Saturday, March 6, 2010

think of the americas as empty before white people came

White people in America, and in Canada, have complex feelings and thoughts about the people who occupied the land before them. We long called them "Indians," largely with derision, and then many of us took to calling them Native Americans, thereby at least acknowledging the fact that they were here first.

Nowadays, white people are rarely as openly racist as we once were toward indigenous people. In fact, we have many ways of claiming that much to the contrary, we like, respect, and "honor" them -- from romantically grasping for supposed Native American blood in our ancestry, to decorating our bodies and homes with Native American objects, to claiming that cartoonish sports-team mascots are somehow respectful, instead of insultingly reductive.

When we're not claiming that we admire Native Americans -- or rather, their forefathers and foremothers, since our romanticized conceptions of them are all frozen in some distant, dreamy past, with next to nothing to do with today's actual Native American people -- when we're not claiming to admire them, we pretty much forget about them. Basically, we continue to more or less erase them.

I was reminded of this invidious erasure when I saw this Canadian ad for Hudson's Bay Clothing Company at boy louie's blog; this ad ran before the Olympics on Canadian TV (which is why I, living in the U.S., had never seen it).


This ad, full of restlessly moving, and then exercising white people, is entitled "We Were Made for This." I find the ad stirring and well produced, with great cinematography and music and so on. But then, like boy louie, I can't help but wonder who this "we" is: "The 'we' this Bay ad refers to is not the inclusion of all Canadian people, it is the exclusive group of white, European people who came to Canada and conquered it as their own."

It doesn't take long at all for me to see this celebratory, triumphant ad as horribly racist. Although it may include one or two non-white people, its depiction of the relentless march of Euro-Canadian progress mostly just erases indigenous people, as well as other kinds of non-white people who now populate Canada. This erasure occurs in the imagery of mostly white people moving across snowy landscapes, but also in the very first line of narration: "We arrived 340 years ago, to a land of ice, rock, and snow."

A rugged landscape indeed, a real challenge for "us." A perfect, and perfectly blank, canvas for the adventures of an ever-restless (white) people. But of course, this geographical canvas can only be imagined as blank before "our" arrival because its original people have been blithely, arrogantly erased from it.

In terms of race, then, this Canadian "we" is a lot like the American "we" -- all too often, it's an unspoken "white" we.

I'm reminded of, of all things, a famous poem by Robert Frost. When he was a white-haired octogenarian, Frost read this poem from memory, on a blustery winter day (oh, the snowy white irony, yet again!) at President Kennedy's inauguration.*

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Once again, stirring words, inspirational even, until I get to thinking about who Frost's "we" is. The "colonials" were primarily British, and as they created a country, these people came to identify as "Anglo-Saxons," the "real" or "most" white people in an ever-morphing hierarchy of whiteness. And once again, Frost speaks of "the land" as if it was empty -- still unstoried, artless, unenhanced -- before white people came along to claim it as a gift. Maybe indigenous people are included in that line about "deeds of war"? But even then, they're cordoned off from the real story, the story about "us" and the formation of "our" country, by parentheses.

I've often wondered -- how did Native Americans hear this poem when Frost read it aloud to the nation, in 1961? And how did other non-white people hear it, just as the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam to truly challenge and fight back against that great white "we"?

And now, after watching this recent Hudson Bay ad, I also wonder, yet again, nearly fifty years after Robert Frost announced, in front of yet another white president, just who "we" were -- when will white people ever stop assuming that in so many different social arenas, they belong at the absolute, triumphant, dead center of things?

* You can watch "the grand old man," Robert Frost, read his poem at Kennedy's inauguration here, at about 36 minutes. Frost had written a long preface to the poem for the occasion; apparently, the sun was so bright that he couldn't read his type-written pages, so he instead recited "The Gift Outright" from memory, changing "such as she would become" at the end to "such as she will become."


  1. Hence, why I can't help but feel a little sick when I hear them call this "their" country. Actually, it's rather remarkable that some people still call them "Indians", what with a growing population of families that are actually from India now.

  2. This attitude caused a large brouhaha in the scifi/fantasy world last year - Patricia C. Wrede's book The Thirteenth Child is based on the premise of "an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical," as described by one review. (Comments are where both the reviewer, Jo Walton, and Wrede, get called out; googling "racefail thirteenth child" or "racefail wrede" has more.)

    (Longtime lurker, first-time commenter. Hi!)

    [[Note: All clothing is "Western-style."]]
    [1800s? Scenes of Caucasian men and women arriving via rowboat on a wooded shore. Brief flashes of a dark-haired woman doing laundry outside and dark-haired children playing. Scenes of a light-skinned (possibly Native) man driving a sled-dog team over virgin snowdrifts.]
    Voiceover: We arrived 340 years ago to a land of rock, ice and snow.
    [Caucasian lumberjacks felling a tree in thick woods.]
    VO: We outfitted a nation of pioneers...
    [Scenes of various mountaineers hiking through snowy woods.]
    VO: explorers... and dreamers.

    [1950s? Scenes of a cross-country skier.]
    VO: We are the skiers;
    [Scenes of a family tobogganing on a hill.]
    VO: We are the sledders.
    [1980s? A snowmobiler races down a bumpy trail.]

    VO: We didn't just survive the elements...
    [2000s? Scenes of an Olympic skier on a slalom course.]
    VO: Together...
    [2010. Scenes of an Olympic snowboarder catching air.]
    VO: we thrived in them.

    [A male/female pair of light-skinned models wearing the product walk toward the viewer as text appears onscreen: "We were made for this."]
    VO: The official Vancouver 2010 Olympic collection... from Hudson's Bay Company.

  4. Wow. If I was native American, this would definitely rub me the wrong way. Speaking of which, my dad once said that the only reason why places like Africa and Asia aren't white majority countries is because there were too many Africans and Asians to kill, kick out, or control. Otherwise, it probably would have ended up like the Americas and Australia instead of getting decolonized. That was a daunting thought.

