The Invisibility of Being Native

A Conversation with Native Americans on Race


The New York Times’ Op-Doc: A Conversation about Race

No matter who you are, if you are Native American, your opinions and experiences are marginalized to the point of invisibility in American society and culture.

That’s a quote from today’s New York Times’ write-up on the video, A Conversation With Native Americans on Race.

The 5-minute video features young American Indians talking about their identities, with a few pointing out we’re the only folks in the United States who carry a Federal card with our blood quantum printed next to our names.

We’re identified by the percentage of our Native blood, courtesy of the government once anxious to rid the nation of Indigenous Americans.

Yet many of us to go unnoticed because our features don’t comport with a cartoon image on a hunk of butter or a tin of tobacco.

More important, perhaps, is the false idea that Indians are dead and gone, as one lad noted on the video.

For me, the invisibility surrounds the parts of our culture and ways-of-knowing that have become invisible.

I study how Indian knowledges have been ignored when they don’t meet the politics or whims of the day.

The most salient example is the conflict over the remains of the 9000-year-old skeleton called Kennewick Man.

For more than 20 years, local tribes in Washington and Oregon argued that the bones are the remains of an ancestor, who deserves to be returned to his resting place.

Others disagreed, claiming Native Americans couldn’t prove that the skeleton was an ancestor.

But the problem was that Indian knowledges were ignored: oral stories were dismissed. Native concerns were ignored.

And it took 20 years for scientists to demonstrate through DNA analysis that Kennewick Man is, in fact, native to North America.

The irony is that native wisdom is invisible when it suits the political flavor of the day.

Yet some native knowledges gain currency when non-Indians adopt sweat lodges, smudging practices and Indian spirituality masked in a New Age cloak.

One woman on the video notes: Indians are “the exotic antelope” hanging on the wall.

A trinket.

17 August 2017




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.
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1 Response to The Invisibility of Being Native

  1. Lisa Chesser says:

    I completely agree. I’m American Indian but I’m also Irish, English, and German. I’m mixed up. Pieces of me seem confused like my hair flying everywhere because of the Irish in me. People often look at me and guess what I am saying, “Oh, it’s the cheekbones or the eyes or the hair.” But, I’m none of that. I often say, I’m not Indian enough to say I’m Indian and so I call myself a mutt, laughing it away.


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