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Native American imagery is everywhere but understanding lags behind

Native imagery is embedded in the national subconscious, whether we're paying attention or not. A new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian is titled simply "Americans" and shows how all aspects of life have been touched by the history and symbols of native culture. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a change of pace, history, mythology, imagery. A museum exhibition opens our eyes to the symbols of Native American life and culture all around.

    Jeffrey Brown has our story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A 1948 Indian brand motorcycle, one of the sleekest machines you’re likely to see, clothing with the logo for your local sports team. And perhaps in your refrigerator right now, a box of Land O’Lakes butter.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    She’s on her knees, and she’s holding the box that she’s on. So it recedes into infinity. So there’s something really profoundly weird going on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even more profound, just how pervasive Native imagery is embedded into the American subconscious. That’s according to Paul Chaat Smith, a member of the Comanche Tribe and co-curator of an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    It’s really this paradox that the country, 330 million people today, 1 percent of that population is Native American. For most people, they don’t see or really think about Indians, yet they’re surrounded by Indian imagery, place names, and have connections with Indians on a kind of deep, emotional level.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Whether we know it or not.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    Whether you know it or not.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    To that end, the exhibition is titled, simply, “Americans,” and shows us Indians everywhere in all aspects of life. Overhead, a prototype of the Tomahawk missile, on loan from the nearby Air and Space Museum.

    On one large wall, clips from films and TV shows. A side room takes us through the strange history of Pocahontas, known, but not really known, by all. Around the gallery, headdresses everywhere, in signs and advertising.

    The image of the Native American or Indian — the museum uses the terms interchangeably — as a symbol of ruggedness or bravery, but often with no discernible connection to the products, as in ads over the decades for Calumet Baking Powder.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    An Indian in a feather headdress has nothing to do with baking powder. It’s a completely artificial connection. Yet it sometimes works, because I think it talks about a kind of Americanness and quality that people say, OK, well that baking powder is probably pretty good because there’s an Indian in a headdress in it.

    And note that it is a red, white and blue headdress.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Yes.

    A history of extermination and appropriation of lands, and yet an embrace of American Indians as a symbol authentically American.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

     There’s certainly explicitly racist imagery, but it’s a pretty small minority of it, because the whole way that Indians have been objectified in the United States is about a kind of noble Indian idea, which is a different kind of caricature than one that’s explicitly vicious and that we’re dirty and backward and unintelligent.

    But, obviously, it is — even though it’s flattering in some way, it’s still another kind of a stereotype.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s also, of course, about images and myths, and not about the actual people themselves.

    Smith says this distinction began in the late 19th century after the protracted armed conflict between Natives and settlers, and later the U.S. Army, had come to an end.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    It was like there was a big meeting of the American collective unconscious to say, now we’re going to freeze Indians in the past.

    The actual Indians that are on reservations in 1895 or 1910, or the actual Indians who might living in L.A., living lives like the other people in Los Angeles, they’re not going to appear in entertainment.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One area of continuing contention, sports names and logos.

    In recent years, some schools and universities have stopped using Native American nicknames. Earlier this year, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians announced they will stop using the cartoonish Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms. But they’re keeping the Indians name.

    More controversially, the National Football League’s Washington Redskins are keeping their name. Smith is a fan of his local team, but not its name, though he understands the strong feelings.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

    I have great empathy for fans, especially here in D.C., but fans don’t choose the name of the team, right? A rich owner chooses it. And in the case of these names, it usually goes back a century sometimes.

    I get why people aren’t pleased when someone like me comes in and says, you know, this name is a dictionary-defined slur, as it is in D.C. But if you come in and try to take it away from somebody, I get that that’s — you know, you feel attacked.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     No one would name a team the Redskins anymore, but not long ago, Victoria’s Secret dressed model Karlie Kloss like this, only to apologize after criticism.

    The museum wants people to think about the images around them and what they convey. Visitors are encouraged to write of their own experiences.

    Look at this one. “I had a dream catcher over my bed as a kid. Why?”

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

     I think what the show is designed to do is to say, you’re not alone with these stories.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And for the country as a whole, Smith says there’s something more at stake.

  • Paul Chaat Smith:

     There’s this challenge to the United States’ idea of itself to have to acknowledge that the United States national project came about at great cost to Native people.

    So, what do we think about that? That’s what this exhibition is saying. How do we come to terms with that? Should Americans just feel guilty? I don’t think so.

    All Americans inherit this. How do we make sense of it? And a starting point is kind of looking at Indians in everyday life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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