American Indian perceptions discussed

Victoria Riggs

Victoria Riggs

“I” is for “Indian.” Or is it?

The inaccuracies about American Indians in the pictoral alphabet cards atop many an elementary school room blackboard are one example used by Adrienne Thunder in the workshop she presented Oct. 11 in the Student Union.

The workshop, “Enduring Images: American Indians in the Popular Imagination,” was developed by Thunder (Ho-Chunk) and her husband, J.P. Leary (Cherokee/Delaware) to help deconstruct misconceptions about American Indians perpetuated through movies, advertising and educational curricula.

The Cleveland Indians’ team logo is a prime example.

“This kind of representation would not be tolerated by any other ethnic group,” Thunder said. “Why are these (types of) images still in our schools?”

According to Thunder, the popular misconception among non-Indians is that Indian mascots and team names are meant to honor Indians. Not so. Ceremonial regalia, especially the feathers, are considered sacred to American Indians. Using them to capitalize on non-Indian interests is actually a form of disrespect.

“Feathers equal Indian. Outside of a powwow, how many of you have seen an Indian wearing a feather on the way to McDonalds,” Thunder asked with a smile, drawing laughter from the audience.

Thunder explained why using the colloquialized word “squaw” is especially offensive. The word is believed to be derived from a term used to describe a specific type of native woman used by fur trappers.

Thunder and Leary use the presentation as part of their professional roles, respectively, Thunder works as advisor in the Cross-College Advising Service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leary works as consultant, American Indian Studies Program of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“Our goal for this workshop is for participants to have fun, but to also think about what they’re responsible for when it comes to an issue as huge as racism,” Thunder said.

Ruth Harper, a professor in the SDSU Counseling and Human Resource Development department, attended the workshop.

“This workshop was an excellent example of how the co-curriculum can reinforce the curriculum by looking at stereotypes perpetuated in the popular media. We can become more strategic about counteracting those stereotypes in our classrooms,” Harper said.

Steve Martin (Muscogee Creek of Oklahoma), advisor for Native American students in the SDSU Office of Multicultural Affairs, facilitated the workshop’s presentation on campus.

“I coordinate programs on campus to discuss Native American issues to create a greater understanding within the communities,” Martin said.

One part of Martin’s mission is to make the SDSU campus more welcoming to Native students.

“With a ratio of 110 non-Indian students to every one Indian student (at SDSU) there is a lack of understanding of where these students come from,” Martin said.

“I understand it is easy to offend Indians when discussing Native American issues. I am not offended because as an educator, after educating myself, I am in a position of teaching. If I have any opportunities to do that, I will,” he said.

“Our main point is that we have all (including Indians) been taught some inaccurate things about the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but we all can correct that by educationg ourselves, by breaking out of the status quo, and asking basic critical questions, such as ‘does that make sense?'” Thunder said.

Thunder and Leary will present the workshop in November at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Hamilton, New Zealand.