Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Holds Hearing on Impact of Stereotypes of Indigenous People

May 6, 2011
Cultural, Community & Economic Development

WASHINGTON D.C. -

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing today on racist depictions of Native peoples in American society and the various effects they have on these communities and the rest of America as well. The hearing also addressed the recent national discussion on the linking of the name Geronimo to the mission to find Osama bin Laden as an example of how these types of negative associations still persist today. 

PressPhoto“This is not an issue about people being offended. Our hearing is about the real harm that is done to all people, Native and non-Native alike, when mascots, movies and images reinforce the stereotypes and lines that divide rather than unite us,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, Chairman of the Committee. “As a nation, diversity has always been our strength. It is my hope that this hearing will help bring the impacts of common mis-portrayals of Native peoples to light, so we can work as a nation to resolve these concerns in a manner that is righteous and just.’

“It may be little known, but Native Americans have the highest volunteer military service rates, per capita, of any ethnic group. We have won wars utilizing the unique languages of Native peoples,” said Chairman Daniel K. Akaka. “Just earlier this week, this nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor, was awarded to a Native soldier. Native Americans have a demonstrated commitment to our nation’s military and its security.”

“It goes without saying that all of us feel a tremendous sense of relief and pride towards our military personnel, intelligence community and Commander-in-Chief – both past and present -- for accomplishing this mission. Tens of thousands of Natives serve in our military today defending their homeland, just as Geronimo did,” said Senator Tom Udall. “I find the association of Geronimo with bin Laden to be highly inappropriate and culturally insensitive. It highlights a serious issue and the very issue we have come here to discuss today. A socially ingrained acceptance of derogatory portrayals of indigenous peoples.”

Today’s first witness panel included the Honorable Tex Hall, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, Suzan Harjo, President of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC, and Charlene Teters, a professor with the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Testifying on the second panel were Stephanie Fryberg, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Jim Warne, President of the Warrior Society Development in San Diego, California, and Chaske Spencer, a Lakota actor, producer and partner with Urban Dreams Productions in New York, best known for his portrayal as Sam in the film Twilight: New Moon.

"The use of Indian mascots create a negative environment for our Native American students, and other students too, by creating a hostile learning environment, by reaffirming negative stereotypes of American Indians that most of us grew up with, and by grossly misinforming students and adults who have had little to no contact with Native Americans in the first place," said Chairman Tex Hall.

"This struggle for freedom from organized insults, public ridicule and national collusion is my story. It is an Indian people's story," said Charlene Teters. "How do we ask Native Americans who serve in uniform, who have sacrificed life in defense of this young nation in so many wars in so many places, to reconcile the irreconcilable, to defend the indefensible, and to do so with dignity, honor and commitment."

"As a child, I was very confused when I saw mascots and propaganda about Native Americans. I experienced feelings of shame and guilt since a lot of media portayed us as ignorant, unsophisticated 'savages'," said Chaske Spencer. "I do think that things are changing. This younger generation has a more positive view of Native Americans because of movies such as Twilight and their portrayals that go beyond the stereotype."

‘Exposing American Indian high school and college students to American Indian mascots decreases self-esteem, feelings of community worth, and achievement-related aspirations, and increases levels of anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Stephanie Fryberg.

The Committee questioned the two witness panels of Native community leaders on Indian mascots, common caricatures, prevalent mis-portrayals of Native peoples and the reference to Geronimo in connection with Osama bin Laden. Discussion focused on how these stereotypes can have far-reaching impacts on the identity and sense of self-worth of Native peoples and negatively impacts how all of our nation’s people perceive and relate to each other.

Contact: Jesse Broder Van Dyke
Contact Phone: 202-224-7045
Contact E-mail: jesse_brodervandyke@akaka.senate.gov