Ask the general public about Native Americans, and many aren’t sure they even still exist, said Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), founder and CEO of IllumiNative. This information void is filled with myths and toxic stereotypes.
“Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans,” Echo Hawk told those attending today’s “We Are Still Here MN” Conference in St. Paul. “When someone doesn’t exist for you, how can you empathize?”
Echo Hawk was involved in a two-year, $3.3 million Reclaiming Native Truth project exploring public perceptions of Native Americans. While the key findings might not be surprising, they put solid numbers on the problems of Native American stereotypes and invisibility.
A poll of 3,000 people found that 80 percent of respondents knew little to nothing about Native peoples, she said. Sixty-six percent of people didn’t think Native Americans faced discrimination. The simple exercise of doing Google image search on “Native Americans” found that 95 of the first 100 images displayed showed 19th Century images of Native Americans, and mostly men. (Check out a current link to a Google image search for “Native Americans.”)
Echo Hawk and others at the conference are working to address Native invisibility and change the narrative around Native peoples in general.
The K-12 system is one of the most dangerous systems for Native peoples, responsible for the erasure of Native stories, Echo Hawk said. Research found that 87 percent of state history standards don’t mention Native American history past 1900. The research also found some positives, such as 72 percent of Americans “support significant changes to K-12 curricula to ensure accurate Native history and culture is taught in schools.”
Narrative change is the front line opportunity, Echo Hawk said. Work now is focusing on finding messages that resonate with non-Indigenous audiences and help break the cloak of invisibility.
One lesson learned from focus groups was that non-Indigenous Americans weren’t supportive of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). (ICWA was legislation passed in the 1970s responding to the large number of Native children adopted into non-Native homes. The Act is intended to Native children in Native homes to help them preserve their Native identify.)
Talking about Indian sports mascots was a losing issue, too.
When it came to a values discussion, people connected more with Native peoples and experiences. For instance, people were generally supportive of Standing Rock — for people standing up for their culture and water. As the Reclaiming Native Truth report puts it:
Focus group and survey respondents recognize the huge contributions Native Americans have made to American culture. Even in the context of deficit frames, positive associations include spirituality, commitment to family, connection to art and culture, and sense of responsibility to land and the environment — values and assets that many people believe are missing in American society today.
The Conference devoted afternoon break-out sessions to brainstorming about how to create positive messages around historical and contemporary Native experiences. Topic areas were: Dakota and Ojibwe language revitalization; environment and sacred sites; employment, entrepreneurship and economic equity; housing and homelessness; arts and culture; and health and health care.
Work is still percolating. Watch for a broader public announcement on the We Are Still Here initiative soon.
The Conference was organized by the Lower Phalen Creek Project and funded by East Side Funders Group, the McKnight Foundation, Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations and Nexus.