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.