What if Those Nice Puritans You Learned about in K-12 Were Not So Nice? Or, Taking, Not Giving, and Without Thanks

(This post originally ran a few years back and was re-posed at Ms. Blog last year.)

I would like to give a nod to my anthropology professor of years ago, who, when I was a sophomore in college, was the first person to truly begin to open my eyes about Indigenous History. That semester, we read Changes in the Land. My feelings towards Thanksgiving, and US colonization, have been radically altered ever since.

For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.

Alas, while attending a recent National Women’s Studies Association conference in Denver, I was reminded of the importance of remembering the true history behind the day when I saw someone in attendance wearing this shirt, which reads “Genocide – Poverty - Hunger / No Thanks / No Giving! /What are you Celebrating? / Give Thanks Everyday.

I would hazard a guess that probably 95 percent of Americans don’t know that there were at least two “first” Thanksgivings. The story most of us know is of the day in 1621 when Pilgrims and Native Americans supposedly shared in a harvest feast. For what really happened at this time, I defer to Dr. Tingba Apidta, who notes:

According to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as ‘Thanksgiving,’ the Pilgrims never called it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.

The Pilgrims invited the Indian Sachem Massasoit to their feast, and it was Massasoit, engaging in the tribal tradition of equal sharing, who then invited ninety or more of his Indian brothers and sisters–to the annoyance of the 50 or so ungrateful Europeans. No turkey, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie was served; they likely ate duck or geese and the venison from the five deer brought by Massasoit. In fact, most, if not all, of the food was probably brought and prepared by the Indians, whose 10,000-year familiarity with the cuisine of the region had kept the whites alive.

The Pilgrim crop had failed miserably that year, but the agricultural expertise of the Indians had produced twenty acres of corn, without which the Pilgrims would have surely perished. The Indians often brought food to the Pilgrims, who came from England ridiculously unprepared to survive and hence relied almost exclusively on handouts from the overly generous Indians–thus making the Pilgrims the western hemisphere’s first welfare recipients.

The fact that the hospitality, the sense of community and inter-humanity is what kept the whites alive is lost in the stories we learn in the U.S. education system. So, too, is the savagery of the Pilgrims. As Apitda notes, “Any Indian who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or even murder.”

What is also conveniently left out of our mainstream history is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of indigenous peoples in the area were either murdered firsthand or secondhand (via diseases of white folks). As Eric Vieth of Dangerous Intersection reminds us,

Hepatitis, smallpox, chickenpox and influenza killed between 90 percent and 96 percent of the native Americans living in coastal New England.

This brings me to another myth–that Pilgrims and Puritans were God-worshipping people who merely sought religious freedom (rather than power, land and wealth). In fact, as Mitchel Cohen points out, these “settlers” used their religion to justify the persecution, enslavement and murder of indigenous peoples.

Speaking of persecution and murder brings me to the second First Thanksgiving–the one in 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians. This is the real First Thanksgiving–the one so-named by the leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

As Mitchel Cohen relates (emphasis mine):

Thanksgiving, in reality, was the beginning of the longest war in the U.S.–­ the extermination of the Indigenous peoples. Thanksgiving day was first proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, not to offer thanks for the Indians saving the Pilgrims ­ that’s yet another re-write of the actual history ­ but to commemorate the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.

Gathered at this place, they were attacked by mercenaries, English and Dutch. The Pequots were ordered from the building and as they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building. The very next day the governor proclaimed a holiday and feast to ‘give thanks’ for the massacre. For the next 100 years a governor would ordain a day to honor a bloody victory, thanking god the ‘battle’ had been won.

Want to read more about this? See Where White Men Fear To Tread by Russell Means and Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building, by R. Drinnon, 1990.

There was no turkey, no happy exchange, no “sharing” between Pilgrims and Indigenous Peoples at this Thanksgiving. Rather, Indigenous Peoples gave, Pilgrims took.

It is the sweetened 1621 version that President Lincoln harkened back to when declaring a national holiday. As Glen Ford notes,

Lincoln surveyed a broken nation and attempted nation-rebuilding, based on the purest white myth. The same year that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he renewed the national commitment to a white manifest destiny that began at Plymouth Rock.

This “white manifest destiny” is yet another piece of the imperial puzzle that we sweep under the rug. What goes unspoken in the historical renderings of this time is race; we are talking about not merely Pilgrims or Puritans but about whites, and a white supremacist ideology that sought to enslave and/or eradicate all peoples of color.

Tune in again tomorrow for Part 2 of the real story of Thanksgiving.
For further reading, see

What if “Columbus Day” was given the more accurate name “Celebrate Genocide Day”?

 (originally posted at this link in 2008)

Today is “Columbus Day,’ a day that has been celebrated in various ways since at least 1792 and was declared a federal holiday by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934. Currently, elementary schools around the nation combine the ‘holiday’ with learning units about Columbus and his “discovery.” The ways in which this portion of history is taught consists of a massive lie.

To start with, most history books claim Columbus “discovered” America. Well, forgive me  for asking, but when there are already anywhere form 10 to 45 million inhabitants living on a land mass, why does one conqueror’s greed induced voyage equal “discovery”? (Not to mention Columbus was lost and thought he was in Cuba when he first landed in the Caribbean and thought he was in India when he landed in North America.)

Teaching children Columbus “discovered” American obliterates the history of the indigenous people’s of this continent, it ignores the genocide that ensued, and it suggests that greed-driven imperialism is something to be celebrated.  It equates being a “hero” with being racist, violent, power-hungry, and arrogant. Woo-hoo.

