Columbus Day: Settling of the New World Drenched with Hype

A fine example of silencing Native peoples through boarding schools, making them “first-class men and women of the sons and daughters of real red men.” From the North Platte semi-weekly tribune. 1916

Some communities—including Portland, where I live—have swapped Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day.

And while the two tributes aren’t quite equivalent—one commemorates an individual credited with the sighting of the New World, while the other recognizes Native peoples of the New World—it is worth considering the role propaganda plays in the construction of the Italian and the Indian.

I’ll take a look at events that led up to the Columbus Day proclamation that arose from racist attitudes, and how, at the same time, Native Americans faced similar racist demons.

While Italians were able to harness the public narrative and smooth out racist wrinkles, Native Americans found their narratives stolen or silenced.

Columbus Day Springs from a Murder

Columbus Day in the United States has long focussed on the merchant and mapmaker from Genoa—Cristoforo Colombo—thanks to the ingenuity of some Italian-Americans to remake their image.

Italians and Sicilians who emigrated to the New World were stereotyped as cruel and shifty, according to reporter Lakshmi Gandhi.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, waves of emigrants to North America from the Mediterranean were “sometimes shut out of schools, movie houses and labor unions, or consigned to church pews set aside for black people. They were described in the press as ‘swarthy’, ‘kinky haired’ members of a criminal race and derided in the streets with epithets like ‘dago’ [and] ‘guinea,’ ” according to Brent Staples, writing for the New York Times.

One law enforcer gained popularity in the 1880s for capturing Giuseppe Esposito, an Italian criminal, in New Orleans, where sentiments against Italians ran high.

David Hennessy promised to clean up the city when he was appointed police chief, but a year later, in October 1890, he was shot by a gang while walking home from work and died.

Although no one saw the gang members, hundreds of Italians were arrested for the murder, followed by months of trials. Meantime, not long after Hennessy was shot in New Orleans, a bone-cold winter held the Northern U.S. in a frigid grip.

Wounded Knee Springs from Murders

That December, a band of  Miniconjou Sioux fled the Cheyenne River village and headed south for Pine Ridge, hoping to escape the troops and find shelter with Sitting Bull.

The US government resolved to divide the Sioux Nation into small portions, and sent troops to enforce their authority.  

The Miniconjou—about 350 children, women and men—was less than a day’s journey to Pine Ridge when they crossed paths with the Seventh Calvary on Sunday, December 28, at Wounded Knee Creek.

Spotted Elk—the Miniconjou elder and leader—and Major Samuel M. Whitside agreed to an uneasy truce as nightfall approached.

In the morning, someone fired a shot, and by noon, many were dead: 250 Miniconjou and 25 soldiers.

The Sioux murdered at Wounded Knee were shoved into mass graves and covered with dirt and snow.  

Italians Rewrite History

Back in New Orleans, numerous trials were held for the Italians charged with Hennessy’s murder.

Court proceedings resulted in acquittals and mistrials, and by March, some 19 men had been indicted in the police chief’s death and were held in Parish Prison.

On Saturday, March 14, a group of citizens gathered on Canal Street and marched to the prison.

Guns and ammunition were handed out along the path, and hundreds of bystanders joined the throng.

By the time the mob surrounded the prison, thousands were in the crowd.

Prison doors were bashed open and, one by one, eleven men were “riddled with buckshot,” according to the New York Times.

In response, the Italian government cut diplomatic ties with the United States, Staples writes.

The US and Italy were reported “on the brink of war” when President Benjamin Harrison soothed relations by proclaiming October 12 Columbus Day in 1892.

Italian-American activists seized the moment to rewrite history “by casting Columbus as the first immigrant” and granting Italian-Americans “a formative role” in the nation-building narrative.

But it would take decades for the United States to declare a national holiday for the explorer from Genoa.

The Knights of Columbus (“Catholic men building a bridge back to faith,” according to the group’s website) lobbied the Roosevelt Administration, and in 1934, the day was cemented as a federal holiday.

While the emigrant narrative was reshaped to honor Italian-Americans—specifically Columbus—stereotypes of the savage and uncivilized Indian remained.

A Copper Mine Claims Native Narratives and Territories

A company began courting a small community in Northern Wisconsin to build a copper mine a few decades ago.

The mining company sloughed off the image of the greedy invader hungry for the resource-rich New World and instead borrowed the holistic worldview of Native tribes.

