We applaud Kansas State University’s efforts to spark discussion on important issues related to Native Americans. For the past few years, the university has marked Indigenous Peoples Day that way. Here in Manhattan, we are, after all, on land once occupied by the Kansa tribe.
We also found the remarks of a keynote speaker at this year’s events instructive and valuable. But we have to say there was also something she said that clanged a bit. We’d like to critique that, not in the interests of undermining her other observations, but because we think there’s something important about the critique.
The speaker was Stephanie Fryberg, a member of a Native American tribe who is a professor at the University of Michigan. As an aside, her title — University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology — is enough to make a cynic roll her eyes and a reasonable person scratch his head.
Anyway, Dr. Fryberg’s speech was about Indian mascots, of which there is one right here in River City. We’re going to set aside that issue for the moment.
What we want to ponder is the closing sentence of the Mercury’s report on her presentation, wherein she said that, to paraphrase, Indigenous Peoples Day and the discussion about these issues is about recognizing that activists continue to fight for progress “and that we will force the world to see us the way we want to be seen.”
There’s something wrong with that view.
We might like to be seen as Albert Einstein. We might like the world to see us as Mother Teresa. We might want to force everybody to view us as the second coming of George Washington, or Socrates.
That just won’t work.
OK, so we can grant Dr. Fryberg the point that the underprivileged have to fight for everything, and have to sometimes be confrontational to make progress. Fair enough. We can accept that. Martin Luther King, Jr., was viewed at his time as something of a radical.
But if the whole thing is about forcing the rest of the world to see a group the way it wants to be seen, that’s simply impossible, and will lead to frustration and misunderstanding.
A better way to phrase it — and to think about it — is to structure the goal as helping society see Native Americans the way they actually are. That includes the beauty, the culture, the history, the warts, the flaws, and the bumps and bruises. Otherwise we’re further in the soup of imagery and illusion, and then it’s just a battle of paying for and controlling a public relations campaign.
This is why events like Indigenous Peoples Day are important. They bring to the surface issues like this. A university at the center of that sort of discussion is nothing but good. We encourage a continuation of that discussion. We simply want to encourage the discussion to be about reality, and about facts, and not just about an image that somebody wants to portray.