A Minority Among Minorities: Being American Indian in Kansas City
American Indians continue to be under/misrepresented in mainstream culture thus causing non-native Americans to lack exposure and appropriate knowledge. Using the personal experiences of Moses Brings Plenty, a Lakota Indian and Community Outreach Liaison for the Kansas City Indian Center in Kansas City, MO, and previous academic research, this essay examines three aspects of living in Kansas City as an American Indian: a) discovering common identities with non-native Americans through cosmologies, b) the persistence of discrimination and stereotyping, c) and the benefits Indians may have through association with and knowledge of traditional culture.
Keywords: american indians, culture education, discrimination, stereotyping, democracy
|Kansas City, MO in 1869|
Long before Kansas City had paved roads and skyscrapers, before it had become an important hub for westward-bound pioneers, even before European explorers had first mapped out the land in the early 1700s, indigenous people had already inhabited this region for thousands of years. However, throughout the period of Euro-American colonization in the continent, a marginalization of American Indian culture took place in a relatively short time span. Unlike the French who were more tolerant of intermarriage and more accepting of indigenous worldviews, Americans tended to either force the Indians off of their ancestral lands or persuade them into signing over their land in legal treaties. Otherwise, attempts were made to assimilate the Indian through formal reeducation. The struggle for American Indian existence was also exacerbated by factors such as poverty brought about by continuous relocation, diseases that were previously unknown to indigenous populations, and armed conflict against colonizers including the United States of America.
The goal of this essay is to examine whether or not such marginalization has improved over the past two centuries and what challenges still need to be overcome. American Indian culture in Kansas City is examined through the experiences of Moses “Mo” Brings Plenty, a Lakota Indian and Community Outreach Liaison for the Kansas City Indian Center in Kansas City, MO and previous academic research concerning American Indian and mainstream non-native culture. Three specific aspects of being American Indian are examined in three sections: discovering common identities with non-native Americans through cosmologies, the persistence of discrimination and stereotyping, and the benefits Indians may have through association with and knowledge of traditional culture. A conclusion will review the main points of the essay and address one possible avenue for future research.
1) Common Cosmologies
The Kansas City Indian Center (KCIC), also called the Heart of America Indian Center, was first recognized by the United States federal government in 1971 as a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. Much of the KCIC’s work is dedicated to food-assistance and outpatient substance/alcohol abuse treatment through the Morningstar Outreach Program. Moses “Mo” Brings Plenty, who has worked at the KCIC for four years, currently fills a public relations role within the organization. He acts as a liaison between the Center and the community, offering cultural education and spiritual advising. Brings Plenty states that his “main objective in life is to rehabilitate the minds of Indian people. […] To help people remember who we are as tribal individuals” (personal communication, November 25, 2014).
Such a statement reflects the turbulent relationship that has existed between the United States and Indians for centuries. From a demographic perspective, the preservation of Indian culture through education and remembrance has as much to do with pride as it does with survival, if not more so:
From about 1500 to 1890, the American Indian population collapsed and seemed destined for extinction. American Indians may have numbered as many as ten million before European contact, but at the close of the nineteenth century, less than a quarter million survived (Snipp, 1992).
While their numbers have rebounded significantly in the twentieth century, “until recently, data for American Indians have been sparse, and Indians have been largely invisible in national recordkeeping systems” (Snipp, 1992). According to Brings Plenty there are about 30,000 American Indians living in the Kansas City region.
An important part of the Center’s cultural education services includes traditional teaching sessions that are held once every month. Brings Plenty emphasized that these sessions are important opportunities for the entire community to better understand Indian culture and values:
A lot of people, when they think about [an] indigenous way of prayer, they will almost classify it as individuals who pray to many gods when, in fact, there’s only one Creator of all Creation. But, we honor those who gave us language, gave us a song, and [who] shared with us how to structure our community, to show us “socialism”. They (people) are the true democracy. We share the understandings and the connections of that (personal communication, November 25, 2014).
While cosmologies are certainly not uniform across indigenous groups, many non-native Americans may be surprised to learn how similar their values actually are to those of American Indians. Previous research has looked into the seemingly incongruent natures of Indian and non-native American culture, specifically Indian education and the democratic ideal. Some fear that tribal sovereignty may undermine American democracy. According to Lomawaima and McCarty (2002) “many Americans view diversity as a threat to the national fabric, as a problem. [From this perspective] if the United States is going to realize its potential as a democracy, its citizens must face the Indian “problem”.
Such views are not foreign to political theorists and policy makers. In fact, great support for such views is maintained in certain European democracies. Yet, Lomawaima and McCarty “view diversity and democracy as inextricably linked” (2002). Rather than suppressing diversity, the United States should promote it in an effort to create what Lomawaima and McCarty call “critical democracy”. “To flourish, individual human beings as well as social groups need room – and opportunity and resources – to develop and implement their values, philosophies, and beliefs” (2002). A common view of democracy between the Indian and non-native American may actually be a unifying quality, not a divisive one.
2) The Persistence of Discrimination and Stereotyping
Two problems that contribute to this persistent misunderstanding of Indian values are discrimination and stereotyping. When asked about his personal experience with challenges faced as an American Indian today, Brings Plenty had several examples to share:
The biggest challenge that we are facing is the preservation of our identity, […] meaning our languages, our lifestyle, our ceremonies. Here in Kansas City we can go anywhere within a half-mile radius and we can count how many churches [there are] within a half-mile radius, yet Indian people have no property in their own homeland, in this area, to be able to have a ceremonial ground. So, we’re still looked down upon; we’re still being swept under the rug; we’re still being disrespected. Look at the football team in the city, for example, [the] Kansas City Chiefs. They’re named after [former] Mayor Bartle, but they’re not using his image. […] They’re utilizing ours. There’s no existing relationship between the Kansas City Chiefs and any of the Indian organizations in the city that have been here for 40-plus years. […] Not that these organizations did not reach out to them to see if they can build a relationship, it was the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs declined them. They made the attempt once in the 70s. It didn’t go so well (personal communication, November 25, 2014).