The mine leavened its corporate image with an homage to Chief Seattle.

“We too come before you…as stewards of the earth,” a spokesman promised the crowd at a public hearing on the mine’s construction.

“We will march through history arm-in-arm with Chief Seattle, Gandhi, Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King.”

The company —named the Flambeau Copper Mine yet often called the Ladysmith mine—took control of the narrative, and shunned the Native tribes whose traditional lands would house the mine.

The company disparaged the concerns of water pollution and degradation of the nearby forests brought by local tribes, who were framed as “stuck in the stone age.”

The slogan Partners in Progress served as the brand for the mine, and buttons and bumper-stickers were distributed free of charge to residents.

The mining company wooed citizens of Ladysmith with goodies and gifts: buying a brand-new firetruck and sending homemade cakes to local soldiers fighting in the Middle East.

They even created a tabloid called the Flambeau News that was inserted in the local newspaper.

The tabloid featured a Good Neighbor spotlight, letters from Gulf War soldiers, and—naturally—updates on the mine.

Like so many settlers before them, the mining company not only tried to silence the Native people who opposed the mine—they poached a Native narrative of environmentalism to reframe the story.

While replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day offers no provision that folks will attend to racist demons and shellacked narratives, it does offer an opportunity to reflect on past and current disparagement of Native American peoples.

As my Eeko (grandmother) said, who survived tuberculosis, alcoholism and the Osage murders, “we are still here.”

###

Monday, 12 October 2020

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

#columbusday

#flambeau mine

#nativescience

#defendpdx

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

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The Ghost of Justin Townes Earle

justin

Justin Townes Earle

First daughter sent me a video of Justin Townes Earle singing Graceland in a corner of a subway-tiled kitchen.

It’s a lovely black and white clip from the German-based, Hamburger Küchensessions, which posts musicians performing live, in a bright, white kitchen.

Earle, a native of Tennessee, puts a different spin on Paul Simon’s travel memoir.

Turns out both Justin and First Daughter were born the same year, a few weeks apart.

Continue reading

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The US Postal Service and the Desperate Quid Pro Quo

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My parents took voting so seriously that their actions are etched in memory.

When I was little, and before we moved overseas, my mother took me with her to the voting booth in our home town.

I realized why, once I had my own daughters.

Kids remember actions better than words.

So I looked forward to the day when I could show my children what happens in a voting booth.

My mother told us that, as citizens of the US, voting was a privilege, and that we needed to honor the liberty.

Not everyone can vote, she said.

We discovered that fact living in the Middle East, in country without elections.

My parents voted absentee overseas—by mail—for nearly three decades, and they made sure we knew they felt it was imperative.

I wondered if my mother’s values sprang from her Native American roots.

American Indians were shunned from voting, even when some tribal people gained the right to vote, not all Indians were accorded voting rights equally.

Many states found ways to block tribal people from voting.

While suppression of voting isn’t new, blocking any citizen from the opportunity to vote rocks the core of our republic.

I am ashamed to discover today’s government leaders—some of them—are actively preventing American citizens from voting.

The head of the US Postal Service (USPS), Louis DeJoy, was appointed to lead the agency in June this year.

The appointment was made by the Board of Governors of USPS.

Who are the “governors” and who appoints them?

All of the six “governors” were appointed by the current president, according to the USPS website. Their appointments are confirmed by the Senate.

DeJoy is an ardent supporter of the president, and “donated $1.2 million to [the president’s] campaign coffers and nearly $1.3 million to the Republican Party,” according to the New York Times.

Such an appointment offers a stellar example of the Latin phrase quid pro quo, which means “this for that.”

The Times reports that after DeJoy took the reins, postal workers’ overtime pay was eliminated which “slowed the delivery of mail and endangered vote-by-mail operations.”

The Times also reports that mail-sorting machines—which speed the system—were removed in some locations as part of the USPS reorganization.

“Since his appointment,” The Times notes, “DeJoy has put in place cost-cutting measures that he says are intended to overhaul an agency.”

But the measures appear to be a favor—quid pro quo—to those interested in creating roadblocks for absentee and mail-in voting, which would be heavily impacted by reducing manpower and efficiency at post offices across the country.

Does vote-by-mail favor one political party over another?

Social scientists aren’t sure, because we lack a true test case to study the question.

But one study presented at the National Academy of Sciences and published in June, reports that vote-by-mail yield similar results to in-person voting.

