As a Smithsonian
exhibition takes on stereotypes and a Cherokee-written play takes
the stage, Native American voices are being amplified. Will the
president and the public get the message?
Paul Morigi photo of Kevin Gover 'Americans' exhibition at
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Photograph:
"Indians are less than 1% of the population. Yet images and
names of Indians are everywhere. How is it that Indians can be so
present and so absent in American life?"
This is the question posed by Americans, a new exhibition at
the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington,
exploring how Native Americans have been central to America's sense
of itself even as they were systematically persecuted, marginalised
The myth-busting show contains an array of nearly 300 objects
and images of Indians and Indian stereotypes. They include a Tomahawk
flight-test missile, a 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, a Washington
Redskins football team baby blanket, photos of presidents and celebrities
wearing feather headdresses, footage from westerns and scale models
of Chinook, Kiowa and Apache Longbow helicopters.
myth-busting Americans show contains an array of nearly 300
objects and images of Indians and Indian stereotypes. Photograph:
Americans was conceived during Barack Obama's presidency but
arrives in the shadow of Donald Trump. Many Native American activists
praised Obama for doing more
than any other US president to recognise their grievances, including
the government's historical neglect of treaty obligations. Trump's
biggest impression so far, as a bang-up-to-date digital display
acknowledges, is using the term "Pocahontas" to insult Senator Elizabeth
Warren over her claims to Cherokee ancestry.
But even as Native Americans find their rights under renewed
threat, for example from the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines,
their cultural voice is growing stronger. Last month the Cleveland
Indians baseball team announced
that they will drop the red-faced Chief Wahoo caricature from
their uniforms next year, bowing to decades of complaints. One of
Washington's leading theatres is staging Sovereignty,
a new play that incorporates Cherokee language and is written by
Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright, lawyer and citizen of Cherokee
Speaking on a panel with the author and cast on the first day
of rehearsal, Molly
Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, said: "I have to tell
you there's a big upswing in Native American plays being produced
around the country. It is your time. So it's pretty thrilling that
this voice is now being heard."
She added: "I think it's a big part of our national shame that
a lot of these stories have not only not been uncovered but that
there has never been a real apology to Native
Americans here in our country for what happened." Until the
stories are uncovered, she added, there will be no change.
The play darts back and forth between the 1830s and near future
with characters including President Andrew Jackson, who signed the
Indian Removal Act and whose portrait now
hangs in the Oval Office, and a violent drunkard wearing a "Trump"
Garcia, who plays a character based on Nagle, recalled an incident
in which Trump branded Warren "Pocahontas" during a White House
ceremony honouring Navajo code talkers, who served in the marines
during the second world war and used the Navajo language to transmit
"It just inspired me with fury," Garcia said during the panel
discussion. "Because it solidified even more why we're telling this
story and why we're up here. Because for that to be happening and
for people not to know the history behind that: there were some
people who didn't even realise Andrew Jackson was in the back in
that moment, and what that means.
"So to be at the forefront of these kinds of stories right now
I feel is the most sincere form of activism I can do and that makes
it an absolute honour and privilege to be telling this story, and
to be educating people as I go. When people say, 'What are you working
on?', I'm like: 'You have a minute?'"
The backdrop to Sovereignty is Jackson's refusal to enforce
an 1832 supreme court decision to uphold the right of Cherokee nation
to prosecute anyone who came on Cherokee lands and committed a crime.
In 1978, the supreme court formally
took that right away, ruling that tribal nations historically
did not exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Aware that
tribal governments were now powerless to prosecute them, non-Indian
offenders acted with impunity and violence against Native women
Smithsonian exhibition. Photograph: Supplied
Nagle writes in the programme notes: "Today Native women face
rates of domestic violence and sexual assault higher than any other
population in the United States. It took 140 years to full come
into effect, but Andrew Jackson's campaign to eliminate tribal jurisdiction
has reaped devastating, life-and-death consequences for Native women."
In an interview on Friday, Garcia, who has indigenous roots
on her father's side, added: "The experience of Native American
women has been missing
from the #MeToo movement when they suffer the highest rates
of abuse. The only way to understand an epidemic is to acknowledge
those who are most vulnerable."
Trump, she continued, is far from alone in his fundamental ignorance
of Indians' place in the American story. "The leader in office represents
the majority of the American public. For him to make jokes about
Pocahontas, all that tells me is he doesn't understand history."
Pocahontas has been portrayed and warped by popular culture,
from a frieze in the rotunda of the US Capitol to Disney's
1995 animated film, but the reality is less romantic, the Smithsonian
She was born in 1595 in what is now Virginia. Her father, Powhatan,
was the leader of a powerful confederacy when, in 1607, a hundred
Englishmen landed. The child Pocahontas impressed the English with
her self-confidence and, in her teens, she brought food to save
the settlers from starvation.
But Pocahontas was abducted by the colonists, learned English,
converted to Christianity and married the tobacco planter John Rolfe.
She travelled with him to London, where she was presented to society
as a "civilised savage" and restored the confidence of English investors
in the new colonies. She died young, aged only about 21.
Such was the cultural mythology around her that when Virginia
passed the Racial
Integrity Act of 1924, criminalising interracial marriage and
requiring that every birth be recorded by race ("white" or "coloured"),
it made exceptions for whites who proudly claimed Native ancestry
from Pocahontas. In a startling example of humans' capacity for
hypocrisy, Native Americans themselves did not enjoy this privilege.
The museum also investigates the Indian
Removal Act of 1830, which proposed that Indians living inside
the country's then boundaries should leave in return for payment
and new land west of the Mississippi river. This was despite the
US having made treaties with many Native nations in which it recognised
their sovereign territories. One consequence was the forced relocation
of about 16,000 Cherokees in 183839, which became known as
the Trail of Tears.
Though Jackson signed the legislation with relish, he also reflected
a school of thought that went all the way back to Thomas Jefferson,
who referred in the Declaration of Independence to "merciless Indian
savages" and has been dubbed "the
founding father of Indian removal". Overall, the vast, systematic
campaign of forced displacement affected 67,000 Indians across the
terms of nine presidents at a cost of $100m.
Ganteaume, associate curator at the museum, said: "It shows
that Andrew Jackson wasn't alone in his thinking. That's why we
wanted to contextualise the Indian Removal Act, which he signed.
There were others and the country went into this with eyes wide
The exhibition raises the question of why US popular culture
regards Native Americans as authentically American yet simultaneously
objectifies and exoticises them. Their image became fodder for advertising
and supermarket products in the post-war consumer boom. They are
everywhere and nowhere.
"Most Americans think they have nothing to do with American
Indians and American Indians have nothing to do with them," said
Ganteaume. "We're saying the exact opposite is true: they have a
deeply entangled history.
"No other country in the world, as far as we know, is so fixated
with with one segment of the population that it is constantly creating
representations of them. It's a deep paradox: for Americans, American
Indians are essential to their own sense of themselves, but while
imagery of American Indians is everywhere, it's a curtain to prevent
Americans knowing who American Indians truly are."