Category Archives: Anthropology

Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”

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In Minnesota we have an epic “rural-urban” divide. Most epic about it is the degree to which it is oversimplified. Our “rural” area is incredibly diverse. A big chunk of it consists of a gazillion acres of corn, and among the corn, the farmsteads and small villages that serve the corn. A somewhat larger area consists of a the very large wet spot left behind by the receding glaciers, also known as the “lakes region” but that is more marsh than lake, and within which we find a gazillion “cabins” ranging in size and fanciness from actual cabin to small castle. I would include in this zone the large state and national parks and preserves and other lands, and good portions of Native American lands. A somewhat smaller area is the mining zone which some call “the range” (but there are many “ranges” and even rangers are usually not in agreement on the exact geography, and by the way, this is not a mountain range … no mountains at all.) Continue reading Maybe don’t use the term “Greater Minnesota”


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Graphic Fearless Primatology (book)

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Check out Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks*, a graphic style book** about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. These were, as you probably know, the three women that dispersed around the world to study major great ape species (chimps, gorillas, orangs, respectively) in order to better understand human evolution.

Example page:

These are three reasonably good biographies (and a fourth, of Louis Leakey, linked to all three life stories), presented in an entertaining (and graphic, as in drawing) fashion. Adults will enjoy it, suitable for children.


**I struggled with what to call it. It is “graphic novel” format but it is not a novel, It is non fiction. So, is it “graphic non fiction”? The material from the publisher calls it “nonfiction graphic novel” which is clearly not a phrase I want to use unironically. Suggestions welcome.


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Making Racism Uncomfortable

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In his book, “The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science,”* Philosopher Abraham Kaplan wrote “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” There are other versions of this hammer-nail link. In the normal course of things, the human mind is prepared to hammer new information into ready made spaces, an efficient but not always accurate way to think. That the brain works this way was not lost on the 19th and early 20th century philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce saw the human mind as an ever developing collection of “habits” formed of new experiences. A novel experience, usually involving some sort of linguistic or symbolic interaction, is associated with an emotional state that could not be confused with comfort (any other emotional state might due) until that kind of experience stopped being that way, and became habit-formed. Because of this individualized developmental process, individuals have ways of thinking that are normal, comfortable, generally unexamined, and the product of the culture in which we formed (and are still forming). Culturally embedded sexist and racist thinking are examples of this.

When new information comes along, the most comfortable thing to do is to place it into an existing framework. Over recent years, we seem to have gotten good at doing this using only headlines flashed across social media. So, if a headline has the words “gene” and “intelligence,” we conclude that more evidence for a genetic basic of intelligence, probably organized in categories of race, has been found. It does not matter that the article may have shown contrary evidence for a gene-intelligence link, and it seems to never matter that most modern research about genes and abilities do not make any reference to human divisibility into genetically discrete groups that could be called “races.” In our minds we have spaces for races and a need for genes, and a hammer at hand to put things in their place. The article headlines reinforce our pre-existing racist beliefs.

When a liberal-minded anti-racist thinker encounters evidence of race-based biology in humans, excuses are made. People of African descent can be celebrated for their amazing prowess in sports, and Jews (as good a “race” as any) have evolved and passed on among themselves measurably high levels of intelligence. And so on. Liberal guilt is assuaged when we hand out a few well placed goodies. This passive, seemingly (but not really) harmless version of race based thinking probably keeps a certain amount of racism alive in places where it should have withered in antiquity.

This is part of Adam Rutherford’s message in his new book, “How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference.”*

This book does not really tell us how to argue with a racist. Well, it covers Part I of doing so. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring half baked notions and shoddy data to a debate with a white supremacist who is up on his Stormfront reading. Rutherford’s book can prepare you with key data, clear concepts, and a rich reference to the relevant literature. You’ll need to find the techniques of argument elsewhere.

Rutherford trashes the commonly held framework for race, genetics and DNA. The concept of race itself, that humans can be divided into a number of categories (“White,” “Black,” “Whatever”) does not come close to reflecting the underlying genetic and historical reality of our species. I’ve made this argument countless times, and I’ve read most of the other stabs at it as well, and Rutherford’s version is the best, and most up to date. Beyond this, Rutherford takes to task, with engagingly presented detail and impeccable logic, some of the key myths about race, such as the aforementioned kudos to African-heritage athletes, and more generally, the racialization of sports.

