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Spotted Elk 1
The Neon Flavor of Manifest Destiny “For several thousands of years human beings have suffered from a plague, a disease worse than leprosy, a sickness worse than malaria, a malady much more terrible than smallpox. Imperialism, colonialism, torture, enslavement, conquest, brutality, lying, cheating, secret police, greed, rape, terrorism—they are only words until we are touched by them. Then they are no longer words, but become a vicious reality that overwhelms, consumes and changes our lives forever: This disease of aggression against other living things, and more precisely, the disease of the consuming of other creatures’ lives and possessions, I call it cannibalism. Whatever we call it, this disease, this wetiko (cannibal) psychosis, is the greatest epidemic sickness known to man . . . and it is highly contagious. The rape of a woman, the rape of a land, and the rape of a people, they are all the same. They are the same as the rape of the earth, the rape of the rivers, the rape of the forest, the rape of the air, the rape of the animals. Brutality knows no boundaries. Greed knows no limits. Perversion knows no borders. Arrogance knows no frontiers. Deceit knows no edges. These characteristics all tend to push towards an extreme, always moving forward once the initial infection sets in.” –Dr. Jack Forbes
I am a woman of mixed European and Native American ancestry who has, for about a decade, worked in one way or another on behalf of indigenous women and children. I worked in Thailand with a Buddhist nun named Mae Chi Khunying Kanitha who protected women and children in compounds all over the country, from being sold into prostitution. When I returned to the United States, I helped serve several organizations whose aims were to protect indigenous rights here in North America. This is how I met Jack Forbes, a Native American scholar from UC Davis who left an indelible impression upon me. In his humble, unassuming manner, he surprised me during a discussion about cultural appropriation I was having with his fellow
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 professor, a feisty and outspoken Lakota man named Lehman Brightman. Dr. Forbes, interjected saying, “I think it is part of a bigger problem . . . the wetiko disease.” The What? Disease?!?! He went on to explain that it was a kind of ‘cannibalism’ that occurred throughout history again and again until cultures basically “ate themselves”. Looking back on that conversation now and recalling something my husband’s father had said to him, “Wi cho shi cha . . . there was this darkness that came across the ocean.”(Spotted Elk, 2012) Literally translated: ‘among the people, something bad, a way of being, came’. I now better understand what Jack Forbes was getting at. This wasn’t the only thing he said to me that day that astonished me. He looked at me and asked me if I realized that some of our ancestors had been to Europe before Columbus even set sail. I looked back at him in disbelief but he went on “Columbus had read about “Indians” who were driven by storms in their boats in the writings of Pius II. This is why he considered it possible to sail the “Great Ocean” but in 1473 Columbus himself actually saw an Amerindian man and woman when he went to Ireland. He documented this in the margins of Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum which he was studying at the time”. (Forbes, 2008) I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. He told me that many of the things we believe were discovered or invented by Europeans were in fact, not and that when white cultures came here they borrowed very heavily from the First Americans. He said some things may have been discovered at the same time on different continents but that our ancestors were not the “primitive” people that we’ve been led to believe for the past several hundred years. “Wow! Really?!” was my response referring to the Columbus bit. I was inspired to go digging and see if what he was telling me was true. What I found out was that he had in fact done his homework. Misappropriation of Native American cultural traditions has occurred since the first European contact and threatened our
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 ways of life. In its present form it is not merely disrespectful; it is also dangerous to American Indians today. My husband, Calvin Spotted Elk, is a direct lineal descendant of Minneconjou Chief Spotted Elk who was one of last true Lakota leaders before the U.S. government placed their own “chiefs” in charge. This happened shortly after the Dawes Act was passed and reservations were created in North America. Spotted Elk (Unpan Gleska) was killed in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, which was the last conflict in the so-called “Indian Wars”. Since his death, he has been misrepresented in American history and confused with another leader, who was an Oglala. Prior to his death, Spotted Elk, his brothers, his adopted father and grandfathers (who were traditional leaders, chosen by the people) consistently held peaceful relationships with the immigrants of that time. His grandfather Chief Black Buffalo (Tatanka bloka sapa) was documented in the journals of Lewis and Clark when he resolved a confrontation which saved their lives. Because of the misrepresentation of Calvin’s ancestral line and later, exploitation of his grandfather’s estate by people working for the tribal government, we feel a personal duty to correct public misperceptions about his lineage and his traditional Lakota beliefs. We feel it is especially important for American Indians to have an opportunity to voice their true experiences, particularly when many serious contemporary American indigenous issues (such as injustices, violence, poverty, high suicide rates, and substance abuse) are related to historical misrepresentation and a relative invisibility of today’s native people to the dominant culture. As Angela Riley, Director of American Indian Studies at UCLA points out “This perceived invisibility holds numerous consequences for Native peoples, including perceptions that American Indians are mere historical relics, frozen in time as stereotypically savage, primitive,
