Civil Rights

The destructive dynamic of dehumanizing Native Americans

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As the country focuses its attention on Native Americans’ protests in North Dakota, we should be inspired by those who are exercising their civil rights in the name of such an honorable cause. We should also, though, ponder a troubling question: Why did an energy company and its local allies ignore the dissent, run roughshod over the community and try to build a pipeline over Native Americans’ land, threatening their sacred sites and their drinking water? And why did the federal government have to intervene at the 11th hour to delay construction so Native American voices could be heard?

There are many answers, but one stands out. In a popular culture that dehumanizes Native Americans, our community is too often treated as an afterthought — or not thought of at all. Just as problematic, those who appropriate our history for their own objectives often remain silent when our community is being mistreated.

We see this dehumanization in myriad ways. For instance, a recent academic study found that Native Americans are all but invisible in mass media, and “in the rare cases they appear, they are typically depicted in a stereotypical and historical fashion.” Similarly, the world of athletics has turned Native Americans into cartoons, using our heritage and culture as mascots.

Over the last two years, a broad coalition of civil rights groups, religious leaders, public health organizations and lawmakers from both political parties have spotlighted the worst example of this — the Washington professional football franchise, which uses a dictionary-defined racial slur as its team name. In our Change the Mascot campaign, we have repeatedly exposed how that name harms Native Americans’ self-image — and also how it teaches millions of Americans to see our people as cartoonish relics from the past rather than a vibrant community here in the present.

In a sense, when a pipeline company and government officials brazenly ignore our concerns and trample our lands, we see the concrete effects of such dehumanization in real time.

Of course, those who have tried to dehumanize us often claim they are actually working to help us. The Washington team is again illustrative of the larger trend: its billionaire owner has insisted that marketing, promoting and profiting off its preferred racial slur actually honors our people, and when defending his use of the slur, he has asserted that he is genuinely concerned about the challenges Native Americans face today.

Yet, as Native Americans right now fight for their most basic rights in North Dakota, the National Football League and the Washington team have remained silent, offering not so much as a peep of support or solidarity — even as they kick off another season to profit off demeaning our heritage.

To be sure, self-serving critics will claim that there is no connection between the general depiction of Native Americans in popular culture and a specific fight over an oil pipeline. The link, though, is straightforward and simple: A society that appropriates our culture without regard for the damage it does is one that will inevitably allow a powerful corporation to appropriate our lands without regard for our people.

The good news is that the conflict over the pipeline has exposed this destructive dynamic for all to see, providing us with a potential turning point in our people’s fight for equality. Stopping the pipeline is a critical part of this battle — and finally stopping the larger dehumanization that led to this moment will secure a brighter future for our people.

Pata is the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. Follow the National Congress of American Indians on Twitter @NCAI1944. Halbritter is Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises. Follow the Oneida Nation on Twitter@oneidanation


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