Consider runners. Rutherford documents the fact that there has not been a record-fast white person in the Olympics since the entirely non-white American running team boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and that was a fluke year. For endurance running, in subsequent years, it has been mainly Kenyans and Ethiopians who have won the vast majority of high stakes marathons. If you start with the assumption that there is a gene for “fast” or a gene for “endurance,” you’ll quickly find one for each of these traits, and the innate causality argument presents itself. But if you broaden the argument to full interrogation of the human species, to use the genetic model to explain fastness or endurance across the wide world of sports, the argument quickly dissipates. If certain genes lent great fast, or long distance, running prowess to dozens of specific populations around the world, why do only two such populations produce these runners?

This is how scientists are supposed to operate. We observe variation in something, then try to understand the variation. When an explanation explains only a tiny amount of the overall variation, it probably fails. A genetic argument for rapid or powerful muscles predicts that several different populations should dominate in certain sports, not just one or two out of hundreds. A parallel genetic argument regarding lung capacity, or adapting to living at high altitude, predicts that several different populations should dominate the marathon. But they don’t. Rutherford does what scientists do, and observes another possible source of variation that could explain why Kenyans and Ethiopians seem to always win marathons. Turns out, it is cultural. (You’ll find details in the book.)

How to Argue With a Racist provides a good summary of the history of “race science,” a term Rutherford asks us to stop using (there are no races, and this isn’t science). The author explores arguments about physicality, sexuality, morality, athleticism, and intelligence. I would like to have seen the section on IQ expanded, since it is important for documenting how nefarious race science has been especially in apartheid era South Africa. Here is where our role as variation explainers is possibly clearest. The full range of modern IQ values for any large American population is of the same magnitude of the range of historical IQ means over time, with the earliest values being low and modern values being high. (The “Flynn Effect.”) The same is true with human stature, by the way. Populations of US immigrants, as well as several European nations, gained considerable height and IQ points over nearly a century of time. Yet, the cemetaries are not full of non-reproducing short dim people. We did not genetically evolve tall stature and IQ’s of 100 on average. Genetics does not explain variation in IQ (or stature) over time, so we might wonder how well genetics explains either of these traits across space synchronously.

Also not mentioned by Rutherford is the racist physical anthropology of J. Philippe Rushton, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps Rutherford is not as comfortable with bones as he is with genes (human biology is subdivided into these areas). The short version of that story is that Rushton was in a long line of physical anthropologists who got very good at massaging brain size estimates so that they would correlate with largely useless statistics about intelligence, morality, and sexuality, across the three main “races” of White, Black and Asian. In this case, though, the variation in brain size isn’t simply explained better by a non race based explanation. The variation is made up, introduced by “adjusting” the already iffy data.

Another concept not covered by Rutherford is the role of culture and childhood. Interestingly, Rutherford does mention Henry Harpending, who was a member of the famous Kalahari Project led by Irven Devore (my PhD advisor) and Richard Lee, to study the ways of the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of Namibia and Botswana. Harpending was the geneticist on that project. Later in his career, he wrote a paper and a book dismantled by Rutherford on the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people. He was also known for making rather startling statements about race (I will not repeat here my conversations with him, but I can verify Rutherford’s impression of Harpending’s running commentary.) Another person on that same research project was Mel Konner, husband of Marjorie Shostak (author of Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman).* I believe it was Konner who first fully articulated the role of childhood in making a little human into a big one. (See his book The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind*)

Childhood is a special derived feature of humans. It is deadly, costly, and often annoying. Clearly, such a trait must be maintained by strong selection. The things that make our fully formed brains so impressive, such as the use of language, human style “theory of mind,” and so on, arise in a typical individual during this period of slowed down maturation. We humans reach maturity years later than we should (compared to other apes) because of this costly childhood phase. We are who we are as individuals because of our culture, and childhood is the delivery mechanism for culture. If we want to explain variation across individuals or across geography in human behavior, look to culture and its development first, and if there is much left unexplained, consider genes. This is, by the way, how we can make two seemingly contradictory statements unironically: There is no such thing as race; yet race is an important human concept. Genetically, no races. Culturally, race is a possibility (but not a necessity).

