Did Oprah stereotype the Navajo? - Printable Version
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Did Oprah stereotype the Navajo? - brianold - 06-08-2006 10:40 AM
Posted on Tue, Jun. 06, 2006
DORREEN YELLOW BIRD COLUMN: Oprah missed an important chance
I've been a fan of Oprah Winfrey for many years. I've laughed, cried and examined issues I didn't know were issues. So when Oprah and her Harpo companies (that's "Oprah" spelled backward) visited the Navajo reservation at Window Rock, Ariz., on May 31, I figured this hero of television would be a hit.
They were a hit all right, but they also caused concern among Navajo people. They were stereotyping Navajo people and creating misconceptions about Native Americans.
The major complaint by the Navajo people is that the powwow tradition is borrowed. It belongs mostly to the Plains tribes, and the Navajo people tried to explain that to Oprah's company. But the Harpo companies insisted that a powwow be a part of their taping and couldn't be persuaded into anything else, the people said.
Even more important, the company seemed to miss the real Navajo culture.
In Indian country, we do borrow and exchange traditions. When tribes met with other tribes and non-Natives, they exchanged goods and trade items. Through the years, we've also exchanged gifts such as the Sundance, ceremonies, regalia and powwows, but we almost always know from whom the borrowed tradition came. That's an unwritten understanding in Indian country.
Today, you'd find fewer Native people who are full blood than you would mixed bloods. We have exchanged more than trade goods: My nieces and nephews are Navajo and Sahnish (Arikara), for example.
As I mentioned, Harpo missed some of the truly beautiful traditions of the Navajo people and instead will have the entire country believe that powwows are a Navajo tradition. Some of what they missed is the Navajo rug-making art, the hogan ceremonies in which sand paintings are used for healing and the importance of the land, sheep and people.
I know it's a rich culture. Years ago when I graduated from high school, my mother sent me to Navajo country to help my sister, who had three children. My sister and her husband both were working and needed a babysitter for the summer.
I had little choice and took a bus to Gallup, N.M. I arrived in that predominately Navajo town about midnight and was told to walk to the local Catholic mission. A priest in his nightclothes answered my pounding on the mission door. He found me a place in the mission school, and I slept among school desks and chairs that night. I fell asleep looking at a blackboard and a teacher's desk.
My sister picked up a rather irritated teen the next day. I was not a happy camper.
But it was the beginning of an adventure into an old culture I wouldn't forget.
While there, the family drove us way out on a dirt road into the desert of New Mexico. We traveled for miles over rough terrain. Finally, we came over a hill, and there among a circle of several bonfires was a Navajo traditional dance.
It was unlike those I'd experienced on the Plains. No one spoke English, and the dances were strange and unique. I stared like some gawking newcomer.
I don't remember when it ended; the uniqueness of the experience washed away the little details.
A few weeks later, we drove to a ceremony that was being held in one of the districts. It was some distance away. We drove along the main highway, and when it got dark, we pulled off the road, set up camp, made a fire, cooked and ate, and slept there - right on the main drag of this paved highway.
We arrived at the outback. Under the homemade shades of poles with shrub tops, women in long skirts were roasting lamb, making mutton stew and frying the most unbelievably delicious fried bread. It also was different from Plains tribes: It was less "bready," pulled to a dish size shape and fried golden brown.
It was dawn and beginning to get light, but the sun hadn't come up when I could see runners in the distance - bringing fire, I think. When the runners were settled and a ceremony completed, the women came into the area and scattered candy and fruit in the desert area for the children.
I learned to enjoy the taste of roasted lamb and mutton stew, but mostly the fried bread was the best. I never could duplicate it, even though the families tried to teach me.
Later, I attended one of their district meetings held out in the desert. Their government is as large as their nation. They have more than 17 million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah - the largest reservation in the United States. The reservation is about the size of West Virginia and has a population of about 180,363.
They're not Plains tribes. Their ceremonies and ways are different. Their language is distinctly unique and rich. The Harpo companies missed some of the beauty and wonder of this culture; the executives were guided, I suspect, by their own stereotypes.
yeah - mizzy - 06-16-2006 10:40 PM
yeah, it's possible that Oprah stereotyped Navajo people. But, what the show about is my question?
- brianold - 06-17-2006 04:31 PM
when i first read it my initial assumption was that she was trying to bring attention to both the contributions of the navajo people and to the conditions of indian reservations around the country. knowing oprah and how she works, those are the only two reason i can think of why she would go there. since her ratings feed off of people's compassion for other people in poor situations, that's most likely the reason she was there.
hmmm - mizzy - 06-18-2006 02:58 AM
Are you suggesting that Oprah's compassionate liberalism translated into a kind of stereotyping of Navajo people?
- brianold - 06-18-2006 03:47 AM
well that's what doreen seems to be suggesting at least.
i think that the most likely senario is that she wanted to call attention to "the indian" at large... she and her producers probably had preconcieved notions of what would get people interested in her trip to an "indian reservation" and so when they went there they most likely already knew what they wanted to shoot. so i'm pretty sure the trip ended up being less about investigating culture and more about getting dramatic shots for the camera. native people are portreyed as super spiritual people and so that's probably what she was looking for. are seemingly positive stereotypes good? it depends. but for sure, i think humans just want to be percieved as human and not super human or subhuman... just human.
it's like her going to east africa and telling the people to put on kente cloth... whether she actually knows that the people of east africa dont wear kente, who knows... and it seemed like she could care less. but maybe it was her staff like doreen suggests. maybe they thought flat bread was too boring.