Example 1,097 of a white publication showing its ass when it tries to write about Native Americans comes to us from The Economist, a magazine that Ivy League grads keep on their coffee tables to convince their parents and friends their tuition wasn’t a total waste. In its Dec. 1 issue, the editors of the magazine published an article that reviewed the recent midterm victories by Oklahoma Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt and U.S. House Rep.-elects Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids. As we’ve previously covered, Stitt will be Oklahoma’s first Native governor while Haaland and Davids are the first Native women to win a seat in Congress.
The article was first brought to my attention by Dr. Adrienne Keene, who fired off a brief but instructive Twitter thread about it on Monday afternoon. Like most Economist pieces, it does not include a byline. Instead, the print edition uses the headline, “Off the reservation,” and both the digital and print editions make use of ghastly art—a headdress imposed to be sitting atop the U.S. Capitol—a pair of editorial decisions so unbelievably insulting that it stands to reason that not a single member of the editorial team who approved them has ever met, let alone talked to, an actual Native person and realized it. If you need to have it spelled out why using the term “off the reservation” will always be a heinous decision, I suggest this piece from Suzan Harjo at Indian Country Today.
The optics, of course, are far from the first-and-last offenders—the piece itself contains writing that very clearly lacked a single set of Native eyes, a fact made apparent by nearly every sentence in the following paragraph:
This represents an acceleration of a welcome trend. Indians are doggedly beset by poverty, ill health and other social problems. Yet the picture of wretchedness on the reservation this conjures is misleading. Over 70% live in cities, where an educated Indian middle class has emerged. Some of that progress is driven by Indian casino revenues—which also helped fund Ms Haaland’s campaign. But it mainly reflects a positive transformation in the way Americans view native history and culture. Several factors—including the legal protections and economic benefits Indians secured in the 1960s, the environmental movement, and a cultural rethink by Hollywood—have encouraged anyone with Indian blood to identify as native. This phenomenon, known as Cherokee Grandmother Syndrome, explains rapid growth in the Indian population. It leapt by over a quarter between 2000 and 2010. Ms Haaland is half-white; Mr Stitt does not look Indian at all.
This is...a lot, and none of it is anywhere in the realm of being good, acceptable, or correct. After the piece skips right over the reason why rez life is plagued by poverty—the U.S. government has never given more than two shits about us and used its army to herd us to places it knew would be food and economic deserts—it tries to make the case that things aren’t so bad for Native peoples who no longer live on a reservation. This ignores that dozens of state-recognized tribes were never granted reservations because of the stingy federal government.
The piece then bleeds over into a botched attempt to explain to the presumably non-Native reader that, actually, life is far better for this particular minority group than it was in the 1960s. This is a fact that’s true for every single minority group in America and in no way unique to Native nations, but one that makes the white folks who wrote this feel all warm and tingly on the inside.
Over the course of a single em-dash aside, the author and the editors who worked on this garbage glide over the realities that the “economic benefits” secured during this time continue to fail and kill Native people; as for the line about the purported “cultural rethink by Hollywood,” well, it’s safe to say the author didn’t see the latest offering from the Coen Brothers. These are supposed to be reasons that more white people are attempting to claim Native ancestry for personal gain; instead, here, they are ahistorical asides that do little more than pat colonizers on the back for making imaginary strides on the issue of Native representation.
Those attempts at whitewashing the truth of 21st century life as a Native person, however, still aren’t the lowest notes of this piece—that belongs to these two sentences, the first of which concludes the above paragraph.
Ms Haaland is half-white; Mr Stitt does not look Indian at all.
And then there’s No. 2, which I can only recommend you brace yourself for:
Ms Haaland’s ethnicity also helped her shrug off two convictions for drunk driving.
In just a couple dozen words, the Economist laid bare the monumental shortcomings found in every single mainstream national publication—the concept of being Native, of belonging to a tribe that claims you and supports you and bleeds your blood, is one foreign to the vast majority of people in media. And because I can literally count on my hands the number of Native authors published in major publications in the past year (it only takes one hand to count those that have actual staff positions), this experience hardly ever makes it to the final edition of an article. By that time, any realistic, honest writing about the Native experience has been caked in layers of a white person’s projection of what it is to be Native.
The danger here isn’t that publications don’t realize they’re being discriminatory and lazy as they cross off the necessary checkpoints by noting the stereotypes around “Indianness” and rez life; the danger is that they all think they’re doing The Right Thing, being good colonizers, being open-minded. The bar is low because they’ve never had a Native set it for them before, and now, in a case where the art and headline alone should have resulted in an apology in the most recent edition of the Economist, this piece is instead just business as usual.