Many websites offer teachers lesson plans to help kids “celebrate” the wonderful imperialist genocide Columbus’ “discovery” made possible. You can make tiny egg cups to represent the ships. Neat! You can make your own “discovery map.” (Do teachers encourage children to note the numbers of indigenous people massacred at each of Columbus’ ‘discoveries’?) Or, you can download pictures to color. (I wonder if these include native people’s being eaten alive by dogs – a popular way to ‘kill heathens’ by our hero.)

What if students learned a less glorified version of the not-so-great CC? Perhaps they might benefit from knowing some of the following:

  • One of CC’s earliest boasts after encountering the peaceful Arawaks was “With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” (Zinn, 1)
  • Columbus was on his ‘discovery mission’ for gold and power – he was a power hungry zealot – so greedy in fact that he denied the promised yearly pensions to some of his crew and kept all profits for himself (Zinn, 3)
  • At the time of Columbus’ quest for gold, power, and conquest, indigenous peoples numbered in the multi-millions in the Americas (Zinn puts the number at 25 million; Gunn Allen notes the number was likely between 45 million and 20 million and further points out the US government cites the pre-contact number at 450,000)
  • Indigenous people’s were not “primitive” but advanced agriculturally and technologically with complex societal systems (so advanced in fact that the notion of democracy was stolen from the Iroquois)
  • The majority of indigenous people were not war-like but peaceful and did not have a concept of private ownership – hence the term “Indian Giver” – which became a pejorative rather than a compliment in our ownership crazy society
  • Many indigenous societies had far more advanced sharing of power between the sexes/genders – or, as Zinn puts it, “the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent” (20)
  • “Contact” with Columbus and the conquerors that followed resulted not only in mass genocide, but continues to have negative effects on the small percentage of remaining indigenous peoples. For example, in the US, 25% of indigenous women and 10% of men have been sterilized without consent, infant mortality and unemployment are off the charts, and many existing tribes face extinction – hundreds of tribes have already become extinct in the last half century (Gunn Allen, 63)

These widely unknown facts (that are certainly not part of most public schools’ curriculum) are vitally important. As Zinn writes, “historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological” (8). The distortions surrounding Columbus serve to bring about “the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress” (Zinn, 9) – an acceptance the USA is practicing today with its imperialist occupation of Iraq. This approach to history, in which the conquerors and corrupt governments shape both how people view the past and how they interpret the present, consists of a massive propagandist campaign to justify greed and power.

In terms of the way Columbus is historically represented, the whole “discovery narrative” not only problematically glorifies (and erases) genocide, but it also passes off lies as truth. Students are led to believe that Columbus came upon some vast and nearly wilderness, when in fact many places were as densely populated (and ‘civilized’) as areas of Europe (Zinn, 21). More prosaically, many people often mistakenly believe Columbus actually set foot on US soil (he never did). Moreover, US inhabitants are encouraged to lionize the man who not only precipitated mass murder of indigenous people’s, but also brought slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. Even ‘revisionist history’ fails to condemn Columbus, arguing he needs to be read in the context of his times. For example James W. Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me,refers to him as “our first American hero.”  Well, if he is a hero, I certainly don’t want to be one of those, nor do I want to encourage my children, or my students, to look up to this version of heroism.

If you ask me, Columbus Day should be voided from the Federal Holiday calendar. Instead, perhaps we should institute an “Indigenous People’s Day” or a “Native American Day” to celebrate the true discovers of this continent. Columbus was an arrogant asshole, a murderous bigot, the cause of history’s largest and longest genocide. Who the hell wants to celebrate that?

Works cited:

Gunn Allen, Paula. “Angry Women are Building” in Reconstructing Gender. Ed. Estelle Disch. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006) 63-67.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

For further reading:

Gunn Allen, Paula. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminism in American Indian Traditions.

Jaimes, M. Annette. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance.

La Duke, Winona. The Winona la Duke Reader.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide.

 

What if Cowboys and Aliens offers the same old message wrapped in a “new” alien package?

Orignally posted here at Ms. Magazine blog.

Given that the new film Cowboys and Aliens is the structural and symbolic equivalent of “Cowboys and Indians,” I went to see it in order to discover if this newfangled Western-Alien mash-up is marred by the same racial representations as the majority of its Western film predecessors. And yes, for the most part, it is.

The horrid title, which equates “alien” with “Indian,” was audibly laughed at in the theater. I heard similar chuckles when the film was discussed at Comic-Con, along with comments indicating the film would be a lark–an exciting and wacky new twist on two genres that have been done to death. My reaction to the title was viscerally different: In and of itself, to me it is incredibly problematic from a race perspective. To equate Native peoples with aliens is in keeping with the history of the word “alien,” which has been used to construct the Other, both human and extraterrestrial. Given that the term “illegal alien” is still widely used to refer to migrants and undocumented workers, the word “alien” is equated with both the racialized Other and baddies from other planets. As expected, then, the film did indeed further, rather than undercut, many of the racialized components of Western films–especially in relation to the following six tropes:

Us Verses Them

The film displaces Native people as “the enemy” of whites in the 19th century West, replacing them with aliens from another planet. Throughout, a refrain of “our people” echoes racist terminology such as “those people” or “your people”–phrases used to typically name whites as the good people and everyone else a dangerous Other. Though the film constructs the key enemy as outer space aliens, it still relies on a system of white people at the center–as “us.”

White Cowboys Are the Heroes

As argued by whiteness scholar Richard Dyer, in Western culture whites play predominant roles. As he writes, “At the level of representation…whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” This is apparent in the film in its representation of all the white characters as “just human” while the characters of color are carefully singled out as types: the hot Spanish wife, the exotic Ella (Olivia Wilde), the good Native American farmworker and so on. As Dyer argues,

This assumption that white people are just people, which is not far off saying that whites are people whereas other colors are something else, is endemic to white culture.

