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Manning: When Media Promotes Offensive Indian Stereotypes

Parents magazine apologized for its January 2106 cover photo of a mother admonishing her shouting daughter who is donning a Native American headdress.

The cover of a popular magazine is catching the attention of Native American parents, writers, educators, and proponents of cultural awareness.

The January 2016 edition of Parents Magazine features a white mother, shaking her finger at a rambunctious child who jumps on furniture, wearing a faux Native American headdress and mouth open wide suggestive of a wild yell.

Native Americans quickly took to social media to call out the magazine for lack of cultural awareness, and for reinforcing harmful stereotypes. On Twitter, Native American educator, Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), directed tweets at Parents Magazine, and also asked for support to share the message:

"Dear Editors at Parents Magazine,
Depicting a bored child, in a toy headdress, clearly screaming, suggests "wild Indian." You apparently do not realize that depiction is racist. I'm tweeting the cover on social media and tagging you (at your twitter ID: @parentsmagazine) and sharing this Facebook post widely. I'm encouraging others to do so, too.
Dr. Debbie Reese
American Indians in Children's Literature"

The magazine cover highlights the phenomena commonly known as “playing Indian,” which signifies a centuries-old American cultural practice of reducing minorities to demeaning and marginalizing, one-dimensional stereotypes. In this particular mockery, the child is seen portraying one of the most widely established stereotypes of Native Americans – the “wild savage,” or “wild Indian.”

In regard to the greater phenomena of misrepresenting and misunderstanding indigenous nations, Native American author and professor, Dr. Anton Treuer (Anishinaabe), says Native Americans are “so often imagined, and so infrequently understood.”

This reality manifests frequently in misrepresentations of indigenous nations throughout history – stereotypical Halloween costumes, disparaging Indian mascots, Hollywood films, media, and, yes, magazine covers.

And as the cover of Parents Magazine indicates, it is, essentially, amusing and entertaining for America to play Indian. Yet, what American society proves rather consistently, is that it is not all that much fun to listen to “Indians,” or do the real work of understanding “Indians” today. The more meaningful work of understanding indigenous peoples becomes inconvenient and uncomfortable, in many cases.

“I can't believe what I am seeing on a Parents Magazine,” Native American parent, Clinton Pushetonequa (Sac and Fox) told ICTMN. “It looked as if a white woman was yelling at a dressed up native child.” Pushetonequa is a subscriber of the magazine.

“Even though I'm not a member of a plains tribe, I know what they go through and how they feel. Our grandfathers died to wear a headdress and they went through real struggles to earn it. I imagine there would be more publicity if the child was in blackface, but as indigenous people we know how it is,” Pushetonequa said.

Playing Indian is a pervasive form of marginalizing Native Americans today, and is often dismissed by the majority. The cover of Parents Magazine reinforces this very marginalization, pointing to an affinity among children and adults alike, to play the racialized and fetishized wild Indian. The “Indian,” whom is frequently imagined, is infrequently understood.

As you’d imagine, the magazine cover was shared widely over Twitter and Facebook, creating conversations amongst many Natives and non-Natives alike, sharing and arguing their grievances. And as expected, there were plenty of defenders of the cover, just the same.

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As one non-Native defender said: “What exactly is the problem? … Are you saying children should never be allowed to pretend to be other people, such as pirates, teachers, priests, hairdressers, etc.?”

Many Native people quickly responded to those who rushed to the defense of Parents Magazine. Not long thereafter, the publication issued an apology:

Image courtesy Parents Magazine

(If the text is too small to make out, the apology reads as follows: “Thanks for reminding us that a picture is worth a thousand words with your comments on our latest cover. We never intended to offend, but on reflection completely understand that the Native American headdress was a poor choice for a kid’s play costume. We apologize.”)

Parent and educator, Dr. Debbie Reese, says that Parents Magazine still has more work to do.

“Comments following their apology point to a lack of knowledge amongst their readers who see nothing wrong with the cover,” Reese told ICTMN. “As a Native parent and educator, I hope they see that need and respond to it in subsequent issues.”

Dr. Reese is right. There is more work to be done.

While we can delight in the fact that there was an apology, Parents Magazine readers and America, collectively, still needs to understand that the pervasive practice of racial mockeries marginalizes the already marginalized. Playing Indian, is a continuation of that marginalization and a perpetuation of American settler racism.

And yet, simply removing the visibility of the racist portrayals of the “wild” or “savage Indian,” one isolated occurrence at a time, is not even half the battle, for the stereotypes continue to exist in the minds of the American public, standing as American justification for indigenous genocide and land theft.

If indigenous peoples continue to be viewed as savage, and wild, then American settler colonialism is then justified in “taming” the Indians, by way of forcibly removing Indians to reservations where forced assimilation was imposed, and as a corollary, land theft and genocide is completely glossed over. This is not okay.

In effect, the ongoing portrayal of the “wild” or “savage” Indian functions to justify centuries of brutality and genocide while perpetuating a cycle of racism. And, more or less, this falls right in line with the 21st century phenomena of fear-mongering and racially type-casting minorities today (especially in the age of heightened terrorism); and whether the racially profiled threat of danger is real or perceived, the greater tendency to label minorities as dangerous or “savage,” needs to be scrutinized, examined more closely, and called out for what it is – racism.

Thus, what the outcries of Native people indicate, and also, what the many other portrayals of the “savage” Indian suggest, is that America still has some serious work to do – work to understand, and work to educate. Furthermore, the responsibility of educating the masses as to the injustice of such racist and savage portrayals should definitely not rest solely on the shoulders of Native Americans or minorities who are simply fed up.

America, Parents Magazine, you have work to do. The ball is in your court.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.