  5. These ideas are strongly enhanced by the awful myth that Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. Sure you've made a post about this before. Part of decolonizing the public's minds begins when we change the definition of "civilization". By not linking it up only to the Eurocentric imperialist power. The same goes for Cecil John Rhodes. I remember watching a documentary which I found highly racist of a man tracing the journey of Rhodes through Southern Africa on his arrival with two Africans guiding his path (hello???)...and they called that his "discovery". Imagine the absurdity of "discovering" a place that has already had civilzation dwelling and forming upon it. When people know the history of Africa, especially West Africa and it's many great civilzations and of Native Americans and their intense respect for the beauty and preservation of nature, they'll divorce the notion of civilzation from the white male-dominated imperialist "power".

  6. At the right-wing websites that I occasionally lurk at, the view of North America seems to be that while it was inhabited, the Natives weren't really doing anything constructive with it. Thus it was fair game to be taken over.

    In Australia the same mindset existed around colonial times and still does now, in many cases. It was declared "terra nullius" (unoccupied land) and fit for takeover because no one important was living there.

  7. Thank you for the transcript, karinova!

    Great point, Eurasian Sensation. There's actually a long history behind that kind of thinking, as some historians of the U.S. have pointed out. The most mind-blowing example for me is Charles C. Mann's 1491, in which he reveals the awesomely developed and complex extent of "pre-Columbian" civilizations.

    More to your point, Ronald Takaki also says the following, right after describing some of the extent of indigenous agriculture; his broader point is that as colonialists came to see the natives as a separate race, they lost their ability to see them as civilized:

    The social construction of race occurred within the economic context of competition over land. The colonists argued that entitlement to land required its utilization. Native men, they claimed, pursued "no kind of labor but hunting, fishing and fowling." Indians were not producers. "The Indians are not able to make use of the one fourth part of the Land," argued Reverend Francis Higginson in 1630, "neither have they any settled places, as Towns to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place." In the Puritan view, Indians were lazy. "Fettered in the chains of idleness," they would rather starve than work, William Wood of Boston complained in 1634. Indians were sinfully squandering America's resources. . . . Like the "foxes and wild beasts," Indians did nothing "but run over the grass."

    Having learned about the early racist and Christian conceptions of land and of the peoples who first occupied it, I was disgusted to see those conceptions echoed so strongly in that Hudson Bay commercial.

  8. You want another terrible poem? This one was forced upon me in my American Lit class (via a Norton Anthology)... I wrote a paper about how this poem was like Fox New's earliest news report.

    William Cullen Bryant's "The Prairies" The parts highlighted in red are the areas most disturbing. All along you're thinking he's talking ABOUT Native Americans until he refers to them as "red" and as a warlike tribe of hunters.

    It just adds insult to injury. Disgusting.

  9. Thanks Victoria, great example, if I'm reading it right, of what Takaki calls "the racialization of savagery."

    The speaker of that poem sees evidence (mounds and such) in the prairies of an earlier "disciplined and populous race," but a race that he thinks was overrun by "the red man"! ("The red man came -- The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce, And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.") It seems that in his mind, there's no way that "savage" Indians could have left behind remnants of civilized development.

    It's a perfect example of how the fiction of race grew, like glaucoma or something, over the eyes of European colonists and their descendants.

  10. It's surreal considering how much of Canada's population is non-white immigrants, but there's still this strong perception of Canadian = white. I remember one of my bosses last year (a Portuguese man) describing setting up a call centre in a more rural city outside Toronto, and he said something like, "So I had this call centre [in Toronto] that was full of Indian [SE Asian] people and black people, and then I went to Barrie and set up a call centre and it was just full of Canadians, all these white faces, and it was so different."

    It was a strange thing for me to hear because I've been here for a decade and Toronto has always been very multi-racial, so I don't think of Canada in terms of Canadian=white. But clearly a lot of people still do. My ex-boss associated the white people with being Canadians, even though undoubtedly all those SE Asian and black people that were working for him were also Canadian.

    I do notice an aspect of it that's crept into my own thinking though - although I myself am an immigrant (now a dual citizen), I don't think of myself as an immigrant; I don't associate with that identity the way a lot of PoC immigrants seem to. I've come to think that this is partially due to the idea that as a white person I have that sense of entitlement that says I belong wherever I am, and partially due to the internalized myth that immigrant = PoC.

  11. @Robin re". . . so I don't think of Canada in terms of Canadian=white. But clearly a lot of people still do."

    This brings to mind related SWPD: Avoid naming whiteness by substituting nationality for their and other white people's racial identity, as in "American" or "Canadian" instead of "white," thus perpetuating the normalization of whiteness and othering of non-whiteness. I don't know if there's already a main posting on this. I also think of the use of "Caucasian" as primarily an avoidance of "white" or "European" as a racial/ethnic marker.

  12. @bloglogger, who said I also think of the use of "Caucasian" as primarily an avoidance of "white" or "European" as a racial/ethnic marker.:

    Can you go into more detail about that? I've always had the impression that "Caucasian" was simply the official name (i.e.: used on the Census and things like that) for "white", but they both mean the same thing.

  13. @Fromthetropics,
    An estimated 100 million Native Americans were killed so maybe it wasn't so much the paucity of the people as the elements that they were exposed to.

    I had always wondered why africans also weren't killed off by the introduction of small pox and other diseases and according to Jared Diamond's work it was because they had long been exposed to certain animals and therefore developed an immunity.

    Sorry if I derailed I just wanted to throw that in.

  14. Re Caucasian vs White: the US Census form actually has only one word on it for this group: "White." The next category is "Black, African Am., Negro". And it gets more complicated from there.

    On the main post, yes. Discursively erasing native people from their own land is part of the ideology of Euro-American entitlement. I think White people's avoidance of the self-label Euro-American or European American is similarly a denial of being invaders.

    I believe "Caucasian" has origins in what is called "scientific racism" and is today used by people who think the color names are wrong but reject the label European.