Moreover, many American Indian stereotypes continue to be reinforced in popular culture. Fryberg and Stephens (2010) addressed such harmful reinforcements that often go unnoticed:
Mainstream America (e.g., the media) generally prefers historical representations of American Indians to contemporary ones. In fact, popular media most commonly depicts American Indians as 18th- and 19th-century figures, such as Pocahontas, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph, and rarely depicts them in contemporary ways, as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or business people.
These representations have the effect of “obscur[ing] or actively deny[ing] the perspectives of minority groups (i.e., American Indians)” (2010). Meeks (2006) has also observed the powerful negative effects of stereotyping, specifically those of “Hollywood Injun English” in white public space:
The ability of consumers of movies and other media to equate one style of speech with an entire ethnic group (and erase all political, cultural, and linguistic diversity within the group) […] reflects the socializing effects of the consumers' experiences.
Non-native Americans are led to believe that all Indians talk in a certain way because Hollywood (using a stereotypically incorrect English) depicts them in this way. It may seem harmless to the majority culture, but it can be very harmful for both the majority and minority cultures in that any meaningful dialogue towards intercultural understanding becomes less likely. It is frustrated by cultural misrepresentations.
Brings Plenty helped stem the influx of American Indian stereotypes in Hollywood by co-starring in the 2013 film The Cherokee Word for Water, directed by Charlie Soap and Tim Kelly, which tells the story of the Bell Waterline Project in Oklahoma in the early 1980s. Placing the American Indian more often in modern-day roles and settings will expose non-native people to more appropriate portrayals. Brings Plenty illustrated his feelings towards cultural misrepresentations by stating:
There shouldn’t be a dialogue when it comes to racism. If there is a dialogue, the non-native people should be addressing the Washington [football] team. They should be calling Snyder’s office saying, ‘Get over yourself. Come back to humanity!’ We shouldn’t have to worry about a dialogue when it comes to racism. Period (personal communication, November 25, 2014).
Some scholars may argue that racism could be eliminated through a policy of “colorblindness”, but Fryberg and Stephens (2010) warn that such a policy may render American Indians invisible. That is to say because they must eke out an identity as a minority among minorities, ignoring their unique experience in a landscape that already tries to homogenize them may further diminish what Fryberg and Stephens call their public ways of being. “In domains where American Indians are invisible, these spaces, in effect, communicate that American Indians are not welcome or do not belong there.” Brings Plenty articulated the importance of multiculturalism in the following way, “The Creator of all Creation is the One who wants diversity. […] If the Creator wanted everyone to be the same He would’ve made it so from the very beginning.”
3) The Benefits of Traditional Culture Education
Manson, Shore, and Bloom (1985) have noted that “depression within particular American Indian communities may be ‘four to six times higher than that observed in the U.S. population at large’” (as cited in Whitbeck, McMorris, Hoyt, Stubben, & LaFrombroise, 2002). While this statistic is a little dated, it’s evident that the issue persists in American Indian communities today. As noted above, one of the main activities carried out by the KCIC is outpatient treatment for substance abuse. In addition to this program, research has demonstrated the positive effects of cultural education. The latter enterprise may have little to no significance to a member of the majority culture, but to a member of the minority culture, the mental health benefits may be invaluable:
Although factors related to culture (e.g., discrimination, culture conflict) may result in psychological distress, it is possible that aspects of traditional American Indian culture could serve as protective factors. […] For example, being strongly grounded in one’s culture may buffer against the stress of being considered an outsider by the majority culture. Cultural identification and cultural practices have been shown to contribute to prosocial behaviors such as academic success among American Indian adolescents (Whitbeck et al. 2002).
Other potential benefits discovered by Whitbeck et al. (2002) may derive from “an important interaction between perceived discrimination and traditional practices.” Although it remains unclear what actually produces the behaviors in this interaction, an increased affiliation with and/or increased knowledge of traditional culture appears to decrease perceived discrimination in American Indian individuals.
Such findings appear to reinforce the research of Lomawaima and McCarty which promotes a nation where all ethnic groups are given a platform for expression, thus deriving the benefits from a critical democracy. American Indians have yet to fully realize this practice within society. Cultural education is of the utmost importance to Brings Plenty who informed the author that the KCIC is considering an increase in the number of traditional teaching sessions during the year.
In many respects, the experience of being American Indian in Kansas City is not unlike those of other minorities. Yet, native history and the present situation demand a special consideration. Moses Brings Plenty took the opportunity to explain how he believes the American Indian story is unique by stating, “The only thing that’s different with us is that we’re slowly dying, not because of blood quantum, but [because of] the language, the preservation of our traditions” (personal communication, November 25, 2014). This essay sought to demystify certain aspects of American Indian culture in Kansas City, MO by looking at three specific aspects. Common identities between the non-native American and the Indian through cosmologies may potentially create a more unified democracy. This contradicts certain beliefs that diversity, not to mention Indian sovereignty, is harmful to the American democratic ideal. The persistence of discrimination and stereotyping in the media and popular culture hinders intercultural communication while further marginalizing American Indian culture and alienating minority individuals. However, the benefits Indians may have through association with and knowledge of traditional culture appears to reduce depressive symptoms and perceived discrimination. Further research may pay close attention to the relationship between cultural misrepresentations in mass media and normative behavior towards ethnic minorities. Zero-tolerance policies towards American Indian discrimination have yet to be implemented in certain areas of American society, especially popular culture.
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