The Last Acceptable Racism: Native Americans

David Kimelberg

Two disturbing developments recently hit my radar. The first was an announcement from Washington D.C.’s NFL team that it’s planning to change its name and logo. Okay, that seems innocuous enough. Washington Politicos? Nope. The new name is the Washington Jews. The re-worked logo is equally alarming: it consists of a profile of what appears to be a stereotyped Jewish person, complete with the physical features exploited by Sacha Baron Cohen in his film Borat.

The second was the results of a New Yorker cartoon caption contest. Normally a source of great wit and cleverness, this one was just plain distasteful: The cartoon pictured an SS guard taking cover behind a desk against a barrage of “throwing stars” clearly in the shape of the Star of David. While avoiding the onslaught of Jewish-themed steel weapons hitting the desk and everything else around him, he’s speaking to someone on the phone. In the New Yorker’s caption contests, readers are asked to submit witty captions to accompany the cartoon, with winners announced in a subsequent issue. So, what was the winning caption? Get ready, here’s the punchline: “Quick, give them the banks.” Not only is the caption just not funny, its racist angle is obvious. Has the liberal and renowned New Yorker gone off the deep end?

Shocked by this news? Of course you are. And, of course, they’re not true. If they were, both organizations would be dealing with a deluge of warranted criticism and outrage from all corners. What is truly shocking is that Native Americans are subject to analogous assaults and no one seems to care.

Of course, Washington’s NFL team is actually the Washington Redskins. The term “redskins” is highly offensive to Native Americans and is equivalent to the “n-word” for African Americans. Not only is the team’s name insulting, its logo is also a slap in the face for Natives. It attempts to depict a profile of an “Indian,” complete with braids, feathers and a stoic gaze. It’s pure stereotyping and nothing more. It perpetuates a caricature of Native people, and is another societal movement to turn Native Americans into a historical footnote, frozen in time as a cowboy western prop, and not allow recognition of us for who we really are. In the category of "irony of all ironies," the Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, recently sued a Washington news outlet for including a picture of him with devil horns. His complaint? That, as a Jew, the news outlet depicted him in a blatantly anti-Semitic way, which caused him great harm. Really? Can you not see the clear racist parallels with your own NFL franchise, Mr. Snyder?

The New Yorker obviously doesn’t get it either. Instead of my theoretical SS guard, a recent New Yorker cartoon caption contest actually depicted a cowboy seeking refuge behind a desk peppered with arrows. The scene includes him on the phone, behind the desk in an office overlooking a cityscape. The New Yorker, the de facto leader of liberal literary intellectualism, decided that the winning caption should be: “Quick, give them a casino.” Instead of highbrow wit, the New Yorker decided that lowbrow overt racism should carry the cartoon caption day. The fact that only a couple commentators took issue with this (all Native Americans) speaks volumes. The message is that racism against Native Americans is acceptable and universally embraced under the guise of alleged humor.

As both a Native American and a Jew, I am equally offended by racist attacks on either group. This type of verbal and pictorial violence has only one goal in mind: to dehumanize the subject group so they’re viewed as a subclass not worthy of respect or acknowledgment as a distinct people. Native Americans have suffered the business end of this type of treatment in spades. Our 1492 population was estimated at between 15 and 18 million. As a result of violence and overtly genocidal governmental policies, this number was slashed to 250,000 by 1900. Today’s use and furtherance of stereotypical Native American imagery and narrative only serves to keep shameful concepts alive, regardless of whether it’s the actual intent. What’s more, they remind Native Americans, particularly our youth, that others do not deem us worthy of respect and that our people are merely a historical holdover to be represented by comic book imagery.

A recent New York Times article tells the story of how Native American art collectors have historically identified the source of our artworks by tribe and not individual artists. Only now are museums and collectors beginning to respect and value these works by identifying the individual artists and recognizing their worth as people. Can you imagine if a Monet was just identified as “French”? It’s clear that many corners of society view Native Americans as an abstract concept, imbued with normative valuing as a lesser group.

How can racial assaults against Native people be widely accepted, while similar assaults against Jews (or any other ethnic group) be quickly condemned? The answer is twofold. First, we’re small in absolute numbers. We represent only about one percent of the U.S. population. Because we don’t have a large population, we are potentially easy prey. Second, our mindset and world view are shaped by centuries of conquest and genocidal policies. We were stripped of our lands, our people were killed and we were herded onto reservations to better allow for forced assimilation. We were portrayed as savages not worthy of recognition as human beings. Not that long ago, white administrators of Indian boarding schools told our children that the “Indian in you shall die.” This kind of treatment and forced thinking has a lasting generational effect. It can be difficult to break through that type of programming. Many of our people, however, have shaken off these forced ideological shackles to speak the truth and demand long overdue respect. Our voice is getting louder.

Our words are being said with more frequency and emphasis. But people need to hear us. Societal racism should no longer be an ad hoc affair, which is routinely accepted when directed against a certain group. It should be universally condemned. Perpetuating past wrongs and dehumanizing concepts hurts everyone.

David Kimelberg is an enrolled citizen (Bear clan) of the Seneca Nation of Indians. He is the CEO of Seneca Holdings LLC, the investment arm of the Seneca Nation, and the founder of nativeinvestment.com, an online forum and blog about economic development in Indian Country. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the Seneca Nation of Indians or Seneca Holdings.

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temporary's picture
Since colonial times, we had snitches in our tribes. David Kimelberg should not be trusted. Our 1492 population was only 15 and 18 million? Give me a break! What's your real agenda Dave?
salish52's picture
wow, what a great article. I think all that was touched on is very true. I can't count the times someone has called one of my male relatives "Chief" or laughed abaout firewater, or made belittling comments that they think are funny, based on th sterotypical things they have been taught. not too long ago as school in our area had an alphabet posted that had an Eskimo listed for the letter E.
softbreeze's picture
I agree that it is totally disrespectful to use the first peoples of this continent as sports logos or mascots. I don't think very many non-native people in the United States even have any idea of who or what we are about. And to be honest, I think alot of them would rather not know. It's more convenient for their personal agendas and self-centered motives to play "dumb". They really aren't dumb, I think deep down they know. They just don't want to face the fact that we are HERE, and we do have a point of view, just like everyone else. For them to really take the steps to acknowledge us fully for who we are and what our people are about, would be the equivalent of raining on their own parade. It's just not convenient. But, I have to say, I have met some non-natives who have been trying very hard to understand to the best of their ability given their life experience, and are trying to encompass our points of view into their worldview. So, I think those kind of people are the ones we have to try to appeal to. I have met non-native people who do care, and do want to make things right. Alot of them just don't know, they've never been properly eduacated in regards to these matters. So, let's keep on working hard to make our voices heard, and give people a chance to do the right thing. Nimziwi.