  15. This post reminds me of a conversation I had with my husband and two of my son's teachers: how can you "settle" a place where people were already living? "Settlers" is such a loaded concept. I was reading a lot of posts online from Native Americans who are members of "first contact" nations. They were discussing how such dismissive arrogance (e.g., "settlers") and racist caricatures of First Nations people has fed into the high drop-out, substance abuse and suicide rates of Native American teens in their respective nations.

    The speaker of that poem sees evidence (mounds and such) in the prairies of an earlier "disciplined and populous race," but a race that he thinks was overrun by "the red man"! ("The red man came -- The roaming hunter tribes, warlike and fierce, And the mound-builders vanished from the earth.") It seems that in his mind, there's no way that "savage" Indians could have left behind remnants of civilized development.

    Reminds me of the attitude many people have about ancient Egypt: there's no way "savage" black people could have created such a civilization. I see a number of parallels between First Nations people and Africans/diaspora, including reducing us to primitive caricatures or non-entitities.

  16. "We long called them "Indians," largely with derision, and then many of us took to calling them Native Americans, thereby at least acknowledging the fact that they were here first."

    and @Kevin: "Actually, it's rather remarkable that some people still call them "Indians", what with a growing population of families that are actually from India now."

    It's my understanding (and I'm certainly happy to be corrected) that the issue of naming is not as cut-and-dried as it's made to seem here. cf: Wikipedia and Infoplease.

    While "American Indian" seems like the safer choice, it also looks like there is at least some segment of the population being named that actually prefers "Indian" to "Native American," at least as far as I can tell.

  17. Just wanted to add that as soon as I heard this:
    We arrived 340 years ago to a land of rock, ice and snow,
    I knew it was racist. Big red flag. Perhaps those who perpetuate this erroneous belief aren't treating the americas as empty before white people came, but maybe are reducing First Nations people to the same status as animals (notice the shift from sled-pulling dogs to a man in an animal skin hood and coat). This would be consistent with the concept of white occupation characterized as "civilization" or "pioneers/settlers." White people = fully human (and "civilized"), POC = not so much.

  18. My great grand-mother was full-blooded Cherokee Indian, so it really riles me when I hear statements about "America discovery" or "Our forefathers were just honoring the land (by slaughtering indigenous people to make way. What's even more infuriating is that there are books out trying to call these massacres as "myths."

    That's a very interesting prospective.

    OT, but very interesting I also notice that some historians--or should I say pseudo-historians have started this trend that when dealing with discoveries about ancient civilizations, i.e. Egypt, Mayans, ancient Iraq--that their contributions must have come from extraterrestials. There are some convinced that "aliens" helped build the pyramaids in Egypt. It was also discovered that in what is now modern day Iraq, that the people found a way to conceive electricity, by using their natural resources to make a battery. The assumption was that they had to get their knowledge from aliens---but yet when Ben Franklin "discovered" electricity there was no talk of aliens. This "alien" talk is just another way to discredit the contributions of these people.

  19. While "American Indian" seems like the safer choice, it also looks like there is at least some segment of the population being named that actually prefers "Indian" to "Native American," at least as far as I can tell.

    Maybe the best approach is on an individual level. The individuals I know first and foremost identify with their particular nation but generally prefer "Native American." I follow their lead. Similarly, if I met someone who preferred to be referred to as "Indian," I would also follow her/his lead. I figure it's not my place to insist on what an entire country/continent of indigenous people should be called.

  20. @Robin
    "I do notice an aspect of it that's crept into my own thinking though - although I myself am an immigrant (now a dual citizen), I don't think of myself as an immigrant; I don't associate with that identity the way a lot of PoC immigrants seem to. I've come to think that this is partially due to the idea that as a white person I have that sense of entitlement that says I belong wherever I am, and partially due to the internalized myth that immigrant = PoC."

    This question is just for you (and maybe other Canadian immigrants of any race), bc I don't want to divert the thread, but I just have to ask. Besides the arguments that you just listed for not feeling foreign, do you love it? Canada, your city, your life here. Because I think that's a huge factor in feeling at home or not. I've been here for less than a year, and many things are better and easier for me than in my home country, but I just feel no love, no warmth for this place and I fear I'll always feel like an outsider here. Other than that, it would be very easy for me to blend in, bc I'm White and my English is good. And I also wonder if PoC immigrants who really love it here feel Canadian and at home faster.

  21. what, there were people here before columbus came? no way!

  22. the 'we' IS the Hudson's Bay Company (so, yes it is an exclusiv group of white European people). It was the Hudson's Bay Company that arrived 340 years ago.

    What The Bay is trying to do here, is to conflate its own history with Canadian history. Its taking the fact that The Bay is an old, old corporation, that played a significant role in European expansion in North America, and trying to turn that into a marketing point by celebrating a history that should instead be problematized.

    The ad also seems incongruous with the general attitude that the Vancouver Olymic Committee has taken towards aboriginal Canadians, while also problematic, was at least unequivocal in its acknowledgement that aboriginal people were here first, and that the olympics were being held on their land.

    @ Robin: Actually, I think your anecdote identifies the problem: there is a sharp urban-rural divide when it comes to racial diversity. So a lot of white Canadians don't have their understanding of what it means to be Canadian challenged.

    My sister was walking down Spadina one time with a group of out-of-towners, and one of them said, "the Chinese are taking over!" while my sister was like, "... yeah... we're in Chinatown."

  23. fromthetropics you should really read the book/see the miniseries called guns, germs and steel. it kind of explains why europeans weren't able to take over africa like they did north america.

  24. Also, on the point of diversity, and thinking of white Canadians as just "Canadian" etc.:

    In my experience, "multicultural" accounts of Canadian history and what it means to be Canadian also often erase aboriginal Canadians. They acknowledge that the railway was built by Chinese labourers at great loss of life, that there were racist immigration laws, that Canadians have ties to all parts of the world, but they leave out the stories of the Canadians who were here first.