Further, as most of our ideas about Native cultures come from white culture, whites and white history are glorified. As Native scholar Elizabeth Bird argues, “These stories, at a mythic level, explain to Whites their right to be here and help deal with lingering guilt about the displacement of Native inhabitants.” In the film, whites are the “good cowboys” who make the defeat of the alien invaders possible. It is suggested that the earlier defeat of both Latinos and Natives are a good thing, for now good white cowboys are able to ward off yet another threat–“real” aliens from another planet.

Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) is clearly a racist character, yet we are supposed to like him. As for the other lead white hero, Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), at the outset of the film he has amnesia, and when asked “what do you know” he bluntly replies “English”–as if knowing this is enough. This was one of the few moments in the film that the audience responded with laughter, again revealing that joking about alien otherness (this time in relation to language) is seen as funny. The absence of Latinos in the film has not gone without comment. Being that the film is set in Arizona, the whiteness of the cast seems historically inaccurate, as the “Shouldn’t there have been more Latinos in the film?” discussion thread at IMDB addresses.

The Good Native

As scholars of Native American literature and film regularly note, Natives are often depicted as types: the Good Indian, the Bad Indian (or Savage), the Noble Warrior and so on. Nat Colorado (Adam Beach) is the film’s Good Native. He clearly loves Dolarhyde as a father and serves as the posse’s tracker (another stereotypical portrait) and defends Dolarhyde when their group meets up with a group of Apaches, telling them they need to open their hearts to Dolarhyde. Just before his death, he says to Dolarhyde, “I always dreamed of riding to battle with you,” to which Dolarhyde replies, “I always dreamed of having a son like you.” Here, the film attempts to ameliorate Dolarhyde’s racist ways in one tender moment, much in the same way that people who have racist histories deny their racism with the “but I have black friends” comment.

Natives as Savage Warriors

Contrasted to Nat’s Good Native character, the film gives us a group of Savage Warriors in the Apaches. When they are first represented, there is an overwhelming sound of their yelping–thus keeping with the tendency to animalize Native people in filmic depictions. The chief blames white people for the arrival of the evil aliens, but as the narrative doesn’t hold up this accusation, he becomes an unlikeable character who wrongly blames whites. In other words, the Natives are the racists, not the whites. The audience is encouraged to take Dolarhyde’s view that the chief is a fool who doesn’t understand battle tactics. When Dolarhyde tells him, “We can’t just run around hollering and shooting arrows at the damn thing,” the film draws on the images in Western films of Native peoples as savage but ultimately unsuccessful warriors. Here, the film asks the audience to side with Dolarhyde, agreeing that “white ways” of battle are better.

Though Dolarhyde, Jake and crew ultimately form mutual respect, and both groups are instrumental in the aliens’ defeat, the fact that the film never shows the Apaches again after the battle is in keeping with their framing as tangential–an undifferentiated tribe that is easily forgotten once the aliens are defeated. Further, the fact that a majority of Native peoples were peaceable groups is once again denied, cementing the representations of Natives as warriors.

Native Americans Live in the Past

The fact that the film closes back in the town of Absolution, Ariz., with no further mention of the Apache people accords with the tendency to depict Natives as a vanishing/dying race that exists only in the past. The future, according to the film, belongs to whites like Dolarhyde and Jake. This is further underscored by Nat’s death–the Good Native does not survive. Instead, Dolarhyde’s son Percy (Paul Dano), is set up at film’s end to carry on his father’s (white) legacy.

The Indian Princess

Though Ella (Olivia Wilde) is ultimately revealed not to be a Native Woman, the trailers and film lead the audience to believe she is–especially through comments such as “they took my people, too” and “they killed all my people.” She accords with the Indian Princess model of the exotic, otherized women who is rendered likeable and heroic through her associations with a white hero. Jake, in defending her and insisting she is not the “whore” others call her, frames her as a warrior princess. She is begrudgingly allowed to join the posse with the line, “We got a kid and a dog, why not a woman?”–a line which both infantilizes and animalizes her. Granted, she is given much more of an action role than females often are in such films, but like Nat she eventually dies. Only white guys get to save the day and live.

While this Western may not be as odious as many others in its representation of white/Native relations–and actually allows for a somewhat positive depiction of Native peoples–it nevertheless still accords with dominant racial ideologies in which white males are center and others are peripheral. As such, it can be viewed as an “old movie,” which media scholar Stuart Hall defines as “synonymous with the demonstration of the moral, social and physical mastery of the colonizers over the colonized.” Though the main enemy in the film is the “alien race,” the white colonizers are shown as superior to the colonized Natives. Ultimately, the film frames “us” as white cowboys and “them” as alien and Native

Thanks to Twilight, we can “celebrate” images of Indigenous people as violent beasties for generations to come…

(Cross-posted here at Monstrous Musings, my guest column at Womanist Musings, and here, at Seduced by Twilight)

A good friend of mine sent me two emails recently – one complaining that in her graduate psychology classes, the scenarios she is given to analyze often are rife with racial stereotypes. Here is the example she sent:

“A couple comes to your office seeking advice on how to best support each other as they deal with transitions in their family. The husband, Brian, is a 27-year-old Caucasian in the US Army who returned six months ago from his second (and, he has been told, final) tour of duty in Iraq. His wife Jamie is 24 and has been drinking heavily since Brian’s first deployment; since his return, she has continued regular binge drinking. She expresses concern over this because her father is Native American, and there is a history of alcoholism in their family.”
My friend’s commentary to this “scenario” noted “I love the way the person that is an alcoholic is Native and so was her father-because ya know all Native Americans are alcoholics and should be reminded of that over fucking over again and we better not let that stereotype fade in everyone else’s eyes…WTF?!?”

