Big Bowl of Italian PastaAn Italian-American analogy explaining why Native Americans get pissed off when you use the term ‘Indian Giver’.

“Race and ethnicity have always been emotionally charged and confusing topics in American history, but American Indians, in many ways, represent a special case – a population thought of more in historical terms than in racial or ethnic terms by non-Indians and Indians alike.”[1]

Native Americans are often thought of in an historical context. To most, they exist in the past. Words like extinct have been used to describe them by people who do not have a contemporary context by which to relate Native Americans into their worldview.

“…some people don’t even think we’re still alive. It’s true. A girl from the UK actually thought we were ‘extinct’.”

– Karissa Trahan (Salish/Ponderelie), grade 11

2006 Reconnecting The Circle Essay Winner

Most mainstream media coverage of Native American people and events usually focuses on negative topics, such as poverty, domestic violence, suicide, and alcoholism, thus forcing the non-Native viewer to experience Native Americans solely from a single-sided, misinformed, and negative perspective. Similarly, the Native American viewer experiences and re-experiences him or herself from a misinformed and distorted perspective, perpetuating a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and sense of displacement within the worldview. This cycle has had a long-lasting and tragic impact, especially on Native American youth.

Bottom line, no positive counterpoints

Contrary to how other ethnicities within the United States are perceived, there are no positive counterpoints to all of the negative stereotyping when it comes to Native Americans. As the American collective, we can usually ramble off positive, as well as negative points about each culture within our borders. But not when it comes to Native Americans.

Take, for example, Italian-Americans. What comes to mind, lately, when you think about Italy and Italians? Pasta. The Godfather. The Sopranos. The mafia and la cosa nostra. Remember Michelangeo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo…the turtles? These days, there is less emphasis on the real Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, and Leonardo and their artistic and technological contributions to the world and more on Snooki, JWoww, Pauly D, and The Situation.

Negative stereotyping about Italians is commonly found on television and the movies. Most television shows and movies portray Italians as belonging to the mafia. Quite often, Italians are portrayed as ignorant, dumbed down (fuggedaboutit), and low lives of the underworld. Consider animated characters with negative, Italian personas (think Don Lino in Shark Tale ), Jersey Shore characters … and the list really does go on.

However, counter to all the negative stereotypes about Italian-Americans, there is a plethora of positive reenforcement from a number of sources which counter the negative ones. Television shows like The Food Network and Travel Channel highlight positive, contemporary aspects of the Italian culture. Heck, most of the chefs on the Food Network are Italian. People intrinsically “get” Italians and their culture. Additionally, American students can learn about Italians and the Italian culture as early as grammar school, if not earlier. We have the option to learn the Italian language, Italian art, art history, Italian cooking, Italian fashion… Students have the option of choosing university studies that focus on Italian contributions to the world. There is chronic, positive reenforcement of culturally significant expressions and monuments to the Italians and their predecessors, the Romans.

Countering comments like ‘indian giver’

In summary, when Native Americans have their cultures appropriated, it’s no wonder they get annoyed. We can at least make the effort to get to know them as the talented, intelligent people that they are by countering all the negative stereotypes with positive stories from Indian Country. And  it’s about time we include Native American chefs as regulars on The Food Network!

Share your stories about amazing Native American people with us!

 


[1] “Walking A Mile: A First Step Toward Mutual Understanding”, Yarrow, Andrew L., and Doble, John; Public Agenda, 2007, www.publicagenda.org.