While many Americans today are boldly leaning into social consciousness, other pockets of American society remain stubbornly swathed in the white supremacist cloaks of 1950 – an era when racism and bigotry were the celebrated norm.
Enter, Boston-based radio show host, Howie Carr, who recently opened up a Donald Trump rally in Bangor, Maine, with an all-too American mockery of Native Americans while referencing Elizabeth Warren, who claims Cherokee ancestry.
And the crowd loved it. Men turn toward each other laughing in amusement, while someone in the crowd even cheers with a loud whistle of support. A racist rally is a good ol’ time for those Trump Republicans.
But let’s just be clear – this particular critique of yet another charade at the Trump circus isn’t about Trump the Clown or his clown accomplice, Howie Carr. Nor is this critique about Elizabeth Warren, who has failed to adequately address her questionable Native American identity.
Instead, this critique is about the hand-over-mouth mockery and the degree of complicity behind it at the recent Trump rally, which is indicative of a much greater social problem – accepted racism, bigotry, and more specifically, the long-standing history of dehumanizing and demeaning Native Americans, while the masses stand by, complicit, and often amused.
One could easily say that the fact that this hand-over-mouth mockery happened at a Trump rally is unsurprising, yet really, this could have happened anywhere and everywhere in America. And it does happen everywhere in America – at sporting events played by teams with Indian mascots, and it happens at Boy Scout camps where little white boys play the noble savage, and it happens when Native American youth get mocked by their white peers … I can go on, and on, but trust me, the hand-over-mouth war cry mockery happens, everywhere, and most often, the mockery goes unchallenged.
It happened to me, as a kid, as an adult, and even as a teacher as I walked down the school hallway during my first day teaching at a predominantly white school in Benson, Minnesota. It’s happened to Native American students of mine as they sang an honor song in front of their white peers at a student leadership gathering. Those young Native American youths were mocked by their peers with that hand-over-mouth war cry.
And 9.9 times out of ten, Native Americans do not appreciate the hand-over-mouth mockery. Frankly, it pisses us off, because it is demeaning and it is an inaccurate perversion of a traditional and honored war cry. It pisses us off because we get mocked and dehumanized incessantly – in media, at sporting events, our Native American students get mocked in schools, and meanwhile, the masses stand by complicit, even stubbornly defending practices of Native American mockeries.
It gets overwhelming for our Native American students to deal with, and tiresome for even Native American adults to deal with. So tiring that some Native Americans have resigned to mere acceptance, as the beast of racism often seems too enormous for us to slay – so we laugh at it, and we accept it, and we add to the complicity by not pushing back.
We have to push back.
I’m going to elaborate a bit more on the aforementioned hand-over-mouth mockery that happened to some of my students just a few months ago. In doing so, I want to clarify the sheer harm caused, and I also spell out why the hand-over-mouth racism must be called out, each and every time.
Here is what happened: While a group of Native American student council leaders attended the South Dakota Student Council State Convention, they were given an opportunity to sing an honor song before a crowd of fellow student council leaders from across the state. As the Native American boys sang, a group of white students from the crowd began mocking the Native American boys with the hand-over-mouth war cry. This immediately caught the Native American singers off guard, and they struggled to focus, and they struggled to continue as they stood on stage in front of hundreds of their peers. They were hurt, and uncomfortable.
This did not happen at a Trump rally, but at a student leadership conference.
There were adults in the crowd, many of whom were complicit, and many of whom struggled to even call out the mockery as blatant racism.
Later during the student convention, a Native American student addressed the crowd of student leaders about the mockery. This Native American boy turned it into a teachable moment, and shared a cultural teaching about the leelee, done by Native American women, and the war cry, done by men. He shared that the leelee and war cry are done only during appropriate times, and never with one’s hand over their mouth, but with the mouth alone. It was good experience for that young Native American man to stand up and teach his peers, but where were the adults to publicly call out the racism, and tell the crowd of attentive youth that racism is not acceptable?
Those Native American students returned back to school the following week still talking about what happened, still affected, still shocked, and ultimately, still hurt, having come face-to-face with the harsh reality that as Native Americans they will face their share of mockeries and racism in broad daylight, and meanwhile, the majority will not defend them. Instead, the masses stand by complicit, often amused.
Without standing up to the racism that trickles down to our youth and our children, we are allowing their delicate sense of self to be abused, and on our watch.
They become confused, frustrated, and unsure of their place in the world. It is a fact that racial mockeries cause psychological harm to the developing sense of self of Native American youth – youth who have the highest rates of suicide, and the lowest rates of high school completion, and youth who are often invisible as Native American representation in textbooks and in mass media (where we are are already gravely miniscule).
With each demeaning mockery of Native Americans, the psychological wellbeing of our valuable Native youth is being damaged, and with the complicit inaction of adults, we are telling them that their safety and wellbeing does not matter. We are telling them that they have to accept mistreatment.
We have to stand up for Native youth, and with consistent action. We have to show Native American youth that the world is a place where justice prevails, where racism is inexcusable, and where adults have the courage to stand up to it.
With the bigoted mockery of Howie Carr, the world should be reminded just how far we have to go when it comes to dismantling the accepted racism toward Native Americans. His charade is but a microcosm of what continues to happen all across America, often without a blink of surprise.
Call it out.
Carr’s hand-over-mouth mockery is racist, it harms the psychological wellbeing of Native American youth, and it is inexcusable.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.