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 uniquely-spiritualized and – in the case of Native women – hyper-sexualized objects to be tamed.” (Riley, 2012) Manifest Destiny was a widely held belief by people in the 19th century who believed it was their “God-given” right to expand across North America. To achieve their goals they forcibly removed indigenous people, dehumanizing those who hadn’t been killed. Entire societies disappeared and colonialists took just about everything they could appropriate for themselves. Land and natural resources were the obvious seizures but even many of the customs of indigenous people were taken and “re-fashioned” by early settlers. Even our Constitution was borrowed heavily from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. (Parker, 1916) Their constitution, however, devoted at least a quarter of its clauses to the rights of women within their society whereas women were left out of ours until much later when they were finally deemed sentient enough to vote and the Nineteenth amendment was added. The image of the American Indian was eroticized and romanticized first by colonialist and evolved into some of the stereotypes we see now. (Hopkins, 2012) Americans call this misappropriation “cultural hybridization” today and although it happens to many different cultures, it is particularly harmful to American Indians and other historically oppressed people. Exploitation is thriving with these diseases of culture. Recently, a shiny new ‘Manifest Destiny’ was thrust into public view by Gap Clothing and GQ Magazine who teamed up to sell t-shirts starkly printed with the words . . . “Manifest Destiny” on them. As one might well imagine, this didn’t go over very well with most American Indians and several people scolded the designer of the t-shirts. His response to the scolding was
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 a shocking remark sent from his Twitter account that read: “Manifest Destiny: Survival of the Fittest”. Following this hateful act, came the Gwen Stefani-Indian-rape-fantasy video (Hiebert, 2012) which for some, was vaguely reminiscent of an old Atari adult video game where a badly pixelated “Custer” character rapes an Indian girl tied to a totem pole for points. No Doubt’s video is “rife with imagery that glorifies aggression against Indian people, and, most disturbingly, denigrates and objectifies Native women through scenes of sexualized violence . . . As lead singer Gwen Stefani writhes, partially dressed (as an Indian) and is shackled in ropes while overseen by domineering white men brandishing pistols, today real Native American women in the United States are in a state of crisis”. (Riley, 2012) Following the video, just a couple of weeks later, were several other high-profile, barelydressed American women defiling Plains Indian-style headdresses in public. Kardashians, Ke$ha and Karlie Kloss have all donned cheap imitations of ceremonial headdresses this season. Then “Hooters” and other bars across the country sent out flyers with “Sexy Indian” models encouraging people to “Dress up and drink like an Indian!”. Seeing wanton “white” women strutting around in bastardized versions of traditional native clothing is particularly disturbing in light of the alarming sexual violence against American Indian women, and particularly so during Native American Heritage month when these disrespectful displays overshadow real problems for indigenous people everywhere. From Columbus Day, through Halloween and Thanksgiving, grotesque cultural plagiarism is on parade (and for sale) everywhere. It is that time of year when we watch from the sidelines as Americans honor Columbus, who really was a despicable man by every account.
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 After Columbus Day, Halloween rolls into town with plenty of “Poca-Hottie” and “Sexy Savage” costumes. Native American Heritage Month begins and just when we think we might accomplish something good for people, out come all of the New Age hippies and plastic shamans selling their dreamcatchers, smudge sticks, books, videos and made-up ceremonies or whatever else they can. Then they really mess up (as in the killing people they’ve just charged thousands of dollars for their phony ceremonies) and American Indians worry that their sweat-lodge will once again be outlawed. Sometimes I wish Heritage Month could be moved to another month so that there might be more serious consideration and discussion of issues by American people that could lead to solutions for some of these problems. Finally, there is Thanksgiving . . . where do I begin? Many native people don’t celebrate it at all but we do. On Thursday, we set aside time to remember our ancestors and the hardships they endured. We especially remember those who were killed at Wounded Knee, Sand Creek and along the Trails of Tears. The rest of the weekend we put ourselves into a food coma, much like the rest of America, as we watch movies we never have time for and we celebrate our survival and our family. Meanwhile other American Indians are holding sunrise ceremonies in prayer and hoping for an end to all of the struggles, healing for our relatives all over the world and finally some understanding and respect from fellow Americans. If Facebook is any indicator, the latter looks to be a long way off. Made clear by over 5000 comments on the Victoria’s Secret fan page, there are still many people, who say they are annoyed with all of the political correctness and find nothing offensive about “Sexy Indian” costumes. They aren’t offended by sports team names or think human mascots are racist and don’t think we should be either. To the credit of Americans there were many people who either defended our position or took an even stronger stance but there were overwhelming remarks
