Wednesday, April 30, 2008

teach their children to steal

We simply chose an Indian as the emblem. We could have just as easily chosen any uncivilized animal.

--Eighth-grade student writing
about his school's mascot in 1997

Lurking within the collective consciousness of white America lies an awareness that we live on stolen land. Other people lived here before we did.

But did we really "steal" it from them?

As Shannon Sullivan points out in her book Revealing Whiteness, most of the 500 or so pre-Columbian groups didn't think of the land as theirs in the first place:

From an Indian perspective, land is not a piece of property to be bought and sold. Native relationships with it generally are not ones of possession and ownership, but rather ones of identity and continuity of life. As an anonymous Indian Chief asks when the "good White Chief" in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy Indian lands, "How can one buy or sell the air, the warmth of the land? That is difficult for us to imagine. If we don't own the sweet air and the bubbling water, how can you buy it from us?"

Does thinking of the white conquest as a "settlement" of land that no one actually owned let white people off the hook, setting them free from the charge of collective racial theft?

Maybe a strained argument of that sort could be made in terms of land. In other ways, though, the charge of white theft from Indians is harder to dismiss.

So is the white community's training of its own children to become thieves.

What, for instance, are white children learning to steal from Indians when their parents hang "dream catchers" in their bedrooms?

Last summer I was attending a work-related training in Portland, at a fancy mountain resort. In the kitchen of the dinning room was a dream catcher. Two of the Indigenous people who were also attending the training were incensed by the presence of a dream catcher, especially when it was apparent that no Native people were even working at the resort. My two friends complained to the kitchen staff that the dream catcher had to come down, and they used the moment as a teaching opportunity to enlighten the white staff about the cultural appropriation of Native Spirituality. (Theryn Kigvamasud'Vashti, Community Organizer)

What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they go to see the Washington Redskins play, or the Cleveland Indians, or the Hooper Bay School Warriors, or the Grafton Elementary School Blackhawks, or the Tecumseh Middle School Savages, or any of the other
thousands of teams that claim to "honor" Native Americans with such romanticized caricatures?

Dan Ninham, a member of the Oneida Nation... formed a multiethnic committee to oppose the Fightin' Reds mascot at Eaton High School--a caricature of a defiant Indian with a misshapen nose, eagle feather and loincloth. Ninham has called it "one of the most blatantly racist mascots in the country," but school officials have refused to meet with the committee to discuss concerns... The basketball team, made up of American Indians, Hispanics and Anglos, took the name Fightin' Whities as a jab at the nearby high school... Mascot protesters estimate that 3,000 high schools, colleges and professional sports teams use Native American nicknames and caricatures--including the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, with their grinning Chief Wahoo mascot. (The Pluralism Project)

What are white children learning to steal from Indians when they take class trips to museums?

Today, rather than something wild to consciously set out to conquer, Native Americans--especially their religious traditions and rituals--tend to be unconsciously appropriated as exotic objects for Euro-American use, pleasure, and consumption. One flagrant example of this unconscious appropriation involves the "museumification" of Native American sacred objects. These objects include pipes, feathers, drums, and other items for use in religious ceremonies. They also include the skeletal remains of dead Native Americans who were removed from burial grounds for archaeological and scientific study.

Displaying these items in museums made it possible for mass numbers of Euro-Americans to learn more about Native American rituals and peoples, but it also prevented many tribes from practicing their religions due to the removal of irreplaceable sacred objects. Even worse, the placement of religious objects in museums was and is a sacrilege from a native American perspective since their artificial preservation prevented them from decay through use, which is seen as their natural end. . . . Beneath conscious attempts to help Native American cultures and peoples, unconscious habits of white privilege reasserted the white "right" to ownership of all things non-white.
(Shannon Sullivan)

Children are not born white--they learn to become white. That means that they also learn how to think and act white. Much of this training process takes the form of learning what one is by learning what one is not.

As a white child learns about Indians, she learns that she is not an Indian. She also learns that since she is white, it's okay, and even a good thing, to steal from Indians.

(hat-tip to double consciousness for the FW logo)


  1. I'd like to hear more of your ideas on whites "appropriating" native culture.
    Where is the 'line in the sand?' What is permissible and what's not permissible?
    I'm always astounded by the dream catchers hanging from white people's car rear view mirrors.

  2. What is permissible and what's not permissible?

    I don't really know, SH. I don't think that's for me to decide.

    How about a gift from an actual indigenous person, something accompanied by the blessings, as it were, of that person?

  3. What if I go to a pow-wow and buy a dream catcher from a native person. Where can and can't I display that dream catcher?

    Are all NAs qualified to give gifts "accompanied by the blessings, , , of that person?" If a NA guy gives me a six pack of beer, should he bless it?

    IS it bad for me to display items I've bought over the years from indigenous people from Canada to Guatamala?

    What about the drape I bought in Wales from the Druid priestess?

    Is it OK for a white person to go to a pow-wow? Seems like NAs encourage their attendence at many pow-wows.
    How is the average person supposed to know the difference between a legit pow-wow and one put on buy a bunch of posers who are simply trying to rake in cash.

