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NMU hosts forum on anti-American Indian bias

MARQUETTE — Stereotypical images of American Indians flashed on a screen, showing people in headdresses, fake war paint and other things that although might seem harmless to some people probably are offensive to others.

The images were part of a Thursday forum titled “Combating Anti-American Indian Bias Through Education” held at Whitman Hall at Northern Michigan University.

Leading the forum was Marty Reinhardt, professor and interim director of NMU’s Center for Native American Studies. Joining him as panelists were Roxy Sprowl, a senior at Marquette Senior High School; Grace Chaillier, contingent associate professor with the center; and Jud Sojourn, NMU associate professor.

Reinhardt first asked the forum participants: “From your own experience, how have you encountered anti-Indian bias in your personal and/or professional lives?”

Apparently, they’ve all dealt with it.

“It inundates everything you do, from trying to procure funding to covering content,” Sojourn said.

For example, he noted he felt an inherent bias in class that morning, which came from people conditioning themselves to a way of thinking that doesn’t allow for seeing the “three-dimensionality” of other beings.

Chaillier said the first thing that jumps into her mind is the “cigar store Indian.”

Every once in a while she comes upon this item.

Such an encounter, she said, brings on conflicting, complex emotions about cultural appropriation of Indian things and the use of Indian images by dominant culture, and what it means to people who use those images and what indigenous people think when they seem them.

“I continue to wonder, year after year, about how those play out negatively for Indian people, especially children,” Chaillier said.

Sprowl said she experiences bias every day she attends school.

MSHS’s nicknames are the Redmen and Redettes.

“Ever since I started speaking out against it, I’ve been experiencing more and more people coming at me for sticking up for what I believe and for me as a human being,” Sprowl said.

As a drum major for the MSHS marching band, she hears shouts of “Redmen” behind her during its cadences.

“That really impacts me every time we have a game,” Sprowl said.

Reinhardt, who acknowledged he’s lighter-skinned than his wife, said she has been followed around in a distrusting way in public, more than himself.

“That is frustrating for me,” he said. “It’s also scary.”

Chaillier teaches a course titled “Native American Experience” in which she accesses all kinds of literature and videos about logos, mascots and stereotypes.

“I find that I get across-the-board reaction,” she said. “When you stand in front of a class and look out at 40 faces and you talk about this type of subject matter, you really get a vast array of looks on people’s faces.”

Some came from a school with a certain kind of mascot and are connected to it, while others believe they are more enlightened or were brought up by parents who instilled them early thoughts on the morality of the issue, she said.

It makes her teaching experience interesting.

“I want to continue to learn from students,” Chaillier said, “and I feel like I do continue to learn from students.”

What contributes to some misconceptions about Indians?

Reinhardt mentioned the images floating on the screen behind them.

“Walt Disney doesn’t do a real good job of teaching people about Indian stuff,” he said.

Even “Dances With Wolves” pertains to the past, he said, and doesn’t have a good deal to do with the present.

“It’s important that we understand the Indian identity,” Reinhardt said. “What does it mean to be an indigenous being in today’s world, in the local context here where we have tribes?

In fact, he pointed out many people don’t know the Upper Peninsula has five tribes, and think that Indians still live in tepees and ride around on horses with feathers in their hair.

Talk about stereotypes.

“It’s just a crazy dime-store novel that we live in,” Reinhardt said.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

“We have to know how our actions impact others around us,” Reinhardt said.

The panelists expressed several ideas on how to fight bias.

Sprowl believe people should create space for “people of color” — give them a platform, listen to them in conversation and then give other people that same message.

Sojourn said the “R” word is said strategically to get rid of people having to say it.

“One thing you can do is just understand that this is happening constantly,” he said, “and that going along with it passively is destructive to the whole idea of some kind of partnership between non-Native people and indigenous people.”

Reinhardt said people have to be aware and sensitive when they’re crossing a certain line.

“It’s never OK for non-Native people to assume our identity, to become Indian, to tell people, ‘Hey, I’m Indian’ because they see benefit in it,” he said. “That’s never OK. That’s crossing the line. It’s never OK to take our sacred ceremonies and to market them.”

However, the right thing to do might not always be clear.

For example, what about people dressing in Native-style clothing?

“Those are questions that are a little more blurry,” Reinhardt said. “How do we say it’s OK in this instance but not necessarily in this instance?

“And I think that’s where some people get confused.”

On the other hand, it is good, he stressed, to teach about different perspectives on traditional Indian stories when it’s appropriate.

Chaillier recommended people read to educate themselves.

“The more you read, the more you’re going to learn,” she said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.