Slavery of Africans did not breed better athletes, repression and widespread murder of Ashkenazim did not breed professors and Fed chairs, the genetic variation we see in humans is best explained by distance across geographic space and not by bounded internally consistent races, and there are very few cases of variable human traits that map neatly onto underlying simple variation in genes.

Rutherford’s book also addresses genealogy, both the kind you get when you do documentary research into your family tree, and the kind you get when you spit in a tube and send it to a commercial DNA analysis place. In some ways, that might be the most important part of the book, because of the extreme popularity of this exercise, and its link in some quarters to white supremacy. You will be amused, shocked, and amazed by this discussion, and you won’t believe some of it even though it is really true. Rutherford is a geneticist, and he understands and does a great job explaining the concept of genetic isopoint. An example: All living Europeans (as a quasi racial group that includes, for example, Albanians, Brits, Poles, and Ukrainians, etc.) have as ancestors every person who lived in Europe at the time of William the Conqueror.

The global isopoint is much more recent than people think, being only a few thousand years in the past, and post dating the earliest, and even some of the latest, regional origins of agriculture. Everyone alive at that time was either the ancestor of everyone alive today or the ancestor of no one alive today. So, the idea that an African foraging population split off into different regions, some of which developed agriculture or this or that civilizations, others remaining as foragers, etc. is simply not an accurate way to describe genetic history. Stephen Miller in the White House and a Maasai Woman in a traditional village in Tanzania share a set of isopointal ancestors about 3-5 thousand years ago, like it or not. And I’m sure she does not. I know you don’t believe this, but just read the book and come back and complain if you like. As the descendant of royalty, I don’t care.


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Browner Nation USA

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My family recently moved into what was long known to be the bestest of all public school districts in Minnesota, and also, long known to be the whitest in the Twin Cities area. We moved here because it is where my wife works, and we got lucky, tricking the owner of a run down old town house to sell it to us for about 30% off market value. So, whitest, most privileged, in what is considered to be a white state by people who have heard of Minnesota but never been there.

Every morning I go to the bus stop with my blond and pale-skinned Nordic son, who goes to the elementary school in this district. He is the token white kid born in the USA at that bus stop. The other kids are: Indian, of an Indian family, he was born in the US but none of his family were. Ironically, he has a thick Indian accent while his older brother, born in India, talks like a standard American teenager. Funny how that works. Two kids whom I had guessed were from Indonesia, not really English speakers a year ago when they moved here, but now are very American-English savvy. “Yes, everyone thinks they are Indonesian” their born-in-China mom told me. “But I’m Chinese and my husband is from Somalia.” Indonesia is, of course, about half way between the two, so that makes total sense. Then, one kid from Russia, speaks very little English, but it is fun to hear her speak Russian every day with one or two additional English words thrown in. Today it was “Bla bla bla kid’s play area bla bla bla.” Then, the little girl who speaks mostly French, just moved here from Quebec. My son’s school is white-minority, but probably plurality, with Asian (mostly south Asian) probably being second, with African-American, African-from-Africa, and Hispanic rounding out most of the rest. But, as noted, about half of the “white” kids are not from the US, or at least, their parents are not.

How many teachers and administrators are there in the school system who are not white? I’ve personally never met one but there is a rumor of an African American woman in the High School admin, and one of the teachers at my son’s Elementary school is African American, and maybe another one is kinda Hispanic. Not the Spanish Teacher, Mrs O’Reilly, though. She’s Irish American.

We hear about how “America will be not white majority in” some future year kinda far off. Most recent projections say 2045, but don’t believe it. It will be sooner. And, now there is a report that non-Hispanic white kid ratio has risen to about 50-50. From what I see, don’t believe that easier. That transition is happening too fast for demographers, who are always a few years behind in their data, to measure. The results of the 2020 census will be very interesting!

White supremacy is one of this country’s major problems. It is rearing its big ugly head these days for the reasons cited above. I think that problem will get worse before it gets better. But, in 20 years from now when the US is a very brown nation, most of the White Supremacists will learned to shut up, or will have died off. Or both.

We’ve been here before. This was once a white minority sub continent. Our brief history of mighty whiteness was a mixed bag, to be sure.

See: Older People Projected to Outnumber Children for First Time in U.S. History (2018)

Children of color projected to be majority of U.S. youth this year (2020)


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Best Children’s Book on Human Evolution

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Aside from evolutionary theory itself, the teaching of Human evolution involves physiology and reproductive biology, behavioral biology, genetics, and the fossil record itself with details of a concomitant history.

