Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American actor famous for playing tragic Native roles
When I discuss indigenous issues with non-indigenous people, one of the most exhausting obstacles I run into is the perception that my cultures are irreparably broken at best and inherently violent and destructive at worst. These people– often, well-educated people with shiny advanced degrees– cannot fathom that the languages, customs, stories, and traditional knowledge that we have shared for millennia would be worth protecting, let alone a source of spiritual strength, community, and purpose. In this case, I think a major culprit is that the colonial narrative– which makes up most fiction and nonfiction media– focuses with relentless intensity on indigenous suffering while largely excluding stories of indigenous joy and cultural fulfillment.
Lee Frances, the Indigenerd and Pueblo Futurist behind Native Realities, describes the problem like this:
Added to this are the representations and portrayals, especially in popular culture, of what Indigeneity should look, be, and behave….. A narrative that conforms to the romanticized notions of how Native people should have existed and how they should have ceased to exist. These images are constructed on a central tragic principle: that all natives are dead or dying.
While Frances is focused on North America, this applies to fictional and journalistic portrayals of indigenous people around the world. It positions indigenous people as existing in the past, and not contemporary and evolving cultures and peoples. Sometimes, this takes a slightly more subtle form, suggesting that the ‘authentic’ indigenous culture died out and thus living members of that culture do not really count; the other extreme suggests that genocide was complete and that only a few distant and culturally disconnected descendants of the population remain, just enough for a colonizer to claim a far-distant ‘exotic’ ancestor.
This is the territory of the extinction tropes, where the supposed inherent tragedy of indigenous existence is framed as a last stand of the Noble Savage against the inevitable process of modernity. This narrative dominated the Romantic era, with books such as the Leatherstocking Tales and Waverly becoming bestsellers, and continued on in media such as Outlander. In these stories, indigenous people are devoted to the protagonist, closer to nature, but tragically unsuited to the modern world. The dramatic last stands are framed as noble but futile, and there is little for the settler characters to do except look on with pity. The message is that indigenous people are gone, leaving our natural resources, intellectual property, land, and identities conveniently up for grabs.
The other flavor of this trope centers modern indigenous people and focuses almost exclusively on death, dysfunction, and cultural decline. The striking lack of attention paid to the vibrancy and resilience of indigenous peoples around the world creates the impression that grievance and suffering– not culture, kin, or a long and symbiotic relationship with a collective homeland– is the basis of indigenous identity. One version frames it as a juvenile rivalry, suggesting that if we just stopped our irrational and unfounded dislike of our colonizers, everything would be fine. Of course, the dislike of colonial powers is neither unfounded nor irrational, given the extreme levels of violence still experienced by indigenous people at the hands of colonizers. Nor is our identity dependent on the colonizer existing as the ‘other’; by definition, our cultural and self-conscious ethnic and national identities predate colonization and will continue to outlast empires.
Normalizing suffering, war, occupation, and dysfunction as the natural states of indigenous people also suggests that indigenous oppression is inevitable and outside the influence of settlers. When both fiction and nonfiction so studiously skirt the causal relationship between colonialism and the problems plaguing indigenous societies, other explanations creep into the narrative. The most toxic is the implication that indigenous societies are inherently dysfunctional and that the problems collectively faced by indigenous people around the world are the result of our own cultures being ‘savage’, violent, or technologically inferior by nature. This fallacy suggests that colonialism might not just be inevitable, but benevolent— the colonizers swoop in with their ideas and technology, only to be rejected by the indigenous people who irrationally refuse to assimilate. But weather it is the vague onslaught of ‘progress’ or indigenous people themselves who are blamed, the implied explanation neatly removes the causal link between indigenous suffering and the centuries of attempts by colonizers to subjugate the population by assimilation, extermination, or relocation.
I have, unsurprisingly, heard a great deal of argument in favor of these portrayals, based on the idea that they educate people who would not otherwise have been aware or indigenous issues or increase public goodwill towards indigenous causes by portraying us as sympathetic victims rather than savages to be destroyed. However, I find two problems with this idea. First, it relies on the assumption that the main driver of colonial violence is innocent, well-intentioned ignorance, that genocide and ethnocide involve a deficit of information rather than a deficit of empathy. History would imply that this is wrong. Second, it uses the logic that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and asserts that any visibility of indigenous peoples– whether or not it is riddled with destructive tropes or inaccurate information– will have a positive effect on the colonial public’s perception of indigenous people. Third, it assumes that repeating and re-enforcing misinformation about indigenous issues is benign, which is far from the case.
Whether or not the storytellers deliberately and self-consciously seek to express a settler-colonial agenda in their work may not be clear, but the effect is far reaching. Frances writes:
…the invisible struggle between erasure and misrepresentation, forces Native peoples to choose between two destructive framings: non-existence or capitulation/ assimilation/defeat.
…these choices are not benign examples of art reflecting life but rather popular media directing public opinion and reinforcing a narrative that allows colonization to continue unabated into the 21st century.
Essentially, this is systemic and structural oppression coupled with propaganda. This propaganda is used to reinforce our oppression and remove the actual culpability of those who have been passive bystanders in the genocide and ethnocide of Native people.
The stories we tell deeply influence our behavior in real life, and mindlessly repeating entrenched tropes as though they represented historical fact helps no one.