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By Tria Andrews and Olivia Chilcote
In Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Frank B. Wilderson III (2010) triangulates the ontological position of Native Americans with the White/Black binary. The “Settler/Master” according to Wilderson occupies the position of “life,” the “Slave” the position of “social death,” and the “Savage” the intermediary position of “half-life,” which is based on sovereignty, and “half-death,” which is based on genocide (p. 23). According to Wilderson (2010), a “Savage” film—that is, a film by a Native American director—chooses “life” by articulating itself in contradistinction to “death,” the ontological position of the “Slave” (p. 48-49). A recent YouTube video raises awareness about invisibilized violence between Native peoples and Black peoples. Blood (2012), created by Savage Media, a Native American student group at Dartmouth College, features a dialogue between a phenotypically White woman and a phenotypically Black woman.
In discussing the visibility and invisibility of violence, the question that often arises is, “Violence to whom”? One’s positionality shapes what forms of violence one is inclined to see or recognize. While violence may be invisible to the oppressor, the victim feels that violence acutely. In the visual realm, the individual is always objectified, a form of violence. People of color have historically been displayed for large audiences as the exotic, racialized Other (Huhndorf, 2001, p. 42), still another form of violence. Like Native scholar Shari Huhndorf (2009) in Mapping the Americas: The Politics of Contemporary Native Culture, we acknowledge the inability to fix the meaning of the visual (p. 72). As Native students ourselves, we engage with Blood because we respect the work that Savage Media is producing and that we hope they will continue to produce. While filmmakers will always be faced with the problem of audience interpretation, we believe films from a Native perspective are necessary and useful both in working to combat stereotypes and generating critical thinking. Therefore, several questions are central to this discussion: How might Blood be read as employing tactics of colonialism to make legible the violence against Native Americans? How might the film perpetuate a narrative of Native American savagery? And how might the film, while attempting to challenge the stereotypical phenotype of the Indian, also reinforce typecasts of what an Indian looks like?
The 59-second YouTube video Blood conveys a host of historical, political, and cultural meanings in less than a minute. The video begins with a row of clear gallon-sized jugs filled to the brim with what appears to be blood. There are signs in front of each jug that read “Full BLOOD,” “1/2 BLOOD,” “1/4 BLOOD,” and so on. Already, within the first 4 seconds of footage, there is a commentary on the politics of Indian “blood,” identity, and race. The packaging of the blood in jugs illustrates the ways in which the government has sought to commodify the Native body through blood quantum requirements in order to justify the occupation of Native land and to diminish the Native population. Representing Native Americans as few in number through blood quantum policies and the visual image has historically provided the impetus for military conquest and seizure of land (Rickard, 1998, p. 63-64). In centering the Native body in the video, however, violences to African American bodies, which have also been commodified by similar policies, are invisibilized (Biolsi, 2004, p. 406). In fact, based upon ignorance, the phenotypically African American character is aligned with the oppressor. Pitting people of color—particularly African Americans and Native Americans— against one another is a frequently employed colonial tactic that functions to divert antagonism away from the oppressor (Andrews, 2011, p.13). The video also invisiblizes the possibilities of alliances between African Americans and Native Americans. This is particularly unfortunate because outside the context of Blood, we acknowledge that the two actors may likely be friends—perhaps even both Native—working in coalition with one another.
Following the still shot of the jugs filled with blood, the image cuts to a college library where two young females sit next to each other studying. One is fair-skinned with dark hair and phenotypically White, while the second woman is dark-skinned with dreadlocks and phenotypically Black. While taking a study break, the two have a short conversation:
Phenotypically Black woman: “Hey, what’re you doing this weekend?”
Phenotypically White woman: “Probably just hanging out at the Native American
Phenotypically Black woman: “Why would you do that?”
Phenotypically White woman: “Why wouldn’t I?
Phenotypically Black woman: “Isn’t that place for Native American kids?”
Phenotypically White woman: “Yeah, I am one.”