In her second email, which may not at first glance seemed related,  she sent the me a link to a July 2010 article from RezNetNews, a site dedicated to “reporting from Native America.” The article, annotated with commentary below, argues that the depiction of the Quileute in Meyer’s Twilight saga is a cultural boon. Yet, it FAILS to consider the furthering of stereotypical representations of indigenous people the saga enacts let alone to note issues of cultural appropriation and commodification. As it is coming from a Native American news source, I found this particularly surprising.

I know I have written about this topic before, but it is one that I feel does not get near enough attention – the representation of the Quileute people is not a “boon” if you ask me, but yet another act of exploitation that furthers negative perceptions of indigenous people while also profiting from them AND altering their history…

Like the psychology scenario above, Native Peoples in Twilight “have issues” – they are abusive and violent and poor – yet none of these aspects are explored from a socio-historical context that considers WHY Native peoples have such high rates of poverty, alcoholism, violence, and suicide. A hint, it ain’t because they are more animal than human as Meyer’s saga (and so many, many Western films) suggest….

Here is the RezNet article, my commentary is in all caps…

Northwest Tribe Revels in ‘Twilight’ Spotlight

July 5, 2010

By Manuel Valdes of the Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) — The leader of the Quileute Nation in northwest Washington first began hearing her tribe had a role in the popular “Twilight Saga” from fans clamoring to know more about the place where a vampire tale of teenage love unfolds.

Some fans sent e-mails. The most dedicated among them made trips to the remote reservation that is home to the series’ heartthrob werewolf Jacob Black. NOTICE THE CONFLATION OF HISTORY AND FICTION HERE – JACOB BLACK IS NOT A REAL PERSON – THIS PROBLEMATIC CONFLATION HAS DOGGED (NO PUN INTENDED) INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FOR YEARS, LEADING TO MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT THEIR HISTORY, CULTURES, AND HERITAGE

“The interest in our tribe was a surprise, a good surprise,” tribal Chairwoman Anna Rose Counsell-Geyer said. “I thought to myself, people are going to actually get to know the Quileute and we are going to be recognized as a people. The real Quileute.” I THINK YOU MEAN RECOGNIZED AS WOLVES (WITHOUT SHIRTS) NOT “AS PEOPLE”

That was a couple of years ago. With “Eclipse,” the series’ third movie in theaters now, the 750-member Quileute Nation is reveling in the “Twilight” spotlight, attempting to capitalize on the blockbuster’s massive financial pull and welcoming new interest in the tribe’s culture. NOTE HOW THERE IS NO MENTION OF WHY THE NATION ONLY HAS SOME 750 SURVIVING MEMBERS. CULTURAL GENOCIDE, ANYONE?!?

At their Oceanside Resort, the tribe is opening a cabin decorated in a wolf theme, a shout out to Jacob and the Quileute’s own origin story, which begins with a transformation from wolves to people. NOTE THERE IS NO ANALYSIS OF THE COMMODIFICATION OF A TRADITIONALLY NON-CAPITALIST CULTURE.

At a Quileute store in the reservation town of La Push, handmade beanie hats with “Jacob” stitched on them sell for nearly $35. There’s also a “Jacob’s Java” espresso stand. YES, I BELIEVE THE QUILEUTE PEOPLE INVENTED THE DOUBLE WOLF LATTE

“This is historical. This is going to be imprinted on people’s lives for generations to come,” Counsell-Geyer said. IMPRINTED? IMPRINTED? DOES THAT WORD CHOICE INDICATE THE TRIBAL CHAIRWOMAN IS A-OK WITH THE IMPRINTING THEME IN THE SAGA WHERE THE QUILEUTE ARE YOUR BASIC CREEPY POLYGAMOUS PEDOPHILE TYPES? WHAT A MESSAGE FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS…

Central to the “Twilight Saga” is a love triangle among human teenager Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattison) and Jacob (Taylor Lautner). YEAH, AND SHE CHOOSES THE RICH WHITE VAMPIRE, NOT THE WOLF OF COLOR MECHANIC…

The Quileute’s homeland — the place where they have lived and hunted for centuries &$151; serves as the backdrop to author Stephenie Meyer’s saga, with the stunning imagery of rocks and cliffs rising along the Pacific Ocean. NOTE THERE IS NO MENTION OF THE COLONIALISM THAT PUSHED THE QUILEUTES ONTO THE RESERVATION NOR OF THE MANY TREATIES THAT DISENFRANCHISED THEM.

Four hours west of Seattle, the Quileute reservation is on the far and remote side of the rain-soaked Olympic Peninsula. The reservation’s boundaries are confined within a square mile. CONFINED TO A SQUARE MILE? GEE, I WONDER WHY…

In the movies and books, the tribe’s folklore is meshed into the role of the Wolf Pack, a group of young Quileute men who shapeshift into wolves. Jacob and other Wolf Pack members guard the reservation from vampires.

For Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne and Arapaho filmmaker, the key aspect of the Twilight series is that it shows Native Americans in a contemporary light. AND A SHIRTLESS ONE! NOTE THE FAILURE TO MENTION THE RAMPANT SEXUALIZATION OF THE “WOLF PACK”

Eyre directed the well-received 1998 film “Smoke Signals,” which focused on a coming of age story of two teenagers living on the Coeur D’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho.

Like “Smoke Signals,” the “Twilight Saga” marks a departure from Hollywood’s long tradition of portraying Native Americans as a people from the past. DON’T THINK DEPARTURE IS THE RIGHT WORD…

In the saga’s second chapter, “New Moon,” Jacob talks about going to school on the reservation and rides motorcycles. YEAH, WHILE EDWARD HAS MULTIPLE DEGREES, MEGA MONEY, AND SPARKLES LIKE A F***ING WHITE DIAMOND…

In “Eclipse,” Jacob’s friends emerge from a small house in their opening scene shirtless and wearing shorts – a now-signature look for the Wolf Pack. They laugh and tease Jacob about his crush on Bella. HELLO – ANALYSIS OF THIS “SIGNATURE LOOK”?

