Pre-Easter Celebrations an Insult to American Indians

Julianne Jennings

While strolling with friends through the busy streets of Spoleto, an ancient Italian city in the province of Umbria, we stepped into the start of celebrations or carnivals called, Quaresima. This is the time that precedes the celebration of Easter or the Great Feast, and according to the Roman Rite, had 44 days (starting from Ash Wednesday), while, according to the Ambrosian practice, it lasts 40, from the Sunday after Shrove Tuesday. This period is characterized by the call to conversion to God with typical practices of Lent fasting, ecclesiastical and other forms of penance, more intense prayer and the practice of charity. It is a journey of preparation to celebrate Easter, which is the culmination of the Christian holidays.

This year’s carnival theme happened to be Cowboys and Indians. Italian actors wearing cowboy hats and bandanas, shooting shiny silver toy guns loaded with confetti into the air. While other performers were decked out in face paint, brightly colored headdresses, beads and offering war cries to on-lookers, seemed like the equivalent to blackface in minstrel shows; gives this pre-Easter holiday season an entirely new platform for immature, morally depraved, suburbanite and ignorant individuals to get away with obvious hatred and bigotry towards American Indians.

When trying to explain to the actors and my friends how disrespectful the carnival is in perpetuating Indian stereotypes, they told me I was being overly sensitive and that it was just entertainment as a means of making ME look stupid for calling them on their foolishness, when you know I was completely in the right for doing so. A few minutes later, a comment was made based on my appearance, “You don’t look Indian,” as I stood there in my wool Calvin Kline red winter coat, sneakers and short black hair.

 I cut off my long black hair to protest against stereotyping. I felt my hair chained me to this country’s racialized notion of what it is to be an Indian—stoic, admired for heroism, along with the ideological construction of romanticism that evoked classic images of the noble savage, seductive squaw or the blood-thirsty Redskin. These descriptions serve as weapons in our continued subjugation ensuring our status as “backward” and “primitive.” The same perceived notion of how we should appear. Historically, American Indians have always been cosmopolitan, as a result of contact with various groups of people through travel, trade, out marriage, migration; and later slavery.

From the making of Hollywood’s Indian to race-based holidays like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and now Easter, only creates resentment and raises racial tensions given the number of individuals, who may not even realize, fuel stereotypes when dressed up as someone of another race for an occasion. Halloween is a good example. They will tell you, “We love Indians.” If you love us, then learn the truth.

The whole idea of using Native Americans as a foil for Eurocentric or Catholic Church-centric public displays of “religion” only accentuates the depravity of the Catholic so-called “missionaries” who thought, taught, and preached violence and hatred against Native Americans and authorized the whole-sale murder of an entire group of humanity. And don’t even get me started on the destruction of Native American records and medical or astronomical treatises; thus consigning to oblivion the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of millennia of Native medicine, Native astronomy, Native surgical methods, Native religions, Native legal practices, and Native cultures or worldviews.

I find the Catholic Church’s attitude toward their extermination practices of Native cultures in the Americas just as despicable as the Nazi exterminations of Jews, Gypsies, mentally impaired people, all of the non-white people of the world, and anyone else they deemed “undesirable.” They (Nazis and medieval or renaissance Catholics) are all in the same category of hate-mongers. From this experience, it is clear that the current-day Catholic Church has changed none of its stance toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha (Lily of the Mohawk) notwithstanding.