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 defending the corporate interests in this case, which was disturbing. In response to many of the news articles on the internet came familiar trope with the most ridiculous being “Native Americans need to stop whining about the past and stop trying to “oppress” (sic) artists who have been inspired by Native American culture! “ Many Americans are unaware of their position of privilege within society because they have been socialized to be insensitive about certain things. This amounts to a blatant disrespect that people from all around the world recognize and associate with “ugly Americans”. As an American, I don’t think Americans need to be apologetic all of the time. As a native American, who lived overseas, I can see that it can be difficult for any person to see from the viewpoint of a culture that is not the one they have been brought up with, but in a civilized, multi-cultural society, if people are to get along and understand one another then there must be respect and a willingness to consider and correct mistakes that are made out of ignorance. Even educated and decent people will say in one breath that they agree “a lot of terrible things happened in the past” but that things have changed. In the next breath they’ll say something like “You really should lighten up, though. Sports teams and costumes inspired by Native Americans don’t have to be insulting if you let the past be the past and think of it as ‘their’ way of honoring your culture. This kind of dismissal is frustrating because just when you think a person understands where you are coming from, they turn around and prove that they don’t. Minimizing arguments is a form of denial found in emotionally abusive relationships. Unfortunately Americans do this a lot when it comes to American Indians. They think that if it is Native American, then it is public domain and therefore they should be able to use it as they please without feeling guilt and many don’t like when American Indians point this out to them. If Jasper tells Jennifer that the way she is dressing is offensive to him because of the way she is
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 presenting well-known symbols that originated with his culture and Jennifer says “Oh! You’re being overly sensitive . . . I LOVE Native American culture” she is not only not recognizing there are many different Native American cultures; she isn’t even trying to understand the one she has just disrespected. Nothing meaningful will come from this because Jennifer is oblivious but Jasper will most certainly be affected by this kind of exchange. This kind of oblivious behavior is not only rude and disrespectful; it is abusive and ultimately related to the kind of patriarchal violence that swept the continent over 500 years ago. People at that time felt they had the right to take with impunity anything they wanted and tell Indians how to act and think. Apparently a lot of people still do. Some people defended the fashion show and video as “art” and were visibly upset with American Indians who they thought were trying to “oppress” [sic] the “artists”. To this I say there was nothing remotely original about any of them. One was a sad parade of women who looked as if they had been glued in strategic places and then dipped into the bargain bins at Hobby Lobby. A true artist doesn’t need to steal from historically oppressed minorities, depict people in a racist light or try to pass off something belonging to another culture as their own “art”. To put this into perspective, as we were asked to do by a journalist about a week ago; (Fonseca, 2012) originally, in Lakota culture, only male leaders elected by the people (and not those “chiefs” put in place by a foreign government) were presented with a ceremonial headdress. Women wore plumes. Leaders had to earn the rights to wear each sacred Eagle feather and they did this through an act of valor for their people. Even though they earned the right to wear them, these symbolic headdresses were not worn all of the time.
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 My husband says “In traditional Lakota culture, women are sacred and second to Creator because it is the female, who creates, carries, brings life into this world and sustains it by nourishing and caring for her child. Lakota men are supposed to treat women with respect and the women are expected to respect themselves. Because of this Lakota value, it is very difficult to see a woman disrespecting not only herself, but also our culture and those honorable men— some, including my grandfathers, who gave their lives so that this culture we are living with today took hold.” (Spotted Elk, 2012) If any of these women, had profanely worn a Pope’s mitre say sometime around the Easter holiday, people around the world would be outraged. When one considers the known statistics of violence against Native American women, then there is simply no excuse for this kind of behavior. “A recent Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice” details the barriers Indian women face in accessing adequate justice systems when they are victims of violent crime. One out of every three native women has been raped, with 70% of the rapists being non-native men (United Nations, 2012) “Tribal courts may not criminally prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes in Indian country, including violent crimes against Native women and girls.” (Riley, 2012) and all American Indians experience victimization from violent crimes at rates more than twice the national average. (BIA, 2003) So where did this “Sexy Indian” image originate? Throughout history Americans have either thought of Amerindians as noble or ‘savage’, “two extreme myths that are partially responsible for forcing Indians today into a narrow and racist framework.” (Deloria, 2005)