  25. "and of Native Americans and their intense respect for the beauty and preservation of nature"
    What "respect for nature"? They pulled the same "wipe out the megafauna" trick as Australians and pretty much everyone who ever colonized an island did (Europe fared a little better, while both Africa and southern Asia came out almost unscathed).

  26. *rolls eyes*

    Was wondering when that "full circle" would show up. The one where someone says we 'did/do have a deep respect for nature' like we're elves or something and then there's the one where we 'wiped out the megafauna and flora' or something like that. Often those comments tend to be a rebuttal of one another--when someone says one another person brings out the other.

    Think I'm gonna put on the stopwatch again to wait and see how long it'll take for someone to mention us being immigrants coming across the bering strait.

    *gags at it all*

  27. The worst, imo, is this, which is often shouted by anti-American Europeans as a sort of barb against US Americans:

    "The U.S. has no history!"

    Ah, yes. Because history starts with white people. Those Native Americans you hear about so much? They have no history. Nope! Never did anything interesting.

    It's true that a lot of pre-Columbian history is lost to time... but that's a huge difference from saying that there was no history. There was history; for the most part, it's just hard to piece together.

    You could stretch it to say that it refers only to the country of the United States... but using that logic, we could say Saudi Arabia (78 years old), the People's Republic of China (61 years old), and Israel (62 years old) have no history, either. We could even extend this to the United Kingdom; at most, it's only ~300 years old.

    I doubt anyone would dare say anything about those countries, though. The U.S. is fair game because anti-Americanism is trendy and cool, no matter if you end up erasing the histories of hundreds of tribes of Native Americans.

  28. @olderwoman: Huh! Caucasian is used as an official term here in Canada. "Visible minority" in Canada (according to StatsCan - they do the Census here) is "persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour". It's described that way in the federal Employment Act and other government things. I just assumed that it was the same for U.S. and elsewhere. (Well, we all know what they say about assumptions.)

    I went and read about "Caucasian" in Wikipedia, and yeah, it sounds like something that was made up as part of the "scientific" racism movement. I'm not sure if I want to use it anymore. Although "European" doesn't feel any more accurate to me, because I don't have any real connection to my European ancestry. I think of Europeans as being people who are first-generation from Europe. (And actually only part of Europe. I don't think of British people as being European, for example; I think of them as British.) I guess I'll have to stick with "white", although that feels really informal. (Whenever I'm asked for my race in an official capacity I use "Caucasian", and use "white" in everyday life.)

    @ambee: I can't say I love Canada, because I don't understand the concept of attachment to a particular place. It's not like a person or an object, yk? I don't really get it. But I am glad to be here, and VERY glad to be raising my kids somewhere that's more in line with my own views socially/philosophically than the U.S. was. I can't say I feel like an outsider though. I felt like an outsider at the beginning, but not anymore. (As an aside, if you live in TO and you're feeling lonely here & not really making friends yet, I'd be happy to hang out sometime.) So yeah, I appreciate Canada, but I can't say I love it.

    @Marissa: LOL @ the Chinatown incident - yeah, that's perfect. We used to tour quite a lot in Northern Ontario and it's super-whitebread up there. I found the same thing out East; we were in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick (can't remember which one, we visited both on the same trip) one time and I was looking at the local phone book. The cover was decorated with pictures of babies. There were a TON of white babies, and I think one black baby, and maybe two or three Asian babies. I was like, "Wow, way to fail There's Other People Besides Whiteys 101." Then I opened it up, and on the inside of the cover it discussed how the baby pictures were representative of the ethnic demographics of the area. o_O

  29. "that great white 'we'" ....
    The white we. wow. Powerful words. That phrase is now burned in my brain. It's also so versatile and can cover a lotta stuff, Macon!

  30. @KBR
    Thanks for pointing this out about "anti-American" comments. There have been several instances where I've had to correct some Europeans that make that claim.

    I also like to correct the people who make ignorant comments about immigration and how "our forefathers" didn't intend it to be that way (meaning this land is for whites only).

    But yeah, I'm sure Native Americans were thinking the same think about those "immigrants" when the ships started coming in. Usually, that shuts them up.

  31. Robin: I don't feel European either, but I'm at least as European as an African-American is African. More, actually, as the importation of slaves to the US largely stopped in 1808, while many of my ancestors migrated around 1900. My theory is we should all get hyphens as it is the only way to decenter the White sense of entitlement.

    About names for the indigenous people of North America, here's something from the FAQ section of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs ( website (this text is different than it was in the late 1990s, I just discovered): "Why are American Indians and Alaska Natives also referred to as Native Americans? When referring to American Indian or Alaska Native persons, it is still appropriate to use the terms “American Indian” and “Alaska Native.” These terms denote the cultural and historical distinctions between persons belonging to the indigenous tribes of the continental United States (American Indians) and the indigenous tribes and villages of Alaska (Alaska Natives, i.e., Eskimos, Aleuts, and Indians). They also refer specifically to persons eligible for benefits and services funded or directly provided by the BIA. The term “Native American” came into broad usage in the 1970's as an alternative to “American Indian.” Since that time, however, it has been gradually expanded within the public lexicon to include all Native peoples of the United States and its trust territories, i.e., American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Chamorros, and American Samoans, as well as persons from Canada First Nations and indigenous communities in Mexico and Central and South America who are U.S. residents."

  32. Cuddly WigglesworthMarch 7, 2010 at 7:35 PM

    On Bryant: Actually, we can't say whether his notions of who the moundbuilders were--or how they disappeared--were "fictions" or not, since we don't know much ourselves about that civilization. But it is certainly true that Bryant constructed a vision of pre-Columbian North America as a place of genocidal strife, and at a time when when the (genocidal) push westward was getting going in earnest. But I would say that the "The Prairie" is the expression of a culture that is unsure what to make of its own imperial project. On the one hand, what happened to the moundbuilders is, one senses throughout the sonorous tone of "The Prairie," tragic, or at least regrettable. On the other hand, the fact that the destruction of that civilization has been carried out, in Bryant's reckoning, by an warlike, invading force of "red men" which were themselves undergoing their own displacement in Bryant's day--the shoe now being on the other foot--would seem to provide cover for that process of displacement. If the red man could do it to the moundbuilders, the implicit logic goes, certainly we could do it to them. We are none of us any more than immigrants on this continent, Bryant seems to hold.

