeeming in either symbol, they're both considered representations of evil and tragedy, respectively. Any nine year old wearing a costume resembling either would be forced into lifelong counseling and Child Protective Service agents sent to their homes. Would a Nazi interpret the sight of a child dressed in a Nazi costume as an insult? Or would he see it as honoring Nazism simply because the child chose to wear it in public despite the public condemnation? Likewise a Holocaust survivor? There is no doubt that Indian activists like Linda Coombs want America to interpret the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians as the same between the Nazis and their victims - but there is no comparison, and certainly no collective acceptance of that interpretation. There was no Holocaust, and no genocide. There's no consensus that Indians represent anything other than courage and wisdom, and to many, victims. Americans honor Indians when they name their sports teams after them, or don costumes, or appeal to native virtues ascribed to Indians. If anything, popular culture has whitewashed the nature of the Indian.

The brutality of Indians began long before European adventurers arrived, when Indians murdered, raped and enslaved other Indians in a long and wide ranging 'civil' war that raged on the continent. In the clash of civilizations that ensued after settlers arrived here, who started the atrocities matters little - the horrors made real were committed by both sides. That we've made native Americans into passive, nature worshiping environmentalists preaching respect and love is a concoction that couldn't be applied to anything remotely human. It was done by modern Americans to patronize and idealize the natives so they could serve as political props in a movement seeking to entrench multiculturalism. Re-writing history to suit the vanquished is as bad as re-writing history to glory in the deeds of the victors; the truth becomes the victim of self-serving interests.

But since we're in an age that takes serious the exercise of both demanding freedom of expression and then using political correctness to ban such a thing, any proactive step to protect ourselves from untoward words, glances or insinuations should be a burden shared by all. So I've got a few demands of my own that I'd appreciate all Indians abide by from now on when I'm within their circle of influence. I'm not a white guy - I'm an Irish, German American who assumes a fine bronze color in the California sun. Being Irish, any mention of the "potato" brings bursting from my subconscious a repulsive cultural memory of the famine that propelled my family from those emerald shores, so don't mention it. Please also refrain from the wearing or mentioning of "lederhosen" around me as well - my legs are not as muscular as they once were, and the imposition of that word thrown at me destroys any vestige of self-esteem that the German beer I'm guzzling might have lent me. Of course, dressing in green, cursing while drunk and bragging about the size of your Bierschinkin may send me into a tearful rendition of "Danny Boy" that will make everybody cry.

You've insulted me long enough, and I'm finding it tougher not to take it personally. Now it's my turn to play the victim.