Claudia Fox Tree discusses the impact of negative stereotypes

October 16, 2020

Harmful stereotypes against Indigenous people go back centuries, and it is important to unlearn these stereotypes, according to Claudia Fox Tree in her virtual talk on Oct. 12, the first of many Indigenous Peoples’ Day events at Brandeis.

Fox Tree explained that the colonizers did not see Indigneous people as fully human. Indigenous people were seen as Pagan and depicted as savages for their way of life and customs. This idea is what helped the colonizers justify their slavery, their claiming of the land and the general terrible treatment of Native Americans. Traces of these stereotypes can be seen in modern culture, in movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Pocahontas.” On the PowerPoint accompanying her lecture, Fox Tree made sure to point out the specific examples so viewers could clearly understand. 

“Being involved in any kind of anti-oppression work is about recognizing that every person has a basic right to human dignity,” said Fox Tree during her talk. To Fox Tree, recognizing that is the most critical part of being a good ally. 

Fox Tree explained why stereotypes are damaging, saying that stereotypes make one story the only story, a negative thing that is exacerbated when the stereotypes are not flattering. Fox Tree also had qualitative data to back up her point, reciting statistics that she found troubling. Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, and Native American women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women, she said. 

Fox Tree also discussed the “sexy princess” and “peaceful surrender” stereotypes associated with Indigenous people. She cited “Pocahontas” and Halloween costumes as examples of the “sexy princess” stereotype, a concept that would have major real world consequences, referencing the July 2020 To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Chek’ report. There are 2306 missing Native American women and girls in the United States, 1800 of which were from the last 40 years alone, according to the report.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was the topic of the surrender stereotype. Outside the building, there is a statue titled “Appeal of the Great Spirit.” Fox Tree argued that a peaceful statue like this was further justification for the claiming of American land by colonizers, almost as if the Native Americans gave the Europeans the land. She said that the Europeans instead took the land, claiming that they had discovered it. She said Lewis and Clark physically branded trees to represent ownership of the land. The Indigenous people who lived there had no similar type of formal claim. This led to the current rule that Native Americans can live on land but not keep it—“occupancy, not ownership.” 

According to Fox Tree, decolonization is a many-step process that starts with unlearning and examining beliefs and ends with replacing a Western version of history. Native Americans are severely underrepresented and stereotyped in American culture, she said. Her recommendation moving forward was to force your brain to build new synapses, to make new connections about Native American people as a whole. She said that we all have implicit bias and sometimes the brain completely takes over and “reacts in a fight or flight kind of way …. Implicit bias becomes so strong that it becomes the only way to react.” 

She listed three strategies for undoing implicit bias of all kinds and establishing new connections. Her first strategy was to “calm your lizard brain,” as she put it. This involved calming yourself down and getting rid of that fight or flight response. Her second strategy was to create new human connections across groups of people in order to “prime the limbic system with new associations.” These new friends will bring a more positive initial response to your brain instead of that negative implicit bias. Her third strategy was to create new narratives. She urged listeners to “amplify counter-specific imaging and messaging.” 

Fox Tree was the first of seven guest speakers brought in on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13. A recording of her lecture will be posted shortly. More information on this event as well as the other Indigenous Peoples’ Day events can be found on the Intercultural Center (ICC) website. 

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