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What does a real Indian look like?

May 7, 2010

I was recently in Wenatchee, Washington when I drove past this disturbing caricature of a Native American with eyes that rove and occasionally wink. It is called the Skookum Indian. Skookum Indian video.   According to nwpics.com (source of this picture) the Skookum Indian, on the top of Office Depot near the corner of Wenatchee Avenue and 5th Street, has has been around for well over fifty years, although only about a decade at its current location. It was once mounted on top of the apple packing warehouse that shared its name.  I was curious about the story behind this.

Other research revealed that this local “attraction,” resurrected from storage in 2000, created some controversy but that ultimately the positive comments outweighed the negative ones and the sign was reinstated.  Hmmmm, I’m curious who were making the positive comments and who were making the negative ones.

How many of us have grown up thinking that Indians looked like that and that they only existed a long time ago?  Have you bought  baking powder or butter recently?

Here are images we’ve been saturated with over time:  Stereotypes of Native Americans

Now, take a look at the Native Americans in this video representing the many tribes in our country.

What tribe are you?

I hate to admit that although I would easily notice something like the Wenatchee sign, I’ve bought both the products above without ever thinking about the images on them; so ingrained are they in my subconscious.  It’s time to wake up, write Office Depot, and buy different kinds of butter and baking powder. Let’s not collude with those who would dehumanize a people who have already suffered genocide at the hands of our white European ancestors.

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2 comments

  1. I can appreciate what you are saying to an extent. I’ve researched Native American cultures and comprehend the negative associations figures in television and media portray to current Native Americans. However, I must insert here that the Skookum Indian is no more meant to insult Natives than Popeye is meant to degrade US Sailors. Our culture’s present over-eagerness to be insulted is ever-growing. Now please don’t misunderstand my meaning – I realize the importance of cultural sensitivity and the affects of inter-generational trauma – but sometimes things really are as simple as a landmark or a childhood memory. If you were to dig a little deeper, you might find that this landmark was actually brought back by its popularity with the town’s children. Ask any young child in this town if the Skookum Indian has winked at them recently, and they will happily rattle on about how many times they’ve seen it, and which child has seen the most winks. There will be no racial slurs or lude gestures – simply a giddy report on winks. Therefore it is my supposition that instead of taking down any monument or cartoon figure that could possibly be misinterpreted, we instead teach our cultures and children to be kind, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to give back generously. I think our time would be better employed this way than fighting off all potential offenders. Utopias may not exist, but active minds do. Cultivate them and the rest will find a balance.


    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Chelsea. One of the things that has impacted my thinking about this, as a white person, is to recognize that the people who get to make the decision about whether something is insulting or degrading, are the people whose culture is being represented. While I know that not all members of any group will agree, my experience is that the majority of Native Americans find such imagery, whether on signs like this or in the use of mascots, to be hurtful and denigrating – to them and their children. I privilege their thinking because, regardless of all the good intentions others not from that culture may have, the impact of such actions is damaging and continues to further our conscious and unconscious thinking about who people really are. And it’s not just the one incident now or the ones last year. It is on top of years of history where Indigenous People have had their land and their lives destroyed by others.

      I also try to be cognizant of my tendency to say “our culture” when what I really mean is the dominant culture of white people who most often decide for others what is right, good & just. Our children, white and other races, are the product of what they are told is right and good. I take it as my responsibility to continually ask, “To whose benefit is this right or good?” Often, I am surprised by my assumptions. Deeper reflection allows me to see that I assume it is good because it serves me well.

      I think what is most important to teach our cultures and children is to act justly. Kindness flows out of that but if it does not start with a foundation of justice informed by knowledge of how oppression and privilege work, it will not be the type of kindness that renews and restores life to all people.

      I appreciate you engaging in the dialogue. Diane



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