The Absence of Native American Power

April 9, 2013

In an extended clip from this weekend’s Moyers & Company, writer Sherman Alexie, who was born on a Native American reservation, talks to Bill about feeling “lost and insignificant inside the larger culture,” and how his culture’s “lack of power” is illustrated in stereotypical sports mascots.

“At least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it’s indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power. We’re still placed in the past. So we’re either in the past or we’re only viewed through casinos,” Alexie tells Bill. “I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian.”

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  • Janis Segress

    Mr. Sherman makes a valid point re stereotypical sports mascots. It’s time for America to ditch these offensive mascots.

  • Gene Lattanzi

    I agree. I refuse to “celebrate” Independence Day, or Flag Day etc, et, al; for the reasons that “our” Army slaughtered “them” to make their land “ours.” That, and that this country was built upon the bakcs of African slaves too. American pride??? Wtf is that???

  • Ann Knickerbocker

    Excellent series. Coincidentally, I started reading a book today about Joseph Campbell!

  • Anonymous

    No one in Washington DC should be able to play the race card until their God awful mascot is changed.

  • Anonymous

    I happen to be a teacher with one student (left – the others were funneled out). She is a 6th grade Native American. When I ask her what she wants to study, it is all about her people. So, she’s reading books on Sitting Bull, etc., and we are doing a ppt on the Keystone Pipeline. I realize I had more teaching in my religious school background than she had in her upbringing.

  • Felicia N Trujillo

    My Native American History prof explained how the one thing Hitler admired about the US was the reservation system which separated a whole people from normal life and he copied that idea for his camps. The genocide is not complete if the survivors are allowed to count–beyond beads and beyond entertainment–but to count as real thinkers, scientists, citizens. For example, the chief engineer of the V6 engine was Joe Turlay, 1/4 Chinook Indian. So was his sister, Clare T. Newberry, international award-winning author/illustrator…but they never were allowed to mention this.

  • Tamara Cermak Johnson

    Are we not living in a lost world? Do we recognize truth and teach it , or are we ruled by a conquerors consciousness? The glamourie of Rome is yet upon us. Little do we honor our ancestors. How well do we melt in the amorphous twinkie pot called America? Do we run from oppression to vindicate the oppressed or do we ape our oppressors unknowingly? It is time to acknowledge the nations within and the oneness of all humankind.

  • Pelu Maad

    Being of West African, Native American, Celtic and Sephardic ancestry…I celebrate Columbus Day. It’s the birthday of Americans like me. Of course, it has a completely different meaning for those who came here and chose to remain purely European.

  • Pelu Maad

    There used to be a minor league baseball team called the Atlanta Crackers (and the Black Crackers, on the other side of town). Funny how that name became politically incorrect but “Braves” is OK…….

  • Sm’hayetsk Teresa Ryan

    If people had a better awareness of the origin of the term “redskin” – the term used for the ‘colonial’ bounty paid to ‘settlers’ to deliver the bloody scalps of Native men, women or children – the public outcry could force these teams to face the mascot insult and result in an appropriate change. I agree SA, reified and frozen in time in a desperate vacuity of public unawareness.

  • John Melland

    Columbus was a greedy explorer looking for riches and to accumulate wealth. He discovered no lands. They were already occupied by people.

  • John Melland

    I agree with the whole mascot thing being offensive. It is even evident in modern news about massacres being the worst ever. Sandy Hook was not the worst in the U.S. I think, in this day and age, there would be no such thing as being prejudice, but there is.

  • Pelu Maad

    Yes…..but that’s what America celebrates……I have a different take.

  • Sharon Mitchell

    which is exactly why some of us should have a Phd in “Caucasianology”, been studying this all my life.

  • Anonymous

    Columbus fed babies to dogs.

  • Pelu Maad

    Pssst….I don’t celebrate Columbus….I celebrate the birth of us hybrid Americans. Get in the mix…..

  • Anonymous

    Pelu Maad, I think I get what you’re saying. It is worth elaborating, but; one has to read between the lines.

  • Pelu Maad

    Definitely not a mainstream perspective….but TOTALLY American…..

  • Anonymous

    Pssst my family was here before Columbus, and America was founded on my families genocide so no.

  • moderator

    Hi Everyone,

    Let’s stay away from sniping at each other and focus on engaging in discourse. We want this to be a place where people feel safe to comment.

    sean @ moyers

  • Anonymous


  • Pelu Maad

    My great grandmother was apparently one of the last of her Maryland Iroqouis tribe. She was born in 1844 in Lancaster, PA…where the Susquehannocks were pretty much wiped out in the late 18th century. There are two types of Americans….carefully “pure” Europeans and everyone else.

  • Anonymous

    The moderator ask us to drop it.

  • Pelu Maad

    “Let’s stay away from sniping at each other and focus on engaging in discourse.”
    I’m doing the best I can…

  • American girl

    Sir, please investigate Columbus, and his actual doings to people. He may have been satans spawn.

