Native American

FIFTEEN Reclaiming Native Truth

For supper yesterday, the Race Marshal baked pasta ‘ncasciata – a dome of short pasta pieces bound by a rich sauce, wrapped in aubergine slices and baked. Delicious and a sort of celebration – we have at last reached our first objective, Neah Bay and the Makah Tribe’s Reservation.

The Makah are an extraordinary nation. Famously, one of those who accepted the treaty imposed by the United States government that handed over most of their land said: “the sea is my country”. By the treaty, the Makah kept the sea (albeit shared) but handed over their forests and became then, as now, corralled on a small peninsula at the north-west tip of the United States (pace Alaska).

The story of the Makah will appear in later posts – but moored here, holding a cup of coffee in one hand, I wanted to ask if, for a moment, you would conjure up in your mind’s eye what you might expect to find on their Reservation. If you are like me, common sense will be rubbing against ingrained stereotypes. Though I know it isn’t true, I am sufficiently soaked in stereotypical images to not be surprised should I find buckskinned braves emerging from tepees tended by compliant squaws.

The prevalence throughout the United States of this kind of racist mental conditioning is more than a major problem for Native Americans leading, as it does, to all sorts of injustice. Recognising the broad societal disconnect, the Kelloggs Foundation in 2016 funded a forensic investigation into attitudes prevailing in the wider population toward Native American.

The outcome, Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project To Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions, published in 2018 by the First Nations Development Institute , is both a unique repository of data and a strategy for change.

Reclaiming Native Truth – the cover image is by Thomas Ryan RedCorn (Wakant’ia)

Their research – distilled from 4.9 million social media posts, 13,306 online surveys, nationwide focus groups and interviews with members of Congress, judges, leaders from business and industry – justifies their claim that

For the first time, we have data about the toxic combination of the invisibility of Native Americans in contemporary society and the pervasive negative stereotypes.

And the Report shows how this negative, persistent narrative can harm the self-esteem and aspirations of Native Americans – especially children. It also reinforces negative stereotypes among non-Native people, shaping how they think and act.

Their first finding, that Native Americans are invisible is perhaps surprising, but it is true. Indigenous people, as real people, are simply not on the wider public’s radar. The educational curriculum is partly to blame – providing little of significance about American Indian life or culture from 1900 onwards. Only one in three Americans have ever met a Native American; and as many as 40% believe that there are no Native Americans left.

In parentheses – these particular statistics are the more surprising given the national publicity around the American Indian civil rights movement since the 1960s and nationally-known activists like Russell Means (whom you may know as Chingachook in The Last of the Mohicans), Dennis Banks (one of the leaders of the siege at Wounded Knee) – and latterly with the huge protest over the oil pipeline being built across the Sioux reservation at Standing Rock in Dakota that drew in Tribes from all over the country.

But headline-grabbing incidents don’t make for cultural connection. The fact is that in America today widespread ignorance of Indigenous history and culture prevails: a friend who went to college here once told me that she had been asked by a Seattle resident – ‘why do the Indians around here have all the seafront properties’? She had to explain that when the treaties were imposed, the settlers wanted the trees and not the beaches.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the empty space of understanding is, very unfortunately, filled by information acquired from a never-ending succession of stereotypes.

Tonto and the Lone Ranger in 1956 (c)wikicommons

We have all grown up with stories of the west in print and on TV, and of course the stereotypes that bob up in every movie – the Noble Savage, the White Man’s sidekick (Tonto by the way means ‘moron’ in Spanish), the downtrodden Squaw and the beautiful daughter of the Chief who falls in love with the leading man. Toys and artefacts, too – the American Indian Collection at The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia is worth chasing up, if you want to be horrified. And then there are the mascots of the thousands of sports teams across America (a subject to which we will return).

Photography, too, has played an important part. Thomas Ryan RedCorn (Wakant’ia), an Indigenous photographer (and filmmaker, poet and designer) goes so far as to assert that the “dominance of white male photographers … informs how people view Native American people” and he references the work of Edward Curtis, as well as other photographers.