As a parent, a US citizen, a descendent of Native Americans and a voter, I am alarmed to learn some members of our own government are busy sabotaging our opportunities to vote.

Voting should be sacrosanct: free from any shred of intervention.

Period.

###

Sunday, 17 August 2020

Photo credit unavailable of mail carrier

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

#saveusps

#quidproquo

#nativescience

#defendpdx

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

 

 

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John Lewis and the Portland Connection

“The Bridge,” by Mike Luckovich (copyrighted)

“The Bridge,” by Mike Luckovich (copyrighted)

 On Sundays I brew my morning tea, read the print copy of the New York Times, listen to Lulu Garcia Navarro on NPR, and tune into my favorite podcasts, including This American Life and Freakonomics.

Today I searched for two nuggets of news: coverage of local protests in my home town of Portland, and comments about John Lewis, an advocate for systemic change in our democracy who passed away this week, and who spoke to graduating students at our university in 2004.

My former students and colleagues who heard his Commencement address wrote notes on Facebook and Twitter that acknowledge Lewis’s passion for peaceful and mindful change that bolsters the agency of the disempowered. Continue reading

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A Postcard or a Tweet?

postcard.

Today I read a news story about a comedian whose death was announced by his son on Twitter.

Rather than Twitter, I would like my death announced by postcard.

I learned the art of postcard writing from my mum, who began sending pictured cards to her mother when we moved to Iran in the 1960s.

My grandmother kept her stash in a binder, with images that ranged from Norte Dame in Paris to the pyramid of Giza in Cairo.

It made sense: my parents lived overseas for three decades, and sending postcards let my mum keep in touch with her large, extended family.

Once my mum and I took a car trip to Edinburgh on a whim when I was visiting their London home during a break from college.

We took off on a jaunt without reservations, photographed the countryside and stayed in pubs in Wales and Scotland.

We’d pull off the road for lunch at a pub, and eat shepherd’s pie or cheese sandwiches, and secure a room before exploring the town.

Villages had cobblestone streets lined by tiny shops: tobacconist, ironmonger, and sweet shops.

I liked the sweet shops because you could find peppermint candies with a range of heat, from mild to militant.

And my mother would find a store that sold postcards.

We’d head back to the pub for a gin and tonic, and write friends and family, while the locals chatted us up.

Naturally I picked up the habit in my own travels.

Finding postcards is easy in a place like Rome or New York, where tourist shops tempt visitors with key-chains and tchotchkes that memorialize their travels.

But finding stamps requires patience and a sense of humor.

In Barcelona my husband had a lovely chat with a vendor after we found a post office tucked away in a dim corner of a maze of shops.

We don’t speak Castilian but my husband carried on—in Spanish—describing our awe of the breathtaking buildings and grounds created by Antoni Gaudí.

But when I tried to buy stamps at a post office in Morocco the postal worker shouted at me and shooed me off the premises.

I am still perfecting the art of writing postcards.

In one college course I taught on writing, I asked students to write across platforms and media—from scripting a wedding toast to crafting a post card.

One of the students, who is closer to my age than to the co-eds, told me she loved the postcard assignment, and we have been friends ever since.

Turns out my friend, an elegant writer herself, adores travel, reading and writing.

Although we live in different cities, we send each other postcards from our journeys.

Travel is now on the back-burner because the pandemic keeps my husband and I tucked at home.

But travel hasn’t stopped me from sending postcards.

I pulled together a stash of picture-postcards of Oregon from the local market, and tried painting a few with watercolors.

Friends and family heard about our spring-time weather from our back porch.

I decamped outside, pen poised, and conjured an image of the person—channeling a voice or a gesture.

And then I’d write a sentence or two, just to that person, just in that moment.

I felt connected.

So when I join my relatives in heaven, I’d rather you get a postcard than a Tweet.

###

8 June 2020

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

 

 ~ For all my postcard pals ~

 

#nativescience

#postcardsfromtheledge

#pandemic

#COVID

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the Age of Uncertainty and Dread, Who Benefits?

covid-19-virus

Image of the Covid-Virus courtesy of the Columbia Inter-tribal Fish Commission

Cui Bono 

Forgive my cynicism.

But the pandemic news coverage spreads uncertainty and dread, and makes me cynical.

