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David Treuer: Appropriating Indianness an old tradition in the US

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: david treuer, elizabeth warren, race, scott brown

"Just over a week ago, a handful of Senator Scott P. Brown’s supporters gathered in Boston to protest his opponent, Elizabeth Warren. The crowd — making Indian war whoops and tomahawk chops — was ridiculing what Mr. Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, called the “offense” of Ms. Warren’s claim that she has Cherokee and Delaware ancestry.

To mock real Indians by chanting like Hollywood Indians in order to protest someone you claim is not Indian at all gets very confusing. Even more so because early Americans spent centuries killing Indians, and then decades trying to drive any distinctive Indianness out of the ones who survived. Perhaps we’ve come a long way if Americans are now going around accusing people who don’t look or act Indian enough of appropriating that identity for personal gain. But in fact, the appropriation of Indian virtues is one of the country’s oldest traditions.

Indians — who we are and what we mean — have always been part of how America defined itself. Indians on the East Coast were largely (but never completely) deracinated, and tribes like the Delaware were either killed or relocated farther west. At the same time, their Indianness was extracted as a set of virtues: honor, stoicism, dignity, freedom. Once, in college, an African-American student shook his head when I told him that I was Indian and he said he was jealous. Why? I asked. Because you lived life on your own terms and would rather have died than become a slave. That sentiment — totally at odds with the reality in which many tribes were indeed enslaved and a few owned slaves themselves — seemed a very wistful expression of what being an Indian meant."

Get the Story:
David Treuer: Kill the Indians, Then Copy Them (The New York Times 9/30)

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