Navajo Dancers (c) Edward Curtis, Library of Congress

Edward Curtis does stand large on the landscape of outsiders’ understanding of American Indians. Part of his power flows from the sheer volume of his output. During a twenty-two year quest to record the “disappearing” Tribes: he visited 80 Tribes and produced 40,000 images. And he recorded 10,000 wax cylinders of Indigenous speech and music. And he wrote extensively on the people, life and culture of the Tribes.

His legacy has helped fix Native Americans in the aspic of their past. I recognise the hold stereotypes have on me: when I say that I would not be surprised to see tepees and headdresses on the Makah Reservation, I am speaking about a world created in my head partly by Edward Curtis.

Jennie Ross Cobb – picnic party (c) Library of Congress

Indigenous photographers have long understood the power of the image. I don’t believe that when Jennie Ross Cobb was taking her photographs in the 1890s, she didn’t understand the value of showing her Cherokee classmates looking soignee, young ladies in society – absolutely not like the images of her contemporary, Frank Reinhart, or those of Edward Curtis to come.

Keeps The Mountain – Sioux (c) Frank Rinehart, Library of Congress

The Native Indian and Inuit Photographers’ Association was formed in the 1980s expressly to promote a positive, realistic and contemporary image of Indigenous peoples through the medium of photography. The founding members felt – as the Reclaiming Native Truth‘s data proves – that Indigenous peoples were being portrayed through someone else’s lens, and that it was time to take control of the image in order to contest and demystify stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples.

And they are breaking through into the mainstream of American culture: in 2016, for example, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon set the images of Edward Curtis against those of three contemporary Indigenous photographers – Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson – and invited visitors to consider Curtis’ continuing influence on the interpretation of Native American culture [and] contemporary reactions to his complex role within the history of representation of Indigenous peoples.

You might want to look up this exhibition: I followed up on Zig Jackson and found wonderfully pointed images of himself in a headdress under a big sign –You Are Entering Zig Jackson’s Reservation – set against backgrounds of San Francisco, or the Capitol Building, or most anywhere in America. Indigenous Americans do not agree, pace Pete Seeger, that this land is your land.

James Baldwin once said: you have to impose who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you. His words were in a different context, but they are very much what (in my view) drives the work of Thomas Ryan RedCorn.

Ryan RedCorn is a member of the Osage Nation whom the 19th-century painter George Catlin described as the tallest race of men in North America, either of red or white skins; there being many of them six and a half, and others seven feet tall.

Shonka Sabe, Osage Chief by George Catlin (c)George

The missionary, Isaac McCoy, described them as an uncommonly fierce, courageous, warlike nation and, in their day, they were a powerful tribe – but they were pushed out from their hereditary lands in the east of the United States, first by the Iroquois and then by white settlers, to a reservation in Oklahoma – where Thomas Ryan RedCorn now lives with his wife and children.

RedCorn is multi-talented: he is a poet, satirist, filmmaker, designer, and at the forefront of protest. In testimony to the US Senate, for one brave example, he took the Pentagon to task for using Geronimo as the codeword for the mission against Osama Bin Laden – this Geronimo code name is just another way for the United States to paint Natives as enemies of the state, he said.

He began his testimony – which I think we can regard as part of his personal manifesto – by saying:

I want to live to see a day when the idea of human rights is not seen as radical. I am asking for the right not to be legally erased. I am asking for the right to be able to put my daughter’s Indian name on her birth certificate in our own alphabet. I am asking for the right to attend a university where there are more live Indians on campus than dead ones. I am asking for the right of self-governance. I want Indian lands to be the last to be flooded for dam construction along the Missouri river, and not the first. I don’t want consultation. I want the right to say NO.

The motivation for RedCorn’s photographs (and of his satirical films with the 1491s) – like the work of other Indigenous photographers – is fuelled by a profound sense of what I think can only be called despair.

