Why Can’t I Dress As Pocahontas for Halloween? And Other Thoughts

I like to show this map to my students.  It is the Tryon map of the Six Nations, drawn five years before the colonismap-iroquois-1771ts imperial officials hoped to control declared their independence. I ask my students, when they look at it, to forget all that they know about the subsequent history of the Empire State.  Look at this map, drawn at one point in time. “Read it like a text.  What do you see?”

It’s such an obvious question that there is usually a brief silence.  So I ask them to look at the map and tell me, “what, on this map, is New York?  Where on this map is New York?” We talk, and quickly it becomes apparent. You cannot miss it.  New York, as a geographic entity, did not exist much past Schenectady, and much beyond the Hudson River Valley.  Much of what we call the New York today was, in 1771, “The Land of the Six Nations,” Iroquoia.

It is helpful to keep this in mind, because a large part of the imperial project, the core of what many scholars now call settler colonialism, was the erasure of native peoples from the American landscape, either through assimilation or annihilation.  The settlers will expand, and the Indians disappear, their disappearance itself legitimizing the settlers’ claim to the land.  Indians are always part of the past, always in the process of disappearing, of being swept into the dustbin of history. bad-homeworkThey are erased, the settler state’s claims to sovereignty legitimatized, and the concerns of native peoples today more easily dismissed.

If you are a student, try this exercise.  Ask some of your classmates to define an Indian or Native American.  Have them tell you what comes to mind when you mention the word “Indian” or the phrase “Native American.”  Play with them a word association game.  In New York State, where I live, occasionally a student will mention gaming orbad-costume smoke shops, but by and large the images they will conjure will be drawn from the past.  It is something that many of us are taught from a very young age.  Find “three pictures of American Indian needs” in the assignment here.  The dutiful child will highlight the wigwam, the bison, the blanket weaver.  Now “find the three pictures of needs for people today.” Erasure.  Indians as part of the past.

So when you dress up in an “Indian Costume,” it certainly is in bad taste.  It is crude and offensive.  Like Leilani Downing, a model, in her costume here from 2014.   “I just got massacred by a cowboy. Note Fur is FAKE!!!” she wrote.  What the hell?   It is nice that no animals were harmed in the making of that costume but, really, what was she thinking?  It is offensive, to be sure, to wear these costumes. But more than that, when you dress up in a costume rooted in stereotypes that are themselves rooted in the past, you are aiding the colonial project, aiding in the erasure of native peoples in the present, aiding in their consignment to the past.

And if they are part of the past, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimate claims of native peoples as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant.  Just this week (and it is only Wednesday!) we have seen millions of baseball fans cheering for a team with a terribly offensive racist logo, read about a police killing of a young Native American woman in Washington State who was several months pregnant when she was shot, and watched heavily armed troopers, backed by a concentration of corporate and state power in North Dakota, attempt to shut down peaceful protests against an oil pipeline burrowing under sacred lands. These stories, to say the least, are not front-page news.

You should have a good time on Halloween. Soon enough, you will be freezing your asses off, trooping around the neighborhood, holding a flashlight, as your kids go door-to-door collecting candy. Soon enough you will be silently judging your neighbors for the quality of the candy they distribute.  This night is for you. Have a blast.  But be thoughtful, and careful.  You can be creative. You can be funny.  You can be iconoclastic.  Hell, you can push against the limits of what is acceptable.  But please keep in mind that though your costume might seem innocent, and that you may really have loved Disney’s “Pocahontas” when you were a kid, that these are manifestations of a much larger, and pernicious, dynamic. They depict native peoples as part of the past, and thus contribute to making it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.

The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

In Native America I tell the tale of the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.”  Thanks to some recent archaeological and historical work, we may now know more than ever before.

