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Monday, March 17, 2014

Permission: Why Cowboys & Indians and Tiger Lily Matter

What was fun about teaching was being able to experience the sense of discovery over and over again. You learn with your students and as they have that spark that brings the fire into their eyes when they engage with their learning, you also feel that spark and you learn something new about what you are teaching as the new perspective brings new knowledge, new understanding, new questions and new wisdom. From the grade two students looking at the little frogs in the classroom aquarium asking questions, I never even thought to ask, about frogs- driving me to look it up with them to share in our learning as students together- to the teenager putting forth her hypothesis on why the Indian Act has evolved the way it has- approaching it from an Indigenous-Feminist viewpoint- I have always come away from the encounter with a new understanding, a new thought, a new appreciation. I hope that it has been the same for my students.

Scrolling the vastness of social media, I have watched an interesting evolution that has been a learning experience for me, but I have wondered if it has been for those that I have interacted with. Seeing the news on Indigenous issues today feels like deja vu. Stories today remind me of stories I was writing about two years ago, only the names have been changed. Two years ago, it was Gwen Stefani and Victoria's Secret and Tonto. Today it is the daughter of the Governor of Oklahoma, the University of Regina Cheer Squad and Tiger Lily. The commentary is the same,  the comments are the same: "get over it," "over-sensitive," "PC police," "it's all in good fun," and on and on and on...

What is missing is the willingness to discover, to learn, to understand. If I could explain to you that the governor's daughter wearing a headdress is offensive and makes a joke of my culture without being called names, I think we could make discoveries about what culture means, especially to those of us who have had it stripped away and mocked in the name of civilising. What would it mean if I could tell you about the history of Cowboys & Indians? I could tell you that my dad always played the cowboy because he and his brothers didn't want to be the Indians. I could tell you that we, as a people were taught to be ashamed of our Indianness and this game reinforced it. To see it put on display for amusement and titillation only reminds of a shame we are working to outgrow. We could learn this together if you weren't busy telling me to get over it, stop being over-sensitive. We could come to an understanding as to why casting a white woman to play Tiger Lily is not right and that Tiger Lily herself isn't appropriate if you weren't telling me that we are past race and they cast a black guy as the Human Torch. I think you would understand that casting non-Native actors to portray Native people marginalizes Native people, removing us from the real world by removing us from the mediums we consume. Furthermore, I think you would understand that Tiger Lily isn't an Indigenous character, rather she is a composite of stereotypes invented by non-Native people living in other parts of the world, consuming the popular cultural  tropes of their era and society's views of Indigenous people. I think you would get this if you weren't busy shouting me down.

I believe that if you weren't calling PC police on everyone calling out these problems, you might listen and gain some wisdom on why this all matters. It isn't over-sensitivity or lack of a sense of humour. Instead it is permission. Not permission to do this stuff. Permission to look down on me. Permission to look down on my family, my Nation, my culture. When people do this appropriation they are giving themselves, and everyone else, permission to think less of Indigenous peoples. They are giving everyone permission to hyper-sexualize First Nations women. They are giving permission to think of First Nations people as less deserving of fairness and equity and trust. They are giving permission to treat us as stereotypes because they are reinforcing the stereotype instead of seeing the human being. They are giving permission for the conditions that lead to murdered and missing women and the horrible treatment we receive from the government and regular "taxpayers," Canadians, Americans and, yes, other nationalities. In demeaning us permission is given for others to demean us. Offend, get called out, attack, repeat.

Meanwhile, the marginalizing has real affects on real people. People are lost, rights are being ignored, people are suffering. The strawman argument: why fight the little stuff when the big stuff is more important? Well, the little stuff gives permission for the big stuff. Your redskins defense makes it easier for First Nations women to disappear because you are refusing to see them as real people rather than red skins. Your Pocahotass makes it easier to be stolen because you've removed their minds, their hearts, their souls and turned them into one thing. Being labeled "dumb," "lazy," "leaching off of the system"... how easy is it to fall through the cracks of a system that uses the little stuff to justify the big stuff?

Why does Aboriginal Education matter? I think that is something we can discover together but I need you to stop giving permission to yourself to ignore it, to other it and to demean it. Challenge the little stuff and support those who are doing the same. Once you understand how the "little stuff" affects the "big stuff," I hope you can see why it matters so much.