Native-American speaker discusses group’s cultural oppression

Matthew Merchant

Idealized through American culture, Native-American traditions and artifacts have become oppressed and diluted by mainstream media and society. Featured speaker Georgi Hudson Smith said this has created a culture that does not understand the historic and ethnic importance of certain aspects of Native-American people.

“Cultural oppression is the process of dehumanization,” Smith said. “It is a three-phase cycle. First, the process involves defining a group of people as lacking any semblance of worthiness and to be defined as civilized. Second, following up with actions and policies that support the notion that this group is uncivilized. And then (the) third phase is that it does everything in its power to justify the first phase as right.”

Smith is a descendent of Cherokee and Ojibwa Indians and is a member of the Native American Indian and Veterans Center of Akron. She was co-director of the American Indian Rights Association at Kent State, according to her biography.

As part of the Soup and Substance speaker series hosted by the Student Multicultural Center, Smith was the kickoff speaker for Native-American Heritage Month, which began Friday. Her presentation was titled “The True Meaning of Native Artifacts in American Culture.”

Using pictures of stereotyped Native Americans, from figures wearing feathered headdresses to warriors on horseback to YouTube videos mocking Indian culture, Smith described the struggles of Native Americans to maintain their true cultural identity.

“These stereotypes are being perpetuated today, probably innocently, but still perpetuated,” Smith said. She referenced a poster recently created by a kindergarten class that featured Native Americans in feathered garb.

Even YouTube videos, Smith explained, have power to spread categorical stereotypes.

One video, entitled “Financial Help with the Native-American Spirit Guide,” features clichéd Americans in financial trouble who seek help from a man clearly portraying a Native American. Carrying a walking staff, hiking through the woods and speaking in cryptic language similar to Native Americans’, the man represents a savage figure.

Smith described how American product advertising and labeling idealizes yet oppresses Native-American cultures. From the labels on roughly 30 different beers to the mascots of national sports teams, American culture continues to utilize and abuse traditional Native American characters and motifs. From the Washington Redskins football team to the Chief Wahoo logo and the Chicago Blackhawks icon, the symbols are stereotypes, Smith said.

While modern society has YouTube videos, product labeling, advertising and idealized Halloween costumes to stereotype Native Americans, society in generations past used boarding schools to strip their culture and traditions from them.

“Serious ethnic stereotyping and blatant cultural oppression go hand-in-hand,” Smith said. Described in the the words of Captain Richard Pratt, an American soldier who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the boarding schools had one goal, to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The schools were just the beginning of a trend, Smith explained, that focused on transforming Native American from “savages” into “civilized” people. When white settlers began encroaching more and more on Native-American lands, they eliminated Native cultures. From buffalo hunting to outright murder of entire villages, Smith explained how white settlers became increasingly more hostile toward Native Americans.

One YouTube video seemed to affect the audience most. Featuring a man identified as Andrew Windy Boy, the interview is part of a documentary of Native Americans telling their experiences in the boarding schools. Beaten repeatedly until he forgot his native language, Windy Boy recalled his life in two boarding schools.

Stripped of his own cultural identity by whites simply for speaking the Cree language, his recollections brought tears to the eyes of some audience members while enlightening others to the serious effects still present in society.

“I learned about (the boarding schools) in class, so this was interesting to see it first hand,” said Halle Saxon, freshman early childhood education major. It’s important for people to understand and appreciate the culture and not stereotype it, she said.

Though the schools are closed now, Smith said “the effects are still very much felt,” through American culture’s use of Native-American traditions, symbols and names in advertising and branding. It is these subtly used icons that continue to oppress the true meaning of Native-American culture.

“We are all still here; It’s not just some Halloween costume … we’re not lost to the pages of history,” said Thomas Catron, secretary for the Native American Student Association. “I think that Georgi did a wonderful job bringing these issues into the middle where it needs to be. She didn’t take a side, but she said ‘Here are the facts. Now your upbringing and opinions will form based on these facts.’”

Catron said through more objective presentations of serious cultural issues, students could learn to become more culturally sensitive.

“I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. I don’t want to point any fingers. I just want to take you on a journey, so that then you have more information to make up you mind about things like the mascot issue and is it OK for Urban Outfitter to launch a product with the name Navajo on it,” Smith said. “When you have more information you can make a better-educated choices as to what you want to do.”

Contact Matthew Merchant at [email protected].