And finally, there is a children’s book that addresses the latter, in amazing detail!

There are very few good (or even bad) children’s books about evolution, and far fewer about human evolution. And when a children’s book touches on human evolution, it is usually just about Neanderthals.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution by Michael Bright with illustrations by Hannah Bailey is a very good book on human evolution. The book is over 60 pages long in large format, and my copy is cloth bound. The production quality of the book is outstanding. (That is generally the case with this publisher.)

I am am impressed with this title, and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for a book for a kid of a certain age to read, or a younger kid to get read to.

What is that certain age? I’m thinking 10 plus or minus 2, depending on the kid. The publishers say 8-11. So somewhere around there. A 10 year old who absorbs the material in this book will do OK on an intro college human evolution midterm that focuses on the fossil and archaeological record. Or at least, the child will be able to effectively challenge the professor in a grade grubbing situation.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution covers primate evolution, key moments in hominin history, bipedalism, early tools, brain evolution, the origin of fire (nice to see my research embodied as fact in an actual children’s book!), Homo erectus and Neanderthals, modern humans, foragers, early agriculture, holicene history, language, art, early burial, and other things such as hobbits.

There are only four places where I would take issue with the facts as presented here. The root hypothesis for the human-chimp split is left out, I would discuss early tools differently, the author embraces the scavenging hypothesis too kindly, and the great global diversity and overall craziness of the agricultural transition is glossed in favor (mostly) of the old Fertile Crescent story, which is not wrong, just limited. Given that this book presnets roughly 165 facts or perspectives, me disagreeing with this small number is rather remarkable.

The art is great, the typefaces well chosen, the layout is artful and foregrounds the aforementioned are and the facts.

You can preorder this book now; it will be out mid July.


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Bigfoot might not be real

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Hereis the Bigfoot Report from the FBI. This has just been released to the public.

This report details the analysis of 15 samples of hair and tissue submitted by a citizen, Mr Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center.

In this report, the FBI documents extensive correspondence as well as submitted newspaper reports regarding Bigfoot.

The samples, it turns out, are from the Cervid family.


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Notre-Dame de Paris has burned

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To my friends and loved ones in and of Paris, and of France, I am so very very sorry.

Notre-Dame de Paris has burned. This is a real tragedy. Time will tell how bad the damage is, but we already know enough to say that if this structure stands again on the Île de la Cité, it will be mostly as a reconstructed, not restored, cathedral.

There is a mere handful of sites that if destroyed by fire would be as tragically destroyed, because of its architecture and history. The building was built between 1163 and 1345 and served as a keystone center for the same exact civilization so many of us, on this day and in this year, strive to save and also change for the better.

I am a member of a large community of atheists, and I’m sure the vast majority of my atheist friends join in lamenting this loss. For the small subset who will find this to be not a tragedy, because the building is merely a building, or because it has housed the high ceremony of European oppression, or because anything Catholic is simply worthy of disdain, please read this post about the significance and the sanctity of the Dead Sea Scrolls to an atheist such as myself, and you can substitute a centuries-old iconic Catholic church in Paris for a library of ancient writings on the Dead Sea.

Vive La France.


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Taking a walk through Uncanny Valley

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This is a reposting of an item I originally published in Seed Magazine. The online version of that was lost when Seed went belly-up. I post it here because I occasionally try to refer to it but can never find it. But now, I can!

Original Title: Perfect Strangers

The Eerie Emotional Response Brought On By Near-Duplicates Of Ourselves Raises Interesting Questions About Perception And Expectations Continue reading Taking a walk through Uncanny Valley


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An excellent study of human psychology, evolution, modes of thinking. Read this book.

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It is possible to view the human experience, and the evolution of Homo sapiens, and the development over time of human society and culture, from a number of different perspectives, all of which are, of course, wrong. That is what scholars of Homo sapiens do. They produce misleading, biased, or otherwise poor descriptions or explanations pertaining to humans and their history, one after the other, and try to make others believe them. That is really just human story telling (and story telling is clearly an important part of the human experience). This endeavor becomes scholarly when the various story tellers test their stories against each other, and against facts or observations made outside the context of the creation of the story, and thus, over time, produce an increasingly refined, still wrong, but less wrong, version.

