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I'm Not Your Disappearing Indian

Jacqueline Keeler writes about the difficulty of making actual Native voices heard in the discussion of the Washington Redskins mascot issue.

Sometimes, you forget you’re an "Indian"—someone who is just a figment of someone else’s imagination. You're a princess or a fierce warrior. On Halloween, you're that pocahottie costume that attracts the guys; at a football game, you're that headdress the fans wear as they put back the beer and scream at the refs. Or you're even that disappearing Indian, riding away on his faithful steed into the mists of time, not around to be interviewed about what is going on today, not fit to comment on issues that concern Native people.

RELATED:Snyder Wins: How 'CancelColbert' Drowned Out the Native Voice

You forget, and then -- there are abrupt experiences that remind you.

For instance, Rooney Mara, a non-Native actress, was recently cast as Tiger Lily in a remake of Peter Pan, and journalists were up in arms about it and wrote some 87 articles about it in the national press. These writers—African American, Asian American, feminist, people of color—all failed to include us in their coverage of an issue that was ostensibly about us. Will Hollywood try to pull off Redface or are they simply whitewashing roles to avoid the issue all together?

And then last Thursday, it happened again, this time it was the folks on social media trending #CancelColbert and completely forgetting about Dan Snyder and the real foundation to promote the racial slur Redsk*ns. Once again, ostensibly about us, but of the issue garnered no real attention until it fell in someone else’s hands and then they, once again, forgot about us.

No, it wasn’t Stephen Colbert who forgot about us, nor was is "Stephen Colbert," a character played by comedian Stephen Colbert, to satirize the extreme insensitivity of Republican conservatism. His show, The Colbert Report did a whole skit skewering Dan Snyder, billionaire owner of the Washington Redsk*ns, and Snyder's new Original Americans Foundation (OAF), exposing it -- through satire -- as a blatant attempt to use charity to provide cover for his NFL team’s racist name. It was the hashtaggers, PoC (People of Color) and progressives, our own allies on Twitter who trended the hashtag #CancelColbert in response to the fictional foundation’s name featured in the skit. And yet, Dan Snyder’s real foundation promoting an ethnic slur against us, a foundation that actually exists, failed to garner even a tiny fraction of outrage by the same group. In fact, in her Time Magazine article that followed the enormous success of #CancelColbert, hashtag originator Suey Park failed to mention Snyder’s foundation at all. She certainly did not mention the Native hashtag protesting it #Not4Sale, despite it being covered by Mike Wise at the Washington Post and Al Jazeera America’s The Stream just days before. Only one reporter, Jeff Yang of the Wall Street Journal included any mention of Native responses to it. 

Could you imagine national coverage of #CancelColbert or the previous trending hashtag promoted by the Asian American community #?NotYourAsianSidekick without interviewing any Asian Americans? Or without any mention of the creators of the hashtag like Suey Park?

Obviously, #CancelColbert did not lead to the canceling of The Colbert Report, and in a New Yorker interview Ms. Park claimed she never intended for the show to be cancelled; furthermore, she had never even viewed the actual skit, and had reacted to a tweet (since deleted) without understanding the original joke to which it referred. What’s most frustrating to me is that a deleted tweet garnered more outrage than the actual existence of a foundation to promote a slur against Native Americans. A foundation announced just days after the U.S. Patent Office, reasoning that the word is a racist epithet, refused to grant a trademark to "Washington Redsk*ns Potatoes"! A potato has more rights than Native people do! (And yes, there is a Native hashtag for it -- #NotYourPotato -- and no, our allies on Twitter have not trended it.)

