Cowboys and Indians and Racism for Fun and Profit

Julianne Jennings

Racialization is the social and historical process of assigning individuals and groups a racial identity and social status, and places them into positions of superior and inferior types. This process is always legitimized through ideologies (usually by the dominate culture) and operates in the various institutionalized systems around which Western societies are constructed and its hierarchies developed: legal systems, military, political, educational institutions, and in particular, the media, solidifying racial and social inequality while fueling racism for fun and profit.

In terms of the use and abuse of Native American cultures, the “School of Equestrian Training - SEF Italy” is offering a new program called, “Riding Native” to the public. Maximilian Zito, the programs director, is promoting its “savage” equestrian experience on SEF’s website fully dressed wearing buckskin, feathers and beads, while “allegedly” using the Lakota language to describe the various riding techniques of American Indians like, Taking the Scalp, Assault on the Band Wagon and Bison Hunt to authenticate its program offerings.

Because Westerners have always had a fascination with the exotic, especially with the Wild West, where cowboys shoot Indians, Mr. Zito also invents a history with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual for new age gullibility, and allows the powerful to commit race hate without consequence—the narrow, distorting lens through which racial minorities are frequently portrayed reinforcing stereotypes, while profiteering off of a false reality based on the Western cult of materialistic consumption.

For example, Zito’s distorted history of American Indian horse culture asserts, “White settlers imposed upon American Indians black slaves to work the cattle without the comfort of the seat (saddle). Native Americans who called the horse, “Shunka Wakan or big dog,” adopted this technique from their slaves to such an extent they became expert riders of the prairie.” It all seems pretty convincing if you don’t know the history of slavery or the Plains Indians., so let’s set the record straight. African Americans were not a major presence in the Great Plains until after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, but that does not mean they didn’t play a significant role in shaping the early history of the region. Historically, Plains Indians were semi-sedentary, engaged in corn, bean and squash agriculture, particularly in the east, and hunted elk or antelope, with buffalo as their primary food source. By the mid-sixteen hundreds, the Spanish rancheros near Santa Fe and Taos had thousands of horses. The Spanish government issued decrees forbidding Indians to own horses. As slaves, or as workers, on the Spanish rancheros, Indians learned to handle horses. By the mid-sixteen hundreds Apache and Navajo were starting to acquire horses stolen by escaped workers from the Spanish rancheros.

In 1680, the Pueblo Revolt forced the Spanish out of New Mexico (The Pueblo killed 400 Spanish and drove the remaining 2,000 settlers out of the province), with thousands of horses left behind. The Comanche, Ute, Apache, and other tribes in the region took full advantage of these horses. As sedentary farmers, the Pueblo tribes had little use for them—they were more interested in sheep. By the time the Pueblo Indians got around to dividing up the spoils from the uprising, most of the horses were gone. Alan Taylor writes in American Colonies, “The 1680 Pueblo Revolt was the greatest setback inflicted by Native Americans on European expansion in North America. Within fifty years, Indian tribes, as far north as the Cree and Assiniboine in Canada, had acquired horses primarily through trade.” As a consequence of Zito’s murky world of pseudo-history telling has one blog group fuming.

In a letter dated May 18, 2013 to Mr. Zito from the complainant Nativi Americani.it, an Italian based blog, dedicated in supporting American Indian causes asserts, “Native Americans are perceived by most people through sinister stereotypes imposed by film, literature and comic books of the past...” The letter continues, “...It’s sad to see that you also perpetuate this kind of racilization.... Native Americans are Men, Women and Children who struggle every day for their physical and cultural survivl in defense of their rights and their lands. Imagine a Native child who reads what you propose.”

Suprisingly, in a return letter, Mr. Zito has decided to “accomidate their request” in changing the conent of their video and sales pitch. P. Gilbert Douville, Lakota, Honoary President of the Cultural Association, Hunkapi located in Genova Italy, has step in to work with them, “I am currently in contact with this riding organization in trying to change the scope of their presentation. As a matter of fact, they have agreed to drop the Indian motif off their site and stop the usage of Indian names and regalia.”

We are now standing at the threshold of change, where Indian voices meet Media Industry—where the power of voice has become voices of power.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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