February 2018

Native: The Antithesis of being American

Lately, every time someone talks about being "American," I get a very visceral feeling - something about American nationhood makes me feel uneasy. Its more than my own conflicting feelings of being Native, allegiant to my own tribal nation and "technically" being American, allegiant to the United States. It's this feeling of opposition, this feeling of hostility to a nation that was founded on the principles where my ancestors needed to be erased. As I immersed myself in ideas of colonialism and the 19th/20th century United States citizenship/education policies it occurred to me that being Native in the United States was/is the antithesis of being American.

History Professor, Phillip Deloria in John and Kevin Little's More than a Word Film - describes two moments in American history where Natives needed to be erased or dehumanized in order for America/Americans to exist. 

"...The first is the moment of the American Revolution, where Americans, American colonists have to figure out culturally and in terms of their identity, their social identity, they figure out ways in which they can stop being British colonist and start being American and the fundamental claim they make is that they are Indigenous to the continent, this is what happens in settler societies, so they are Indigenous to the continent so they take old European rituals practices and beliefs and they graph them onto new symbol systems around Indians (refer back to my "Savage or Nah" post) and all of the sudden they create meaning for themselves they create an identity as being Aboriginal and Indigenous to the continent and that lets them speak in oppositional ways to the British government and in many ways, I think to build a cultural formation, that allows them to create a Revolution and rebellion, so Indians are wrapped up into the fiber of America from the very very beginning...

In order for the colonists to separate themselves from British rule they needed to be "aboriginal" to the Americas and do to that, the people who where already there needed to be erased.   

"...then there is a second moment at the turn of the 20th century when Americans are confronted with modernity and the sort of struggles around that and what does it mean to be an industrial place full of immigrants and the frontier is closed and there is all kinds of ways which they feel a sense of crisis, what gives them reassurance - a refiguring of this kind of Indian play that they do, where they can grab on to something that is authentic, that is of the land and that is anti-modern and gives them a sense of authenticity."

In order for America to be America, it needed to erase the Native people who already occupied this continent, it needed to erase everything Native - our cultures, languages, identities, etc., then it needed us to be anti-modern, functioning as a mere historical figure whose only role was helping to shape the "American" story. The impact of this is still felt today especially in our American institutions, of democracy and education. They both have been created, sustained, and worked for the betterment of this "great nation state." The United States is a nation defined and formed by the genocide of Native American communities. Colonial institutions like democracy and education inflicted those acts of genocide and went to any length to destroy and replace Native American culture and way of life. Though amazingly resilient, Native communities endured tremendous suffering and gave rise to the hardships that Native communities continue to experience today.    

Just like at the turn of the 20th century, America is still trying to understand what makes us American, grasping at any idea that may unify U.S. But until we can face our complicated and complex history we are bound to repeat and reproduce. 

"History is not the past, it is the present, we carry our history with us, we are our history, if we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals." James Baldwin - I Am Not Your Negro   

Savage or nah?

"The idea of savagery undoubtedly enabled white American's to exercise multiple kinds of power over multiple kinds of Indians. Yet the existence of so many variations on the savage theme also suggests that stereotype might function better as a descriptive shorthand than as an analytical tool. A stereotype, we might say, is a simplified and generalized expectation - savagery, in this case - that comes to rest in an image, text, or utterance. It is a sound bite, a crudely descriptive connection between power, expectation, and representation." 

Philip J. Deloria, Indians in unexpected places, 2004, p.9

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In the past few years "savage" has become a popular word to use - so much so that on Instagram 8.6million (yeah MILLION) pictures were tagged with the hashtag #savage. The posts range from selfies of people to  inappropriate and most often offensive posts by people who the Urban dictionary refers to as "some who does not care about the consequences of his or her actions."  There is even multiple online stores that sells "savage" merchandise (https://www.shopsavage17.com/shop). Popular culture has really embraced this word and as result attached new meanings to it but for me I cannot help but think about Phil's quote above and how it was used as a tool to exercise power over Native people.  


Every time I hear someone use the word "savage" - I feel a cringe in my stomach. I think about how extensively this terminology was used to refer to my ancestors, as a way to dehumanize them and delegitimize their cultural knowledge and ways of knowing. I think about the imagery in these pictures - imagery that attached a particular stereotype to ALL Native people - with "savage" being the common denominator..."savage warrior," "noble savage," etc. "Savage" became synonymous with Native people, so much so that the United States referred to Native people in the declaration of independence as "Merciless Indian Savages."


Not only did this dehumanize Native people to animalistic like beings, it also imposed a sameness onto all Native people - erasing the beautiful diversity of all of our Native cultures, nations, and communities. Ironically, as the use of #savage in popular culture increased so did the cultural appropriation of Native culture (see Native Appropriations - "Valentino didn't learn anything" for a good recap). Ironic because at one point in history being "savage" was considered to be demeaning and now being "savage" and appropriating "Native" culture is almost being sought after by popular culture.  While no different than any word that has been used to historically disempower and disenfranchise a particular group, I have been incredibly intrigued at how readily people use this term now - without understanding its' ties to the oppression of Native communities.