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Editorial — Native America: Beyond Feathers and Tipis
Posted By admin On November 7, 2008 @ 10:20 am In Area News | Comments Disabled
By Jamie Folsom
November is Native American Awareness Month, and a good opportunity to look at how Native cultures are portrayed in the media. Throughout the month, both Colorado State University and the University of Colorado will host events and shows that look at a very wide range of cultures, from traditional healers in New Mexico to Inuit art. Thanksgiving is coming as well, but out of all this what will the media cover?
It has been my experience through the years that newspapers and TV show up for the quick fix photo of a kid with a feathered headdress in a school play or a “fancy” dancer of the modern style at a pow-wow. Rarely will there be someone who looks past all the feathers to see the beautiful raised beadwork of the Lake tribes, the elder in a simple shawl singing with the drum group, or the third-grader who writes a poem on the harsh conditions of reservation life. There are many stories to follow, but too often they get left behind for the flashy and fast, or worse, the stereotypical.
It happens at other times of the year as well. Recently when the local elementary school finished up their weeks-long study of Native cultures, and newspapers across Colorado, including two local ones, went no further than close-ups of children in stereotypical paper feather headdresses with shallow captions distilling this rich and fascinating history unit down to “hair ornaments” from “the Indian culture.”
Even the Associated Press style guide, the industry standard in writing for print media, devotes an entire chapter to reporting on race and ethnic groups. Whether people refer to themselves as Native American or American Indian, just about everyone recognizes the fact that currently there are more than 550 distinct cultures and languages of indigenous North American tribes. Through history there are turbans, short-cropped and curly hairstyles, barefeet and heavy boots, feather skirts, mudhouses, ice houses, snake worshippers and snake demonizers, elaborate weddings and casual divorces, slave traders and slave harborers. These facets rarely get mentioned.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I wonder how many photos, decorations and drawings will have the Pilgrims and the actual Wampanoag sitting together to share food. Or, will the stereotypes of very un-Wampanoag images prevail – feathered headdresses and tipis? Unbelievable as it is, the Wampanoag were only recently recognized by the federal government as a distinct tribe. I believe that is cause for celebration – finally we are giving that culture its due respect. Let’s hope that Hallmark and the newspapers also finally recognize the Wampanoag culture.
Let’s look beyond feather headdresses, which don’t reflect the breadth and wealth of our shared history. The cute easy photo is misleading. It diminishes both the diversity of Native cultures and belittles the efforts of teachers, historians and pow-wow organizers to understand the past and inform our present lives. Ask for more of the media – history belongs to all of us.
Jamie Folsom is Oklahoma Choctaw and has participated in traditional cultural and ceremonial events for most of her life. She is also currently on hiatus from hosting/producing “First Nations Radio News,” a Colorado-based news, music and interviews radio segment.
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