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How Living in a Bubble Affects Students’ Perceptions of Native Americans

On 20 November, I was invited to present in an Indigenous Human Rights course for first year students in Applied Indigenous and Ethnic studies at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. The students’ response to my discussion of Native American imagery in Germany, as well as the Nazis’ utilization of these images for ideology-driven propaganda, helped me further to put some of my experiences on this lecture and research tour into perspective. In a sense, this posts continues some ideas from the previous one on American Exceptionalism.

Some students wondered in how far German hobbyists were aware that their activities, their expressions of affinity for Native cultures, actually helped perpetuate stereotypes. I must say I was surprised about the question because my presentation had emphasized the complexity of German perceptions of Native America, rather than simply proclaiming that Germans did not tell the ‘true story’ of Native American cultures. My work is less concerned with whether or not representation is stereotypical but how images are used for identity formation and “othering.” Yet, the many lectures in diverse settings (conferences, classrooms, general public) on this tour, as well as my observations during the ASA convention in early November, gave me better insight into the – often very different – perspectives of Native, Euro-American, and European students on Native America.

This point was brought home during a hike in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. talking about working conditions and classroom experience, two colleagues from the Applied Indigenous studies program pointed out to me  that many non-Native students grow up in social “bubbles” – their social environment as well as their school education shield them from the often brutal social realities many Native students face, both in urban and reservation settings. They rarely meet Native children or see their living conditions, and history and social studies education tends to avoid addressing the “dark” side of American history and race relations so they tend noit to learn about these issues in school.

While it is true that there are Native professors and famous writers and artists, many Native children still grow up in poverty, experience alcohol and drug abuse in their communities, are asked by their non-Native fellow students whether they grew up in a tipi once they enter the university, or have to explain why so many Native people do not feel ‘honored’ by the Washington Redskins.

Non-Native American students do not learn much about the Native perspective on frontier history before college and, if they don’t grow up near a reservation, it is unlikely that they are confronted with social realities and hardships of contemporary Native America. College instructors (and Native students) thus often have to explain the basics and deconstruct stereotypes that have prevailed in American perceptions of Native America for centuries.

Conversations like these helped me get a better perspective on the issue: I have known about these stereotypes since childhood, have seen them deconstructed since I went to school in Germany, and have studied their effects in college. Yet, as a German observer of (Native) American culture, I am still an outsider looking in: I sometimes experience these stereotypes in my German classrooms and my research, but I don’t have to fight a constant uphill battle confronting them on my way to school or in my neighborhood. I don’t face discrimination on the job market, nor am I getting racially profiled by law enforcement because of them.

In addition, as a European scholar, I know about these problems because I am interested in studying them and because European traditions in high school and college education tend to discuss these problematic social and ethnic issues of American culture and society. Many American students, however, grow up in these comfortable and protected bubbles (mostly by no fault of their own) that rarely force them to confront social problems and critically analyze the complex social realities of their own country. And here, we are back to James Loewen’s critical assessment of Social Studies and American history courses at high school level. Not only does the overt patriotism in many textbooks paint American history as a rose-colored (better: red, white, and blue) sequence of success stories, it seems that the era of political correctness contributed to the situation by avoiding problematic issues altogether (such as massacres in the 19th century, or ongoing poverty on the reservations today), focusing instead on positively portrayed examples of racial harmony.

To give you one example: An editor for my book project Fellow Tribesmen asked me to contextualize my reference to J.F. Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales in my manuscript more detail. I wondered if this wasn’t a waste of ink, since we could assume that the Last of the Mohicans was common knowledge? My editor replied that these novels are no longer taught in many schools because of their stereotypical depiction of Native people. I’m still perplexed about this decision – for once, these novels comprise classic American literature that set the stage for an entire, genuinely American genre. Why not teach them and put them in perspective? To keep talking about race relations, wouldn’t this be a perfect opportunity to teach the role and effect of stereotyping and othering, even at high school level? Wouldn’t it be great to show how Euro-Americans learned to differentiate Native peoples into ‘noble’ and ‘brutal savages’ in the early 19th century, and how these depictions led to notions of Manifest Destiny? Couldn’t these examples serve as springboards to discuss othering and cultural stereotypes in contemporary American society, and wouldn’t they help explain current social problems?

I have often wondered about angry outbursts from Native colleagues and students regarding this situation, or about surprised student’s reactions that many Europeans know about frontier history, Indian removal policy, assimilation pressure, and cultural appropriation, that many Europeans root for the ‘Indians,’ instead for the cowboys, in Western movies. Given the perpetuating realities of these separate bubbles of poverty, social struggle, and ignorance, I have developed a better understanding in the last few weeks why many Native students and faculty appear so frustrated with the situation and why they perceive it as a never-ending, exhausting uphill battle. This is a major realization I take home from this trip.

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