The following paper is an assignment from a course in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, which I turned in today…as a student at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Shout out to my brother from another mother, Ron Haschak, without you this wouldn’t have been possible.
I stood in front of the butter, eggs, yogurt, premade cinnamon rolls, trying to recall my grocery list that I’d left in the car when she caught my eye…long black hair separated into two braids, two feathers tucked into her headband, a buckskin dress, beaded at the hem, high cheekbones, presenting a pale yellow box at breast level, as she sat on her legs with her head held high, a partial smile showcasing white teeth. She was perfectly positioned in front of a utopia of Unsalted Sweet Butter…All Natural, Sweet Cream, the Land O Lakes Girl. But that’s not true. It’s all a lie. The four sticks of unsalted sweet butter isn’t a lie, but the image of the woman who sells it is. The Land O Lakes Butter Gal isn’t a Native American, she’s not a Neshnabe, she is a fiction. She is a stereotyped image that was made to “honor” us. Just like the Redskins, The Chiefs, Tiger Lily, Pocahontas, the big smiling redskins, the smoke shop Indians, the proud silent, stoic image that America chose to caricature. They borrowed pieces of us, of my great-great grandparents, and handed them down, as they saw fit. They’re meant to “honor Native Americans”, and we should be silent, and proud, just like the cartoons, drawings, and outdated, old western images, films, and stories depict us. But that’s not what they were meant to do, they weren’t meant to do anything but perpetuate a legacy of stereotypes that has resulted in Native Americans not being taken seriously. We’ve become the “invisible minority”, we’re part of history, as told by a select few who have “creditability” that they made up. We have the highest rates of poverty in the United States, highest teen suicides, gang violence is going up, addiction and alcoholism threaten people in almost every household, our men are filling prisons, our women are being raped, murdered, and abused in higher numbers than any other group of women/females in the United States (and Canada), our children are being taken from homes and placed in non-native households-and the government is just now correcting that crime. We are silenced with settlement checks, federal payouts, land settlements, and public apologizes, it is all hush money. It’s easy to write off the genocide that happened here and refer to it as “well, I guess you could say that but it doesn’t really fit the definition”, that who made up? The United Nations? OUR government, the same ones who committed all of these crimes? Those same systems that weren’t even established at the time and wrote their crimes out of definitions and history, and is housed in New York and wouldn’t consider that a crime against humanity because THEY did it! It’s easy to sweep the mess under the rug, as silently as possible when you dehumanize an entire nation of (indigenous) people and make them into fictional characters that grace food isles, bags of tobacco, liquor, cigarettes, football stadiums, tailgate parties, state parks, and write them into text books that feed the masses “knowledge”, and then when they speak up for themselves, demand they cite their sources and argue as to the history of where it all came from…of where we came from. Because our oral histories, language, customs, traditions, ceremonies aren’t credible in contemporary American Culture. They’ve been so busy telling us who and what we are, that they don’t even know who or what they are.
Needless to say this assignment was hard for me, I hear the comments that came from some of my classmates all of the time. I’m not sure what I expected from this class, and while I’m enjoying it, I’m disappointed that there’s barely a mention of the people who are indigenous to this country, simply a chapter and a few statistics in a text book. It’s ironic this assignment falls in “Native American Heritage Month”, on the horizon of “Thanksgiving”, but I guess that’s just part of this (life) lesson. A couple of years ago there was a Southern California bread company, Milton’s, that was fairly local and sold a loaf of bread called, “Squaw” bread. Some of our family friends reported on this and I did my typical social media protest and added my commentary on links for Indian Country Today, and replied to arguments of “this is an honor for your kind”, “what would we call it then?”, “you should be happy they recognize your women”, and anything else that told me how I should feel about Squaw Bread. Then there were the arguments telling me I should take a history lesson, “Woman” is Kwe. Not squaw, which is an offensive and derogatory term. But this is part of the problem with these stereotypes. This came with colonialism. Women were treated different, in our culture women were equal, typically owning the homes, and most of our ceremonies were made for men so they could be on the same spiritual level as women. But in American Culture, Native American women are squaws, who sat around making bread…we’re either painted as defiant, and women who need to be tamed, half-naked running around with scalps and being unruly (also add drunk and or promiscuous to this), OR we’re painted as doe-eyed, submissive, helpless squaws who need to be saved. Neither of these inaccurate portrayals is how Native American/First Nations/American Indian/Indigenous Women are. Our men aren’t mute mouthed, broken English speaking savages, but we’re seen how we’ve been historically presented to American society. Or we’re just a piece of history, and when someone finds out you’re “Native American” they study you first, and then proceed with, “how much?” Or “Oh, I thought so”, or “You don’t look Indian.” The list goes on, and you can tell they’re assessing whether you compare to the image they’ve been taught is Indian. The Land O Lakes Butter Girl, or any other proud Native Image that’s been “red-faced” up for America’s entertainment, so they can feel settled in the history of how “there were some people who used to live here, but they should get over it”. The fiction that they’ve learned through grocery shopping with mom, Thanksgiving school parades, Football mascots, Western Classics, or Dances With Wolves. I’m not sure where Neshnabe people fit in contemporary American Culture, but we’re still here. We’re not fiction. We’re not the pieces of history that’s been taught in the majority of American classrooms, or the people who are occasionally skimmed over in courses across American Colleges. Breaking these stereotypes so our voices can be heard to help make the changes our people so desperately need is going to be a huge challenge, but at this point, people are beginning to listen. That’s a start. I hope that someday I can space out in front of the butter, yogurt, eggs, and premade cinnamon rolls without being haunted by the Land O Lakes Butter Girl. Maybe they can retire her back to her tribe and replace her with a doe or something clever like that…
Sources and References:
Merskin, Debra. “Crazy Horse Malt Liquor.” Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity. By Charles A. Gallagher. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. N. pg. Print.
“Milton’s Squaw Bread: Not Forgotten, But Is It Gone?” Indian Country Today Media Network. Indian Country Today Media Network, LCC, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.