  • Reddoor2

    I saw the headline and thought this might be about blue and green dots in red states. Nothing has been more challenging to me than trying to adapt myself to a culture that has so totally and radically changed in this nation since 9/11. It has become a culture of unvarnished self-interest, greed and hatred of all things “not like me.” It has become a culture of excuses without reflection, of irresponsibility without consequence, entitlement without effort, and opinion without fact. It has become too unreal and other worldly and is now the hell I could only imagine in my childhood. There was once nothing so liberating to me as growing up, leaving an alcoholic, narcissistic home and entering the world of reality and fact where actions had consequences, and effort got results. Now it appears the lunatics-the crazy, irrational, intemperate and entitled among us, accustomed to whining, complaining, making excuses, lying, manipulating have taken over all of American society. It’s again like living in a world of alcoholics where any means justify their ends-whatever it takes to get their fix-“feel” powerful, unleash their anger and personal resentments, and excuse their actions, regardless of the consequences to the nation, to it’s people, and to themselves. It was never my dream to live surrounded by insanity, much less have my life controlled and my dreams arrested by their hate, irresponsibility and their greed. This is not capitalism or free markets as Adam Smith understood it, or even as Ayn Rand would recognize it. Not when cut-throat competition leads to monopoly and destruction. It is ANARCHY, promoted by the GOP and its media outlets. It’s the rejection of all common, decent values-honesty, fact, reason, justice- by which people of all nations live in community with one another. It must be recognized as nothing less than an attempt to destroy every thing we, the people, have held dear in our hearts as decent Americans, for reasons that one can only conclude are fundamentally a deep seated ignorance, resentment, and hatred of people.

  • Burt Dingman

    Award for dumbest poster on the planet? Gene Lattanzi, the America hating D-bag

  • Anonymous

    I think it was always this way. History brutally depicts this (if you care to acknowledge it), and most harshly experienced in communities of color throughout the world. The only change I see is the means through which this behavior is communicated and enacted on the global population.

  • Anonymous

    Institutional and individual racism insures that societal awareness of non-white culture is limited to mostly negative and stereotypical depictions. You have to be aware of this in order to actively seek out alternatively positive or unique experiences of non-white Americans. But the responsibility lies with those who are aware of the systemic ways in which non-white cultures and history are viewed as inferior to European or White history and culture.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t even know what this means. But assure you, for the common person of color, if racism is a card game, they are most certainly losing (centuries worth of loss), and playing the race card is a losing hand no matter when it’s played, i.e., people like you get to dismiss it as inconsequential, every time. Your privilege.

  • jetblakc

    That’s an already discredited “origin” of the word. Even the person that popularized this etymology admits that she has no primary sources to back it up. The only scholarly etymology (that I’ve heard of) that has a primary source behind it traces the use of the term red skin as a descriptor that was used by a chief to distinguish his people from “white skins”, and “black skins”.

  • stelz

    “Welcome to the Reservation.”
    – Russell Means

    It was allowed to happen to the Natives. Now it’s spread and metasticized and it happens to everybody. More and more, worse and worse. Nobody listened.

  • Anonymous

    The most popular sports logo in Indian Country is still the Washington Redskins. The Cleveland caricature and the Atlanta tomahawk chop would never garner Native support. The issue is complex regarding names, per se, or there wouldn’t be so many “braves” “lady braves”, “warriors”, “Half-breeds” (best of both worlds) among American Indian and Eskimo schools.

  • S.

    I consider myself a native American because at least half of my blood is Mesoamerican. I think this issue is ridiculous. The day that this conversation is had about the mascot and name of the Notre Dame University team name and Mascot is the day that I may grant it credence. Are Mesoamericans different? Emotionally weaker? Than Irish Americans? NO. If a team gets inspiration from a Leprechaun or a Mesoamerican tribe or a reference to the fighting spirit of our people even if the depiction is made cute (like a Leprechaun), who cares? Team pride protects the insinuation and BS that the media is trying to hype on this. Yea. I know about the history of the logo of the Red Skins but that is well in the past. Some of us Mesoamericans honor the warrior spirit that, hopefully, inspires a team to respect and stand for its colors and the context created by its mascot. Move on to something important.

  • Steve

    Agree that the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians imagery, and use of the term “redskin,” is clearly offensive. I’d like to hear from people of native ancestry, though, about their feelings regarding the Chicago Blackhawks, University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, Florida Seminoles, etc. To someone of European ancestry who thinks he’s sensitive to the issue, these names and images seem more respectful and, I hope, not terribly offensive.

  • Nicolas Rossier

    Bill Moyers is the only visible journalist out there caring about Native American culture.

  • Helen

    Thank you, Reddoor2. What you stated is true and to the point…I couldn’t have said it better. It is worth re-posting, since it frames well the frustrations many of us are feeling!