    It's easy to denounce such maneuvers for what they seem to license, especially from our own historical vantage. And it's probably good to do so. But of course, it would also be parochial to pretend that Bryant's motives are transparent or simple, least of all to himself, or that the message of "The Prairie" is easily paraphrasable. On the one hand, the poem is really, really textured. On the other, authors are shaped in all kinds of ways and by all kinds of considerations: they are hardly ever simply the puppets of some ideology. For instance, Bryant was also an accomplished medievalist whose work in that field tended to cast early British history, similarly, in terms of invading hoards sweeping over one another. For that matter, he lived through an era of mass death--due to rampant disease--in New York, where he was based when he wrote "The Prairie": wandering the occasionally-abandoned streets of Manhattan, mass racial extinction may have sometimes been on his mind.

  33. Nowadays, white people are rarely as openly racist as we once were toward indigenous people. In fact, we have many ways of claiming that much to the contrary, we like, respect, and "honor" them -- from romantically grasping for supposed Native American blood in our ancestry, to decorating our bodies and homes with Native American objects, to claiming that cartoonish sports-team mascots are somehow respectful, instead of insultingly reductive.

    I encountered the "I have Native American ancestry" line for the first time this past summer. While I recognized that the intent of the comment was to "respect" or "honor" American Indian heritage, in context it struck me not as a way to embrace an indigenous identity but, instead, like this commercial, as an implicit form of erasure.

    The kicker was that the folks who proudly mentioned their “full-blooded” Cherokee grandmothers or grandfathers immediately proceeded to joke about the lack of visible signs of American Indian blood in their features. (They have hairy arms, blond hair, etc.) Moreover, the delivery felt canned, as if they’d delivered the punch line several times before.

    Not to mention that this reference to their American Indian ancestry came as a (rather defensive) response to my, an African American’s, mentioning a trip to my family’s old, slavery-era plantation land.

    Their swift move from “dressing up” as Indian to quickly pointing out their lack of identifiable American Indian features seemed to rhetorically suggest, "See, historical oppression, like pigmentation, can fade with time too--and given enough time, we can laugh about it, as well."

    Like the commercial, by subsuming and diluting a historical narrative in whiteness—their own—these folks were able to cast a national history of violence (that which was tied to their bloodlines as well as to my own) in a humorous and, thus, personally disavowing manner.


    This dual-identity, “oppressed-oppressor” framing of history seems a bit more insidious than the blatant (and laughable) revisionism of this Hudson's Bay commercial. And I felt a twinge of it while watching the opening ceremonies of this year’s Winter Olympics.

    Sure, indigenous people were part of the show, but in what capacity? Singing and dancing in a celebratory manner at the “arrival” of foreign and Canadian (and largely white) athletes. Incorporating indigenous people into a national “narrative” may masquerade as diversity or pluralism, but it’s important to be mindful of the way these racial roles have been “written” into the script.

  34. @olderwoman

    I notice the qoute from the bia website says nothing about the wishes of the people being named. The bia (a colonial entity by definition) is essentialy saying it is how it is just because they say so. The very existence of the bia demonstrates how colonial societies MUST other indigenous ones at a fundamental level to exist. The supreme court confessed as much in 1823, Johnson v. McIntosh. Justice Marshal said:

    "However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear; if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it; it becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned. [. . .] However this restriction may be opposed to natural right, and to the usages of civil nations, yet, if it be indispensable to that system under which the country has been settled, and be adapted to the actual condition of the two people, it may, perhaps, be supported by reason, and certainly cannot be rejected by Courts of justice."

    And what is up with the bia saying Alaskan Natives are so different from lower-48 peoples, but implying that the latter are all the same?

  35. Lutsen: I'm not defending the BIA, just quoting it to add to the naming discussion. I thought readers would be interested in the reference to other indigenous peoples in the US. In particular, there was a big fight because Native Hawaiians wanted to be classified as Native Americans, i.e. as indigenous people. If you read stuff written by native people, there is a lot of use of the word "Indian". "Indian Country" is commonly used by native people as a positive term for American Indians; the major pan-tribal newspaper is called Indian Country Today.

    Although BIA's history is certainly colonial and worse, today it is dominated by native people and describes itself as a government-to-government entity working on behalf of the tribes. The multi-billion-dollar lawsuit about BIA mismanagement of trust funds was finally settled under the Obama administration. Which is not to say the BIA is uncontroversial among native people, nor that the tribes all agree with each other, nor that there isn't conflict within tribes. If you check out the BIA web site, you'll see that people on it are now routinely identified by their tribal affiliation. In the US, "federally recognized tribes" have a legal status deriving from 19th century treaties, and defending those treaties and tribal sovereignty is a big part of American Indian political action. Alaska natives do not have treaties and have a different legal status in the US context.

    Relative to the OP, the point of this stuff is that native people are alive today and have modern political concerns as separate peoples. In the US, tribal sovereignty, not just ethnic identity, is a really important issue for native people, but the concept of tribal sovereignty only applies to groups with treaties.

    I obviously know much less about the particular situations of Canadian First Nations.

  36. @ Cuddly Wigglesworth,

    During Bryant's time, there actually was a theory that mound-builders or something like a Greek equivalent existed in the United States. I think that - and the anger toward the retaliation of the Native Americans when they were being wrenched from their land and massacred really took Bryant down a path of insecurity and outrage. Close to the end of the poem, he creates a scenario where one lone mound-builder manages to stay alive and is accepted into the "red man's" tribe where he then takes a bride and moves on with life but still holding that memory of who was "truly" American. And the very end it says:

    "From the ground
    Comes up the laugh of children, the soft voice
    Of maidens, and the sweet and solemn hymn
    Of Sabbath worshippers."

