Political Deafness & ‘Crazy Indians’

Karen Melissa Hannel & Eric Hannel

In response to a question from ABC’s Jake Tapper in April, Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton flippantly stated, “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak.” Her comment was followed by an apology from her national political director, Amanda Renteria, who stated “Hillary Clinton meant no disrespect to Native Americans. She wants this election to be about lifting people up, not tearing them down.”

But the phrase has historically been used to reach that exact outcome – to tear people down. On April 10, 1872, during a debate on the Senate floor, Senator Stewart referred to Indians who “go off the reservation” as criminals who “steal from the whites” and their tribes as willing accomplices to “robbers and murderers.”

Just over three months after the Clinton characterization, the Clinton campaign was once again linked with this racist phrase, only this time it was billionaire supporter Mark Cuban. Cuban endorsed Clinton at a July 30 Pittsburgh event with the statement that he could not support Trump because “he went off the reservation and went bat---- crazy.” Unlike when Clinton used the phrase in April, there was no uproar in response though Cuban’s equating volatility and mental illness with indigenous experience is obviously a more injurious affront.

It is more injurious given that history reveals that indigenous peoples were condemned to federal mental institutions, such as Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota or Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where they awaited forced sterilization, were abused, and lived in unsanitary conditions oftentimes for nothing more than practicing their “cultural traditions, and Indian lifestyles” on the reservation. The asylum advertised itself as a tourist destination where sightseers could “come and see the crazy Indians” and pick-up a few souvenirs to commemorate the occasion.

While Cuban is not employed by the Clinton campaign his use of the phrase, so soon after his nominee of choice’s chastisement, demonstrates a willful desire to remain obtuse. That the media did not pick up on round 2 of “off the reservation” indicates a commitment to reporting on Indian issues only when those issues can be used to stir the pot on a slow news day.

Quite a few commentators defended Clinton’s use of the phrase by noting how common the phrase is and how no one really connects the phrase to the wholesale abuse of an entire group of people. Flimsy, but if that is in fact the case perhaps it might help if we imagined replacing “off the reservation” with “off the plantation” in the same way Bomani Jones’ excellent parody of Cleveland baseball mascot Chief Wahoo brought attention to the continued acceptance of a double standard. Perhaps this linkage will remind people of the pain and injustice associated with the history of Indian policy and the continued hardship this past visits upon the present so that off-hand comments might be tempered with honest, compassionate recognition of Native American issues.

Dr. Karen Melissa Hannel is an assistant professor of Fine Arts at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. Dr. Eric Hannel is the current Staff Director for the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigation, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He has spoken on numerous Native American issues and published Reinterpreting a Native American Identity: Examining the Lumbee through the Peoplehood Model in 2015.

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