I grew up in Ventura, California, home of the Channel Islands National Park headquarters.  Kids in my town, and I suspect around the country, learned a fictionalized version of the “Lone Woman’s” story in Scott O’Dell’s famous novel, The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In my memory, every kid had to read this book in middle school. San Nicolas is one of the Channel Islands, off of the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, though it is owned by the United States Navy, is not part of the National Park, and is not as a result as accessible as the other Channel Islands.  Nevertheless, this was part of a history that was both local and significant to me, and it was a delight to have an opportunity to include the story in the textbook.  blue-dophins

According to the conventional story, in 1853 a party of hunters led by a Californian named George Nidever encountered an elderly Nicoleño “busily employed in stripping the blubber from a piece of seal skin which she held across the knee, using in the operation a rude knife made from a piece of iron hoop stuck into a piece of rough wood for a handle.”  She welcomed the white men, who could see that she lived in a camp comprised of “several huts made of whale’s ribs and covered with brush, although it was long since they had been occupied that they were open on all sides and grass was quite high within.”  She had lived there for a long time, perhaps since the uprising of 1824.  The white men saw that “there were several stakes with blubber on them,” and that there “was blubber also hanging on a sinew rope.”  She had baskets, and “fishhooks made of bone, and needles of the same material, lines or cords of sinews for fishing and the larger rope of sinews [which] she no doubt used for snaring seals on the rocks where they came to sleep.”

At the invitation of the hunters, she accompanied the men as they hunted otter and seals on the islands.  She traveled with them for several days. When the wind began to blow too strongly, “the old woman conveyed to us by signs her intention to stop the wind.”  Nidever observed that “she then knelt and prayed, facing the quarter from which the wind blew, and continued to pray at intervals during the day until the gale was over.”  Nidever described a Chumash woman living her life in time with a very old rhythm.800px-sannicolasisland_corral_harbor

The arrival of the woman in Santa Barbara, however, made clear how much the Chumash world had changed.  Less than a century after the Portolá expedition, few Californians had seen Chumash people. The old woman became a curiosity, an exhibit for the amusement of non-Indians interested in an “extinct” people. According to Nidever, “for months after, she and her things, as her dress, baskets, needle, &c. were visited by everybody in the town and for miles around outside of it.” Chumash people were exotic enough, one enterprising ship’s captain thought, that he offered Nidever $1000 for the woman. He wanted to place her on display in San Francisco, and he was willing to split the take with Nidever.  Nidever refused. He learned bits of her story. She had lost a daughter, and she had grieved for many years. It was the defining event in her life. She did not have long to live. At Santa Barbara, she fell sick five weeks after her arrival and died, Nidever curiously noted, because of “eating too much fruit.”  The priests at the mission church baptized her after her death and christened her Juana Maria.

Archaeologist Steve Schwartz, according to a story that appeared in the Ventura County Star on 9 October, began digging through the notes of linguist J. B. Harrington, who visited the Islands in the early 20th century, and determined that there was much more to the story.  Schwartz found in Harrington’s papers answers to a number of mysteries: Why had the woman been left alone on the island in the first place?  Why, after spending several decades largely alone, did she in 1853 choose to accompany Nidever?  Some stories said that when the Nicloleño were leaving the island, the woman forgot her infant and left her kin to go find the child. Schwartz thought it unlikely that a woman would forget where her infant was, and that instead the child might have been 9 or 10; a nine-year old boy wandering off seemed more plausible.  She remained behind with the child. According to Schwartz, “people would come to the island, see her and try to coax her to leave, and she wouldn’t leave.”  Only after this child died was she willing to go to the mainland.

And though a sort of media storm took place when the Lone Woman came ashore in Santa Barbara, newspaper research indicates that bits and pieces of her story already were circulating. She appears in an 1847 Boston newspaper, and in newspapers in India, Australia, Germany and France.

Several years ago, Schwartz was part of a team that conducted excavations on San Nicolas that he believes led to the discovery of the Lone Woman’s cave.  Schwartz and his colleague Sara Schwebel are assembling a Lone Woman website developed by Channel Islands National Park that will launch later this year.