My daughter’s kindergarten class is learning about Indians. This means she made a paper-feather headdress and vest in arts and crafts.
She made an Indian necklace out of plastic beads. She got to give herself an Indian name. And she will wear these garments and sing and dance to a song about Little Red Fox, an imaginary Indian child.
November is “National American Indian Heritage Month,” meant to honor and recognize the continuing contributions American Indians make to this country. Every year in November, well-meaning non-Indian folks attempt to help children understand what the first Thanksgiving was like.
But at what other time of year is it acceptable for people to put on the dress of another race, make up an imaginary name, and pretend to be that race? We cannot create honor and recognition when many of us, including our teachers, are still so ignorant of the American past.
Naming ceremonies are sacred, celebratory events, where a name is given to a tribal member who has done something to earn it. A 6-year-old does not get to name herself “Princess Sitting Kitty” just because it’s the week before Thanksgiving. I ask myself, would African-American parents tolerate kindergartners being painted in blackface and given African-sounding names to commemorate the heroes of African-American History Month? Taking sacred naming ceremonies, medicine wheels, or “spirit sticks,” and misusing them, even with good intention, is wrong. To put it in perspective, this would be like taking a crucifix or the Star of David and waving it around without the proper reverent context.
Not all Indians wear feathers, swing tomahawks, or live in “teepees.” My daughter’s grandmother, the woman who helped raise my husband, is a member of the Skokomish Tribe in Washington state, and while her tribe prizes eagle feathers as sacred, nobody wears a headdress made of them. She lives in a log cabin, not a tent. She doesn’t own a tomahawk – historically, her people fished the Hood Canal and the Skokomish River for salmon.
But when symbols of Indian “culture” are needed for our children, teachers pull out the same stereotypical items every year. Non-Indians may put on what suits them and take it off the day after Thanksgiving. But we do not understand what it is like to live in Indian Country. In Indian Country, history is peppered with half-truths, treaties signed but never enforced, and a diaspora that rivals the Jewish and African removals from their respective homelands.
The Cherokee Nation, now in Oklahoma, originally lived a thousand miles to the east. They possessed an organized government and a sophisticated language at the time of the first European contact in the 16th century. The Cherokee provided aid to future president Andrew Jackson in a series of battles in the early 19th century. President Jackson repaid them by passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which allowed mass-scale resettlement of American Indians off their traditional land east of the Mississippi. Forced onto the Trail of Tears, thousands died along the march into their Oklahoma resettlement, and more perished of homesickness and illness at their final destination.
Those who think that the Indian Wars ended in the late 1800s may be surprised to learn that, as late as the mid-1970s, aggression around American Indian treaty rights was alive and well. A federal judge upheld a hundred-year-old Washington state treaty provision granting American Indians the right to half of the salmon and steelhead harvest in their traditional hunting grounds. This sparked the Salmon Wars, and my mother-in-law, like many Skokomish tribal members, had the bullet holes in her fishing boat to prove it. Sport and commercial fishermen took aim at the American Indians, whom they perceived as having an unfair advantage in fishing – despite the fact that the fish were in traditional tribal waters, designated so by government treaty. This occurred less than four decades ago. It is not history in the past tense.
But back to Little Red Fox. I am apparently the only mom to protest that my child cannot simply dress up, make up an “Indian name,” and pretend to be Indian. There may even be American Indians who do not blink at this tradition, but I know others who would consider it an assault on their cultures. Even if we mean to honor the spirit of American Indian, does it make it right to assume the identity of another race for a day?
When we talk to our children about American Indians, what are we saying? The truth is painful, partly because of what Sherman Alexie, member of the Spokane and Coeur D’Alene Nations, writing in Time magazine, called “very real injustice caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes.”
This may be too much truth to tell a kindergartner. The truth does not taste good with sweet potatoes and turkey. The truth is that culture cannot be summed up by caricature. And respect to American Indians is not given when the sum total of that respect is Little Red Fox, a feathered headdress, and plastic beads among the pumpkin pies.
Laurie Barker James is a writer working with nonprofit and faith-based organizations in Fort Worth.