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Language of Savagery: Stop It Now

At a Tucson memorial service on Jan. 12, Carlos Gonzales—a Pascua Yaqui citizen and medical doctor—stepped to the podium and offered a prayer for the recovery of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had survived an assassination attempt a few days earlier. He acknowledged Mother Earth, Father Sky and pointed out the seven sacred directions in a moving oratory that was widely praised and instantly went viral thanks to YouTube. Who could have predicted that Gonzales would just as quickly be portrayed as a cartoon character, be mocked by television commentators and have his views questioned as if they had come from outer space?

Native Americans, that’s who. Hearing Fox News analyst Brit Hume dismiss the blessing as, “most peculiar” was disturbing, but not surprising for anyone who monitors how Indians have been treated in mainstream media coverage. Syndicated columnist and ever-present TV commentator Michelle Malkin live-blogging, “Mercy,” and complaining that Gonzales was “[babbling] about two-legged and four-legged creatures” was rude, but it was far from unfamiliar. Several conservative websites, including Power Line, which described the prayer as “ugly,” were outraged., another right-wing news site, interviewed Gonzales, and in its write-up, offered a snide report that listed the word “blessing” in quotes and made mention of the fact that Gonzales had used the word “creator” but not God—an apparently unforgivable offense.

Gonzales—a Catholic, by the way—wasn’t deterred by all the bashing. As he did during that ceremony, he explained his prayer to CNS News in a calm, rational manner: “The seven directions are basically the cardinal directions: Father Sky, which is up above us, and Mother Earth, which is down below us, and the seventh direction, which is the center, where the Creator exists. It’s basically a way of acknowledging God’s creation, and it’s a way of acknowledging by honoring those cardinal directions and what they have to say to us.” Reflecting on the controversy, he added, “I wasn’t trying to give a lecture to anybody. It was a prayer. It was simply a prayer.”

The doctor found himself in a position familiar to many Indians (past and present): prodded to explain himself for the “offense” of being true to his culture. Meanwhile, some of his strongest detractors have failed to answer the key question of why they were so easily offended by contemporary Native American culture and so eager to demean it. In the long aftermath of colonization, Native Americans have grown accustomed to being attacked by words and imagery that is nonchalantly accepted in many parts of contemporary American culture. What other choice did they have? For generations, such harmful sentiments have been part of the fabric of American culture. With a name like “Redskins” for the NFL team that plays in the nation’s capital, who could be shocked that Fox-y Hume found a Native prayer weird?

Some Natives have grown so tired of the disrespect that they simply choose to ignore it. Others, like Rhonda LeValdo, the Acoma Pueblo president of the Native American Journalists Association, take a different tack. She is one of the most proactive warriors combating what she calls the “sad and disrespectful commentary” against Indians; her battles are fought with words—lots and lots of words. She regularly sends e-mails and letters on behalf of the organization when someone in the dominant society does something she thinks is insensitive. In the past year, she has had to send plenty of messages, each loaded with explanations and calls for rectification, but always presented in a respectful manner. Her take on this case is straightforward, “I would never disrespect any other religion based on how they pray and or what ceremonies they do.”

LeValdo says the negative reactions to Gonzales’s prayer are part of a growing number of arrows launched toward Indians from conservatives. The recent offenses have ranged from blatant—Fox gadfly Glenn Beck saying after a speech given by President Barack Obama to Indian leaders in November 2009 that Natives were seeking reparations (wasn’t in the speech, and isn’t a policy priority of most tribes and Native organizations)—to the seemingly less egregious—then Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele not understanding that the phrase “honest injun” is offensive, after using it to declare that he was telling the truth.

As one slight drifts from the front page, another one pops up. In November, an opinion website published by Fox News took the attack on Indians all the way to the White House, suggesting that the president was out of touch because he’d expressed admiration for Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. The site posted a clip of an article that reviewed a recent children’s book penned by Obama, with the headline, “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General.” That fit into the message Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes had been pushing all that week—he stated in an interview that Obama has a “different belief system than most Americans.” And Fox didn’t even notice that the headline was wrong: Sitting Bull did not kill Custer—he had been in the village when Custer was attacked at Little Bighorn.

LeValdo said at the time that Fox News should apologize “to the Native Americans across this country who consider Sitting Bull a hero and a warrior who stood up for his people.” No apology came, but the site was updated with a new headline, “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General,” and a note, “Headline has been corrected for historical accuracy.” Patrick Goldstein, writing for the Los Angeles Times, said the incident was a sign Fox News would climb out on any limb to try to make the president look bad. The lesson for many Indians was that Fox News would do anything to make them look like savages.

Robert Williams, a law professor and director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona, has come up with a label for the phenomenon: the “language of savagery.” Some conservative commentators have an agenda against Indians, he said, noting that some see any minority as representative of an “us versus them” threat. In his state, some conservatives conflate illegal immigrants and Indians, he said, although the irony there is that all non-Indians are (and were) the illegal immigrants.

One of the most recent incidents that irked Williams, a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe, involved Bryan Fischer, of the Christian conservative American Family Association, who wrote on his blog in December, “President Obama wants to give the entire land mass of the United States of America back to the Indians. He wants Indian tribes to be our new overlords.”

Fischer was referring to Obama’s Dec. 16 announcement of support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which in no way signals any transfer of land to Indians. No matter to the conservative WorldNetDaily, which kept the overheated rhetoric roiling with the headline, “Obama to give Manhattan back to Native Americans?”

