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Images and Protesters

Robert Chanate describes Native protesters, as Natives see them and as they really are.

I want to thank Gyasi for the ridiculously over-the-top introduction and creating great expectations. There was this Bugs Bunny cartoon about this singing, dancing frog and the joke was the frog only did his act when a single person was watching. When the frog was put on a public stage, he simply sat there in silence while boos rained down on his promoter. Draw your own conclusions.

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Last week, I saw a magazine photo being sent around Facebook by friends who might be described as “activists.” Taking a closer look, the photo turned out to be the a Time magazine cover depicting their selection for "Person of the Year: The Protester." The photo was not of a specific person but rather was a graphic art composite of an unidentifiable woman as a symbol for the 2011 newsmaker.

As described in the magazine, “The Protester” was responsible for creating political changes across the world using methods thought to be obsolete in the present day. According to Time, economic and political inequalities were conditions that motivated “The Protester” to look for solutions outside of conventional political means. "The Protester" did not fit into an easily identifiable demographic: Protesters were middle-class, poor, old, young, college graduates, high school drop outs, etc. “The Protester” was also described in positive terms for his/her willingness to take risks and to make sacrifices in a quest for justice.

Reflecting on this, I wondered what a generic Native Protester might look like as imagined by a Native graphic artist. Let’s say the artist was to create a composite based on the opinions of Natives only. Here is how the profile might read:

Paul Parts His Hair Crooked is an unemployed alcoholic. He spends his time causing trouble with mindless public disturbances which alienate non-Natives who then turn their anger on the rest of Paul’s Tribe. Paul’s followers are all non-Natives and he prefers to express himself with a raised fist and outbursts of profanity. Paul’s fellow tribal members hope he will one day grow up and join the real world.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year is The Protestor

Time Magazine's Person of the Year is The Protestor

Now, as someone who has participated in a protest or two, I admit I have met a couple of people like Paul, but the majority of native people who protest do not fit into such a profile. If I were to contribute a profile that reflects my version of a native protester, this is what I would I would add:

Chris Cares For the Community (smirk) organized a protest as part of a strategy to protect the tribe's river from toxic pollution. In a community meeting, tribal members voiced support for strengthening their culture and cleaning up the river was seen as a key part of that revival.

To communicate the message of the protest, Chris developed a media strategy which relied on community members to tell their story in order to influence public opinion and develop allies. Other members of the group created an education strategy that taught public speaking skills to tribal members, who in turn visited education forums to raise awareness of their issue. Tribal members outside the area used social media to spread the message.

In addition to developing alliances with other tribes, Chris's group won the support of non-Native allies such as attorneys, donors and elected officials.

Most important to the success of the protest was the financial and emotional support of Chris's friends and family members.

The first profile is a caricature but it derives from an image that many Native people still have of the Natives they see protesting. The second profile is a fictionalized composite of real-world Natives I’ve had the honor of working with and it’s this image that is closer to reality.

Our images are shaped not only by the stories we tell but also by the ones we don’t.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation.