I am my brother’s keeper. What about you? Part 1

“With enough butter, anything is good,” said noted chef Julia Child. I agree, in moderation that is. Throughout my lifetime, Land O’Lakes has been my family’s preferred brand of butter. If that hadn’t been the case, I might have missed the recent tweet from land o lakes butterEdgar Villanueva, lauding the company for removing what he called a “racist Native American image.” That bright yellow packaging caught my eye in my Twitter feed.

Edgar Villanueva is a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. I point that out because unless you are a member of the affronted group, it is sometimes difficult to see racial offenses. The young Native woman who, until February, was centered on the Land O’Lakes package, offended him. Even within the oppressed group, the stereotype is sometimes missed. Think how many times you have read about Natives saying that the Indian-related names of sports teams are not slurs. I suspect, that like many, they have internalized their own oppression, a condition in which marginalized groups accept what the dominant society believes about them, like Stockholm Syndrome. They live and breathe the same media messages as everyone else.  Sometimes they don’t even see the racism, at least not immediately. It often takes someone to point out the stereotypes and their impact — an Edgar Villanueva, for example.

A few years ago, at the height of the conversation about the name of the football team in my city, Washington, DC, I attended a seminar at the National Museum of the American Indian. “From Tarzan to Tonto” explored stereotypes as distinct and ubiquitous as the savage Indian warrior to the beautiful—and submissive—Indian maiden (the logo of Land O’Lakes). The images are everywhere, most of us just don’t see them. And when wetarzan-flyer-final1-840x531 do, we think many are benign. But as I know, and you do too probably, any image that reinforces negative characteristics, particularly without a counterweight of accurate depictions, is not benevolent.

If you are of a certain age, you probably grew up watching Western movies or Western-themed television shows. The Indian was either attacking the white settlers or was the humble, and often monosyllabic, sidekick to the white star. All these images planted in you… specific thoughts and ‘truths’ about Native peoples.

Never did you routinely see images portraying the viciousness of white settlers as they took over the land of the Natives. Or the inhumanity of the U.S. government forcing Indian children into residential schools with the explicit purpose: ‘kill the Indian in him and save the man.’

Today, without the periodic attention given to the names of sports teams, I suspect most rarely think about Native populations. American Indians are perceived as historical, a people of the past. And, largely, they almost are — they were separated, their land taken, their cultural dances and religious ceremonies prohibited by law. Their sense of self almost obliterated by a country intent on their annihilation or certainly their full assimilation. Without the somewhat recent convening of multiple tribes to protest the Keystone pipeline, many people may not have thought about Native populations in any sense of the present. I am thinking about Native peoples … now. It’s recent though, a new reality for me.

Sticks and stones—the weight of them over generations—not only hurt our bones, they hurt our souls. And a picture, negative to race or creed —whether intentionally or inadvertently — does have power greater than a thousand words. Be the change you want to see in the world.

NOTE: Part 2 of this post focused on American Natives will be live on May 27, 2020, my maternal grandmother’s birthday.

15 Replies to “I am my brother’s keeper. What about you? Part 1”

  1. Tamara, how are you? After reading this, I immediately thought about Aunt Jemima who adorned the pancake box that my mom faithfully bought each week from the grocery store during my childhood.
    I never thought that this was a symbol of racism until I overheard a few of my so-called white friends at John Marshall use the term “Aunt Jemima” in a derogatory way. I still enjoy the 🥞. 😂
    Stay safe!
    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Hey, Warren. Thanks for your comment. So much racist imagery and actions surround us that we just don’t see or think about — in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Be safe.

  2. Wonderfully written, Tamara. I read it and thought of this quote from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” And then this from one of his contemporaries, André Gide: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” So, posts like yours, aid the discovery and should make all who read it feel there is much to be learned when you have the willingness to ‘leave the shore.’

    “Until you see beauty everywhere,
    in every face,
    until then,
    you are blind.”
    ― Kamand Kojouri

  3. Land o’Lakes was my favorite butter, too. Hadn’t thought of the benevolent maiden that way. Thanks for making me think. Stay well, stay safe.

  4. Today, as we see Nature reclaiming what humans have mindlessly encroached upon, I think about the profound respect Native Americans have had, based on living intimately in concert with Nature. We have so much to learn, and we don’t even realize it. That wealth of knowledge and value orientation is just one of many examples of why we should care about celebrating uniqueness of American cultures, not trivializing them. Thanks again for your thought-provoking observations.

      1. I have trouble viewing the Land of Lakes Native American woman as an offensive stereotype. I have always thought that she showed a reverence for the land. She is nothing like the cartoonish Indian that was portrayed by the Cleveland Indians for many years, nor did she appear submissive to me. Instead, she exhibits a respect for the land and its gifts. I am troubled by the thought that she has been erased. Now she is a symbol of what we have lost, except that anyone who does not remember seeing her on the Land of Lakes butter package could not even realize that loss. It is like she was never there. Is it better to erase her or to picture her?

        Aunt Jemima, on the other hand, pictures a (fictional) happy time when slaves were content and loved to cook for their owners. To me, that is a highly offensive view.

        To me, the two images are very different in their slant. Folks may disagree with me, and I welcome an open discussion on how they feel.

      2. Here goes …. the image on the butter was a person who, in today’s time, would be either in regalia for a special event or in a costume. I believe that stylizing a race — Aunt Jemima, an Asian person dressed like Hopsing on Bonanza, or the Land O Lakes image — is offensive. I would not have always seen the offense, but I do now, particularly, for me, when it is pointed out by a person of that particular group. I agree with you that the butter image is not as offensive as the Cleveland football team image or others, but there probably shouldn’t be gradations of offensiveness. Offensive is offensive.

  5. I had a wonderful American history professor at William and Mary. He opened my eyes to events in our history that I knew very little about. I was so incensed by the treatment of Native Americans that I planned to use my elementary teaching degree on an Indian reservation. I got married instead and taught first grade in Chesapeake for 37 years. But every year when I taught a unit on Native Americans in Virginia, I made sure my students knew at least a little of the oppression that took place.

  6. I recently read a book about the US 7th Cavalry’s 1876 war to force Native Americans onto reservations, which included the Battle of the Greasy Grass, as it was known to the indigenous peoples, also called Custer’s Last Stand. Although the author clearly documented that the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho were on land that the US government had guaranteed them the right to use and were not looking for a fight, he consistently referred to them as “hostiles” throughout the book.

    Your reference to “sticks and stones” reminded me of a time when I tried to comfort a young boy in a residential treatment center for severely emotionally disturbed children where I was working. He was upset by the names that other boys were calling him, so I gave him the old “stick and stone” speech. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “No, sticks and stones only hurt you on the outside, but words can cut all the way to your heart.”

  7. When I was defining “stereotype”to my eighth graders, my co-teacher suggested we check You Tube for the Lays “Frito Bandito” commercial. When it was finished there was dead silence. One student asked, “Was that supposed to be funny? Why?” What struck my co-teacher and me was that all of them – 13-14 years old – saw the ad as offensive. The message is getting through to them. I’ve learned a great deal from your blog, Tamara. Wish I’d had your book when I was teaching. Oh! In my review of your book , I am listed as “Amazon Customer.” No clue why, but let me know if it was helpful.

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