Lost in all of this was that the skit was (until that truly awful name of the satirical foundation was uttered) an excellent takedown of Dan Snyder, billionaire owner of the NFL team the Washington Redsk*ns. The skit did a great job pointing out that the donated 3,000 coats were like giving blankets & beads for land, and the ridiculousness of a billionaire owner of an NFL team valued at $1.8 Billion trumpeting his partial donation towards the purchase of a tractor. Yes, Snyder didn’t even pay for the entire tractor, which the "Stephen Colbert" character notes his staff found priced at $2,500 on eBay. The skit culminates with Colbert, the character, announcing he is so inspired by Dan Snyder’s OAF he has decided to create his own horrifically-named "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation." Then to drive the point home even more clearly, Colbert tells the audience that we can all thank Dan Snyder for that—not him.

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That the emphasis in Twitter outage was on the SATIRE of a racist foundation versus an ACTUAL racist foundation just shows how marginalized we are. Imagine if all that ire, outrage, and sheer indignation had been directed with the same ferocity at Snyder and the Redsk*ns? 80 years of a slur in the NFL would be over now.

I forget that most people, even other people of color, have never met a Native American. That the figure they have in their minds is some kind of rough construct adorned in feathers and wearing fringed buckskin and saying little. When they meet me, with my long, black hair and dark eyes and high cheekbones, it doesn’t occur to me that they may be trying to fit me into that jumble of stereotypes they carry around. I have always seen myself, until now, as a member of this group of PoC journalists and activists.

“Native Mascotry” is a term I coined to describe the practices that surround a Native mascot. It’s not just about the static image of the mascot, be it somewhat noble and prosaic or an ugly caricature with a feather on top. It’s the creative license such mascots gives fans to reenact outdated stereotypes, to "play Indian." These practices include: the wearing of Redface, the misuse of Native regalia and the chanting of fake, hokey war chants and tomahawk chops. This year at the Rose Bowl, a group of Florida State University students each held up a letter to spell "Scalp Em," yet this did not inspire our Twitter allies into #CancelColbert levels of action. (And yes, there was a Native hashtag for it, #RedfaceDisgrace.)

Studies done by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and resolutions by the American Psychology Association make clear that the negative effects on Native people of mascots and stereotypes are measurable and real. Fryberg found that even Native people who claimed to be okay with Native mascots experienced measurable lower self-esteem and spoke less positively about their future goals in their lives after being exposed to Native mascots. Meanwhile, those that appropriate our image experience the exact opposite effect.

Stereotypes of Native people in film, like the Indian Princess Tiger Lily, the guttural-voiced Chief (like Tiger Lily’s father in the Disney version), and the Warrior, also do this. And if we are not those things then what are we? The drunk, the Disappearing Indian, the squaw? When EONM (Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry) members challenge Redsk*ns fans online, the fans immediately resort to attacking us with these very same negative stereotypes, saying, “You’re a drunk and on welfare, you should be grateful we are honoring you.” There is no middle ground in their minds.

And what is the antidote to these stereotypes that fill the minds of so many of our fellow Americans, regardless of ethnic background? It is hearing and seeing Native people in the media and social media as we are today. We must not only challenge these images but also fill the void left once we get rid of them. And I do believe we will get rid of Native mascots. I also think that each time we remind our allies and reach out to journalists who forget about us in their coverage, things will get better there, too.

For instance, Jeff Yang (or @originalspin on Twitter) of the Wall Street Journal, who authored an article about the New Tiger Lily has been responsive to my request to include Native voices. He promptly began following us and when the story about the Colbert Report’s satire of Snyder’s foundation came out, he included us in his article. He is the only one so far, but if we keep it up more will follow. And our Asian American allies? An online activist organization representing Asian American and Pacific Islanders recenly tweeted at us that they want to help and are planning a campaign to take on Snyder and his foundation.

We really can talk to our allies and to the media. They will listen. But we have to speak up.

And "Stephen Colbert," the satirical character? He announced on Monday night that he will be closing his (fake) foundation and donating all the money to Dan Snyder’s OAF, because he didn’t hear [expletive] about that on Twitter. Let’s make sure he does. And hopefully, with our allies help our concerns and hashtags -- #Not4Sale Snyder! -- will be heard.

Keep up with the debate by following Jacqueline Keeler on Twitter at @jfkeeler and checking her blog TiyospayeNow.