The practice of charity I give for this Easter holiday season is an opportunity to act as cultural broker between the two worlds helping to educate the Italian people who we are today. I would love to call upon Alessandro Profeti and Hunkapi, two Italian-Indian organizations that advocate on the behalf on behalf of Native Americans, to help me organize a panel discussion in Spoleto on the harms of Indian stereotypes. This would help restore balance and harmony between the two cultures and help shed misconceptions about Indians— just a little something to put in your Easter basket.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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Anonymous's picture
I truly feel this is a case of pure ignorance, not malice...still, it hurts just the same...what we need to ask is how do we get people to understand the hurt it causes?
Anonymous's picture
Disrespect? Yes. Hatred, no. Bigotry, maybe. Julianne undoubtedly is sincere, but hatred is likely overstatement. I grew up a minority of one in my school, being able to pass either way, but having learned to pass one way after a bad experience early in public elementary school while Dad was in the Army, being the target of the teasing ignorami after a show and tell with some feathers and shells Dad had sent me. That wasn't 'hate', though, only ignorance. When he got home I was immediately in another school, Quaker, where any form of harassment was severely disciplined. When kids were playing Indian they were aping what they saw in the Saturday matinee movies, and they didn't know any better. But there was no hate. The Church was instrumental in making sure there was no harassment in classes there. In the early days in New England, there were two brands of Christianity: Catholic and Puritan. Puritan centered in Massachusetts, Catholic in Quebec and northern New England. The Catholic was French in origin, the Puritan was outcast English in origin. The Wars between England and France were expressed by their counterparts here. The approach of the Catholics in the north was cooptive, even manipulative, to give us a 'better understanding' of our deity Kautontowit as being our early, incomplete expression of God. So we had been 'right', but incomplete. The approach of the Puritans in the south was preemptive, we were savages who were worshipping Satan and deserved nothing but death. It is easy to see why we preferred the French! Aping is parody, and sometimes so understood and therefore evil, and sometimes not understood and ignorance. Now that we've moved on from Puritan days, mostly, its rarely hatred. My mother and her family did not hate me. My Dad, nadadan, is who I look like any more. He and his family love(d) me.
Anonymous's picture
Why is no one up in arms about the 'insult" to cowboys. Again, you need to get over yourselves.
rezzdog's picture
Well, for one thing, being a Cowboy is a profession, not a nation, culture or a peoples. And, they are locked in an infinite underage status, otherwise they would be called Cowmen and not Cowchildren. (boys).
Fuernenzync's picture
Amazing Post.thanks for share..more wait ..
cameraeye's picture
This article and the comments are absolutely educational and moving for me. Being born and raised in Germany in the Sixties my first real interest belonged to horses. I couldn’t have one so I always watched Hollywood Westerns, here they were, my beloved horses. In the early Seventies I watched a “German Western”, which took a very different turn in portraying the “Indians”. Today I understand, it was the stereotype noble savage story and not at all well researched, but it showed people standing in for one another, fighting for their land, their culture and way of living, here the white guys usually were the bad ones – it did give me a clue seeing world from the other side. Since we didn’t have no way of recording these movies I had to get the books from this German author, so I could “keep” these stories. (I actually learned to read there) I started to dislike many of the Hollywood westerns and totally got upset, even if a “bad Indian” or a horse got killed. And yes, in the carnival time (in Germany it has nothing to do with the church but has an old pagan background), usually in February, I dressed up in an Indian costume – and by all means – I did not want to hurt, offend or insult anyone. I was ignorant and stupid, - but it got and kept me curious. I also must admit, for a long time when I heard the word “Indian” I stereotyped long hair, leather clothing, bead work, feathers… In the eighties I had the chance to see Indigenous people in the US. I saw them drunk, I saw them proud, I saw them living and coping in today’s world. So I realized I had to say good bye to the picture with was deeply imprinted during my childhood. Every now and then it is possible to meet Native People here in Germany, telling the audience about their lives in the reservations to all who want to listen.(Having even Powwows here) I can relate to very much of what they say, but I do find the audience often doesn’t want to hear or see Indigenous people wearing modern clothes and living in houses with TVs – and that gets me upset too, there is a lot to learn here. But, I try to learn and I do think that good stories like “Skins”, “Dance me outside”, “Smoke signals” “The business of fancy dancing“ would get people to get curious and become open minded and change their stereotyped picturs. Unfortunately these stories are rarely available in Germany, I have to order from the US or Canada, showing them sometimes to open minded friends. (I really would love to see Blackstone – but no chance; it seems it is not out on DVD yet) So, reading the article and the comments really made me think, feeling the naivety of my childhood days and realizing what can bring pain to others. – Thank you. –