Understanding the Native American Stereotype with University of Kent Scholar David Stirrup
Determined to continue the conversation on Native American identities, I spoke to University of Kent Scholar David Stirrup about the Native American stereotype.
TK: How do you think the Native American identity developed in Western perception? There is a stereotype based primarily on the Comanche tribe.
DS: I think there’s a lot of possible origins for that kind of stereotype, because the tribes that Westerners first encountered on the East coast were fishing tribes, tribes who hunted on foot, so that image of the buffalo chasing, horseback warrior is very much a late stereotype of the second half of the 19th century. There are a number of reasons for it; they were the people who were the last resistance to westward expansion, so the Plains Wars are the wars that kind of end conflict, in theory, between the American government and Native Americans. And so, being the last they’re also the most present in memory. So, in the 1890s you get lots of stories in the East Coast press and they’re the stories that come over to Europe and they’re all about that kind of community. So that’s where the media portrayal of that stereotype starts, and that gets transferred into popular culture really easily, from dime novels and later movie ‘Westerns’, all tend to focus on that portion of American history because it’s so exciting. In Europe I think it’s very rooted in Buffalo Bill and his Wild West show, which was built on the Plains Wars. And the scenes that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show would portray: the Plains Wars, Custer’s last stand, attacks on the Deadwood Stagecoach, are all rooted in that kind of image of the ‘headdressed horsebacked war chief’, so that image is very vivid in the popular imagination.
TK: How difficult do you think it would be to forge an identity that is more focused on people and the actual needs of the community?
DS: That’s a good question because it’s a really difficult conundrum. One of the many campaigns that Native American people are active in, is the cultural appropriation question; because those aspects of cultural appropriation that have the most impact on Native Americans are the ones that feed off stereotypes. And breaking free of how those stereotypes feed popular culture everywhere else, is crucial to being able to develop specific political campaigns. Having that stereotype associated with those Plains Wars where the native people are defeated and vanish, contributes to that invisibility. Natives are such a small portion of the population, so even if they don’t live on secluded reservations, they still feel very invisible. Figuring out how to communicate problems that affect large numbers of people, is affected by all of those things, by ways in which they’re rendered invisible, by stereotype, by people’s expectations of what actually happened to native people.
TK: Do you think that Europe and the rest of the world should be more involved in this situation?
DS: The British government has always taken a stance on the United nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people, Britain has refused to ratify that on the grounds that we don’t have any indigenous people, and if you dig down below that what you actually have is a kind of diplomatic unwillingness to sign up to something that could impact on the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, those other ex-colonial anglophone allies where we have a real delicate diplomatic relationship as it is. And I absolutely believe that it’s incumbent upon European powers to take a stance on the rights of indigenous peoples all over the world, particularly because if the world isn’t recognising those things then it takes pressure off the individual governments of those countries. There have been two moments in recent history when visibility has been better. The first was in the 1960s when a group of Native American people under the title of ‘Indians of all tribes’ occupied Alcatraz island, and they used the media very cannily to gain press attention throughout the United States and beyond. That led to a very brief moment of the government actually having to figure out its relationship with the native people. More recently the protests against the Dakota access pipeline, where they drew in support from across the US and the international press, so on a weekly basis there were articles in The Guardian about the Dakota access pipeline and the impact it was having on the native people and once that press attention goes, it’s as if everything’s ended, and of course it hasn’t. The protests are still ongoing, the pipelines are still being put in place. I think figuring out how to keep press focus on those kinds of things for long enough, for meaningful action to take place, is absolutely crucial. I think countries like Britain and France have such a deep responsibility because we’re so deeply implicated in the colonising that those people are still experiencing. So there’s a deep debt to be paid there, and whether or not it can be paid, it still merits of international attention, of the kinds of issues it has created.
TK: Do you think that the tribalistic nature of the culture is a kind of impediment to this kind of cooperation?
DS: ‘Indians of all tribes’ in the 60s were very much a pan-Indian movement, working collaboratively and collectively towards a common end. It’s really hard to know though, because once you get past those kinds of nation cooperation, different tribes have very different needs and face different issues that each need addressing. If you go up to Northern Ontario, where they don’t have safe water and are living in houses where they don’t have proper walls, you can see that they have needs that are very different from, for example, people in Pine Ridge South Dakota where the real priority to this day is gang violence, which is rooted in things like mass unemployment, poor housing quality, electricity infrastructure and so on. So the core principles uniting those communities are the same, but the specific issues they are facing are very different. Even if they all come together, there would come a point where they won’t be fighting for the same things anymore. One of the first things that the early colonists realised is that they could play on longstanding hostilities between different tribes, and that kind of historical division allowed colonists to set people against each other in ways that created longstanding enmity, which still persists between those tribes which did form alliances with the US, and those that didn’t. In a way it’s sort of similar to the EU, where we have all sorts of common ideologies and goals for our people, but at the same time, it’s very difficult for everyone in the EU to agree with each other and work towards those common aims when they all feel like they’re fighting for the same resources. I think there has to be a future for those kinds of organisations, but it needs to have teeth. You can make all sorts of pronouncements, but you can only enforce them with the use of international law, with the help of governments.
TK: What can a scholar do to contribute?
DS: That’s something a lot of scholars are still trying to work out the answers to. In the last fifteen years or so that I’ve been at Kent, Indigenous Studies has become increasingly politicised. One of the most important things is that students leave your classes with a complex understanding of the nuance, and the heterogeneity of those peoples and those cultures. That they absolutely don’t leave your class with any of those stereotypes still floating around their heads, and you can take that out to the broader public as well. Actual activism and actual engagement is important too, there are ways that even in Europe we can engage this those efforts. Around 2012, in Canada, a movement was formed called Idle No More, and was transferred largely through twitter and called for international days of action and so we held events in Canterbury, in places like The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge where people could come in and learn about the histories of first nation peoples and the issues they were campaigning around. That’s part of your willingness as a scholar to say, actually, my scholarship isn’t a kind of purely separate thing from the social realities of the people whose works I’m writing about; how can I also address those actual life concerns by becoming involved in the political side of things as well. The most important thing in any kind of scholarship involving first nation peoples is to listen, to make sure you’re speaking to native people and listening to the kinds of things they’re trying to tell you and what they want you to do. The days of non-native people setting the agenda of the conversation is long gone.
TK: Can you tell me more about what modules you teach, and what sort of studies are going on here in regards to Native Americans?
DS: I teach bits of Native American literature and related culture on a few courses. I do a little on the American literature course and the American Studies course, but I also have a specialist third year undergraduate class on Native American literature, and I teach an MA course that looks at 1st nation literature and politics and one in critical race theory and a good third of the material we look at is in indigenous scholarship. I also have a colleague who is 1st nation Canadian, who teaches an MA course in 18th century British representations of native people, which is really interesting and kind of looks at how there’s this moment in British history where Britain defines itself in relation to indigenous people. My long term hope is that in good time more of that work will be done in this country by indigenous scholars themselves, which is still very rare in this country. But the proportion of indigenous scholars is growing each year.
TK: What would you recommend as a first point of entry into studying this kind of field?
DS: There’s a native historian named Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, who published a book called ‘Indigenous People’s History of the United States’, which is a great introduction, and that was the first kind of survey of Indigenous people written by a native scholar, published only about 5 years ago. There’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’, that’s a very common entry point for a lot of people, but it kind of leaves the story at 1890 and its emphasis is on loss and destruction and victimhood, whereas now it’s regarded more as a story of survival.
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