The first chapter of The Importance of Small Decisions (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life) by by Michael J. O’Brien, R. Alexander Bentley, and William A. Brock, which discusses the evolution of scholarly thought about the origin of agriculture, provides an example of this process of evolution of understanding in the context of the growth of knowledge.

This book is an analysis of the relationship between human choices, human culture, human society, and the context in which those forces generate outcomes that may or may not have been expected. The analysis starts with one of the most important questions asked, and usually ignored, about human history. How is it that humans came up with agriculture so many times, over a short period (of a few thousand years?), more or less all at once, in regions that has zero chance of any kind of interaction? The most significant transformation in human history happened independently at that time, but not before, without any apparent single or simple cause. But there were causes. They had to do with the environment, demographics, and circumstance. They happened to humans much like similar species-species (plant-animal or animal-animal) relationships evolved in hundreds of thousands of cases across life on this life-rich planet. Individual human decisions were involved, culture was causative and transformed, and society changed and constrained, potentiated and proscribed. It was all very complicated. But when it came down to individual human decisions, they mattered in ways that you would never expect or predict because such things are utterly unpredictable.

Continue reading An excellent study of human psychology, evolution, modes of thinking. Read this book.
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LBJ, 1968, Vietnam

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I’ve been thinking about, and reviewing history of, the Vietnam War. I don’t have a lot to say about this right now, but there are a few items I’d like to bring up.

First, a small thing. People often talk about the Vietnam War as a war that involved the French. Someone will say, something about how the Americans really screwed up with the Vietnam War, and someone will reply, “well, it was really the French first, then the Americans.” That is technically true. But, the war fought by the French in Vietnam and the war fought by the Americans in Vietnam were really two different (and of course, related) wars. Sometime the French war is called the First Indochina War, and the American war is called the Second Indochina war. The first war ended with the partitioning of Vietnam into North and South. Before that partition, things were a certain way, with respect to who was fighting who, where, and for what reason. After that partition, things were a different way, with respect to who was fighting who, where, and for what reason. Continue reading LBJ, 1968, Vietnam


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Great deal on a must read book: Children of God

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For reasons I can not fathom, Mary Doria Russell’s books, The Sparrow and Children of God are seen as important novels in the discussion of religion and belief. Maybe it is the mention of “children of god” in the title of the second book. Maybe it is the fact that one of the main characters is a priest, and a good part of the novel takes place in a monkery. It is even the case that the publishers have for some editions included some extra back matter on how to use these books as a focal point in your church reading groups. Continue reading Great deal on a must read book: Children of God


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Difference and Disease: Excellent new book on medicine and race in the 18th century British empire

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Suman Seth is associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, at Cornell. He is an historian of science, and studies medicine, race, and colonialism (and dabbles as well in quantum theory). In his new book, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire, Seth takes on a fascinating subject that all of us who have worked in tropical regions but with a western (or northern) perspective have thought about, one way or another.

As Europeans, and Seth is concerned mainly with the British, explored and conquered, colonizing and creating the empire on which the sun could never set no matter how hard it tried, they got sick. They also observed other people getting sick. And, they encountered a wide range of physiological or biosocial phenomena that were unfamiliar and often linked (in real or in the head) to disease. A key cultural imperative of British Colonials as to racialize their explanations for things, including disease. The science available through the 18th and 19th century was inadequate to address questions that kept rising. Like, why did a Brit get sick on his first visit to a plantation in Jamaica, but on return a few years later, did not get as sick? If you have a model where people of different races have specific diseases and immunities in their very nature, how do you explain that sort of phenomenon? How might the widely held, or at least somewhat widely held, concept of polygenism, have explained things? This is an early version of the multi-regional hypothesis, but more extreme, in which god created each type of human independently where we find them, and we are all different species. (Agassiz, with his advanced but highly imperfect geological understanding, thought the earth was totally frozen over with each ice age, and repopulated with these polygenetic populations of not just humans, but all the organisms, after each thaw).

Seth weaves together considerations of slavery and abolition, colonialism, race, geography, gender, and illness. This is an academic book, but at the same time, something of a page turner. Anyone interested in disease, colonial history, and race, will want to re-excavate the British colonial world, looking at disease, illness, and racial thinking, with Suman Seth as your guide. I highly recommend this book.


