Learning about White Indians: Online Encounters

My curiosity takes me to some strange places on the internet. Like many such journeys, this one began on Facebook and I was fascinated by what I learned.

It started on an Airstream group where a fellow had posted a picture of his Airstream with a new bumper sticker, given to him by his grandfather as something of a humorous¬†heirloom. The only picture I could find is pretty small so I’ll describe it. It has a picture of an old pickup truck. In the bed of the truck is a colorful Teepee, and sticking out of it is the head and torso of a cartoon Indian. Next to the image in large colorful letters, it reads, “Have Teepee, Needs Squaw.”

Not surprisingly, the post caused a curfuffle on the Airstream group. Some folks immediately called it racist and offensive while others defended the poster and the bumper sticker as harmless humor. Not long after the poster removed the post, and put up a new one apologizing for any offense given, explained it was a gift from his grandfather, and said he would be removing it from his trailer. In response to this post, he was thanked by some, while others opined that he had nothing to apologize for and complaining that he had been bullied by the PC police.

Being me, and despite me knowing the Airstream Addicts forum is supposed to be a non-political forum, I waded into the discussion on the side of it being disrespectful and probably a bad idea. I did my best to explain why I thought that. My argument was that it was typical of images used to dehumanize Native Americans in the past which became part of mainstream culture later, shows a disrespect to them, and what their people experienced at the hands of the US government and culture. I’ve since learned the term “squaw” is considered offensive in its own right when used by other cultures to refer to Native American women.

The person I’d responded to directly, who said there was no reason this should be offensive, pointed out to me that many Indians had responded to the post saying they were not in the least offended by the image. Being me, I took her at her word and was curious to read these responses. I went through the post to find them, and there were at least 5 such responses. I read them, then clicked through to their home pages to see what sorts of folks these were, as much as one can by looking at a person wall.

All but one of them were women. About half had a lot of conservative political posts on their wall. All of them lived in the deep south, most in Texas with some in Louisiana and Georgia. None of them had anything on their page about being Native American or any posts with what I’d call a Tribal interest. And all of them looked like pretty typical white folks. Now I know from experience that it’s not always easy to judge by appearances if someone has American Indian ancestry, at least not for me. I considered asking these folks what tribe they were from, but I decided not to challenge them on their identity, it’s too personal a question for strangers on Facebook in my opinion.

Instead, I googled “white southern Indians” on the hunch that this was a “thing” of some kind. And sure enough, I found a number of articles specifically talking about claims from white southern families insisting they have Cherokee blood in their heritage. The crux of the matter is that while there are, undoubtedly, white families that did intermarry before the Cherokee were driven out, the number of such claims is statistically impossible. Furthermore, it became something of a cultural claim to authentic southernness, to claim such heritage and comes with some social cache in the region. It also has ties to the Lost Cause movement in the south after the civil war, romanticizing the Cherokee as brave resisters of US federal power and allies of the Confederacy. This article is a good primer, and this one a good follow up.

In the process of reading about this, I learned about Iron Eyes Cody. He’s best known as the guy from the 1970s “Crying Indian” TV spot decrying pollution and littering in America. I remember it from my childhood and it struck a powerful chord with a lot of people. And indeed, there is a lot less littering than when I was a kid, perhaps in part because of that commercial. The thing of it is, he’s a fake Indian. He was born in Louisiana to two Italian¬†immigrants and didn’t have a shred of Native American ancestry. That said, he wasn’t just playing an Indian on TV, but lived his life as if he were one, taking an Indian name, marrying an Indian woman, and adopted two Indian children. He did a lot of charity work for Native peoples and was honored and accepted by at least some of them even when the truth of his actual parentage was public knowledge.

So where did all this leave me with respect to the bumper sticker? Ultimately, my reasons for thinking it is disrespectful and racist are my own. The history of using cartoon images to dehumanize people, the exploitation of Native Americans in the conquest of America, and the subsequent use of the dehumanizing stereotypes for advertising are all facts. While there may not be animosity in whoever made it, there is at least ignorance. I don’t find it personally offensive because I am not Native American, but I do find it disrespectful and at best a cultural descendent of a legacy of dehumanization. That is a subjective judgment on my part, but one I think is pretty well justified. I am interested if others are offended, but I don’t require their agreement to hold my own view.

What about the “Indians” who were not offended? Well, I believe they were not offended. And I believe they think of themselves as having native heritage. But I also think they are not really people who identify themselves as Native Americans in a meaningful way. Unlike Iron Eyes Cody, they don’t seem to be living life in a way that links them to the fate and circumstance of other contemporary American Indians. Not that I think every genuine Indian is going to find that bumper sticker offensive. I’m sure some might shrug it off as harmless. On the scale of great social crimes, I’m not rating it all that high. But I do feel these white southern “Indians” are likely using a family legend in a disingenuous way to validate their opinion which is rooted in the culture that makes such bumpers stickers rather than the one they parody. Like old Iron Eyes Cody, that makes this white boy feel a bit sad.

 

Sigfried

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