    At the time of this poem, there wasn't anything more white than a Sabbath worshipper. And I find your assessment of Bryant's implication that since the "red man" did it to the mound-builders the white man was just settling the score and taking something back (as noted by the return of idyllic tone at the end indicates) is correct.

    However, I disagree with trying to determine the author's intent. The poem is whatever the reader makes of it when the author is not willing or not present to discuss his own intent. And I happen to believe that Bryant was a wonderful writer who, existed during a time of disturbing unrest in America, and his poems cannot help but to reflect that. It is beautiful and horrid all at once.

  37. This leaflet about HBC ("The Bay") is one of a series about corporate sponsorship of the 2010 Olympics:

    Vancouver was snowless as usual, but it was a sea of people wearing HBC's Olympic red mittens. Anti-olympic protesters are still being picked up by police and about 10 are facing charges.

    Various media coverage here:

    You can donate to the legal defense fund via paypal here:

  38. I had NOT seen this referenced Canadian ad before...since I also live in the USA. I find it to be astonishingly innappropriate, and derogatory.

    I was born in, and have lived in New Mexico, in the Southwestern United States, and am continually offended at the presumption of "history" beginning with, for the most part, with the arrival not even of Columbus, but of "the landing at Plymouth Rocks." An especially conceited fantasy when the native people's here had, for instance, a Pueblo Revolt throwing the Spanish out for a considerable span of years before any Pilgrim was a glimmer in their parents eyes. There are advanced civilizations archeologically documented from at least the 8th century, AD.

    I'm 50, and on my father's side the orphanage where my father and his sisters landed after my grandfather's death "lost" their "Indian Census Papers." A not-so-subtle (successful) attempt to white-ify my family. Because the children were young, and did not know towns, and last names of people, it cut them off entirely from their people, and their land, back in Oklahoma. While today, I listen as I wander about where beautiful Zuni, Navajo, Isleta, and every other tribal art is found, and hear the discomfort of white people with "straying off the reservation" of tribal traditional art into modern interpretive art. So, yah, it all still goes on, including in this commercial.

  39. Another serious issue about the HBC commercial in is the closing scene where the female model walks to the front of the screen, adorning a "Cowichan" sweater with an elk and maple leaf pattern. Take a look at this Vancouver Sun article.

    Here in Vancouver/Coast Salish Territories, the HBC sided chose "local" manufacturers to produce "Cowichan-inspired" hand-knit sweaters instead of employing actual Cowichan Tribes people. The article speaks for itself, but one particular outrageous element is that:

    HBC said it considered using traditional Cowichan knitters to produce its sweaters, but felt they could not meet its strict standards.

    So not only did HBC come here 340 years ago to a supposedly empty land devoid of ANY human development, let alone human beings themselves, they raped the living (if barely) traditions of their own 'local' (HOME) people in TWENTY-TEN for the Olympics, THEN judged that their sweaters didn't fit their "strict standards," THEN sold rip-offs of them for $350 a pop. HOLY S***! I can't speak from personal experience for First Nations people in Canada, but as a Chinese-Canadian this is a bloody* crime and a travesty. Makes me think again about the utility of the symbolic welcoming of Four Host Nations at the Opening Ceremony.

    *There were anti-olympic protesters during the Olympics shouting "blood on your hands" at HBC to bring attention to the genocide of Canada's indigenous people due to HBC's colonization and the small pox it brought.


    As someone experiencing the consequences of these issues locally, thanks everyone for your awareness, empathy, attention, and intelligence to this topic.

    Also, thanks, macon, for taking this topic WAY deeper and broader than I could have ever conceived. Glad to see that this issue is getting much deserved notice.

  40. Heh. I live in Cherokee territory (Atlanta) so I was pretty much indoctrinated from the start that Andrew Jackson was the devil and that the white people stole everything from the rightful owners of the land (some racist sentiments in what I was taught here, like the way the Native Americans were saints who lived in harmony with nature, but I'll ignore that for now). In other words, I had no idea until that commercial that the sensation was still so common.

  41. Incidentally, I've decided that (despite being white) Jared Diamond is the ever-lurking deity of this blog. After all, his theories and writings apply so often to the subject here... it's quite scary.

  42. ... may I suggest a listen ... readership here should check "Columbus Ghost" by Mutabaruka

    One love

  43. I use Native American, but I would prefer if we left the America out.

    Terms like this are used to further segregate us. Many Mexicans and south Americans are displaced native people with European ties, we would be too large a group if we were all one people.

    I am from a Southwestern Tribe, that has long ago been integrated with Spaniards. I am half "Latino" and half Native.

    Native Americans, I feel, are left to die out, reservations are concentration camps that can easily be forgotten. Our languages are replaced with our conquerors tongues our foods are replaced with diets our bodies can not process.

    I am sure you have heard the much romanticized saying "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth" but it is true. I do not want the land back, it was never ours to own, I would like all of us to respect the earth a little more.

    I have heard people call me "Indian, feather not dot"

  44. My ancestors were essentially forced from their prehistoric lands to America from Europe, rather than be slaves, they fought, and won their freedom. Were my ancestors ( who belonged to an extremely martial culture where any perceieved political, social or cultural slight was met with violence and that culture has pervaded since written records were kept ) supposed to tolerate oppression and slavery ? Of course they weren't, nor would anyone of that cultural background. So they fought back, were given land on the "frontier" as it was at that time before the US was even a dream. There they fought the Cherokee and other tribes for land to simply live. When they weren't fighting, they were f*cking. This martial culture still exists to this day and many of us live on land that was won back the. To cast us as not knowing the past, is extremely wrong, it's in our DNA, many of us including myself having Native American ancestory, including African, Mediteranian, Celtic and Germanic stock.