In 1491, the year before first contact (hence the name of RedCorn’s satirical group), there may have been as many as 18 million people in North America. Today, in Canada, there are under two million and, in the United States, Indigenous people number around three million. Native Americans live in the knowledge that Europeans brought smallpox, measles, malaria and other lethal diseases that killed 90% of the population. And, as increasing numbers of settlers arrived – all looking for their piece of free land – death by virus became murder, slavery, racism, alcohol dependency, land theft, and slow starvation as the natural world was ruined.

The assault on lives and cultures may have morphed – but it continues. Many Native Americans today remain oppressed – with poor physical and mental health, high levels of poverty, drug use, alcoholism, low educational attainment, subject to systemic racism, their lands still open to depredations by large corporations, their sacred places desecrated.

American Indian women are ten times more likely to be murdered than women from other ethnic groups – or they just disappear. And then there are the rapes: in 2010, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 94% percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women in Seattle had been raped or coerced into sex.

In his poem To the Indigenous Woman, Thomas Ryan RedCorn explores the issue of violence against Indigenous women:

The war is in the home:
Living room battle grounds,
bathroom infirmaries,
backseat trenches,
fists like tanks,
sex like a war trophy,
under trees of silence,
she whispered to me-
Please – Please stop

Native American women suffer violence on an unmatched scale. A briefing paper from the National Congress of American Indians gives the following statistics:

  • 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) women (more than 4 in 5) have experienced intimate partner violence, sexual violence, or stalking in their lifetimes
  • 56.1% of AI/AN women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes
  • 96% of female AI/AN sexual violence victims experience violence at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator
  • 48.8% of AI/AN women will be stalked n their lifetimes
  • 89% of female AI/AN stalking victims experience stalking at the hands of a non-Native perpetrator
  • AI/AN women are 5 times as likely to experience violence by an interracial partner as non-Hispanic White women.
  • US Attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52% of violent crimes that occur in Indian country; and 67% of cases declined were sexual abuse related cases
  • On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average

And there is another aspect: the FBI reports that in 2019 alone, some 5,600 Native American women went missing and activists say the real number is much higher. In 2013, there was an appeal on Facebook asking people to commemorate the murdered and missing by embroidering the tops of moccasins – only the tops to indicate a life cut short. This simple request tapped into a deep well of misery and over 1,500 pairs of ‘vamps’ were sent in and from these moccasin tops was fashioned the extraordinarily emotive Walking With Our Women exhibition that toured Canada and the United States for six years to raise awareness.

This project is about these women, paying respect to their lives and existence on this earth. They are not forgotten. They are sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties, grandmothers, friends and wives. They have been cared for, they have been loved, and they are missing.

Reclaiming Native Truth may well be the beginning of the end for “the toxic combination of the invisibility of Native Americans in contemporary society and the pervasive negative stereotypes”. Certainly their research data is grounding a careful strategy to restore visibility through an accurate narrative based on Native American values and history.

And Thomas Ryan RedCorn has put his photography at the service of this mission:

I want them [the American public] to view a broader scope. Myself and other indigenous photographers’ have realigned to show the complexity, the diversity, the different values – not necessarily what people expect when they think of indigenous people. From that perspective, it broadens it, and it makes us more human. And when more people perceive you as more human, they would treat you with respect.


A remarkable outpouring on violence against Indigenous women –

To The Indigenous Woman – Thomas Ryan RedCorn’s poem in full –

Thomas Ryan RedCorn and the 1491s performing I’m An Indian Too

And performing his poem Bad Indians

Reclaiming Native Truth –

Walking With Our Sisters –

David Pilgrim talking about race relations and founding the Jim Crow Museum –



Compilation of research from the Reclaiming Native Truth Project –,%2C%20health%20and%20self%2Ddetermination

Jim Crow Museum –

Walking With Our Sisters –

Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy –

Violence Against Indigenous Women –