This image by longtime editorial cartoonist Tom Stiglich, which compares the Nazi, Confederate and Redskins flags, appeared in the New York Daily News in 2013.

Houska: The Racial Wallpaper of Slavery and Genocide

Tara Houska

The last few weeks have been filled with complex issues of race, identity, and all of the things America just doesn’t like talking about. A 14-year-old black teenaged girl was slammed to the ground at a pool party by a white police officer, a white woman was exposed for claiming to be black, a white male massacred nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church.

On Monday, we took a tiny step in the right direction. South Carolina’s governor, despite protestations of “Tradition! History! Honor!” called on the state legislature to take down the Confederate battle flag across from the capitol. A symbol so inextricably tied to the fight to keep slavery lawful might finally be retired.

The week prior, in a rare somber monologue, Jon Stewart described the Confederate flag flying over South Carolina and the streets named after Confederate generals as “racial wallpaper.” How are we supposed to respect one another when we are steeped in a culture of racism? How are these deep racial wounds supposed to heal in that environment?

A sign in a restaurant called "Buffalo Billiards" in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Tara Houska.

It is monumental to see people recognizing and tearing down racial wallpaper; to witness progress in some of our most divided regions. Here in Washington, D.C., however, racial wallpaper is not even recognized as such.

Every day, I walk down the streets of our Nation’s capitol, through the halls of Congress, past statues of celebrated American leaders. And every day, I am subjected to pinpricks of racism directed at Native Americans.

Jerseys, hats, bags, umbrellas, bumper stickers, miniature flags, giant banners, even paper towels – all proudly displaying a caricature of a Native American with a dictionary-defined racial slur as its moniker.

Here, in the place where federal Indian law and policy are made, Native Americans are openly mocked for the sake of sports. “It’s an honor,” we’re told. What honor is there in racism? Is blackface an honor? Ask Rachel Dolezal how her masquerade as a black woman turned out.

Atop the U.S. Capitol, there is a frieze depicting American history. At first, Native Americans fight an onslaught of colonists. Our final reference is the death of Tecumseh and a kneeling Native American woman, hands upraised. There is nothing after. In the story of American exceptionalism, Native Americans cease to exist after Manifest Destiny.

In reality, as our numbers dwindled to near extinction, George Preston Marshall, staunch segregationist, chose the Washington team name. Andrew Jackson, proponent of the Trail of Tears, appeared on the twenty dollar bill. Christopher Columbus, who was brought back to Spain to be prosecuted for the horrors he enacted on indigenous peoples, was given a federal holiday.

RELATED: Rescind the Medals of Dishonor

But Native Americans didn’t go extinct. We’re still here. And this is the racial wallpaper we see. A largely forgotten, marginalized people, surrounded on all sides with the celebration of Native genocide.

For us, it isn’t enough to say something offends, we must prove it. Despite empirical studies demonstrating psychological harm, numerous tribal resolutions, lawsuits, and protests spanning decades, the r-word still remains widely accepted. How many people in the black community were polled about the n-word?

Proud tradition does not negate the racism of a flag associated with the enslavement of a people, nor does it negate the racism of a moniker that dehumanizes and slurs a people who underwent attempted eradication.

I believe America will continue to tear down the tenets of racism, that we will all aspire to be better. I look forward to South Carolina taking down the Confederate battle flag. I hope the Washington team is next.

Tara Houska. Photo courtesy Jason Daniels.

Tara Houska (Couchiching First Nation) is a tribal rights attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP and a founding member of Follow her on Twitter @zhaabowekwe.

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TsaniLK's picture
Submitted by TsaniLK on
I will never forget the first time I drove into Savannah, Mo. and saw on the High School an Indian Head with the word Savages below it. That's their mascot. Colonel/Reverend John Chivington, perpertrator of the Sand Creek Massacre, has a town named after him, Chivington, Colorado. Custer has towns, counties, and military posts named after him. And on and on and on. But, unlike slavery and all it entailed, we never hear about the massive inundation of tributes lauded upon some of the most racist leaders in American history, as controversial. If one were to assess modern American attitudes about their history in solidifying control of what is now the US, one could only conclude American Indians were somehow illegally occupying lands which rightfully belonged to Europeans. Indeed, while slavery and segregation are nearly universally excepted as wrong and evil, the holocaust perpetrated on this land isn't acknowledged at all. In fact, quite the opposite, it is seen as a victory for freedom, values and God.

Steven Lewis Simpson
Steven Lewis Simpson
Submitted by Steven Lewis Simpson on
To be fair as the confederate flag was flow supporting slavery, the stars and stripes was flown by the Cavalry committing genocide.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
Since as 'tribal nations', indian alcoholism, indian poverty, indian corruption, indian drugs/gangs, etc. "were" handled and resolved, "tribal nations" can solve the issues of its handlers -ennitt-? Because after-all, since indian people have 'rights', and indian people have appointed these 'attorneys', indian people can sleep better knowing that these 'attorneys' are working to resolve the localized gang men/boys down the street in our lil' development -ennitt-? A gang of thugs and bullies representing one large gang syndicate out of Phoenix where local tribal police look the other way, tribal government is deaf (we don't have family/relatives in tribal authority), and the federals are aware of what is happening but monitoring the scenerio(s). And as a real, true day-to-day indian with real reservation relations, I am supposed to worry of a piece of cloth?

scd's picture
Submitted by scd on
When I was a kid my dad use to take me to see the Cincinnati Reds play at Crosley Field. On the drive there going down I-71 we would pass a farm where there was a big barn with the entire roof covered with the Confederate flag painted on it. And to make matters worse, there was a dummy hanging from a tree in the yard which represented a Black man. I can remember how mad my dad got every time he saw that. So one day as we were going home from a Reds game dad pulled over, jumped the fence and shot the rope holding the dummy bringing it to the ground. This is an experience I will never forget as long as I live. I think this man’s intentions were very clear displaying this flag along with the hanging dummy! Whites in this country will never understand what it is like living in the US as a person of color. All of the “conversations” will never get to the bottom of the racism that has always existed in America. From the day the Pilgrims arrived to this land it began. And history…”true” American history will reveal its existence. The problem is that whites in America will never take (as Dr. Phil says) “ownership” or “responsibility” for their racist actions against people of color, beginning with the Tribes of this land! I challenge anyone that reads this to purchase the book…”Black Like Me“ by John Howard Griffin which can be purchased at Amazon for $7.03. It was written by a white man who in the 50’s had a procedure done to turn his skin brown so that he could pass for a Black man in the South. He experienced what it was like being a Black man in the South and wrote of his experience. Read it! Then maybe, just maybe you might begin to understand!