Here are some headines:

Will Covid-19 mutate into a more dangerous virus? (Britain)

Needless Suffering and Death if States Open too Soon (US)

Protect Yourself from the Fear Contagion (India)

Uncertainty creates a lot of “What if?” headlines that create stress for us muggles.

And uncertainty provides a florid breeding ground for speculation.

And speculation breeds lies.

Perhaps a wise response is to avoid headlines altogether.

Headlines that speculate about mutations of the virus merely serve to drag down a reader into the undertow of the story.

Cui bono?

Who benefits?

Web-based publications that need advertising dollars to survive have to deliver readers to their clients.

That means news stories on your smartphone or tablet are designed as click-bait.

Readers are hungry fish lured into the snare of the headline.

A click refers to the action of opening a news story—which signals to advertisers that readers are snagged.

The click analogy originates from Robert Cialdini, a leading authority on persuasion.

Cialdini called the phenomenon “click-whirr” some 36 years ago.

He got the idea from studies of mother turkeys who respond to “cheep-cheep” from their chicks with loving kindness.

Cialdini says researchers tested hens by placing stuffed, fabric polecats—an enemy of turkeys—to see how hens would respond.

Mother turkeys attacked the stuffed polecats on sight.

But when researchers inserted tiny speakers (attached to voice recorders) into the faux polecats so that they would “cheep” on command, the hens embraced their foe—literally tucking them under wing.

Cialdini called this “click-whirr.”

Cialdini says the click is the signal—the click of the tape recorder of the cheep enticement–and the whirr is the response: the reaction of the hen’s love for her chicks.

Three decades later Cialdini’s thesis still rings true.

But the click of the tape is a metaphor in 2020.

The click refers to the reader punching a keyboard to view a news story based on a headline.

And the whirr is the response.

The question is: what is your whirr response to the news story?

Is it dread? Uncertainty?

Here’s my perspective, as a former journalist and as a student of news media.

If the information is informative and sensible, tuck it under your wing.

If the information raises questions that are oblique and cause you stress, the intention may be to create dread.

What is the point of the story and who benefits from it?

If you’re not sure, it may be that the story is aimed at click-whirr: getting your attention.

If information fails to inform, then you may only benefit from anxiety and dread.

I ask myself as I read: who benefits from this story?

 

 

###

 

12 May  2020

 

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

 

With thanks to the students who make my life so rich by their willingness to learn

 

#covid

#cuibono

#nativescience

#whatisframing

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

 

 

 

 

 

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A Virus and an Epiphany

cassatt

The Map, by Mary Cassatt, 1890. Collection of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University

As our spring course in mass media framing entered its final throes a few weeks ago—before universities decided to offer courses remotely or virtually—I noticed a clutch of students was hanging out in the classroom, even though the final bell had rung.

Students weren’t waiting for me as I tucked my papers into my over-stuffed bag.

Instead, they were conferring—somewhat passionately—about the day’s readings.

Typically, students leave in a rush when a class ends—to catch their bus or run to their next class.

Our course is the last in the daily schedule, and sometimes students hang back.

But this was the first—in a long time—that students were engaged ardently in a discussion after class ended.

The fact the course had a life beyond its borders made me proud—proud the students indulged in their learning, sharing thoughts, and carrying their ideas with them.

Later in the term, the graduate students who were in the class were able to gather in a small, supper seminar before voluntary isolation became widespread.

The remaining students who conferred—those feeling well and willing to keep a safe distance—presented their papers.

Their orations were planned to last five minutes.

But they ignored the guidelines and spent 20 to 30 minutes each, sharing their discoveries.

Each student dug deeply into her or his topic about the role of media and framing in society and culture.

Each shared what was gleaned from theory and research, and each took a leap of faith and considered how we might learn from our studies and make improvements in the world.

Before we knew it, the clock struck 10 p.m.

We were captivated by the chance to learn.

To think.

To listen.

To talk.

To explore.

To share.

I won’t soon forget the evening when a group of students probed and questioned ideas; struck out—on their own—into abstract terrains; and offered up their views for scrutiny.

Now that’s what I call learning.

###

21 March 2020

 With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations

 With thanks to the students who make my life so rich by their willingness to learn

#nativescience

#whatisframing

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

 

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Hello: I’m the Ambassador of North America

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An Iranian weaver

If you are an American citizen who grew up overseas in the 1960s and 1970s, you were told by your parents and by the American community—the official and unofficial community, and by the US military and the civilian community–that you would be judged in so-called foreign countries as a representative of the United States.

