By Chelsea Cabral, Staff Writer
On Tuesday, November 1, Professor Claudia Fox Tree led a conversation on the culture and identity of Native Americans, ushering the event’s attendees to grasp the power of language to reverse socially created stereotypes and historical inaccuracies pit against Native people.
Hosted by the Frederick Douglass Unity House in the Library’s Grand Reading Room, Professor Fox Tree presented a powerful program on the way Native American culture and identity has been presented in society through socially constructed biases and appropriation. Fox Tree even put an emphasis on the history of indigenous people that has gone under the radar.
Fox Tree is member of the MCNAA (Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness), whose mission is to provide support and opportunities to Native American residents, and to address racial injustices, stereotypes and misconceptions about indigenous populations.
She’s a mother of five children and a member of the Arawak Nation, which are the indigenous people of South America and the Caribbean who were among the first to have had encountered Columbus.
Professor Fox Tree’s identity as an Arawak, and as a “contemporary American” has given her an interesting perspective on life as an indigenous American in a nation that overlooks or even forgets that its original residents are still a strong part of modern day society.
“Because we’ve been shown predominately in the past, it’s hard for people to realize that we’re still contemporary,” says Fox Tree. “[That idea] becomes pervasive and shapes what we see and know about groups.”
“There are roughly around 566 federally recognized tribes speaking over 200 different languages today,” says Fox Tree. “78 percent of Native Americans live off the reservation, and twenty-two percent live on it. The rest of us are contemporary. [We are your] neighbors and coworkers.”
Fox Tree spoke on cultural appropriation and how Native people are actually portrayed in society, especially in the media. They are not being portrayed as doctors, lawyers, or business professionals, but as living on reservations, being war chiefs, or as the oppressed in American history.
“That’s the problem with historical racism,” says Fox Tree. “It incites erasure and misrepresentation…It’s a whole mentality and ideology that goes along with it.”
Alongside appropriation and stereotyping, she also spoke on the dual power that language holds—as a tool to be used for activism and the promotion of positive dialogue or as a tool to create and spread false narratives and predispositions.
To further showcase what she means, she asked the attendees to picture in their minds what they immediately thought of when they hear the words Winnebago, Pontiac, or Redskins.
Fox Tree mentioned that “redskins” refers to the practice Europeans committed during early colonization. They would kill and scalp native people, and use the scalpings to be commonly traded amongst other early colonizers, as proof that they’ve slaughtered.
Fox Tree argued how naming a team the Redskins is similar to naming a team after the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. “Would you use a swastika as a symbol for a sports team?” she says.
“When Native words and their meanings are no longer used to connect with [something that originally belongs to] Native nations, respect is completely lost,” says Fox Tree.
Fox Tree urged attendees to do their part to help dismantle Native American stereotypes, through learning and spreading information that isn’t normally taught on native history and culture, to boycott goods that incite racist imagery and to be aware of the language that we use and say every day.
As stereotypes function on multiple levels as Fox Tree mentions, it works its way up from personal levels, to social norms, to finally being institutionalized, and hard to undo.
“Think of the system as an elevator. It keeps going up, but at any point in the system you can work to get yourself off that elevator.”