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Dialects

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This is a fun video. It includes a few pronunciation sweeps we don’t usually see.

Do you know the phrase “The furnace is broken, call Earl the oilman!” Which, in certain American English dialects sound like “… Oil the earlman.”

And you know “Paak the caa in Haavaaad yaaad” form the dialect that the “r’s” except the ones that aren’t there. When I lived in that region, I need to learn the specific dialect of Somerville Mass, otherwise it was impossible to do certain things like get off the bus. If you are in the back of the bus, you yell out “rear door” so the driver will open the back door for you. But if it doesn’t sound like “Reaa dohaaa” you will miss your stop.

I’m told I have a thick dialect. Amanda and I were at a restaurant the other day, and for reasons I can’t remember, the region of birth of the waiter and everyone else came up. He said to me, “you’re from New York, right?” and I said, “Yes, how did you know?” and Amanda and the waiter broke out laughing. I checked to see if I was wearing a hat or T-shirt that said something on it, but I wasn’t.

OK here’s another one:

I’ll tell you two Minnesota dialect stories. First, I’ll mention that Minnesota itself has multiple dialects, and at least one of them runs well into Wisconsin, but not Milwaukee or the cities down near Chicago.

When I first moved to Minnesota, I got a local friend who ended up showing me around the Twin Cities (mainly Minneapolis), showing me the ropes and all that. I noticed she had certain mannerisms of speech other than the usual Minnesota accent. I didn’t hear these things from anyone else, so I figured it was just her.

Then, I met my wife, years later, and got to know a lot of people in the western Suburbs. Eventually I realized that my wife and my friend had the same mannerisms. Turns out this was a eastern Plymouth/Golden Valley accent, pretty much developed in the Robinsdale school district (Neil Armstrong High).

One of my first times out state (the increasingly considered no-no-term for “rural Minnesota”) and which is roughly like “up state” in New York, this happened. We had been up to Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi (and no, “Itasca” is meant to sound a little Indian but it is actually derived clumsily from the Latin, something about a head). Up there, you don’t meet too many local people, and in fact, I didn’t. But on the way back, we stopped for a brat at a local S.A. (all hardware stores, grocery stores, and gas stations in Minnesota are also little restaurants, or at least, were when I first moved here, but many have dropped that tradition with the arrival of fast food). Anyway, I ordered the brats, gave the young girl (maybe 15) the money, and she returned my change. Then, she said as I was leaving, “Gudatcha!”

I said, “what?”

She said, “Gudatcha!”

That happened a few times. Finally I smiled and said, “you too” and left.

Eventually, I figured out what it meant. Can you?

I’ll end with this one. It is a classic. NOT WORK SAFE MAY BE OFFENSIVE


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Native Americans Actually Do Exist

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The law works differently in different countries. If you commit a crime in one country, and jump over the border to an adjoining country, what can or might happen to you depends on the arrangements that have been made between the two countries.

Similarly, the law that applies, and the actual application of the law if any, is complicated when it comes to non-natives committing crime on native lands, which are separate nations, within the United States. I am very far from an expert on this. What I know about it comes from conversations with my friend Shawn Otto, who wrote a novel set in this boundary space between native and non-native lands (Sins of Our Fathers: A Novel, excellent story, go read it).

PZ Myers commented on something related in a recent blog post in which he notes a recent study suggesting that nearly half of non-Native Americans do not believe that Native people exist.

Recently, a host on a wildly popular podcast, who is Indian (as in from the Indian subcontinent, in Asia) took to referring to himself and his compatriots as “real Indians,” a reference to the idea that Columbus got it wrong when he referred to the indigenous people he ran into in the Caribbean as “Indians,” thinking he was in Asia while at the same time not having a very clear concept of what “Asia” might actually be.

I found that reference deeply offensive and I’m neither Asian-Indian or American Indian. Its just that Native Americans have enough trouble being taken seriously that I’m pretty sure they don’t need some over privileged Hollywood type from California suggesting that Native Americans are in some way non-real.

I grew up in Upstate New York, and later moved to the Boston area. That was, in a sense, going backwards in historical time in relation to Indians. From my own studies of regional history and archaeological work in the time period, I knew that a very large percentage of the Native cultures near Boston, and anywhere near Boston, were wiped out way early in the Colonial Period, while Native groups played a more persistent role in US history in New York and nearby areas of Canada. Putting this another way, we are not even quite sure of the full range of tribes that existed or what they called themselves, along the Massachusetts coast, while the New York area Haudenosaunee and some Algonquin groups are well known in history, and very much present both on and off reservations.

