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Not Indians

Selecting Native Literature from a Native Perspective

by Betty-Ann McIvor

Volume 20 Number 4
1992 September

Betty-Ann McIvor, herself a Cree and the provincial English-language Enrichment Consultant with the Native Education Branch In Manitoba, considers how stereotypes harm both those who are depicted and those who use them.

It is most encouraging to hear and see that educational institutions are increasingly recognizing the need to eliminate the myths, fictions and stereotypes about "Indian" people that have been created and allowed to flourish in literature. Many institutions have already taken this long overdue initiative.

Everyone in Canadian society must take responsibility for promoting pride in a meaningful Native culture and history. This includes eliminating any misconceptions that have insulted, degraded, or distorted Native culture. It is a fact that Native cultures and history like any other, have continuity and vitality which are meaningful and reflect a chain of life from generation to generation. All the people of Canada deserve an accurate view of Native people in order to develop positive attitudes and relationships.

Society's perceptions of Native people are developed in part by exposure to a variety of media, which, either through ignorance, insensitivity or deliberate misrepresentation, portray Native people unfavourably. Books, comics, cards, games, toys, TV, movies, cartoons and songs contain stereotypical images of Native people. These images work in various ways to encourage false and negative perceptions, including fear of Native people.

The derogatory stereotypes associated with "Indian" imagery in literature are employed for a variety of reasons: for humour-- depicting Native people as simple or ridiculous; for decoration --simply depicting a headdress or feathers for no apparent or appropriate reason; for fantasy--playing "Indian" or depicting Native people as mythical, animalistic creatures of the past; and for symbolic purposes--portrayal of Native people to suggest fear, violence or danger. All of these stereotypes deny the humanity of Native people. It is therefore incumbent on illustrators, authors, editors, publishers, educators and parents to ensure that literature presents an accurate and balanced view of Native culture and history.

Generalizing about Native cultures must be avoided. Implying that all "Indians" are alike obscures the vast diversity of languages, arts, ceremonies, life-styles, and social and political structures among the various Native groups, both in the past and in the present. Although there may be similarities among the groups, there are also many distinguishable elements. For example, the language spoken by the Cree is markedly different from that of the Dakota. The ceremonial practices exhibited by the Eastern Woodland nations differ from those of the West Coast nations, as does their art work.

Along with the tendency to view all Native culture as homogeneous comes the suggestion that Native culture is something you can easily put your finger on--that the culture only consists of powwows, beads and bannock-making. For Native cultures to be viewed and understood accurately, Native people's literature must communicate clearly and directly to convey the message that Native culture is very much alive today and remains vibrant and dynamic. It is not a passive, archaic museum piece that is studied only in terms of the past.

Literature that presents biased perceptions and opinions and unauthentic representations or fails to acknowledge Native contributions often produces criticism from the Native community. Of the many omissions and errors found in literature, a few examples which Native people find most objectionable include these: Columbus "discovering" America, as well as the "Indian" label he placed on its inhabitants; reference to only two founding nations of Canada (British and French); and "Indian" battle victories referred to as "massacres." Literature must reflect accurate information and recognize positive contributions by Native peoples rather than dishonouring them. If individuals involved in the creation of literature lack expertise, then the Native people themselves should be consulted.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," and because of their immense visual impact, illustrations in literature should be scanned for stereotypical images that treat Native people in condescending ways. This stereotyping occurs when certain characteristics are emphasized to separate "Indians" from other people. Illustrations must avoid the implication that all Native people live in teepees; they carry tomahawks; they dance on one foot and make whooping noises; they always wear headdresses or feathers; and the males are to be feared. If the majority culture continues to reinforce these stereotypical images it perpetuates a negative attitude for all people, including the victims.

The choice of words used in literature also plays a crucial role in promoting positive attitudes and perceptions of Native people. Native people should not be referred to as "savages," "braves," "Indian princesses," "squaws" | or "papooses." They are men, women, and children. The terms such as "wild Indian," "on the war path," "scalp-hungry Indians," "let's go Indian," and any other derogatory terms that devalue Native culture must be avoided.

All people should work co-operatively to bring to the limelight Native people's positive contributions to Canadian society. Unequal treatment of one culture's causes cultural barriers. Communication is discouraged, pride and confidence is lost; minorities increasingly deny their own cultures, and questions of identity are raised for both Native and non-Native people. Society must be better informed about the negative portrayal of Native people in literature, and sensitized to the need for change.

Betty Ann McIvor is the provincial English-Language Enrichment Consultant with the Native Education Branch, Manitoba Education and Training ,in Dauphin, Manitoba.

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