Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning says across the U.S. Native Americans are subject to racism in the form of souvenirs and other Americana.

Manning: It's Not Just a Coffee Mug! Ridding the Shelves of Racist and Stereotypical Imagery

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Gas stations, convenience stores, and travel stops are frequented by virtually everyone. We peruse the aisles looking for anything from refreshments, to motor oil.  We may even be enticed to the section of trinkets and gadgets, cell phone chargers, and coffee mugs. If children are in tow, they are often quickly drawn to the brightly colored toys and coloring books. But as our children look on, how do we respond when there is something harmful or unsafe on the shelves?

Fortunately, most products identified as “unsafe” are swiftly recalled, however, not without the due diligence and action of the consumer.   

But how could a coffee mug, a toy, or mere trinket found in a gas station do harm? To answer simply, it is often the image, not the item itself, which is harmful.  Take this coffee mug for example:

Just a coffee mug, right? Wrong. It is loaded with stereotypes of Native Americans, portrayed as people of the past, male, chief, red skin, big nose caricature, and stoic. Problematic, without question. 

American society at large is well aware of the impact and harmful nature of many different kinds of images. Thus, adult magazines in stores are covered with a magazine shield to protect the impressionable young minds of our children.

But should we have to put a shield over a stereotypical image? How about a racist moniker? The more appropriate question might be, “Should these items even be on the shelves?” The obvious answer is, “No!” 

The power of images is irrefutable. We are all affected by the images that we see on a daily basis, as they are processed and filed into our subconscious mind, whether we realize it or not. There is no escaping the power of images. This fact is a facet of our humanity. 

And while adults often have the ability to make conscious choices as to what images we expose ourselves to, children have much less control, if any at all. They are merely present in the world that we have created and allowed for them. In addition, a child’s brain processes images much more concretely, as they lack the ability to think critically until early adulthood. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, responsible for judgement, is not fully developed until one’s mid-20s. At the earliest ages of childhood, the brain simply processes images as truth.

Take a moment to consider how anyone might process the following as truth:

Or how about this:

Thankfully, these images represent vintage items of the 1960s, cast off into the memory of decades passed. Well … not quite. The stereotypes they represent are ever-present, in gas stations, gift shops, party stores, and at high school athletic events where Indians are the second most popular mascot, right after animals. Our society has a history of creating and perpetuating stereotypical images of Indians, beginning with the language “merciless Indian savage,” which derives from the highly touted Declaration of Independence. The “noble savage” dichotomous stereotype has been played out, time and again, shaping the popular consciousness of American society. 

There is an oversaturation of such negative images, and they wreak havoc on the psyche of even the greater global society, native or not. They imprint our minds with stereotypes that we often don’t realize are harmful, shaping our perceptions with or without our consent. 

National organizations began discussions of the harmful nature of these stereotypes decades ago. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) cites having discussed the issue as early as the 1940s. In 1968, NCAI launched a campaign to address the harmful nature of stereotypes found in print and media. In 1969, the National Indian Education Association began taking action to educate about the dangers of stereotypical Indian imagery. Yet it wasn’t until decades later, that the issue involving the harm of stereotypical Indian imagery became more publicized, on the heels of protests to change Indian mascots.    

Presently, numerous national organizations recognize the harm of Indian imagery. Currently at the University of Washington, psychology professor Dr. Stephanie Fryberg conducted four studies which affirmed the damaging nature of Indian imagery. Essentially, the stereotypes limit the ways in which our children see themselves, damaging their identity, and their self-esteem. The American Psychological Association responded in 2005, calling for the “immediate retirement” of Indian mascots and imagery.

Yet aside from recommendations and empirical evidence, there is what many people innately know to be true. Images matter. Every day that our children encounter a stereotypical image representing their identity, they are affected, and so are we all affected. 

To demonstrate this, I will share a personal story involving my very bright nephew, a 12-year-old Shoshone, Paiute, Chippewa, Cree, and Dakota young man. I must mention that my nephew is grounded in his traditions and very proud of his tribal identity. He wears his hair in a long braid, plays traditional lacrosse, he is a grass dancer, and he is eagerly learning many of his traditional ways. He is also a rather precocious and intelligent young man, and thus quick to identify a stereotype.

A few months ago, we were on a cross-country family road trip, along with my sister and our children. We made stop after stop. Not surprisingly, our boys flocked to the toys at each location. At one travel stop, my nephew quickly spotted out a stereotypical toy set and cynically stated, “Sad!” and held up the package, showing a collection of Indian men gesturing with weapons and angry grimaces. He spun the rack to find two more similar sets. Three sets total, all displaying the same “savage Indian” stereotype.

After this, my nephew went from aisle to aisle, curious to see what else he could find. He was on a mission.  With his iPod in hand, he began taking pictures and documenting the stereotypes. Magazines, trinkets, and toys. All Indians of the past, none of the present. Predominantly men. All grimacing in true savage form.  Then of course there were the dream catchers and more mystical representations of the “noble Indian.” 

As we moved along in our journey, my sister and I continued to have good conversation with my nephew, giving him hope that things are changing, but we must also take action. Taking my own advice, I took action.

I reported the products to the Consumer Product Safety Commission here, citing the psychological harm. This approach was most fitting at the time considering our hours-long travel. Of course other possible actions can include speaking with management or contacting the manufacturer. Whatever you choose, do take action. Do not stop at mere frustration. We must show our children that we have the power to act, and create the society that we all so deserve.

As for my nephew, he continues to recognize the stereotypes, dealing with them in a positive and proactive manner. And on a positive note, he discovered at one location that there was not a single Indian stereotype. He combed through the movies, trinkets, toys, and the magazines. Not one. He was happy, and instead of taking a picture of more frustrating stereotypes, he posed with his younger brothers and sister for a picture inside of the Loves Travel Stop, grateful. He beamed in happiness and relief, finding a sort of refuge.

What I took away from this experience was just how closely our children are paying attention. They are not only recognizing the injustice and prevalence of stereotypical imagery, but they are paying attention to how we as adults respond. They are learning to articulate their feelings and act upon them in a healthy, productive way. My nephew’s attentiveness and heart gives me all the more inspiration to act. Change is upon us, and the children are looking to us for action. Let's not let them down.

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.

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Grayhorse's picture
Submitted by Grayhorse on
Interesting story! Good for your Nephew on noticing these articles and taking pictures. Good for you for reporting these articles to the Consumer Product Commission.

Skylar Fynboh
Submitted by Skylar Fynboh on
I've always had a problem personally selling those items. It's hard being a "Red skin" and selling products like Red Man chewing tobacco.