Native American culture and unknowing disrespect

Travis Knoll

As a self-identified Cherokee, I have understood since I was seven years old that America’s indigenous population has survived and is still here. Still, our educational system largely fails to recognize the decimation of Native American peoples that occurred for centuries, and the consequences of that failure are evident here at UT-Austin.

Consider photos from Texas Tribe, a student service organization on campus. Photos on the group’s website posted in September showed group members wearing war paint on their faces, feathers in their hair and costumes vaguely resembling traditional Native American garb, mugging for the camera and making the “how” hand signal, a stereotypical representation of a Native American greeting.

This is in line with the group’s overall Native American theme. The group’s logo is in the shape of a teepee, and the name is in a font that implies that Native Americans wrote exclusively on wood bark. The very name Texas Tribe, while not necessarily offensive in itself, helps bind all of the other caricatures together.

Longhorn American Indian Council filed a complaint against Texas Tribe, claiming that the photos posted in September were disrespectful to Native American culture. Texas Tribe quickly removed the photos from their site. The group was never in danger of dissolution; student organizations cannot be dissolved unless they violate University policy, and Texas Tribe did not do so. But as of the end of September, UT’s Campus Climate Response Team was “in the process of reaching out to the organization in question to have an educational conversation about the intent and impact of the group’s activities.”

This is merely one example of a much more pervasive issue. Texas Tribe’s band-and-feather hats are really no different from the Indian costumes kids wear for elementary school Thanksgiving plays. Cultural appropriation happens all the time, and most of the time it’s not a big deal. They’re just accessories to create a sense of the past and the exotic. But Texas Tribe’s actions are offensive for two reasons.

Firstly, Native Americans are a doubly objectified minority. Representations of them in American popular culture have oscillated over the years between “heathens” in need of enlightenment through Christianity and “noble savages,” whose quaint culture and simple way of life were not compatible with European sophistication. The “heathen” label has become too politically incorrect for today’s society, but the proud warrior remains widely accepted, and even glorified. The “noble savage,” we are told, is worthy of emulation for his basic goodness and simple lifestyle, but, upon closer examination, it seems his charm stems from his ignorance.   In today’s world, the “noble savage” motif can still be found in attempts to bring “economic security” to Native American reservations, or in the Wamponoag statue that MIT linguist and noted activist Noam Chomsky came across one Thanksgiving that read,  “Here stands a Wamponoag woman who gave her life so that this noble country may grow and prosper.”

Secondly, the Native American population has been so decimated by centuries of war, famine, disease and genocide that it is vastly disproportionate to the amount of stereotypical representation they receive in popular culture. There simply aren’t enough of us to drown out the disrespectful aspersions cast on our culture.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty tame example of cultural insensitivity. There are far worse examples out there of stereotypes and disrespectful acts toward minority groups, and this one is on the low end of the scale. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that Texas Tribe meant any harm — but that in and of itself is a problem. If we don’t understand that what we’re doing is disrespectful, how can we be mindful of it and avoid it in the future?

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.