The typical instruction was: you are an ambassador of North America.

Act straight.

Act right.

As kids, we took the admonition to heart.

We were interlopers, and we lived in countries that had traditions and mores and religions that are markedly different from our own.

I lived in London, the Hague and Teheran.

And I’ve visited Egypt, Hong Kong, France, India, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Thailand, Italy, Scotland, Jordan, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Mexico, China, the United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka, Wales, Canada, Portugal, Iceland, Germany, Switzerland and Morocco.

We were instructed to tread lightly, and to avoid bringing attention to our Yankee-ness.

So when I boarded a city bus in British Columbia recently, and heard a passenger ask the bus driver for help finding a stop, my ears detected an accent.

The Persian accent is discernable—even if you don’t speak much Persian—there is something quite unique.

The passenger asked the bus driver about a stop, and, when she looked for a seat, I asked in my best Persian if she spoke Farsi.

The woman was shocked: had someone really asked her a question in her own language?

In my childlike Persian, I invited her to sit with me.

Turns out she was visiting family in British Columbia and was trying to navigate the bus routes.

So we chatted on the bus for about 30 minutes before I needed to jump from the vehicle and march home.

We talked about being a stranger in a strange land, about the Iranian community in Canada, and about my time living in Iran.

My guest was kind, and, in her solid English, she explained that her son and daughter attended university in British Columbia, and that she would return home, to Iran, soon.

I wish I had time to tell her how much I enjoyed the delicious Persian food, the artististic calligraphy, the beauty of Shiraz, and the generous and gentle folk of Teheran.

Today, when I hear a journalist covering the news in Iran, I learn that the citizens treat her with kindness and respect.

That’s been my experience, too.

###

Photo credit: From Peter Carapetian’s collection, Iran: Soul of an Ancient Land, downloaded from Pinterest

15 January 2020

With gratitude to the Snuneynmuxw First Nation, keepers of the land where I took the bus-ride.

Thank you to the students, staff and faculty at Vancouver Island University for hosting my fellowship at their remarkable place of learning.

#nativescience

#vancouverislanduniversity

#fulbright

#phrenology

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#twoeyedseeing

#littletheories

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

#oncethemullah

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Shining the Light

NS2_MozartByCandlelight_WebCover

The Story about Owl and the Mullah

It only took about 30 minutes to pop my belongings into a shopping bag after cleaning out my temporary office at Vancouver Island University.

If I’m poor in material artefacts, I am rich in memories and newfound knowledge after 16 weeks in British Columbia.

Lest you think my hosts were stingy, don’t. I received many gifts, including handmade items from local elders, and books, scarves, cards, tea, and cookies.

And I learned stories and songs, and received permission to bring some home to Oregon.

The sweetest gift was one of time: the time people took to share their stories.

One unexpected delight was hearing an elder tell a story about coyote and the bone-needle. As the tale unfolded, I realized I heard the story before, but from a different era and culture: the tale I know is from a book I received as a youngster when I lived in Persia.

I told the elder—an Indigenous raconteuse—that I had heard the First Nations story in a different context as a Persian tale about a wise-and-foolish mullah.

She wasn’t surprised: seems that other folks know the story, which has made the rounds in cultural circles, in addition to the Middle East and Vancouver Island.

She gave me permission to share the story about the missing bone-needle.

In the First Nations tale—set in the time past, the time now, and in the future—owl finds coyote as dusk falls, searching for a lost object near his campfire.

In the Persian tale, set in the time before electricity–when street lamps were fueled by oil and lit by hand–a neighbor is walking on a dark night and finds the mullah (a religious advisor) on his hands and knees, searching for something underneath a lamppost.

The mullah has lost his keys, and can’t find them.

Coyote lost his bone-needle while sewing a rip in his moccasin.

In each story, a visitor passing by—a neighbor in the Persian tale, and an owl in the First Nations story—inquires about the missing object.

Where did you lose it?

Turns out the mullah and coyote lost keys and needle in a dark part of the forest.

Each decides to look for the missing item—not where it was lost—but near the  light: a bright lamppost and a brilliant fire.

In each story, the protagonist admits he or she may be a little silly for thinking the keys or needle would magically appear near the light.

The story reminds me of when I first arrived in British Columbia, and a reporter interviewed me about my fellowship.

What would I be doing? What was my objective? What did I want to gain?

