Monthly Archives: October 2014

Christopher Columbus and the Poster Child

Just in time for Columbus Day, this arrived.


I had no idea what it was, but it was a big, smooshy package, so I opened it up. Inside I found this:


and this:


(note misplaced apostrophe in “The Chinn’s)

and this:


on the other side of which was this:


(why I’d want a wall calendar with my last name at the top isn’t clear)

and this:


and this:


and this:


and this:


and this:


All of this merch came courtesy of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, which serves the Lakota nation. Along with this immense pile of stuff was a letter that began “Dear Ms. Chinn. You could be a dreamcatcher.” It goes on to explain that “the Lakota (Sioux) believe good dreams and nightmares float in the air and a special willow frame strung with sinew can screen out nightmares…They call the ornament a ‘dreamcatcher’ and put one in every tipi and on the cradle board of every baby.”

First of all, you’d be hard pressed in 2014 to find many Lakota babies attached to cradle boards, although some are handed down generations and used for special occasions. Second, the dreamcatcher was not a Lakota custom until the Pan-Indian movement of the 1960s and ’70s; it originated among the Ojibwe and found its way to other nations through their political and intercultural connections. The kicker, though, is how this description ends: “Unfortunately, there aren’t many good dreams left for the Lakota people.” The letter goes on to characterize Lakota life on the reservation: “poverty, illiteracy and hopelessness — a nightmare fate that befalls so many Native Americans.” Finally, it asks readers to “help bring dreams of God’s hope to the Lakota children.”

Just in case that didn’t tug at your heartstrings enough, tucked in next to this typed letter is  this:


a “handwritten” letter from “Josh Little Bear” (not, the note informs us, his real name, which has been “changed to protect his privacy”), addressed directly to me. Nestled between the grainy black and white photo of a Lakota child (is it “Josh” himself?) and a child’s drawing of a tipi surrounded by dark houses is “Josh”‘s message to me. “Dear Ms. Chinn,” he says, “When I wake up in the morning, I thank God I’m at St. Joseph’s Indian School.” The cause of this thanksgiving is that St. Joseph’s has saved him from the danger of the reservation: “Sometimes my dad drinks and hits me. Not long ago my mom left me at my Grandma’s house and she said she didn’t want me anymore. She chose drugs over me.”

I don’t know whether the PR team that handles the St. Joseph’s account made up this letter — certainly, the fact that the handwriting is pretty clearly a computer font suggests that they did. What’s most striking to me is the implicit story this letter tells. Lakota children are without hope, victimized by drunk and violent fathers and junkie mothers, dumped onto grandmothers who can’t handle the responsibility. The reservation is a place of despair, and you, the prospective donor can provide hope. “Josh Little Bear” is the poster child for Indian degradation.

Paul Longmore, the much-missed historian of (among other things) disability in the United States, had a trenchant analysis of the phenomenon of poster children like “Josh Little Bear”  in the popular imagination. Associated with “innocent suffering,” poster children existed in a cultural and familial vacuum, “dependent objects of beneficence.” Dissociated from the possible taint of working-class parents and separated from any kind of community of other disabled people, the children who were trotted out every year in Jerry Lewis’s Muscular Dystrophy telethon, or on Easter Seals posters were empty signifiers of need, filled with meaning by people willing to pony up the cash. More recently, as it’s become decreasingly acceptable to pimp out disabled kids as fundraising tools, organizations like Children International and ChildFund (formerly the Christian Children’s Fund) have used images of impoverished black and brown children to raise money through “sponsorship” of individual children.

What all these organizations have in common with St. Joseph’s Indian School is the narrative of rescue and salvation. All you have to do is call the 1-800 number, pull out a credit card, and save a child from poverty and/or disability and/or disease and/or illiteracy. Like their disabled counterparts, these children seem to live outside of any context: community, family, culture. They are atomized representations of degradation. Of course, this isn’t a new story: it’s the founding logic of much European colonization of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. It finds its origin, at least in part, at the very beginnings of European explorations into the Americas, as Christopher Columbus found himself in the Bahamas in 1492.  Wandering among the indigenous people there, Columbus remarks that as far as he can tell, the locals were “without any religion that could be discovered ; they had never remarked the indians whom they kept on board the ships to be engaged in any sort of devotion of their own, but they would upon being directed, make the sign of the cross, and repeat the Salve and Ave Maria with the hands extended towards heaven.”

This passage raises a number of questions, not least of which is why these people were being “kept on board ships.” However, most striking is the assumption on the part of Columbus and his men that the people they meet are “without any religion” and that they can easily be taught the fundamentals of Christianity. Whatever religious beliefs the local Lucayan people may have had were unrecognizable to Columbus’s crew. Their family ties were insignificant, so they could be kidnapped without compunction. At the very beginnings of what we now call American history, we see one of the main threads of European imaginings of indigenous people: blank slates on which white benefactors can write whatever story they like.

The story of the reservation as a place of despair has some validity: indigenous people are among the most impoverished in the United States. Their rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide are disproportionate to their numbers in the population. However, as Indian writers like Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Paula Gunn Allen, Chrystos, N. Scott Momaday, and many others have shown, reservations are people’s homes, where they grow up with deep roots, and where they navigate the many obstacles to health and safety that all poor, colonized people face. Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian follows Junior, a Spokane teenager whose life is much like “Josh Little Bear”‘s: his father drinks too much, his sister runs away from home, family friends are killed in bar fights and drunken motorcycle accidents. But Junior’s feelings towards his family are tender, and even as he leaves the reservation, he’s fiercely loyal to it and the world in which he’s grown up. White people don’t rescue Junior: some of them help him, others victimize him, and still others view him as totally alien.

This is a story of indigenous life that St. Joseph’s School doesn’t just ignore — it actively erases it. Reservations can only be “nightmares”; Indian parents can be nothing but at best neglectful and at worst abusive. Indian children must be victims of a culture that aims to destroy them. After all, who better to blame for the destruction of indigenous cultures than native people themselves? With its dreamcatchers and address labels and wall calendars and notepads, St. Joseph’s is carrying on the work Columbus began, dressed up in 21st century finery.


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