“I think as long as the werewolves aren’t wearing loincloths, it is a good step forward,” Eyre said from Los Angeles, where he is finishing an episode of the NBC show “Friday Night Lights.” YES, THIS IS WHAT WE CALL PROGRESS IN OUR “POST-RACIAL” SOCIETY.

“It’s so important to have Native people in contemporary roles … that’s where I think we’re lacking. We want to see Native people in 2010. I think we’re tired of seeing Native people in 1860,” he said. TRUE – AND HOW ABOUT SEEING NATIVE PEOPLE NOT PORTRAYED AS ANIMALS?

When the first movie was filming in Oregon, a group of tribal members visited the set and met with Lautner, who interviewed them.

“One thing they do that I noticed is they don’t need to be told to what to do. If the trash is getting full, they empty it out. They’re always helping each other. They’re always there for each other. So I just want to make sure I can bring that part of Jacob alive,” Lautner told MTV in 2008. WTF? NATIVE PEOPLE ARE GOOD WITH TRASH? WAY TO DUMB DOWN THE TRADIAIONALLY NON-PATRIARCHAL, COMMUNAL CULTURAL MODELS!

In that interview, Lautner said he was part Native American. YEAH, AND I AM PART CHEETAH.

To top it off, several members of the Quileute nation attended the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles last week, said Jackie Jacobs, the tribe’s spokeswoman for all things Twilight. Some also attended the premiere of “New Moon.”

“This is going to be imprinted on people’s lives for generations to come,” Chairwoman Counsell-Geyer said. YES, WHAT A THING TO CELEBRATE, NOW “GENERATIONS TO COME” CAN VIEW THE QUILEUTE PEOPLE AS HALF ANIMALS PRONE TO VIOLENCE (ESPECIALLY AGAINST WOMEN) WHO “IMPRINT” ON THE TODDLER SET. WAHOO!

What if you are fond of Fonda? (On Jane Fonda’s continuing feminist and peace activist work)

Well, despite my best intentions, I didn’t post too much on Women’s History last month… So, now that the month is over (!), I wanted to include at least one post devoted to a woman still making history – Jane Fonda. I have chosen her for a number of reasons – because I recently wrote about her for an encyclopedia of women in military history, because she has been in the news quite a bit lately regarding her plans for world fitness day, because she continues to be an important feminist activist even though she is often overlooked by our youth obsessed culture (which includes a rather youth obsessed feminist movement as well…), and, lastly, because she has personal relevance for me given my dad loathes her as “a traitor” and I have long loved her not only for her “feel the burn” antics but also for her life-long devotion to feminism.

I knew of Jane Fonda first as an actress and aerobics guru . I loved On Golden Pond, and my sister and I regularly popped her workouts into our Beta-max player to “feel the burn.” It wasn’t until years later that I learned of her anti-war and feminist activism. My dad, like many former military peeps, still views her as a traitor.

Now 72, Jane Fonda continues to fight the good fight and remains active both literally – she will launch world fitness day on May 1 – and intellectually/politically through her continued devotion to empowering girls and women, critiquing militarism and patriarchy, and working to eradicate violence globally.

Born December 21, 1937 in New York City. Fonda is a well-known actress and anti-war activist who rose to fame in the 1960s. Known in the 1980s for her exercise videos, she is now perceived as an anti-war icon by some and a traitor by others.

Conflicting views of her anti-war activism stem mainly from her longstanding and very vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Though she devoted years of her life to educating herself about war, its effects on soldiers and civilians, and worked tirelessly with GI’s, peace activists, and leaders, she was often framed as “just an actress” who had no business speaking out about the war. The response to her work was gendered in the extreme – and remains so to this day.

Fonda became a well-known opponent of Vietnam War in the early 1970s, especially its reliance on civilian bombing. From 1970 to 1975, she used her celebrity status to raise money for various anti-war groups. She traveled across the United States in 1970 visiting GI coffeehouses run by veterans and civilians.  Her reputation for strong antiwar speeches and generosity in funding antiwar causes soon resulted in large crowds at public appearances.

During this time period, Fonda made significant contributions to the United States Serviceman’s Fund and formed the “Free the Army Tour” with Fred Gardner and Donald Sutherland. Free the Army toured through1972 and was then made into film titled F.T.A. Fonda played a major role in the Winter Soldier Investigations into war crimes. She raised funs for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), founded the GI Office in Washington D.C, which provided legal aid for draftees, and helped to establish the Indochina Peace Campaign, an antiwar education organization.

Credited with helping connect the Vietnam antiwar movement with the cultural mainstream by some, Fonda was vilified and attacked by others. A large part of the attacks stem from Fonda’s 1972 trip to Hanoi, a pivotal moment in her anti-war activism. While in Vietnam, she spoke out against the war, highlighting the mistreatment of civilians, calling the war a lost cause, and condemning both the Johnson and Nixon administrations. She argued the war was for the benefit of U.S.businessmen and not in the interests of American citizens generally. Her speeches and talks emphasized the tolls of war on individual families, on children, and on poor or underprivileged communities both in Vietnam and in the U.S.