Phenotypically Black woman: “Wow…so, is like your great-great-great-grandmother
Indian? I mean, how much Indian blood do you even
Phenotypically White woman, who has now revealed herself as Native American, takes out a knife, cuts the palm of her hand, and holds it up revealing a bloody slash.
Native American woman: “I don’t know. You tell me.”
In slashing her hand, the Native American woman makes visible more sophisticated and largely unrecognized forms of violence. Interestingly, it is at the moment of violence that she identifies herself as a Native American woman. This is important because of the role that gender has played in colonialism. As Huhndorf (2009) notes in Mapping the Americas, images of Native women who conform to European American standards of femininity help to justify colonization (p. 58). There is also a gendered aspect to violence, which united women in the Indigenous feminist movements that began in the 1980s (Huhndorf, 2009, p. 104). On one hand, the cutting that the Native American woman commits demonstrates her strength and willingness to sacrifice her body on behalf of others who also feel similar forms of violence based on the rhetoric of blood quantum discourses. On the other hand, the slashing perpetuates a narrative of savagery since historically the dominant culture has worked to outlaw practices of self-mutilation that occur in Native American religious ceremonies such as Sun Dance (Murphy, 2007, p. 42). Yet while the video makes apparent the violence of blood quantum policies against Native Americans, it invisiblizes the violence endured by Native Americans who are phenotypically African American. In fact, within Indian Country Native Americans who are read as African American frequently experience more racism than Native Americans who resemble Whites. The video precludes the reaction from the African American character, which is replaced by the viewer when the violence is displayed. The visibility of violence against the Native American character literally invisiblizes not only the violence against African Americans, but also the African American character herself. The pairing of the phenotypically African American and White character highlights the discrepancy in which African American and Native American bodies are often read. Racially ambiguous Native peoples are usually questioned about their cultural/ethnic authenticity when they do not meet the stereotypical standards of what a Native person is supposed to look like based on images perpetuated by mass media and popular culture. Conversely, when someone who identifies as African American reveals such, they are not questioned about their identity in the same way.
Renée Anne Cramer (2005), in Cash, Color, and Colonialism: The Politics of Tribal Acknowledgment, discusses how race has affected the Mowa Choctaws and their quest for federal recognition. The presence of African American ancestry has stirred public thoughts and opinions that the Mowa are not “real” Indians; therefore, they should not be able to access the privileges of federal acknowledgement—which establishes a trust relationship between tribes and the U.S. government resulting in a wide range of economic, health/well-being, land, and cultural integrity benefits. The mixing of Native Americans and African Americans, especially in the South, was very prevalent and the politics of hypodescent, also referred to as the “one drop rule,” come into play in this scenario. However, Cramer points out that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians have more Euro-American heritage than the Mowa, and this has enabled them to attain federal recognition. This favoritism by the U.S. government encourages tribes to adopt political strategies that exclude individuals who have African ancestry—encouraging conflict between underrepresented groups. There are fewer stigmas around Native people who look more White than Black, and this has profoundly impacted the racial politics of federal recognition processes. Finances again underlie these logics in terms of providing tribal access to federal resources. Additionally, as discussed by Tom Biolsi (2004) in “Race Technologies,” in the U.S. the intermarriage between White males and Native American females has been largely encouraged because such unions often resulted in further acquisition of Native land (p. 407).
In perhaps the most notorious case of Native American and African American racial mixing is the Cherokee Freedmen. Circe Sturm (2002), in her influential book Blood Politics, posits, “When Cherokee citizens conflate blood, color, race, and culture to demarcate their sociopolitical community, they often exclude multiracial individuals of Cherokee and African ancestry, who are treated in both discourse and practice in qualitatively different ways than multiracial individuals with Cherokee and white ancestry” (p. 169-170). The Freedmen are probably the most underrepresented Native group in North America and, as Sturm argues, “their story has never received the attention it deserves, in part because many people would prefer that it remained buried” (p. 169). Hypodescent has persisted as a relic of slavery and anti-African American sentiment in the United States. Classifying the offspring of an interracial couple, in this case Native American and African American, as solely African American has resulted in negative treatment that has been historically different from those children of Native and White couples in the United States more broadly, but also within the Cherokee Nation. The absence of Native peoples who are phenotypically African American in visuality is striking. A book that is published in the U.S. of Indigenous photographers and photographs from around the world—including Palestine—entitled Our People, Our Land, Our Images is a prime example of this visible gap (Passalacqua & Tsinhnahjinnie, 2006). There are no people pictured who are phenotypically African within its pages.