The answer has two truths.

The first truth is that when you apply for any fellowship, you need to craft a clear, compelling and comprehensive plan of action that meets the mission of the funding agency.

I said that I hoped to beef up my research, which looks at conflicts in Indigenous communities over natural resource issues, such as mining and oil pipeline construction.

I write about how different points-of-view are presented, particularly the concerns of Indigenous peoples embroiled in disputes, and concerns of specialists called in to defend mines and pipelines.

Here’s where the second truth comes in.

Armed with a fellowship, I cannot walk into an unfamiliar community and expect folks to share their concerns with a stranger.

While I am keen on learning the worries of Indigenous peoples surrounding environmental issues, I would have to be respectful and patient.

I would have wait until they wanted to share their stories with me.

What that means is that I can only look in the direction where a light is shining until someone offers me an invitation to hear her perspective.

And the best gift: someone who strikes a light to illuminate my path.

###

Uncredited photo from the Helena Symphony

22 December 2019

With gratitude to the Snuneynmuxw First Nation, keepers of the land on which I write this story.

Thank you to the students, staff and faculty at Vancouver Island University for hosting my fellowship at their remarkable place of learning.

#nativescience

#vancouverislanduniversity

#fulbright

#phrenology

#nativewaysofknowing

#indigenouswaysofknowing

#twoeyedseeing

#littletheories

#nativewriter

#nativepress

#kiyuska

#osage

#wahshashe

#whatstrending

#thebuddhaway

#oncethemullah

 

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Stereotypes about American Indians

HUman races 1842

Poster of the human races from F.E. Wachsmuth, Leipzig, 1892

The More the Buckshot, the More the Brains

[Today I’m sharing with you notes from a talk I gave this week at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. My notes serve as a foundation for the talk, which was less scripted and more extemporaneous—sometimes even impromptu.]

In the 1800s, European and American scientists studied the human mind by examining its container: the skull.

The skull yielded rich data for phrenologists, who argued that personality is housed within pockets of the brain.

The contours of the pockets—the depth and width and lumps and bumps—can be identified by close examination of the skull.

Phrenologists like Samuel George Morton collected skulls from around the world (Morton acquired more than 800, now on display in Philadelphia) and agreed with the sentiment that five races of humans existed.

For phrenologists, the skull determined the race:

Caucasian

Mongolian

Malayan

American

Ethiopian

The contours of the skull indicates racial type, based on shape, size and proportion: including the individual’s personality and intelligence.

So-called “white” skulls were judged as the most symmetrical and beautiful, and hence, Caucasians were positioned highest on the human ladder.

What You See is What You Get

franz-joseph-gall-german-phrenologist-science-source

Image of Franz Joseph Gall, from the website Pixels

Morton took his lead from Franz Gall, a German scientist who studied the personalities of residents of an asylum for the insane in the 1700s.

Gall, who would become the Father of Phrenology, noticed that one resident of the asylum who was considered “combative” also had a thickening behind his ear.

So Gall began to look at other combative tenants of the asylum and found they, too, had more pronounced bumps behind their ears.

Gall created a list of personality characteristics, ranging from combativeness to kindness, and identified more than two dozen features that comprised personality.

He then mapped the features on a rendering of the skull, according to his observations at the asylum.

A thickening of the skull would indicate more of the personality feature, while a crevice would show less.

Morton Boosts Beliefs with Empirical Evidence

Samuel Morton took phrenology to the next level by elevating its gravitas through his measurements of hundreds of skulls representing individuals from across the globe.

One noteworthy method he developed involved measuring the mass of the brain.

Morton would boil a human head and scoop out the interior.

Once the skull was clean and dry, Morton turned the head upside down, poured lead-shot into the cavity, up to the rim, and then dumped the shot onto a scale.

The heavier the scale, the heavier the brain.

Hence: the more the buckshot, the more the brain.

Philadelphia, where Morton made his home, was a bustling port and harbor in the 1830s.

Discovery of coal deposits throughout the state of Pennsylvania enabled entrepreneurs to harness energy to create steam engines, which, in turn, fuelled growth of industry of the time, particularly the building of locomotives, boats, and heavy-industry factories.

Philadelphia became a mecca for entrepreneurs, including two brothers: Orson and Lorenzo Fowler.

phrenology_2

A Fowler phrenological head

The Fowler brothers were drawn to phrenology—quite popular at the time—and became true acolytes.