  • Reddoor2

    The fate you tolerate for others, becomes your own. John Stuart Mills said as much…suggesting we must consider our duty to help others less fortunate–since we cannot ever control the circumstances of our birth–maintain a life of dignity be determined by the fate we would want, if we found ourselves in such circumstances. It is a good “floor.” We no longer use such ethics and principles to guide our actions-but only what gives us immediate gain. Greed is good? No, unchecked, it’s destructive of every decent thing we do as a civilized people and ultimately destructive of civilization itself. We-300milion Americans cannot always have our own way, or only what we want. We cannot forever play “My way or the highway” because the highways are crumbling, the libraries are closing, the water is being poisoned, and the earth is maxed out. We have to learn to get along with one another, and with nature or we are doomed, not only as a nation, or as a civilization, but as a species. The writing is on the wall-we have only to read it.

  • Anonymous

    People like you?
    I dont even know what you mean by
    that. I am proud of my Cherokee heritage. My comment meant that politicians, socialites, talking heads and sensational journalists should be slow to cry racism when they have no quibbles going to a Redskin’s game. Many of their fans should consider that wearing war paint to a football game is the same as wearing blackface with white lipsand eyes. Hetchetuh aloh.

  • Jeffrey G. Johnson

    Don’t forget Amy Goodman at Democracy Now.

  • George Terterian

    If an English soccer team used the Irish as mascots, it would equate more to what we do to the tribal population here. Or if a German team had a Jewish mascot. I hope that makes sense. That is the equivalent to using tribes as a mascot.

  • Stuffcrusts

    I am a full blooded native from Oklahoma. My ancestors were both scouts for the army and renegade outlaw Indians. I am proud of my culture. I think most natives never really recognize the racism until it transports itself from the sports arenas into the schools, churches, public places, your job and sometimes into homes that maintain any real concrete knowledge of pre-Columbus America and live in denial about genocide. I came from a small town that despised and banned blacks, but tolerated Indians because they feared our wrath. You see, like the civil rights man screams, “you think were scared about dying if your gonna beat us down anyway?” So, there was racial tensions not just within the community, but systematically, do your research here, local jurisdictions across America rarely ever had district attorneys that would file charges against white on Indian violence, investigate or report injustices because they actively participate in sentencing natives to the most extreme imprisonment for the slightest infractions. Mascots say more about the nation and its values reflecting its understanding, or lack thereof, of its own historical roots which is admittedly, the American Indian. Mascots pretend to honor or celebrate native people, but in fact, keep us dead and animated which in turn makes us targets for ridicule, harassment and even murder. Native women are the most abused humans on the planet and native men, are the most incarcerated and institutionalized. And I’m not talking just about the publics ignorance, I’m talking about the courts, the police, even the laws that are archaic and corrupt. How should Americans honor their native people? How about a crash course in real American history minus the mythology and religious overtones. I think we will find that Americans of past were more knowledgeable of Indians even to the point of speaking our languages. How many non-native Americans can do that today? We were forced to learn English only to end up in a country where every other word is F&*^ or Sh#@! What happened America? If your gonna call yourself an American, know what that means and be prepared to either learn something, or remain as foreigners as the day your people landed in desperate limbo, or in chains, but you can never be American until you know the land, and you can never know the land, until you know the people its birthed, buried or burned to ash for thousands of years. Then tell yourself you know America better than an Indian and that racism is okay for America and legal through mascots

  • Anonymous

    I saw an image of a fan from an opposing Chicago Blackhawks team with the head of an Indian on a stick. And of course we have heard of the case when a Sonic Burger restaurant manager posted something on his restaurant’s sign that was supposed to “stick it to” KC Chiefs. The sign had references to “firewater” in it as well as the trail of tears.

    My point in bring up those things is that even with seemingly mild mascot imagery, Americans are very good at dredging up real examples of

  • Anonymous

    Many tribes have “Indian” as part of their official name. Many older Native people will refer to themselves and other Natives as “Indians.” It’s a perfectly acceptable descriptor to refer to a large group of Native people. And when people bring it up within the mascot discussion, an unnecessary aside.

  • Annie Cue

    Well said.

  • Annie Cue

    “American Indian and Alaskan Native”: these are the correct terms. That these may embody some false geography is no longer relevant. Your point is well intended, but when an entire people identify as “Indian,” they are Indians.

  • Anonymous

    Since you are not offended, your opinion on the issue is irrelevant. This is about those what are telling you ***they are offeneded***… not about you.

  • David Gene Lewis

    We do not, we identify with our actual tribe, Indian is a term of the past, of history, something that is hard to avoid. I am Kalapuya, Chinook Takelma, thank you

  • Anonymous

    Tribes can call themselves what they want. They are determining for themselves what to include in the names. Insisting on Native American to the point of being oblivious to the point of an article because “Indian” is used isn’t a useful strategy.

  • Ginny

    It’s easy to create caricatures of various cultural groups in the U.S., and we always say we’re not doing it out of bigotry or racism, but we really are. My husband is a Shia Muslim from Iraq, and our two sons have always felt they were living in two cultures. It’s tricky.