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Does this mean that all conservatives hate Indians? Nope. Some of the best friends to Indian country in D.C. have been Republicans (President Richard Nixon, with his strong support for self-determination, is perhaps the most famous example of a strong conservative friend.) So why the vitriol from so much of the conservative media? “Good question,” said Bob Miller, law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. “I think it has a lot to do with immigration, ironically. As minorities become the majority, a lot of Americans are very concerned about not being the majority anymore. This is some of the angst behind the Tea Party.” And even though Indians are likely never going to become the majority, they are people with distinct political rights, Miller said, and that can feel dangerous to people who feel they are losing power.

Stephanie Fryberg, an assistant professor of psychology and affiliate faculty in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, has concluded that, “Most Americans do not even consider whether the language they use about Natives might be considered discriminatory. In fact, when they think about ‘Native Americans,’ the image that comes to mind is a romanticized, historical image, not a contemporary 21st century Native. The notion that we might feel offended by their language does not even enter their minds.” She said the problem tends to plague Natives more than other minority groups in America because of the age-old cultural practice of “playing Indian”—“Whether playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ or using American Indians as sports team mascots, these cultural practices trigger positive childhood memories of play rather than the historical injustices with which they are factually connected.”

Even more hurtful to some Indians than the conservative attacks is when people perceived to be friends (who should know better) make mistakes, Fryberg said. When Obama, during his inaugural address chose to underscore a message of unity by using the phrase, “the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”—citizens of the hundreds of tribal nations across the country were dismayed. Robert Odawi Porter, now president of the Seneca Nation, said he understood that Obama wasn’t speaking directly about Indian tribes, “What the president was speaking to was the erasing of ethnic lines of distinction on a global level—lines of distinction which differentiate humanity—of which indigenous peoples are a part. So, in that sense, I’m concerned about the president’s apparent desire to see the ‘tribal’ lines that distinguish peoples from one another disappear.” Some Indians took the president literally. Elder Kahentinetha Horn wrote on the Mohawk Nation News website that she believed Obama, “sneaked in the intention to ignore us.” In any case, she said his speechwriters should have known better—but that perhaps they did not want to know better.

Donna Akers, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was offended by the president’s words, and she sees a connection between them and the contempt for Indians shown by some conservatives. “Obama’s America… is not one built on the stolen lands and crimes against indigenous North Americans,” the Choctaw Nation citizen said. “If the ‘official’ position of Americans—even our progressive friends—is to refuse to acknowledge or apologize for their crimes against humanity, is it any wonder that radical right-wing conservatives view Indian people and issues with the greatest disdain?”

When asked about the president’s tribally inspired line, White House staffers seemed aghast that anyone could take a negative meaning from the president’s words, and affirmed his commitment to tribal sovereignty. Still, some Indians couldn’t help wondering if the president and his team of advisers truly understood the distinction they were making. The wondering continued this January when the president said in a speech at the memorial service for Richard Holbrooke, “America is not defined by ethnicity. It’s not defined by geography. We are a nation born of an idea, a commitment to human freedom.” To some Indians, ethnicity and land are two of the most crucial signifiers of their identities—and America’s founding, to them, seems to be more about stealing and killing than a commitment to any ideal.

Last August New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was another moderate guilty of rudeness when he used cowboy versus Indian imagery to describe his view in favor of taxing Indian tribes for cigarette sales in his state: “I’ve said this to [Gov.] David Paterson, I said, you know, ‘Get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun.… If there’s ever a great video, it’s you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying,’ you know, ‘Read my lips—the law of the land is this, and we’re going to enforce the law.’?” And MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has infamously used cowboy versus Indian allegories to cheer on the political victors of the day; in his scenario, of course, it’s always best to be the cowboys. Some viewers have also noticed his habit of anointing John Wayne as an American hero. Indians tend to think much less highly of the actor, recalling what he said in a Playboy interview in 1971, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Some Indians believe their progressive and moderate “friends” are just as bad as conservatives. Williams thinks they are actually more dangerous to Indians because they should know better, although he posits that much of their behavior is simply “inbred” and insists that with more education they would change their ways. Added Akers, “If our friends refuse to acknowledge the truth about the American past and include the hideous and ugly truth that this country was built on the blood of Native Americans, it should be no surprise that the ignorant mouthpieces of right-wing ideology beat the drum of their constituents’ thinly veiled race hatred when Indian issues come up.”

Meanwhile, as progressives continue to flaunt their ignorance, there are psychological ramifications for Indians: “We are more disheartened because we have so few Americans we perceive to be ‘on our side,’?” said Fryberg, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes. “When these individuals disappoint us, we literally feel as though we have nothing left.”

So what’s to be done? “You’ve got to keep calling people out,” Miller said. “You can’t give up.” “It’s going to take a major change in society, Indians have to keep the education going,” added Williams. But even when presented with the truth, Fox News cannot be forced to recant. And no one can push the speechwriters in the White House to write things they don’t want their boss to say.

Angela Tarango, an assistant professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, was called by CNS News to offer her input for its story about the Gonzales blessing. After she read the piece, she was upset. Almost immediately she wrote to a LISTSERV of fellow scholars and activists, sharing her experience. Soon, people started posting comments on the site to rebut and condemn the errors and omissions in that article. Tarango likes to believe someone at CNS News, or at least some visitors of the site, might have ended up learning something, and maybe, just maybe, he or she will act a little more respectfully the next time they encounter a Native prayer.

It’s a small change that can’t be precisely measured, but for now, she will embrace it.