    Wether it was right or wrong, we can easily say it in our comfortable homes, on our computers, with our stacked fridges and warm clothes. But ask someone who was forced from their homelands in chains or at the end of a rifle or at the threat of starvation, and then for them to face something totally alien, they're going to react to it in a totally culturally expected way.

    There's two sides to all stories.

  45. sad pants,

    Where in Europe were these ancestors of yours? What did they self-identify as? And when did they come here?

    Also, were they "given" land that was stolen (either outright or in effect) from other, non-white people? Land that black people in America would never have been given? Did they, in other words, enjoy white privilege? And do you have white privilege today (that is, as you move about in daily life, are you taken as white)? If so, what do you think of that?

  46. They were from the Highlands of Scotland. They were ceded their lands as part of their agreement to stop armed resistance. The land was bad and extremely isolated, and it was in possession of other people. At that time, in the eyes of the English, they weren't considered white, and they self identified as Highlanders and their clan designation. Do I enjoy white priviledge ? I don't really subscribe to what you consider white priviledge. I believe it's class , cultural and ethnic priviledge. I'm an Appalachian and from a background of extreme poverty and a felon. So I am a second class citizen. So no I haven't.

  47. And if you're a felon, the only priviledge you can have is Machiavellian. Other than that, a naturalized citizen who cannot speak English has more rights than I do.

    Which is a whole nother bag of beans to pick. Which is central to the theme of this blog, how many disenfranchised people ( all poor are disenfranchised ) are felons ? I've always wondered that.

  48. sad pants,

    You may be a second-class citizen in terms of class, but not in terms of race, which is what this blog is about. When your ancestors came here and eventually became "white," they and you were handed a set of advantages that were withheld from non-white people. That's still true today, and still affects and privileges your own life, whether you consciously "subscribe" to it or not. Yes, middle-class and higher Americans (of all races) do discriminate against lower-class and regionally/ethnically marked white Americans. But that's not "racism," and that also doesn't mean that the discriminated-against don't still have white privilege.

  49. Sad Pants wrote,

    And if you're a felon, the only priviledge you can have is Machiavellian. Other than that, a naturalized citizen who cannot speak English has more rights than I do.

    However, if you're a white felon, you STILL have a better chance of getting a job than a black man, even a black man who's not a felon.

    That's what white privilege is.

    Still unwilling to "subscribe" to it?

  50. It is racism when you're taught and the mainstream culture teaches that because of your genetics, culture, and regionalism that you're inferior, it is racism. Just like the Nazis did against the Jews, who were as ethnically and culturally the same as the Christian Germans. I only have white priviledge is I give up my language, my culture, my family, my way of life, my community. It's akin to asking a Native American to give up his tribe. My tribe is my culture and my clan. My skin may be white, but as soon as I open my mouth, I get the same look as other minorities do, just that I'm a cousin fucking hillbilly idiot ( even though I'm not on all accounts, hillbilly in a negative context is the same as the n bomb).

    You think I did two prison numbers for cooking meth because I had white priviledge ? I had 10 lil brothers and sisters and a mother to look after ? You think I made that choice because I had other choices ? Because my white skin would get me into college ? Would get me good jobs ? No, it didn't, my white skin ain't provide me with jack shit, my culture provided me with an inate knowledge of chemistry that with a lil bit of training got me a skill that made me money. I did my first juvie number at 13. My first adult number at 16. Where is my white priviledge ? I watched white American drunken and drugged killers get less papers than I got hard time.

  51. Macon, you're an intelligent and empathetic person, for that I'll respect you. But can I ask you a question ?

    Are you Appalachian ? Are you from a background of extreme poverty ? Have you ever went hungry ? Did you have electricity througout childhood ? Did you shiver with hunger and cold for days and weeks at a time ?

    I may be white, but to get the priviledge of being white, that means I must do something that at this age, I can't do. Which means ridding myself of an accent that I've had for 30 years. Disassociating with a culture that is my lifeline. With my kinfolk. My way of life.

    Think of the Native Americans who were sent to the schools.

    It's the same exact thing.

    Would you give up your culture, ethnicity, language, family, loved ones, identity to just be accepted after 30 years of being what and who you are ?

    That's the question. And I won't do it, I'd rather rot in prison for the rest of my life than set that example for my children. I raise them to be proud and militant Appalachians.

  52. For you, your priviledge is class based, culture based, ethnic based, regionally based.

    For you to get your priviledge, you have to simply breathe.

    I have to give up everything that is me to have that. And even then, I'm still a second class citizen because I wanted my kin to eat and have lights and hot water.

    How many proponents of universal white priviledge have been in that situation ?

  53. Sad Pants,

    I don't think anyone here would deny the detrimental effects of what you're talking about. But many here, including me wouldn't call it racism, because it's not. It's classism. And classism inflicted on you doesn't take away your white privilege. And, your discussion of classism is derailing the topic here of racism. In this discussion thread specifically, it's the common and racist white tendency to think of the land that became America as empty before white people arrived. You know, like that land that I think you said elsewhere was "given" to your ancestors, which you described without acknowledging who it was taken from, and without acknowledging that it was taken from them and given to your ancestors in the name of overt white supremacy. You refuse to acknowledge the white privilege of yourself and your ancestors; I can see how the classism you've suffered could make it hard to see the significance of the racism that you and your ancestors haven't had to suffer.

  54. I see your point about the "given" aspect, and you're right.

    But at the sametime, you can tell someone who has known hunger, no running water, no electricity and no heat that they're "priviledged". in fact it is offensive, and I'm not saying you're doing it on purpose. I think it's more of your own background blurring your perception of what other people go through.

    Class is the big thing in all conversations, most victims of racism are poor.

    You think a rich person who isn't white is gonna deal with what I have to deal with and have had to deal with ? No.

    They'll have access to things that I'll never and never had access too.

    Remember, in America, 55% of poor are white, 45% of the poor aren't white.