I remember moving to Milwaukee for a year, and discovering that Wisconsin had what was referred to as the “Indian Problem” by some people. It sounds a little more obnoxious than it actually was. The problem was disagreement over fishing rights and regulations in commonly held territories, and it was a problem that involved claims by Indian groups vs. claims by the state. I heard the term “Indian Problem” later, and read it in older documents, when I moved to Minnesota. The process of taking land from Indians, and otherwise pushing them out, moving them aside, or starving them off, was very recent in Minnesota. There are living people who’s grandparents had artifacts from the Dakota War(aka “Sioux Upraising” or “Little Crow’s War”). Some of those artifacts may have been body parts from Native Americans executed after the uprising was put down. In historic documents, the “Indian Problem” seems sometimes to refer to the constant threat of Indian attack in areas near Minneapolis or Saint Paul, well within the current boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area, early in the 20th century. These attacks are memorialized in stories and newspaper accounts, way post-date the Dakota War, and I’m 100% sure they never ever happened. They were used as a publicity stunt to make the idea of traveling out to the Twin Cities to stay in a hotel and take in the fresh air more exciting for New Yorkers and others out east.

The study mentioned above is described here. The study shows that Native American erasure from common or popular understanding in the United States is partly due to the way Native people and issues are treated by the media. Also, Natives are largely underrepresented, or absent, in educational programs, or where they appear, it is as historical figures or factors as though they existed in the past, but not necessarily now.

I actually don’t see this as a huge problem in Minnesota, and I assume it is more of a bi-coastal and possibly Southern thing. Native American presence in Minnesota is pretty out front, and I think it would be very difficult to find that more than a tiny percentage of Minnesotans think Native Americans don’t exist. Of the several individuals running for Governor or Lt. Governor in Minnesota this year, at least one is a Native American. This does not mean that the attitude about Native people is good. It probably isn’t on average. Native American reservations are often discussed in the same light as really bad urban neighborhoods, as places to avoid. At best, Native Americans are interesting or quaint.

(I note that the above mentioned Shawn Otto write the script for a brand new planetarium show in our local natural history museum, in which a kid bonks his head and ends up in an oz-like world where he learns about the history of the universe. The role is played by a young Native boy. That was helpful.)

A few years ago there was an effort by the state, I think through the Department of Education, to have more reference to Native peoples in schools. The way they did this was, in my view, not smart. Although the standard itself was somewhat better defined, they essentially required that every core course taught in the schools incorporate something about Native Americans. That’s it. Simple. This, of course, required that, say, the physical science teacher, or the math teacher, be sufficiently expert in Native American studies of some sort, to come up with something, and sufficiently enlightened to not end up doing something harmful, misleading, or hateful. There are a lot of ways to get a key bit of subject matter into a curriculum. Telling each teacher to come up with ten minutes on that topic no matter what they are teaching has never been done before, for any topic. Why this topic? Clearly, the mandate was not being taken seriously.

From the Women’s Media Center coverage of the above mentioned report:

When exposed to narratives about Native people that included factual information about present-day Native life, more accurate history, positive examples of resilience, and information about systemic oppression, respondents from all demographics showed more support for pro-Native policy and social justice issues. Information that was shared with respondents included simple statements such as “The government signed over 500 treaties with Native Americans, all of which were broken by the federal government. From 1870 to 1970, the federal government forcibly removed Native American children from their homes to attend boarding schools.” On key issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, racist mascots, and tribal sovereignty, 16-24 percent more people supported the position of tribes after being exposed to these new messages.

That large a shift in public support can easily be the difference in an election outcome, a bill’s passage, or the actions of large corporations, such as sports teams. Positive and accurate portrayal of Natives in the mainstream media has the potential to significantly advance Native rights in this country. Alongside the report, Reclaiming Native Truth released a guide for allies on how to improve coverage of Native Americans. The guide includes examples of positive messaging and questions for media makers to ask themselves, such as “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative by not taking into account or including contemporary Native peoples in my work?”

“The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes,” said Echo Hawk. “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.”

Photo above: Minnesotans learning about Native Americans at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, in Minnesota.


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