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'Most of America Thinks We're Vanished': Native Americans Push To Be Seen

Native American protesters stand outside the Phoenix office of a retailer of "sexy Native American" costumes last year.
Native American protesters stand outside the Phoenix office of a retailer of "sexy Native American" costumes last year. For some ethnic and racial groups, Halloween has long been haunted by costumes that perpetuate stereotypes and instances of cultural appropriation.

The lives of contemporary Native Americans are as vibrant, complex and multifaceted as any other community. But those truths aren’t always reflected by a broader cultural understanding of Native American issues.

“Most of America thinks we’re vanished. We’re gone. We’re invisible,” said Pam Silas, the associate director of community outreach and engagement for Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.

Silas said cultural perceptions of Native Americas tend to fall into two categories of stereotype: Either the “vanishing race of yesteryear” or the romanticized idea of someone “tree-hugging” and “spiritual.” Those stereotypes are often perpetuated through popular culture by way of movies and mascots, Silas said.

 Pam Silas
Pam Silas, associate director of community outreach and engagement for Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research.

But Native American communities are working to counter common cultural misconceptions and spark curiosity about Native issues. Silas will be leading a webinar on the topic for the McLean County Museum of History on Tuesday, Aug. 31, titled “Vibrant, Resilient, Still Here: Contemporary Native Americans in Illinois.”

Silas said movements like Black Lives Matter have helped to draw awareness to the efforts of other minority communities to counter stereotypes and raise awareness.

“(It) has been typical in history when a social justice issue lead by communities of color gets elevated, we get elevated along with them,” she said. “As the public becomes more aware, there’s a genuine interest in learning more.” The challenge, Silas said, is how to distribute information to the public on a broader scale.

That’s where popular culture can be tool for change rather than a vehicle for tired stereotypes. Silas said shows like ”Rutherford Falls” on the streaming service Peacock or “Res Dogs” on Hulu offer a more realistic window into Native issues.

“We’re adding to the body of America’s experience with native communities in a contemporary setting,” Silas said. The shows explore the humor, politics, and challenges of people living in Native communities “just like everybody else living in America,” she said.

Silas said she’s encouraged by the change she sees in schools, though she thinks those changes may be motivated more by individuals than in changes to curriculum. A grandmother now, Silas can remember her own children going to school in a time when it was popular to celebrate “pilgrims and Indians” around Thanksgiving. That’s not as common these days, and Silas thinks the change is “coming maybe more from teachers more (so) than textbooks.”

Parents, she said, are also driving the change.

“I think parents are asking more questions about it,” she said of traditional modes of teaching Native issues. “We may have to do a little more homework ourselves, and I encourage everyone to do that.”

Silas said when it comes to integrating more accurate information about Native American life into our collective understanding, “I’ve seen an evolution of rather than just, say, we want two paragraphs in a history book that talk about the past of native Americas — we’re really talking about integrating difference into modern-day culture.”

Everyone benefits from contributions made by people of different backgrounds, Silas said. “Companies value different perspectives. That’s what makes innovation happen.”

Inclusivity can better the lives of all human beings, Silas said. The key is to remain open to “different ways of knowing.”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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