By Scot Nakagawa
I started Race Files after screening 24 hours of political commentary programs. I screened them to test a hunch. That hunch was that if these programs were your only window on the U.S., you’d conclude that people of color are a barely present and politically insignificant part of America.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that my hunch proved correct. To political pundits, people of color are usually (in fact, in the case of white commentators, almost exclusively) mentioned to make points relevant to white people.
But, no matter how minimizing or misleading the rap was on African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos, we were mentioned. Of Native Americans, on the other hand, not a word was spoken.
That was six months ago. Since then, I’ve watched political programs with a pen and paper at my side in order to make note of any reference to Native Americans. Because analyzing how media represents people of color is part of my work, I watch a lot of these programs.
So far, I have yet to fill a third of a page. What’s scribbled in that space refers to only one subject: Republican objections to provisions addressing the special circumstances of Native Americans in the Violence Against Women Act. In this story, Native Americans were mainly used to bash Republicans. [Ed. Note: Read more about these provisions, and take action now.]
On that same page I have two checks: one for each time that a non-Native person referenced Native Americans as people to whom something really bad happened a very long time ago.
Ever notice how there are stories, though few and far between, of the plights of indigenous people outside of the U.S.? I have. I noted them as well. They far out-number references to Native Americans. I suppose the issues are a lot more palatable when you and your audience aren’t implicated in the problem.
The absence of Native Americans may not be the result of some evil conspiracy, but it is neither minor nor incidental. In fact, this silence is just an extension of a process that began before the American Indian Wars and never ended. We live it everyday and it’s an important part of a historical process of expunging Native Americans from the U.S. consciousness.
This disappearing of Native Americans as real, complex, contemporary people has so successfully naturalized within American culture that we (non-Indians) hardly notice it. It’s part of our national ethos, even a matter of pride, to think of Native Americans as a vanquished and vanishing people and to act accordingly.
Throughout American history we’ve been trying to make Native Americans disappear. Long after early colonists had already destroyed thousands of Native American lives, we waged a war against Native nations as a matter of federal policy. The formal acknowledgement of our intention to make Native Americans disappear continued into the early 1920s, ultimately resulting in the destruction of two-thirds of the Native American population of North America.
But warfare was just one tactic. Cultural assimilation was another. Cruel campaigns to “civilize” Native Americans were waged. The goal was to eventually separate Native people from their land.
Having failed at completely assimilating Native Americans, we have ever since used the tactic of simply making Native people disappear, and, along with them, all of the other complications associated with being a settler nation. To quiet our consciences, to avoid settling up our debts to Native nations, and to ignore the fact that we reside on land and have built a society using resources that were forcibly taken from others in a campaign of genocide, we make them vanish, even call certain tribes “extinct.”
This disappearing act is accomplished in a variety of ways. We terminate tribes, claiming that enrollment has fallen too far to constitute a nation. We appropriate spiritual practices, claiming to be honoring and preserving the traditions of a noble but vanishing people. And we do it by exclusion, especially in media and the world of politics, both of which contribute to the notion that Native people are of no relevance to the lives of the rest of us.
Native American activist and academic Andrea Smith wrote about the logic of genocide in Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy, saying “this logic holds that indigenous peoples must disappear… must always be disappearing, in order to allow non-indigenous people rightful claim over this land.”
Smith’s article cites Kate Shanley’s analysis of Native Americans as a permanent “present absence” that, according to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam functions as “an ambivalently repressive mechanism [which] dispels the anxiety in the face of the Indian, whose very presence is a reminder of the initially precarious grounding of the American nation-state itself…”
This one statement should become a mantra among non-Indians who wish to lift the veil of invisibility and force our society to contend with Native Americans as contemporary peoples, and not merely as players in an unfortunate episode in U.S. history: Native Americans are not vanquished and not vanishing.
Note: Since this article was written, ChangeLab, a grassroots racial justice institute in which the writer is a principle, conducted a study of the seven most popular weekend political commentary programs on television including Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Melissa Harris Perry, and Up with Chris Hayes.
Transcripts of 169 episodes aired between January 1 and June 30, 2012 were scoured for references to people of color using a variety of terms, including references to color such as yellow, brown, red, black, etc. None of the groups is characterized well, and Asian Americans, with the exception of one feature on this group on Melissa Harris Perry, were only mentioned 10 times, usually as part of a list of groups. Native Americans, however, were never referenced. Of the native people of this continent, not one word was spoken.
Cross-posted with permission from Race Files.
Scot Nakagawa is a principle at ChangeLab and blogger for Race Files. Scot got his first job as a community organizer in 1980, and since then has worked in organizational management, social research, public policy analysis and advocacy, and philanthropy. He also has a background as a teacher and a service provider working with low-income communities to create accountable organizations that are responsive to community needs.
The YWCA USA works to eliminate racism for all women. Learn more about our work with Native American tribes in the U.S. by visiting YWCA.org.