While Morton perfected techniques for measuring intelligence, the Fowlers brought a material level to the science: they took the show on the road.

A few blocks from where Morton lived with his family, the Fowler Brothers—along with their sister and brother-in-law—opened a shop called The Phrenological Cabinet on Chestnut Street.

Here you could find a pamphlet or book about phrenology, buy a ceramic bust labelled with human traits, or you could have your head examined.

For $1, the Fowlers would trace the lumps on your head and determine your personality.

Black Hawk’s Skull

The Fowlers expanded their operation and opened up offices in London and New York, and began a thriving publishing house (where Walt Whitman, another acolyte, published Leaves of Grass).

They began publishing a journal dedicated to phrenology: The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany.

The journal described phrenology as a “bona fide science” replete with facts, truths and evidence, and is considered today the most long-lived phrenological document, published (with various titles) from 1838 to 1911.

The Fowlers wrote:

The object of this work [the journal] will be to preserve from oblivion the most interesting of  the very numerous facts, confirmatory and illustrative of the truth of phrenology; to show the true bearings of this science on education, (physical, intellectual, and moral), on theology, and on mental and moral philosophy … Our facts we pledge ourselves shall be bona fide.

One noteworthy contribution to the journal was an analysis of the head of Black Hawk, a Sac warrior and headman who had been captured by the U.S. military and kept prisoner in the 1830s.

The Fowlers visited Black Hawk in New York, where they created a plaster cast of his head.

Armed with the tools of their trade—calipers, rulers and Gall’s map of personality etched on a skull—the Fowlers investigated Black Hawk’s plaster head and confirmed Morton’s analysis that Indigenous Americans are savage, war-like and unwise.

skull

The Fowler brothers made a plaster bust of Black Hawk’s head and studied it prodigiously

Morton wrote that the American Indian is:

Marked by a brown complexion; long, black, lank hair, and deficient beard. Americans have black and deep set eyes, the brow low, the cheek-bones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid and compressed. The skull is small, wide between the parietal protuberances, prominent at the vertex, and flat on the occiput. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.

When assessing Black Hawk’s skull, the Fowlers noted his “animal qualities,” and added:

His temperament is bilious-nervous, combining great strength with great mental and physical activity, and power of endurance. The great size of Combativeness, and the domestic organs, is indicated by the immense breadth of the head.

[The area] behind the ears give the head a full, spherical, bulging appearance [from] the organs of Combativeness, Destructiveness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, and Acquisitiveness.

These organs, when large, or very large, always give great energy and force of character, and, in a savage state, would give cruelty, cunning, and revenge [and] would make an Indian the bold and desperate warrior.

Does Modern Discourse Reflect Phrenology?

Researchers who study discourse—information in books, news, advertising and other media—agree the fabric of racism and prejudice continues today, but in more subtle ways than in the 1800s.

I wondered if modern news media invoke phrenology when the issue of science is raised, particularly concerning American Indians.

I found that, although phrenology is referred to as a “pseudo” science today—replaced by the fields of neurology and neuroscience—the idea of racial types continues in discourse.

And discourse about Indigenous peoples continues to invoke stereotypes about personality and intelligence.

The reason I investigate issues about science (and health, risk and the environment) is because discourse traditionally places Western, empirical science above other knowledge systems.

And I’m interested in how this comparison plays out.

When indigenous knowledge systems butt heads with Western science, some of the underpinnings of phrenology seem to surface to the top layers of discourse.

Take, for example, news coverage that followed the unearthing of a 9000-year-old skeleton in 1996.

The case of the ancient skeleton—called Kennewick Man by reporters—continued until 2017, when the bones were finally returned to Native tribes.

When the skeleton was pulled from the river, local Indigenous communities expected the remains would be given to them, according to a Federal law that protects Native graves, peoples and belongings.

But scientists sued to study the remains, arguing that re-burying the bones would “harm science.”

The legal case lasted nearly 10 years, and the battle to return the bones lasted more than 20.

News Coverage of Kennewick Man

Reporters were intrigued when the skeleton was unearthed because it is among the oldest, intact remains ever found in North America.

But the story took a swift turn a few weeks after the discovery when an anthropologist told reporters the skull looked Caucasian.

Without presenting evidence or data to back his case, the expert—James Chatters—told reporters the skull “looked” Caucasoid—not like any Native American skull he had ever seen.