With this in mind, does Blood effectively challenge or reinscribe the image of the stereotypical Native American phenotype? As we have pointed out, the Native person who is phenotypically African American is often either excluded from or read as non-Native in visual culture. Because of the inability to fix the meaning of the visual, Blood reinforces this unfortunate reality of Indian Country. Blood works to defy stereotypes by showing that many Native peoples do not look how we are supposed to according to “Hollywood.” However, by having a phenotypically African American woman question the Native American woman’s identity, the video also tells us what a Native American person is not supposed to look like. This contrast reinforces what groups like the Mowa Choctaws and the Cherokee Freedmen struggle with constantly. Blood makes apparent the violence against Native peoples that often goes unseen and emphasizes the problematics of visual representation. Were Blood to star a blond, White actor rather than the African American woman, it would be read—more obviously—as conflicting with the video’s message that many Native Americans do not fit the typecast. Likewise, were Blood to star a light- to medium-skinned, dark haired actor who could be read as racially ambiguous rather than the African American woman, the video might be interpreted as providing fodder for discounting Indian identity and encouraging its appropriation, since the non-Native may appear “more Indian” than the “real” Native American. In this way, Blood relies on the logics of viewing Native Americans who are phenotypically African American as non-Native to make legible the violence committed against some—but not all—Native Americans. While Blood illuminates violences against Native Americans who are phenotypically White, it unfortunately fails to address the violences committed against fellow Native Americans who often have even less privilege: those who are phenotypically African American.
Andrews, T. (2011). Socialization through basketball: Reinforcing racial stratification on the reservation. (Unpublished seminar paper). University of California, Berkeley.
Biolsi, T. (2004). Race technologies. In D. Nugent and J. Vincent (Eds.), Companion to the anthropology of politics (pp. 400-417). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Cramer, R. A. (2005). Cash, color, and colonialism: The politics of tribal acknowledgment. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Huhndorf, S. (2001). Going Native: Indians in the American cultural imaginary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Huhndorf, S. (2009). Mapping the Americas: The transnational politics of contemporary Native culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Murphy, J. S. (2007). The people never stopped dancing: Native American modern dance histories. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Passalacqua, V. & Tsinhnahjinnie, H.J. (Eds.). (2006). Our people, our land, our images: International Indigenous photographers. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.
Rickard, J. (1998). The Occupation of Indigenous Space as “Photograph.” In Jane Alison (Ed.), Native nations: Journeys in American photography (pp. 57-71). London, ENG: Barbican Art Gallery.
Savage Media. (2012, September 30). Blood. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIZ7SuaiH0I&feature=plcp
Sturm, C. (2002). Blood politics: Race, culture, and identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Wilderson, F. B. III. (2010). Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the structures of U.S. antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Tria Andrews is Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina and a third-year PhD student in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has taught Native American and Asian American Studies. She is also a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and Fulbright Scholar. Her research examines culturally relevant forms of rehabilitation for Native American youths in juvenile detention centers located on tribal grounds. This work is informed by over five years of tutoring and teaching yoga to incarcerated adolescents.
Olivia Chilcote is a Payómkowishum (Luiseño) Indian and member of the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians from northern San Diego County. She is a second-year PhD student in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently a Eugene Cota-Robles Predoctoral Fellow. Her research explores the interconnections between Native Californian identity, Federal Indian law and policy, and Native perspectives of California history.