Dousing the Pocahottie Stereotype

Dwanna L. Robertson

Recently, a tanning salon advertisement touted that Indians not only brought corn to the first Thanksgiving, they brought “sexy color.” After complaints (one of which was mine), the ad was taken down from Club Sun’s Facebook page and an apology of sorts was given. And herein lies the problem. Ads like these and society’s inadequate understanding of their inappropriateness show the depth of microaggressions, normalized racism, and internalized oppression that American Indians struggle with on a daily basis.

Larry Andrews, the VP of Sales for Club Sun, gives a glaring example of microaggression mentality. Andrews complained to the local TV station about people becoming offended and accused people of just looking for things to “stir the pot.” Andrews argues that people should look for more positive things so that the holiday season will be better. In other words, people are just overly sensitive and looking for things to be negative about.

Andrews dismisses our feelings or experiences by claiming the company’s actions were innocent. When Natives speak out or speak up against innuendos and slights or mascots, we're often told we're being too sensitive or it was just a joke. In other words, we're always trying to make some big deal out of nothing. Microaggressions are often unintentional, but they still have real consequences.

David Arnett, the marketing director for Club Sun, explained to a local TV station that he’s “Native American” and “proud of my heritage and skin tone.” The ad was meant to be “simply a play” on Arnett’s own sexy color. But the picture was not of Arnett or even a man. Instead, it was the typical “Pocahottie”—a stereotype of a sexualized Indian maiden. Normalized racism comes in the form of stereotypes about hyper-sexualized Native women. Arnett might not know that this image originated with Columbus’s Second Voyage and how dangerous it continues to be for Native women.

Consider the current propensity for physical violence and sexual assault against Native women. The U.S. Justice Department reports that more than 80% of rapes on Indian Homelands are committed by non-Native men. Indigenous women are victims of violent crime at 3.5 times the national average and one in three Native women will be raped in her lifetime. The Justice Department also believes these numbers are severely underreported, estimating that 70 percent of sexual assaults are never reported due to a distrust of police. I don’t think we need to portray any women as easily victimized or as “whores who really want it.” But there’s a greater burden of responsibility when it comes to Native women.

Finally, internalized oppression among Native Peoples is heavily documented due to the overwhelming effects of colonization and intergenerational trauma—alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide, drug abuse, etc. But internalized oppression also manifests as a colonized mind—one that sees no issue in cultural appropriation or using stereotypical caricatures that denigrate our cultures, and therefore, has assimilated into a mindset of individualism and dishonor for traditional ways and lack of community.

Americans (that includes American Indians) have been socialized to “play Indian” since they could walk. Consequently, acts of racial and gender microaggressions, internalized oppression, and normalized racism will continue to raise their ugly heads until we decide to stop participating. We have to decolonize our hearts and minds, and then stand against the perpetuation of denigrating stereotypes. We have to quit making excuses for their existence. It matters for our future generations.

Dwanna L. Robertson is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist. Her article, “A Necessary Evil: Framing an American Indian Legal Identity” will be published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in December 2013.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
If folks want to stop being called Pocahotties then they might want to think about what they are wearing out & about. It is pretty bad that when you go to Wal-Mart you even see the clothes they have for little children looks like something out of a bordello. Women & girls don't need to be showing their mid-riffs or their butt cheeks. Show modesty ladies & girls & keep it covered up! The only people who want to see everything you have are the very people you don't need to be attracting! Are dressed like a respectable female or something less than respectable? There isn't one thing wrong with our females wearing decent length dresses like our ancestors did. Constantly showing off your scantily clothed body winds up getting you the attention you don't want: Stares, gossip, cat-calls & a reputation you may not enjoy having even if you aren't doing one thing shameful. Seek a good reputation & good name above all other things my friends. When you lose either, it may take a very long time to regain either. Think about that the next time you step outside your front door & out into the public................
Two Bears Growling
chahta ohoyo's picture
halito, dwanna outstanding article...you have just re iterated what we are learning in a course from the university of wyoming about wrongs perpetuated against native american women...i love 'poca-hottie'....have always wondered why the white, colonialists of OUR country have always fixated on the story of a 13 year old girl who rescued a stupid, blundering white man from certain death....(at least in their version of the story)and may/may not have been his lover..etc...the truth is she married john rolfe to cement an alliance between the powhatan people and white english people...she later visited england, was feted and admired for her adaptation to white life, and died there, at the age of 33 before being able to return to the country of her birth...i have always taken askance at the use of matoaka as some kind of iconic smarmy symbol of native women.. say what...????
chahta ohoyo
Anonymous's picture
Great article, Dwanna. Just wanted to add that Dr. Leo Killsback, in his article "Today's American Indian Activism," he wrote: Most agree that stereotyping is wrong, but the associated problems are much more destructive. Research by psychologist Dr. Stephanie Fryberg (Tulalip) at the University of Arizona reveals that not only do mascots lower the self-esteem of Indian children, but they also raise the self-esteem of white children. In other words, images like Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians allows for white children to feel good about dehumanizing their Indian classmates. Such environments contribute to the low performance of Indian students, leading to high drop out rates and failure in other sectors of adult life. It is racism alright, and in my experience, it lends itself to the superiority complex that some non-natives have when it comes to Native Americans. Even some NAs believe that non-natives are smarter or more knowledgeable or more trustworthy than their NA counterparts. I think that's a form of internalized oppression that hurts us the most. Then again, it is a cultural trait wherein NAs generally seek more to understand than to be understood while others boggle us with bullshyt in front of the 1 lil', 2 lil' 3 lil' Ndns.
Anonymous's picture
I wrote a comment for this article under anonymous but I don't believe it should'nt have been printed since there was no offending comments in there. What happened?
Anonymous's picture
To Two Bears Growling: (your pseudonym needs work!) Really, this is what you have to say? Blaming women for the normalized racism, the microaggressions, the internalized oppression that indigenous peoples deal with on an interpersonal & institutional level is the best you have? Did you even read the article? I generally don't respond, but to blame Native women for the *pocahottie* stereotype that non-Native people have invented is inexcusable. Also, it shows how little you care when you choose to ignore the statistics about Native women being abused. Native women aren't the ones "out & about." And that's not what this article is about. It's about people like you perpetuating this stereotype.