Fonda is often credited with publicly exposing the strategy of bombing the dikes in Vietnam. While in Vietnam, Fonda also visited American prisoners of war and publically claimed the POW’s assured her they had not been tortured. This resulted in much animosity towards Fonda. In the years following her Hanoi visit, many accusations Fonda had caused POW suffering and torture circulated. The infamous photo of her seated on an anti-aircraft battery used against American pilots fueled her future characterization as “Hanoi Jane.” Fonda apologized for this photo sixteen years later in an interview with Barbara Walters. Directing her comments  to the soldiers who served in Vietnam, Fonda carefully crafted her apology so as to only include the photo incident and not the rest of her antiwar activism. In a 60 Minutes interview on March 31, 2005, Fonda reiterated she did not regret her trip to North Vietnam in 1972, with the exception of the anti-aircraft photo.

Named in 1999 by ABC News as one of 100 most imp women of 20th Century, Fonda continues her work as a peace activist. She has continued to place particular emphasis on war’s impact on women, often iterating that war is rooted in patriarchy and acts as one of the greatest threats to democracy. In 2002 she visited Israel and demonstrated with the Women in Black against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. More recently, Fonda has argued that the so-called War on Terror will result in more terrorist attacks and an increased global hatred of Americans. Fonda and George Galloway organized and anti-war bus tour for 2005 but postponed the tour to focus on to the relief operations in the Gulf Coast necessitated by Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, Fonda participated in an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. Currently, Fonda remains active in feminist and peace activist movements, focusing in recent years on war in the Congo and violence against women.

References:

Burke, Carol. Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight. Boston: Beacon, 2004.

Hershberger, Mary. Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon. New York:  The New Press, 2005.

Hershberger, Mary. Jane Fonda’s Words of Politics and Passion. New York:  The New Press, 2006.

What if that Pebble Becomes a Boulder?: Racism and Sexism on Campus and in Everyday Life

The theme of one of the common complaints I often get from students in my women’s studies classes is “feminism is so depressing.” Students, young and fresh-faced, though eager to dissect and critique the world around them, also seem to yearn to look through the world through rose-colored glasses. They generally dive into analyzing privilege and oppression historically, happy to give examples of the injustices our world has doled out for centuries. However, when asked to hold up a mirror to their contemporary moment, they often like to focus on the positive changes, suggesting that somehow all the rumors of a “post-racial” and “post-feminist” society are true. It is partially my job to place large cracks in such a rosey-eyed view, revealing that, yes, racism, sexism, homophobia and all those other ugly –isms are still going strong.

On the campus where I teach, this was in shocking evidence today on, of all places, a bathroom wall. The picture above, sent to me by a student, was taken last night in one of the main campus buildings. Placed there on the eve of the statewide day of action defending education budgets, it is surely a modern-day exhortation to “keep your mouth shut,” a threat to those of us on the side of history that seek to progress society towards justice rather than conserve the longstanding privileges that the maker of this sign unabashedly seeks to maintain. (And don’t you just love how there is a heart above the ‘i’ on this message?!?)

While I had planned to post something upbeat today about my daughter turning eleven this week, detailing positive changes in culture compared to when I turned eleven in 1982, my own rosey-eyed view of feminist accomplishments has suffered a brutal beating in the past few days. Locally, just in this past week, there has been news of a high school senior sexually assaulted and murdered, there has been a spate of racist attacks at local college campuses (with the picture above only one of many incidents), there was, just yesterday, another young woman attacked by two men at a local park.

On a more personal level, I was told by my son’s principal that a teacher’s P.E. commentary, consisting of “you throw like a girl” and “don’t use the girly weights” are meant to be “humorous.” “She is a very strong woman,” he assured me, “a role model.” On the one hand, I am proud my thirteen-year-old son sees the sexism his principal fails to, on the other hand, I am deeply disturbed that such sexism is still passed off as “just a joke” and excused by claims that it’s ok because she is a “strong woman.”

To top it off, I have somehow received a plethora of emails of late that either assume I am a man (due to the “Dr.” title I imagine) or that address me as “Mrs. So and So.” This last annoyance is so slight in comparison to all the other horrors of this week, yet it somehow rankles me– it seems, in short, like a virtual but constant reminder, knocking at my in-box, reminding me “keep your mouth shut…you are only a woman…who are you to try and change the world?”  This “little thing” reminds me of Jewelle Gomez’s realization that “Sexism could be like a pebble that needs to be removed from a shoe; a tiny thing that throws off a woman’s gait, causing her to limp, sometimes unconsciously, to avoid pain every day.”

This week, it seems it is not only pebbles, but huge boulders, and I am indeed limping from the resounding evidence that no, we are not living in a post-racial, post-feminist society. However, despite those who wish to “get rid of” people like us, the people who want to change the world for the better, I will keep limping along, teaching my “depressing feminism” and endeavoring to remove pebbles and boulders out of the path of those who march towards justice.

What if we nixed the green eggs and ham and opted instead for some Ramona the Brave? (On why NOT to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s Birthday during Women’s History Month)

Why all the unadulterated LURVE for Dr. Seuss?

When my kids were little, Dr. Seuss birthday was always cause for big classroom celebrations, usually replete with green eggs and ham. Why no birthday celebrations for the likes of Beverly Cleary, Beatrix Potter, Peggy Parish, Lauren Child, Judy Blume, Margaret Wise Brown, Jan Brett and so many other important female children’s book authors?

These women need to be written into history for all their work, much of which is gender inclusive in a way Dr. Seuss books are DECIDEDLY NOT (not one female protagonist in his over forty kids books!) As noted in a 1995 NY Times op-ed, “Even Dr. Seuss, that titan of the preschool bookshelf, known and loved for his egalitarianism, feeds the cult of the preening princess.”

In addition to side-lining poor sister Sally and writing about “girls who like to brush and comb,” Dr. S, like Walt Disney, penned racist propaganda cartoons for the War Dept.

