Autumn is my favorite season, but it has its low points. Last Monday’s federal holiday, Columbus Day, is the nation-wide bat signal for America to commence with its annual “We Hate Indigenous People” season. In other words, Columbus Day marks the moment when that United States raises its middle finger to indigenous people, and doesn’t put it down for another six weeks, after Thanksgiving. We’d continue the gesture, but but the tryptophan makes us sleepy. Besides, we need our hands for those Black Friday sales.
This WHIP season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that we simultaneously denigrate and romanticize native people. The thought process reminded me of a trip I took to Alburquerque, New Mexico, where I had presented a conference paper. Instead of sitting in on a bunch of panels, N and I decided to act like tourists, so we checked out several spots in the city, including Old Town, the initial Spanish settlement where Alburquerque was “founded.”
Old Town is pretty much a touristy spot, full of shops and restaurants and this random white guy on a bike who likes to take people on tours. Old Town is also a space where Native Americans come and sell their handmade jewelry. The hotel representative was sure to tell me that purveyors of Native jewelry in the city of Alburquerque are licensed by the city, ensuring that you don’t cop any fake junk during your stay. He seemed to be proud of this fact. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole licensing game seemed to be another way of saying, “We took your land and killed your people, but we’ll be damned if anyone bootlegs your shit.” Who says there’s no justice in the world?
At some point during our visit, N started waxing with our native brethren, talking to them about their jewelry and the weather and such. I overheard one of them telling her what certain symbols mean: arrow means this, the bear means that, et cetera. The whole time I’m having this inner dialogue/realization: Is this the first time I’ve ever seen a Native American in real life? Seriously, did I grow up in Indiana without ever seeing an Indian? I was perplexed by the very idea to the point that it took a minute for my inner cynic to return. I started to think about the spiel one in his position might give to folks who look at his wares. Mostly, I thought about how easy a hustle it would be for him to just put out some jewelry with random animals and shapes, and sell it to unsuspecting tourists. Because we’d believe him. Because Indians are deep and in tune with nature. /sarcasm
It makes perfect sense that the football team representing our nation’s capital goes by the moniker Redskins, and that, of course, we watch football every Thanksgiving. As I said in another entry, football is quintessentially American. And what’s more American than denigrating indigenous folks to the degree that the football team that represents this nation’s capital would reduce them to Redskins? Such a caricature is simultaneously loaded and empty, empty enough to hold the stereotype of some ambiguous Indian warrior fit enough to be stamped on the side of a football helmet.
It’s as if the holidays that bracket WHIP season, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, reify the invisibility at the core of this nation’s treatment of indigenous folks. How can they be romanticized if they’re always around? How can we justify Columbus Day and Thanksgiving if the folks harmed in the process aren’t relegated to reservations in less heavily populated western states? How can some folks–both white (because Indian blood is the only blood that can justifiably make whiteness impure) and black–claim a quarter Cherokee maternal great-great-grandmother if the there’s an Indian in your face and not on your baseball cap?
I think about all of that as I engage in these American rituals, in watching the Colts vs. the Redskins last night, in eating turkey on the last Thursday in November. Others will vote. It makes some kind of sense to cast a ballot in the middle of WHIP season, given what such engagement with democracy is contingent upon. I wonder if the indigenous folks could appropriate the resounding “Take America Back!” we hear during election time. I’d get behind that; in fact, I would probably stop monitoring my fantasy football team long enough to vote for something like that. In fact, I’d permanently stop filling this space with non-sensical rants for that. /nihilism