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 Women from matrilineal Native American societies represented a threat to colonial imperialism and thus paid a dear price with their lives. Some were horrifyingly mutilated, raped and murdered while their murderers wore their body parts as trophies. “Symbolic and literal control and subjugation of women was critical to colonial enterprises because these women were the lifeblood of their communities who insured their ways of life would continue.” In her book Conquest, Andrea Smith posits a relationship between violence and “the staking of territorial claims upon Indigenous women and that brutality towards the female body was a strategy of domination to break down the core of Indigenous communities” (Smith, 2005). Thus began the hyper-sexualized image of “exotic” Native American women; an image that persists well into the 21st century and something which I think contributes to the overwhelming violence against American Indian women today. We seem to be experiencing a type of “Pop-Culture Colonialism” –the mistaken belief that multiculturalism gives Americans, from Pop Icons to Corporations, the right to misappropriate and profit off of cultures from around the world while performing subtle gender violence against women. I think we see the effects of it daily with “liberated” American women sinking to new “lows” of self-disrespect. As a woman, I’m saddened by a realization that most American women have never really been liberated in a true sense; but have just exchanged one type of chain for another. Our media is saturated with sexy images of women who are essentially “pimped” as objects of sexual value for use in sales of a multitude of products. In this way, capitalism has become a predator and I am reminded of how colonialism usurped the matrilineal of North America. Women, generally speaking, like to feel sexy so we allow ourselves to get sucked into the hype. We’re not usually taught by the dominant culture to learn self-respect. If we are
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 lucky, we learn these things from our mothers but then still have to cope with the constant visual assault of those who weren’t so lucky. Trask Hau Hani Kay, author of Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian culture, presents this idea in a different way, a way many American Indian women can identify with: “For a price, everything in Hawaii can be yours! The place, the people, the culture, even our identity as “Native” people is for sale. Therefore, Hawaii, like the lovely woman, is there for the taking. (Hau Hani Kay, 2000) Our society is also saturated with machismo but not in a Tom Selleck kind of way, more like a Donald Trump kind of way. Since the ‘70’s it seems even a lot of men have become weary of it. There does seem to be a connection to that colonial violence, a dominating, hierarchical force bent on conquest which was “structured by the logic of sexual violence”. (Smith, 2005) This kind of sexual violence is expressed today against women of all cultures but for American Indian women there are elements that are usually out of the realm of experience of most American women, except perhaps Asian women who also experience a hyper-sexualized exotic image. In this country and in Canada Native American women have experienced compulsory sterilization through Indian Health Facilities’ which is a throw-back to similar types of sexual violence their ancestors experienced. So for American Indian women, it appears we are going backward in time, not forward. Violence isn’t just aimed at women, though. Across the nation, the influence of the dominant culture has had devastating effects on Native people. Many Native men have gotten lost in a maze of “white-man-culture” vices such as alcohol, drugs, porn and plain old greed. They’ve lost equilibrium within their own cultures and this has led to further break-down of communities both on and off-reservation.
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 Cecilia Firethunder, a former President of the Oglala Nation at Pine Ridge (where my husband is from) revealed that “. . .per capita income is $6, 286 and 80% of the people are unemployed. Of the remaining employed, ninety percent are women.” (FireThunder, 2005) The big question a lot of Lakota women are asking is “What happened to our men? “ Many traditional and older Lakota men agree “men and women have lost their way.” (Spotted Elk, 2012) The rise of machismo has infected them. Women must pick up most, if not all of the responsibility in a poverty-stricken, isolated place while dealing with violence and other issues. They break down and turn to the same thing the men are turning to: examples set by colonialism. Before they know it, the whole community is out of balance. Today, just across the reservation border in White Clay, Nebraska , a town with four liquor stores and a population of 14 (U.S. Census, 2000), over $3 million dollars in liquor sales were made between the four stores last year, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. (Abourezk, 2012). I have to ask myself, where is all of this money coming from? But I know, it’s the drug and gang culture that has moved onto the reservations. The town of White Clay would not exist without residents of Pine Ridge, where alcohol is prohibited by law. “The population on Pine Ridge has among the shortest life expectancies of any group in the Western Hemisphere (average male age is 47). The infant mortality rate is five times and the teen suicide rate is four times the national average. Members of the reservation suffer from a disproportionately high rate of poverty and alcoholism.” (Williams, 2011) This is a residual effect of a culture which is struggling with many issues but most importantly one of identity. Watching the larger culture misrepresent things that are sacred to its people isn’t helping. Once upon a time, colonialists took the land and appropriated cultures with the help of governments. Today corporations are doing the same thing to many. Wrecking
Spotted Elk, November 14, 2012 social structures and the environment will have consequences for all because at the root of all of this is the issue of respect. Self-respect, respect for each other, respect for future generations and for our planet. If we allow this to continue in this way, what will happen to America? Will Americans also lose their way of life? Will the country end up like one giant reservation, as Lakota Russell Means predicted? Or will it eat itself from the soul-sickness it is carrying like so many civilizations before? The Minneconjou Lakota people have at least seven virtues they traditionally abide by: Wocekiya (Prayer), Wahwala (Humility), Waohola (Respect) Waunsila (Compassion) Wowicake (Generosity) and Woksape (Wisdom). If every American, native to this country, indigenous or not, applied just one of these each day to his or her own life, leading our children by example, imagine the kind of healing this could bring about in a very short time. Through our actions and our respect for one another we can rise above the dysfunction we see all around if we have the “ears to hear” and the fortitude to act.