Alas, on the second day of Women’s History Month, young children throughout the USA hear his books, eat funny looking eggs, and celebrate the man who, if they are girl children, did not celebrate them…

What if the need for Women’s History Month became a thing of the past?

Just as the (ironic) goal of women’s studies is to do away with the need for women’s studies, so is the goal of women’s history month to be able to do away with the need for a “special month” set aside for women’s history. Just as gender (and the intersecting issues of race, class, sexuality, ability and so on) should be a part of academic studies generally, so should women’s history be included in EVERDAY curriculum.

As noted in a post I wrote last year, maybe we should make June “White Male History Month” and make the REST of the year about all-inclusive curriculum. (Note: I picked June as it is the end of the school year and I think it is high time white males came last for once. I think it is also important to point out that I am referring to the normative conception of white-maleness here — or middle to upper-class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, right leaning, “properly masculine” white males who must, of course, like sports.)

Sadly, though, we still need a month set aside to remind teachers and others to honor important women past and present. As the joke goes, “If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year? Discrimination.”

This year, the theme for National Women’s History Month is Writing Women Back into History. As noted at the National Women’s History Project website, “The history of women often seems to be written with invisible ink. Even when recognized in their own times, women are often not included in the history books.”

To do my small part to rectify this history that is too often rendered invisible, I will be posting sporadically throughout the month about women who need to be written (back) into history.

Happy Women’s History Month everyone – and here’s to a day when all people’s history is included all year long!

What if the U.S.A. extended its holidays to include more than DWMs (dead white males)?

Sure, the US has a few days honoring those other than DWMs (Martin Luther King, Jr. day, for example). Yet, for the most part, the USA closes  schools, banks, post offices, etc to honor those of the dead white male persuasion.

Seeing that this year President’s Day and Susan B. Anthony Day fall on the same day, the strikingly un-diverse practice is put into sharp relief. How many people know it is SBA Day? How many kids study her work, and the work of other important women, as much or as often as that of all the dead white dudes?

I found a 3rd/4th grade lesson plan on SBA here. Thank Aphrodite for teachers that recognize SBA deserves as much (or more!) attention than former presidents.

As Miriam at Feministing notes in her “Today in Feminist History” blog column, most recorded history is about white men:

“In just the few months that I’ve been doing this series, I’ve encountered how difficult it can be to find important feminist historical moments, particularly organized by date. Especially when I’m doing most of my research online. So much of recorded history (particularly available on sites like Wikipedia, NY Times on this day) is about white men.”

This is why the 90th birthday of the league of women voters goes relatively unnoticed (except at feminist blogs, as here) and why I couldn’t find any mega big, mainstream blog covering SBA day. Seems like with all the coverage DWMs and AWMs (alive white males) get, we could pay a tad more attention to women’s history. (Yes, I know, it’s called HIStory for a reason…)

As noted by A Funny Feminist (who posted the someecard above), having this day off school “is a total wasted opportunity for kids to learn about presidents and other government whatnot.”

Just imagine if ONE day a year were devoted entirely to learning about women’s history? Yeah, we say there is a month, but my kids experience thus far reveals that Women’s History Month usually involves putting a few women’s pictures on the wall and maybe doing one report on an important woman. If I didn’t cajole some of the teachers into letting me talk in their classrooms during the month, there would be NO mention of feminism and no coverage other than the “rockstar women” that all the kids have already heard about…

If we really did honor these “Other” months, imagine the twist people like the white male studies peeps would get their boxers/briefs in!

Happy Susan B. Anthony Day everyone.

What if we refused to feast on the sugar-coated version of Thanksgiving? (Reconsidering Thanksgiving, part 3)

Here is part 3:

For most people I know, Thanksgiving is not about celebrating Pilgrims or acknowledging the history surrounding the holiday. Rather, it is about spending time with friends and family, being thankful for loved ones, for having the day off work, and, of course, about stuffing oneself silly.

Yet, even though many do not intend to celebrate the historical underpinnings of the holiday, they nevertheless allow patriotic, racist lies to continue UNLESS they at least acknowledge the true history of the genocide upon which this nation was ‘founded.’

Thus, while I often gather with extended family on this day, I do not call it ‘Thanksgiving’ any longer – even the name is abhorrent to me now. For lack of a better term, I call it a ‘holiday,’ as it is, for those of us lucky enough to have jobs (and jobs where we get such days off) a holiday. However, ever since my kids have been old enough to talk, we have spent the day discussing the true history of Thanksgiving and the fact that this country’s bounty comes at the expense other peoples and nations – as it always has done. This is not enough, and this pains me. Yet, ‘traditions’ are hard to break – and perhaps more so when one has young children in the house.

I lived out of the country for many years, and thus Thanksgiving was a non-issue. However, when I returned to the US, it soon became a thorn in my side – as soon as, in fact, my children entered pre-school. The way our education system teaches this holiday is detestable. The books and songs, the color in a Pilgrim/Native American handouts, the activities of making Pilgrim/Native American headwear, the potluck feasts — all of these work to perpetuate the historical lie that we should be “giving thanks” for our history. In one book my daughter read in her early school years, the Indians (the term the book used) were “so happy” when the “nice Pilgrims” arrived. This lie is widespread in our refashioning of the Thanksgiving narrative; it is the lie put forth in Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving (as noted by Renee at Womanist Musings) as well as via virtually all pre-college curriculum.

As an aside, I offer each year to visit my children’s classrooms to teach a non-sweetened history of Thanksgiving and/or to talk about Native American history – my offer has yet to be accepted. I make a similar offer when my kids study the California missions. Again, no teachers have taken me up on this. This refusal to incorporate the true history, the ugly, reality version of history, helps to, as Robert Jensen argues, maintain our tooth-decayingly sweet American mythos:

“Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology.

History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.”

