Talking about race

American Indian posers
red face

I’m glad we’re talking about race, although the heinous acts that led to the conversation should never be lost in the discussion.

Problem is, the very word race stems from difference—not just cultural—but perceived biological and intellectual differences that underpin policies that gassed Jews and sterilized Blacks.

You can trace the topic of race to the mid-1800s in North America.

While settlers were itching to cross the Sioux Holy Road through the Black Hills to gain access to the west, physicians created hierarchies of race sanctioned by science.

Caucasians were considered “intellectually endowed” and “superior both in civilization and intelligence.”

Asians, Africans and indigenous Americans fared far worse because scientists had judged the shape of their heads too small for sound intellect.

The American Indian mind revealed a mental character “averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge,” wrote Samuel Morton.

Is it any surprise that our ancestors cloaked their heritage and passed as white?

The difference today is that someone may be able to pass for Black or Red or Brown or White, but she won’t be shipped off to boarding school and punished for speaking her native tongue.

Critics loathe Rachel Dolezal of Spokane for posing as Black but hardly bat an eye when a high school in Ohio wants to keep the moniker of Redskins.

Imposters don buckskin and beads to posture as Native Americans without apology.

Weekend Indians.

You’ll find a timely example in the August 2015 issue of Mother Jones, which features a photo essay of posers in Germany, Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic spending summer vacation sleeping in teepees and riding bareback.

Or consider the recent program Germany’s Top Model where leggy contestants stripped down to feathers and face-paint to pose as American Indians (pictured).

The typical response is “we are honoring Native Americans.”

As one enthusiast noted, culture shouldn’t be hoarded.

“No people should be allowed to keep their culture just for themselves.”


Photo credit Facebook, from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, Indian, native american, science, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s