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Has Pop Culture Moved Beyond Cowboys And Indians?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later, we heard a lot this past election season about the so-called war on women, but if you want to know what I think about one of the real battles women are fighting that politicians don't talk much about, I'll tell you. It's my Can I Just Tell You essay at the end of the program.

But first, it's Native American Heritage Month, the time of the year when many people take the opportunity to learn more about this country's first people. But, sometimes, asking a friend or colleague about issues like this is awkward, so our next guest has volunteered for the challenge of answering the questions many people have about Native Americans.

Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe history and language at Bemidji State University. He is the author of several books. His latest is, appropriately, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." Over the last couple of weeks, we've talked about issues like just who can call himself or herself Native American and why, and the political and economic issues in Indian country.

Today, we're going to talk about pop culture and Professor Anton Treuer is with us now once again. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

ANTON TREUER: Thanks for having me on again.

MARTIN: This comes up with a lot of regularity involving not just Native Americans. I mean, you'll have the story at least every couple of months about, say, college students, you know, wearing blackface and things of that sort and people will say, OK. Sure. But you've got poverty, you've got the achievement gap. So as briefly as you can, tell us why you think it matters to talk about pop culture.

TREUER: I would say this. On the one hand, we don't need the whole world to walk around on eggshells. But on the other hand, it is important that we do our best to make the world a place where everyone can be respected and be respectful to one another.

MARTIN: You have a whole section in your book about sports mascots, so since that's probably top of the mind for some people, why don't we just start there? Why is there so much concern about sports mascots?

TREUER: Well, I'll just maybe use a personal example as an entry point. This past spring, there was a game between the UMD Bulldogs and the Fighting Sioux and, at the game, it was actually the opposing fans, the UMD Bulldog fans, who were chanting, small pox blankets, small pox blankets and slay the squaws, slay the squaws. And, if you could imagine the reactions of my children of varying ages to that experience, if it's not really a welcoming, kind environment, why should anyone be subjected to that?

You know, on the one hand, I can understand that there is a little bit of political incorrectness that should be tolerated, even supported in a free society like this. But on the other hand, you know, we have actually succeeded in doing away with, you know, things like segregated water fountains in the South and so forth, and we look back at that point in history and we think, how could anyone have ever tolerated that? And, someday, we'll probably get there on mascots, too, but it's not an immediate transfer and that's...

MARTIN: So you think that - so you think that that may be the only exposure some people have to Native American culture? Is that part of the picture?

TREUER: I think so. It explains why, for example, in, you know, the National Football League, where a huge percentage of the players and coaches and commentators are black and probably sensitized to certain issues of race don't say anything about the Washington Redskins and one reason might be no one wants to alienate a fan base, but to an even larger degree, I think it is lack of information. People are not thinking more deeply about how this might impact, you know, some kid watching the game in the stands and, instead, are just defending a name or a mascot that they're personally beholden to.

MARTIN: You also say in the book that not all Indians find the use of Indians or Indian imagery by sports teams offensive.

TREUER: That's true.

MARTIN: So what do you do with that?

TREUER: All I can do is speak for myself as one Native American person. So you'll find a diversity of opinion out there. At the same time that you may find some Native people who don't take any issue with it or are even ardent supporters of a team with a native mascot. I think you'll find many more who find it troubling and would like to see it done away with. You know, we don't have teams named after other racial groups and you can just imagine, you know, if you had a team named the Negros or something like that, what the reaction would be among the black population in America. It would be completely intolerable.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Anton Treuer. He is the author of "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask." He's been joining us for a series of conversations throughout Native American Heritage Month, doing just that, answering questions that many people have.

Let's talk about clothing, if you don't mind. You know, recently the music group No Doubt ran into some trouble. The music video for their song "Looking Hot" featured members of the band dressed as faux - let's just say faux cowboys and Indians, including the lead singer, Gwen Stefani. She was wearing these - not quite sure how to describe it, kind of...

TREUER: Yeah. Like...

MARTIN: Well, how would you describe it? Like Native American inspired...

TREUER: ...sexy miniskirt.

MARTIN: Right.

TREUER: Buckskin thing. Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. Like if you would imagine like the Halloween costume version, that kind of idea. Now they, when people objected, they pulled the video.

TREUER: Right.

MARTIN: And they apologized for being offensive to people. But there are other clothing lines and so forth who say that they are inspired by traditional clothing. And I have to ask, what about that?

TREUER: You know, there are some things that are an obvious affront to basic respect, and there are some things that are completely benign, like anybody who wants to wear a pair of moccasins or something like that. But then in between there's this big gray area and, you know, this is one of those things that goes there.

The No Doubt video was - I mean they're trying to be outrageous. At the same time, they unknowingly offended a lot of people. For example, you know, you could imagine the reaction in the Muslim community if there, you know, was some depiction of their traditional attire in a way that was highly sexualized. And I think that was one of the reactions that a lot of Native people had. But also we have, you know, a whole host of issues that this speaks to - exoticized representations of Native people; the - you know, we have an issue in Indian country where most crime in the United States is white on white, black on black and so forth. But there's pretty notable exception with crimes of sexual violence directed at Native women, which are predominantly perpetrated by white men. So the sexual objectification of Native women even in a, you know, hokey representation like the No Doubt video, you know, strike a chord of discontent among a lot of Native people who really deal with the more serious dimensions of the issue on a regular basis.

MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of movies, you know, the Western is its own genre. And I'm sure that there have been, you know, many films over time that have depicted, you know, Native people in ways that were very upsetting. But what about, you know, more recently it seems that filmmakers have been making real efforts to depict culture accurately. I think people remember "Dances with Wolves." I mean here's a clip of Kevin Costner in the lead role of that film.


KEVIN COSTNER: (as John Dunbar) Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not beggars and thieves. They are not the bogeymen they have been made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and have a familiar humor I enjoy. Real communication is slow, however, and the quiet one is as frustrated as I am. Most of our progress has been built on the basis of failure rather than success.

MARTIN: So what about these films? How do you feel about these films?

TREUER: Oh, you know, I went and saw "Dances with Wolves" when it first came out and, you know, on the one hand I was really excited to finally see a movie that had some positive depictions of Native people. But on the other hand, you know, it does what a lot of Hollywood movies do. There were good Indians, the Lakota, and there were bad Indians, the Pawnee. And there were many, you know, things that were going on in the movie that, you know, left people with either romanticized or, you know, denigrated stereotypes of Native people. So it didn't necessarily set the record straight, but it employed Native actors rather than Italian actors, as had often been the case in previous movies about Native people. It had a pretty good reception in a lot of Indian country, so it wasn't universally hated. It wasn't also universally loved. And one of the reactions of a friend that I went there with is probably more telling to its general perception. She said, oh, your people have a beautiful culture. And I was thinking, well, my people are from the modern age rather than, you know, the 1800s, and sometimes a movie is still the barometer by which a lot of people will judge Native culture or contemporary issues.

MARTIN: To that end though, another important element of pop culture these days is video games. And this year there's a new game that's getting a lot of attention. It's got a Native American protagonist, he's of Mohawk descent, and this is the game's creative director. His name is Alex Hutchinson, and he's talking about why he chose a Native American for the game.

ALEX HUTCHINSON: You realize after a while that you play a lot of white young protagonists - male protagonists usually - and I thought it would be really exciting and sort of progressive for a big game like ours to take on a minority, so someone who is an outsider, a, you know, a character as a Native American who is pretty underrepresented in most media, let alone video games.

MARTIN: I understand that he actually went to a lot of effort to get it right in terms of the cultural representation. But the guy's still an assassin.

TREUER: Yeah. That's right. The...

MARTIN: So when you look at that, I'm interested in how you respond to that.

TREUER: I have a mixed reaction. You know, I saw the ads for "Assassin's Creed," the newest edition, which has the Native American assassin as the protagonist. And I was watching and a couple of my older kids were watching when the ad came out. And their first year action was: Cool, there's an Indian who's kicking everybody's butt. And I thought at least we're not being put down as, you know, victims. But on the other hand, this is a game that depicts really one dimension of the native historical experience - the history of, you know, dealing with violence.

Granted, you're not going to be playing "Assassin's Creed" to get a nuanced understanding of history, but at the same time it may be the only intersection point that a lot of people have with Native culture among certain age groups. So I think it's a, you know, it's a double-edged sword. I do appreciate the fact that they brought in Native language consultants. They tried to engage and use Native-language material. They took great care with the representation of the historic Mohawk Village for the brief parts that it appears in the gaming material. So, you know, I know that they're trying to show at least authenticity - even if they're showing a one-dimensional side of Native culture.

MARTIN: Presumably - I don't know if you let your kids have video games like that or not, especially the violent ones, which this clearly is. Would you let them have it?

TREUER: You know, I'm going to have to talk that over with them, and with my wife as well. And honestly, I think when these things come up - I'm not so much a fan of censorship, but I am a fan of having a deeper conversation so that they can, you know, have an analytical mind of their own.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, if you had a friend who was not a Native American and asked you should I buy this, what would you say to?

TREUER: You know, if it's a friend that I've had for a long time - let's say, you know, one of my college buddies or something, I would probably give them some quip and say, why don't you go ahead and buy that, but just remember, if you get anything wrong about Native Americans, I'll be the one to kick your butt or something like that.



TREUER: You know, if it's a, you know, 12-year-old kid, I might be a little more reluctant to give any kind of endorsement there, I mean both because of the violence content of the material, and then the age at which you can actually digest and get a more nuanced understanding of anything that's presented to you. And in between is a gray area. So I just hope that, you know, the gamers out there, they'll be able to understand that, you know, this is a one-dimensional portrayal of Native people - one tribe, one point in time, and not a historical analysis of how we were or are.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. He's the author of a number of books, including "Everything You Wanted To Know About Indians But Were Afraid To Ask." He joined us from Northern Community Radio in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Professor Treuer, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TREUER: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Next week, we'll be talking about the issue of education in Indian country - from boarding schools to preserving Native languages, so please be sure to tune in for that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.