    It just seems like there are so many traps for us average white people to fall into. What CAN we do without offending the people you defend?

  4. SH, I don't hang out at pow wows, so I'm not sure how to tell which are legit and which are not. I have heard, though, that anyone trying to sell NA spirituality to non-NAs is a fraud.

    By "bless," you know I didn't mean something spiritual (though if that's part of the gift, well, that's great).

    It just seems like there are so many traps for us average white people to fall into. What CAN we do without offending the people you defend?

    I think you put this point beautifully. Yes, there are so many traps, and a sad thing is that the white folks who get far enough down the path toward the palace of racial wisdom to realize that point often stop at that wayside, afraid to go further for fear of offending someone.

    I would say, be clearly sincere, open-minded, and goodhearted. My experience is that if you display those qualities, minor slip-ups are quickly forgiven. As for what else whites can do, I would say the most important thing to do is listen. Listen, listen, listen. We should stop implying to POC that we know what life is like for them, and that we already know what is best for them.

    Also, give them credit for understanding some things about our white selves, and about broader manifestations of white supremacy, that we probably don't understand, or even see, ourselves. And again, listen if they're willing to explain such things, and stop dismissing such explanations as "whining" or "complaining." (I'm not necessarily talking about you, SH, though you and I both probably do these things more than we realize--we've been trained to do them.)

    And if someone gives you an ethnic gift of some sort, display it fondly and proudly, and tell all your guests the story of its giving.

  5. Mr. Macon,
    So Mas are not allowed to sell any items to non NAs that could be used in spiritual endeavors. . . I guess that means that anything that has to do with NA culture is off limits for NAs to sell to non NAs because thereality is that spirituality in NA culture permeates everything.

    Sorry, but you'll have to excuse me if I continue to associate with my NA friends and continue to purchase things I need from them including that which YOU think I shouldn't. Maybe you can issue me an exemption permit for such activity. . . you are the culture police, right?

  6. SH, NAs can sell whatever particular pseudo-spiritual knick-knacks and close-to-the-earth-and-wind services they want to gullible white folks. And I'm not talking about ordinary things they sell that you or others "need." If NA communities can earn money from their oppressors, that's fine with me. I'm just questioning what most white folks get out of such exchanges.

    Are you sure that the white folks I'm talking about in that post include yourself?

  7. Macon, You're sure not talking about me.
    I know all about wannabe white people. The interesting thing is that most of my Indian friends, while having a degree of loathing toward them, actually welcome them also since it's better to have a white person who is open to learning and trying to understand what NA culture is all about rather than one that is closed minded and unwilling to learn.
    Most NA people I know want to share their spiritual experience with white people. The more white people they can get onboard, the better off the world is going to be in their eyes.
    Your blanket condemnation and self hatred of white people clouds your ability to really understand other cultuures even though you try so hard to defend them all. . . except white culture of course.
    Sorry, that sounds harsh, but I call em like I see em.
    BTW: I think your statement "NAs can sell whatever particular pseudo-spiritual knick-knacks and close-to-the-earth-and-wind services they want to gullible white folks" is a gross trivialization of NA cultural outreach and their tradition of sharing. It really reflects poorly on what you are trying to do here on your blog.

  8. SH, are most NAs really "spiritual" people?

    What is "white culture"? And what in it should be defended?

    Why do you think I hate white people, when I've been saying all along that I'm instead against whiteness itself, as well as much of what the process of becoming white trains so-called white people to do? As I think I've asked you before, can't you see the difference?

    What does my post indicate I'm misunderstanding about NA culture (assuming there is only one of those)?

    As for my trivializing NA outreach, no, you're willfully misreading, again. Outreach is great, as is the fact that you have NA friends. I'm not questioning what NA people do. Again, I'm questioning what a lot of white people do when they steal from Indians, instead of what some white people, maybe those like you, do when they sincerely interact with and learn from non-white people.

  9. Macon, I'll answer your questions, but please ackowledge that you've not answered many of the one's I've asked you.

    Yes, most NA people are spiritual. . . at leastthe ones who are in touch with their culture. I do know a guy who is absolutely not, but he is a highly assimilated into white culture.

    I've told you on more than one occasion in the past what white culture is. It's sad thatyou can be so aware of everybody else's culture but not your own. I find that to be the root cause of folks trying to "wannabe Indian" or "act black," etc.

    I told you clearlythat yes, your post (where you tricvialize NA spirituality) does indicate a lack of understanding of NA culture.

    You've really twisted yourself up in all this white self hatred and as a result can't see the forest for the trees.
    You see, culture is a lot like love. Until you can love and understand yourself, you can't truly love and understand others.
    Until you can learn to love and understand your own culture, you'll never be able to love and understand others.

  10. Right SH, we don't answer all of each other's questions--we have so many for each other!

    SH, again, I don't hate myself. I hate the white training I've been subjected to. It's pretty clear you're unwilling to understand what I mean by that spelling out that difference, so I'll give up trying to explain it to you. Maybe it'll become clear to you, some day, if you continue to read my blog.