In Jensen’s framing, learning and spreading the truth of history does not absolve us, but at least it obfuscates the trend we are in now – that of genocide, warfare, enslavement, and empire repeating itself.

As a reminder of this endless repetition, in a fairly recent Thanksgiving travesty, GW Bush showed up in Iraq for a photo job, fake turkey in hand. In Mitchel Cohen’s estimation, “in one fell swoop, the new Conquistador had tied to history’s bloody bough the 511-year-old conquest of the ‘New World’ ­ whose legions smote the indigenous population in the name of Christ ­ with last year’s bombardment and invasion of Iraq and the torture-detentions of prisoners of war at U.S. military bases.”

The linkages between our present acts and past acts convey that we are still a country guided by the white supremacist notion of manifest destiny, and whether those in power are perpetuating the killing of Native Americans or Iraqi civilians, their aims and motivations are similar: power and greed. GW Bush is merely a modern day pilgrim, a born again one, who similarly uses his religion to justify persecution.

The occupation of Iraq, the genocide in Darfur, the rampant levels of human enslavement globally, all of these are history repeating, in endless iteration, the mistakes we have yet to learn from…

So, what would a socially just response to Thanksgiving be? Well, Jensen argues for “a truth-and-reconciliation process that would not only correct the historical record but also redistribute land and wealth.” Yet, he also accedes that given our immersion in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, that this is unlikely. Given this, he argues that “the question for left/radical people is: What political activity can we engage in to keep alive this kind of critique until a time when social conditions might make a truly progressive politics possible?”

His answer is that we must speak truth to power and his writing suggests we must do this with everyone we meet – whether it is the well-wisher at the grocery store or to our own grandmother. Yet, Jensen realizes this is no easy feat. However, as he notes, “we need to help each other tell the truth, even when the truth is not welcome.” This part of his answer is something I think those of us who would like to resist the historical grounding of the holiday are able to do, in ways both small and large. We can speak the truth, write the truth, whether amongst our own friends and family or via more public venues.

And, as PetPluto over at Art at the Auction in the post “Why I like Thanksgiving” muses, we can attempt to separate the historical origins of the day to how we personally celebrate it. PetPluto uses the analogy of marriage, and how it has changed as an institution to frame this argument:

“I think we should all be aware that the modern marriage is a relatively new invention, and that sometimes what came before was less than pleasant. But since the modern marriage is, generally speaking, a different animal all together, there is the ability to celebrate it when two people decide that they do want to tie that knot. Same thing with Thanksgiving. The modern Thanksgiving is less about the historical event of breaking bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims and more about family.”

I agree with this sentiment, but, as with the institution of marriage, I am growing more and more critical of the supposed ‘good sides’ of these societal traditions. Perhaps I am growing more radical as I age…

PetPluto further suggests that the historical remembering is a job for us as a nation, rather than a burden that should be taken on by the holiday itself: “It is our job to remember how we got here as a nation – both the good and the bad. But it is Thanksgiving’s job, and holidays like it, to remind us that what we get in return for being part of a family – blood or made –  for being thankful and being giving…”

I like this idea, but unlike PetPluto, I am not able to put aside “liberal guilt about this one day.” Yet, as I learned from Peggy McIntosh, guilt does nothing to change things. Guilt is a pointless emotion unless it spurs one to take action. So, what will I do with my feminist/progressive guilt?  Well, for this year I am writing about it (and in previous years I have taught about it), which certainly isn’t much. But, for next year, who knows… As my family and I gather tomorrow and discuss the non-saccharine version of history, I will ask two people who always give me very honest advice how we should change our observation of this day – my nine year old daughter and my twelve year old son.

As we work through this conundrum together, I hope to instill in my kids a yearning to know the real history of our world and, moreover, to yearn to change the world so that holidays CAN be just – so that they can be celebrated without guilt. Yet, I will keep Jensen’s reminder that “We don’t define holidays individually — the idea of a holiday is rooted in its collective, shared meaning” in mind. For, if this reconsideration of holidays is not done by the wider culture, not too much will be gained.

However, I disagree with Jensen’s contention that “When the dominant culture defines a holiday in a certain fashion, one can’t pretend to redefine it in private. One either accepts the dominant definition or resists it, publicly and privately.” I don’t agree with this either/or construction. My family’s private redefinition is not “pretend,” it is the beginning of resistance – a resistance that, if enough people start to similarly resist, has the potential to create a cultural shift.

I do not mean to suggest that this would be enough to ‘make up’ for the genocide of indigenous people that founded this nation. Nothing would be enough. Yet, an attitude of rectifying the wrongs of the past, of refusing to swallow the sugar-coated version of history, of not blindly ‘giving thanks’ for one’s own privileges would at least be a start.

In an earlier piece, Jensen reasoned that “As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.”

This too is something those of us who are reconsidering the holiday can do – we can endeavor to be aware of how the holiday affects not only our individual psyches, but the collective psyche of our culture. And, while arguments may be had over who does the cooking and who sits and watches football, over the patriarchal carving ritual where men are honored (and often photographed) for their knife skills while female’s hours of work in the kitchen oft are expected rather than lionized, while many will comment on their ‘overweight’ bodies, what most will NOT do is consider the constricting effects of this celebration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy on their minds…

At my house, we will certainly consider the “constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.” We will also look forward to the day when we truly live in a post-colonial world, when imperialism has been eradicated, and when conquests such as those of the white intruders on this land, what is now called the United States, no longer take place. This will be a time for a true thanksgiving celebration.

***

Addendum: Before a final read through for errors, I took a wee break and went to catch up on some much needed blog reading. At Don’t Do That, I came across this great link to a piece on “Deconstructing the Myths of ‘The First Thanksgiving.’” Check it out!

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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