That is, like the phrenologists of the 1800s, Chatters found the shape, size and girth of the skull revealed its origins.

Chatters told the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“He’s got a narrow face and a long, narrow braincase, and the cheekbones aren’t really broad,” Chatters said. By contrast, he said, American Indian cheekbones “are tremendously wide. They have wide, round faces and rounded skulls.”

Another reporter interviewed Chatters for an Australian magazine and wrote:

Modern day Indians, who typically have prominent cheekbones and flat, roundish faces, stem from Mongolian stock. The narrow Caucasoid features of Kennewick Man suggest a possible connection to Japan’s aboriginal people, the Ainu. Did early Caucasoids from Asia travel by boat around the Pacific rim? Kennewick Man may even indicate migration from Europe, via boat along the Arctic ice cap, a theory backed by similarities between stone tools from the eastern US and the Solutrean culture of France and Spain.

Reporters seized on the notion that the Kennewick Man skull looked more Caucasoid than Mongoloid, echoing language used by phrenologists decades earlier.

But the connection of the skull to “white” individuals wasn’t made clearly until Chatters announced that Kennewick Man looked like the actor Patrick Stewart: a non-indigenous denizen of the British Isles.

According to the Washington Post:

Jim Chatters was watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on television when it came to him. For months he had been walking streets and staring at strangers, looking for a face and head shape that matched what he saw in Kennewick Man’s skull. To him, the skull had contours that “you typically find in Europeans,” as he recalls. “I was looking hard” … then onto the TV screen strode Captain Jean Luc-Picard, the British actor Patrick Stewart. Eureka! “I said, ‘Whoa, that’s the closest I’ve seen’.”

Media outlets carried an image of the Kennewick Man clay model next to a photo of Patrick Stewart, visually cementing the hypothesis that the 9000-year-old skeleton was Caucasian.

stewart kenny

Actor Patrick Stewart was presented as Kennewick Man’s twin in news coverage of the case

So: questioning the idea the ancient remains were native to the Pacific Northwest sowed enough doubt that the judge ruled the scientists could study the bones, rather than repatriate them to tribes, as required by law.

The 2014 book, based on the scientists’ findings, claims the skeleton looks Polynesian.

Authors Douglas Owsley and Richard Jantz write that although Kennewick Man’s skull closely resembles Polynesians, his relatives “are like those of the Moriori of Chatham Islands.”

Reason versus Religion

News coverage also echoed phrenological views that the larger and bigger Caucasian skulls endowed their holders with greater reasoning power.

In contrast, Native Americans were described as ill-equipped for rational and abstract thinking.

Reporters characterized arguments in binary terms–as reason versus faith:

To the scientists, the chance to examine the remains was self-evidently a triumph for reason. “It comes down,” says Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian, “to the right to ask questions of the past.” –Newsweek magazine

“The saddest aspect of the threat to scientific study of Kennewick Man is the risk of forfeiting conclusions based on rational deduction,” Chatters said. –The Guardian newspaper

Faith, reason clash over remains. –The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)

 The Indian as Object

 Another way contemporary coverage reflects phrenological attitudes about Indigenous peoples was the depiction of Kennewick Man as a “treasure” and a “gift.”

While local tribes described the skeleton as an ancestor, some

scientists objectified the remains.

James Chatters, for example, told a national news program:

From a scientific point of view alone, he’s just an absolute treasure.

Later, Chatters wrote in his book about Kennewick Man:

I was given a gift from the past.

Kennewick Man Returned: Finally

While scientists in the United States were gathering material for their 2014 coffee table-sized tome on Kennewick Man, a group of researchers in Denmark was hoping to quantify the DNA they had extracted from a piece of the ancient skeleton.

With help from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation—who gave the Danish team samples of their DNA—the geneticists eventually found a connection between the 9000-year-old skeleton and modern tribal members.

In 2015, the team announced in the journal Nature that Kennewick Man was assuredly Native American and not Caucasian.

With the new information in hand, tribal members worked with state leaders to have the skeleton repatriated, and, in February 2017, Kennewick Man was laid to rest in an undisclosed location in the Pacific Northwest. ###

6 December 2019

 With gratitude to the Snuneynmuxw First Nation, keepers of the land on which I write this story.

 And with thanks to the students, staff and faculty at Vancouver Island University for hosting my fellowship at their remarkable place of learning.

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