    Why divide the poor ? As an Appalachian, I have more in common with a black person, a Latino, an Asian immigrant or a Native American than you will ever have.

    To them and us, you're a rich boy. You're a target, you're weak.

    In prison, you're a target, you'd feel as we all do in the regular world.

    You can claim this and that from a position of comfort and ease.

    Answer this, have you ever had have a choice between acceptance and your culture ?

    Have you had to risk your freedom and future to feed your family ?

    Have you ever had the only choice between 200 bucks a week for 40 hours work or 2 thousand a day for doing dirt ?

    Have you ever had to shoot or stab someone ?

    Have you ever been shot or stabbed ?

    These are all relelvant questions.

    If you're middleclass, just up and say it.

  55. It's not racism ?

    In commmon words, I'm a hillbilly.

    I'm supposed to fuck my cousin.

    Be a KKK member.

    To be violent.

    To be a criminal.

    To hate everyone who ain't my kin.

    To be treated like an alien species, rather than a seperate culture that has had a different experience than other minority groups.

    Fuck, yall don't even consider us minorities, when we are. WE ARE NOT LIKE YOU IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM AND NOR DO WE WANNA BE !

    Or do yall just pick and choose y'all'n's're causes based upon skin color ? Do y'all care that kidss're starvin' ? That some of the most poor people in the Western world are living on top of billions of dollars worth of coal ? Or that your lights are the result of our exploitation ?

  56. And Macon, I do respect you greatly. You are a good and empathetic individual. And you're right on some parts and I'll easily concede as such. I think my purpose is more to educate you about the common Appalachian viewpoint in both socioeconomic and cultural aspects.

    I am a seperatist, I do believe that we Appalachians need an Autonomous Appalachiain Republic to have equality and equity. That it's an inherent violation of human rights for people to live below poverty level while there's trillions of dollars worth of coal beneath their feet and beneath land we've owned for generations and centuries.

    Just remember, everytime you turn on a light, an Appalachian child goes hungry and that your light is on because of the coal stolen from his illiterate great great great grandfather.

  57. *forehead to the effin table*

  58. @Moviegirl & others - thanks for the corrections/info ;)

  59. Class is the big thing in all conversations, most victims of racism are poor.

    @Sad Pants - Yes, classism is definitely a huge problem. However, it does not cancel out racism. You make it sound as though racism is just another word for classism, it isn't. Class wise I'm from a relatively privileged background (middle class, university educated, etc). However, it doesn't exempt me from experiencing racism. I can change my accent and body language all I want, dye my hair and whatever have you, but the fact remains that I look Asian and will experience racism. I probably experience less racism compared to poorer pocs, but I am not exempt.

    It might make it easier for you to understand if you compare classism and sexism. Just because classism exist, it doesn't mean that sexism doesn't exist. You may experience classism, but a middle class woman may experience sexism (e.g. sexual assault, harassment, etc - all of that is sexism). For example, just because an Appalachian man experiences classism, it does not mean that he does not benefit from any male privilege. The same goes for racism. And this blog happens to be about racism.

  60. Very well put. You're making a point that I've been echoing for years.

    'nuff said!

  61. @sad pants

    what you have said about mistreatment about folk like you is 100% correct.

    BUT...your real beef should with people in Scotland, they drove you out, forced you to lose your traditions. Ironically, your ancestors immediately did the same thing (that was done to them) to the native americans - or at least happily accepted the rich, coal-filled land that was won through war and extermination of Native Americans. Your ancestors only got the land because they were European/White.

    Just because you were discriminated and forced to flee, does not give you the right to kill and steal and do the same things to an innocent third party and claim it for yourself. Do you see the irony here?

    And if you are still confused about white privilege, know that in most places in Europe, Asia, Russia, South America you would be treated better than a non-white person of similar status..think on that.

    Oh, and you self-describe your ancestors as warlike - how do you even know that your lands in Scotland were not a result of your conquests over the local Scottish (possibly peaceful) population? Hmmm? Just food for thought.

  62. @suppressedinfinity


    It always ticks me off that somehow POCs have to be "more than human" in that we have to forgive the acts of colonial Europe as though we're beings of pure redemption and mercy. Excuse me, we're human and we're allowed to be just as unforgiving as some whites expect us to be merciful. Jeez, back then we were less than human. Now we're expected to be moral angels who are expected not to act with some emotion when issues considering race come up. Sounds like a way for some whites to argue that their ancestors get to get away with all they did but POCs are going to pat them on the shoulder and say "It's all right, man. We're cool."

  63. @Ebony:
    Re: connecting ancient PoC with ETs.
    Y'know, the more I see this phenomenon in action, the more I think it's not so much about discrediting PoC (although that's surely in there too). I get the impression it's also about "positive" exotification; that it's a bizarre, backhanded attempt at flattery/admiration. Maybe it's 50/50? I feel like at least part of the (deeply buried, totally subconscious) thinking there goes something like, "these PoC are special/exotic/mystical, and this is why."

    Either they're descended from aliens somehow, or their mystic earthy specialness made them worthy of contact (ie: caught the ETs' attention) or made them seem more receptive (none of that pesky modern/Western-style science blunting their spirituality, you know?). Notice that the only ancient Euros aliens ever seemed to consider worth hanging out with and/or conceiving were the Druids, who are usually portrayed as myyyystical tree priests [insert spirit fingers here]. Seems like the aliens had no interest in Eurasia in general— they're never (rarely?) said to have kicked it in East Asia or the Middle East either— as historically "model" minorities,presumably they didn't need (or were not worthy of?) any extraterrestrial assistance. No, the aliens were always landing in South America (the Maya; the Nazca Lines) or Africa (Egypt; the Ishango Bone) or Oceania (the Easter Island heads) or whatever. Basically, it turns all those people into Magical PoC. "Sure, your ancestors sucked at science/technology/civilization, but they were so earthy and spiiiritual! And I, as a member of a boring, not-spiritual-enough culture, really need that to glom onto, so thanks!"


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