    I went back in search of your definitions of white culture, and found this from you, in response to my very first post. You pretty much describe here some of the white-trained folks I'm talking about in this current post on white theft, folks who were taught as children that it's okay to "steal" from Indians:

    It's embarrasing to be a white person in a group of other people like Afro-Amers, NAs or Chicanos and along come some boreass white person acting all black or whatever.

    Ya go to a pow-wow and the average Indian might have a choker or wrist band on. . . maybe be sportin a feather, but the white wannabes all show up in full Native American regalia and they're all walking around with that tight smile looking like fucking bozos and being laughed at constantly. People who are despeartely grasping a culture because they just don't recognize any of their own.

    Like you, it's not that I don't like these people--I don't like what they do. And I think it's worthwhile to try to understand how and why they've been led to do what they do.

    Also, you say my post shows a lack of understanding of NA culture--is there really only one of those? I don't think so. Anyway, my post is about white folks, not NA folks, some of whom are undoubtedly genuinely "spiritual" and genuinely interested in sharing that with soul-searching white folks, and some of whom recognize a way to make a quick buck off of other, more gullible white folks.

    As for culture being like love, well, try telling various non-white people that white culture, whatever that is, is about love. It's love of other white people, mostly, and it's fundamentally based in fear and hatred of non-white people.

    As for the idea that there even is such a thing as "white culture," well, I do know that culture, since I've come to understand that the category of white is all about a LACK of culture. It's a blank emptiness, precisely because the people with that label got it by dropping or suppressing what they were before, and also by defining themselves as white by defining others as not-white in specific ways ("savage" Indians, "lazy, heathen" blacks, "inscrutable" Chinese, and so on).

    As the leading historian of whiteness (as opposed to white people) David Roediger writes, “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.”

    Given all that, I don't understand why I should embrace my whiteness. I do not, however, hate myself, nor other white people, simply because we've been categorized and trained to be white.

  11. Macon,
    We've already had the discussion about what is white culture. It's sad that white people deny or refuse to see their own rich heritage and culture. I mourn for those of you who are missing out.
    To say white culture is "all about a LACK of culture. It's a blank emptiness," just makes me feel so bad for you.
    I hope someday you can begin to open up to your own culture. Only then will you be truly capable of understanding and loving other cultures.

  12. I like the statement that children are not born white they learn to become white. To my mind being of European descent and being white are two distinct things, even though they are obviously related. Having European heritage is just a question of history. Whiteness is a state of mind and a political outlook.

  13. SH,

    There is no "white" culture, just like there is no "black" culture, which is to say that these categories are rooted in pseudo-scientific ideas about racial biology and not in culture.

    You are white, and you do have a culture, but its not "white" culture. There are white people in France, in Australia, in Mexico (gasp, yes this is true). They share a race, but not a culture. Similarly black people in the US, the Caribbean, and Africa do not share a monolithic culture.

    What you're confusing "white culture" with is a uniquely American culture predominantly derived from European culture. It is also intertwined with the culture of the descendants of African slaves. From Rock & Roll to Peanut Butter, so many things enjoyed by European-Americans and recognized as a part of their culture is in fact African-American.

    This isn't to say that white and black Americans don't have distinctive regional cultures, they do, but they are obviously (if you look at history) heavily interconnected and interdependent. Yes, interdependent. European-Americans formed this country with the labor of slaves and ingenuity of their descendants, and would not have what they have without it. On the other side, taken from Africa and distanced from their native cultures, black Americans live a cultural life influenced by Europe.

    This is why the racialization of the term Latino is so fascinating to me. In fact Latinos are the descendants of Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and Asians (yes, surprise surprise). Latino is an umbrella term for people from countries colonized by Spain and Portugal. And yet the presence of so many mixed-race individuals seems to throw Americans for such a loop that what was once a cultural term has now become, more and more, a racial one. My ancestors were Spanish, West African, and Taino, according to the racial color-codes white, black, and red, and yet the distinction gets lost through oversimplification into Latino or "brown."

    Basically, SH, the color-code is a simplifying lie. People get fussy when others say "race is a construct," but this is what it's about. What is your culture? Well, American or European-American, especially if you don't identify with a specific ethnic identity. Your race is white, and that's a whole other beast that isn't about culture so much as the racial codes that you are taught and that are imposed on you. Does that mean it's not okay to be white? Of course not. It means you have the challenge to redefine whiteness, just as so many courageous artists, theorists, and everyday people have fought and are fighting to redefine blackness.

    This blog is about taking up that challenge, instead of continuing to ignore it's 800-lbs. presence in the room.

    PS I didn't even touch the tangled Asian race/ethnicity matrix. Another time, perhaps.

  14. Great points, Luis, very well put. Thank you for getting them laid out here. Redefining whiteness is a tough one, given its foundational basis in defining itself via the relational process of defining others. I'm working on it, though!


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