MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear from musician, activist and now author Wyclef Jean. He's out with a new memoir and we'll hear from him about his career and very interesting life story, and yes, he answers questions that people have about relationships in his life. That's coming up later in the program.
But first, it's Columbus Day and you might've been taught in school that today is all about celebrating the ship captain who might be considered this continent's first immigrant, but over the years that narrative has been shifting - or at least is being shared - with a focus on those already here when Columbus and his shipmates arrived in the Americas.
And that brings up questions that many people in these politically correct times are afraid to ask. Anton Treuer has written about this very subject in his latest book "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." He is a professor of Objiwe at Bemidji State University in Minnesota and he's with us now to talk about Columbus Day as well as some of the other questions that, as the book puts it, you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
Welcome, Professor. Thanks so much for joining us.
ANTON TREUER: Thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: I did want to get your perspective on Columbus Day, which is observed in a lot of places today, but before we do, I did want to ask about the inspiration for writing this book. Now, you tell one crazy story about this encounter you had with this woman in the forest one day, but I wanted to ask, was that the encounter that led to the book or were there a series of things like that?
TREUER: You know, there were a lot of things that really led to it. I grew up in Bemidji, Minnesota, which is located right in between the three largest reservations in the state. And I guess like many, you know, children in a small rural area, you know, simply wanted to go any place that had a zip code with a higher population density than the one I came from.
But I also wanted to escape the sometimes tangled borderland of racial misunderstandings and thought I'd escape from it all. And when I ended up at Princeton University, I thought, you know, these kids are some of the best educated in the country. They'll know a lot more about all kinds of diversity issues.
And when I got there, you know, the first question was, where's your tomahawk? And I quickly realized that that, you know, borderland was following me everywhere I went. The incident that you reference - at one point I heard that there was a sweat lodge ceremony taking place in the New Jersey woods and drove out there to check it out. And to my great shock, there were about 20 completely naked non-native people waiting in the woods to participate in this ceremony.
And you know, part of me wanted to laugh. Part of me wanted to run away. Part of me wanted to be angry. I opened the car door and was immediately folded into a tight embrace by one of these completely naked strangers who started saying I'm so sorry for what my people did to your people. And of course the urge to be angry or to run away only escalated after that.
But as I looked at this woman's face, she was an elder and on the verge of tears. And no matter how misguided her understandings of Native Americans were, her emotion was sincere. And it kind of brought me a bit of a strange epiphany that there was no running from the borderland. There was only a way through it and I would have to do my part to try to dispel stereotypes but also provide meaningful answers to legitimate questions.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, I mean both of those stories that you've told us encapsulate, I think, one of the things you're trying to deal with here. One is the tomahawk story, which is a stereotype of, you know, violence, aggressiveness, and then the other is, let's just for the sake of brevity, we'll just say, you know, a positive stereotype about being, you know, earth loving. And I'm curious to know in your own life which of those stereotypes have you found the more burdensome?
TREUER: Oh, I guess probably with Native American history and culture one of the most frustrating things is that we are so often imagined but so infrequently well understood. And although you can point to the experience of black Americans, of Hispanic people in America, you know, to see many areas of differential treatment of direct racism, at least those subsections of the population are more widely represented in positions of academic power and political power.
Certainly not enough, but Native Americans are so grossly under-represented in just about every area that it allows even the best educated people to be and remain completely ignorant about the first people of the land.
MARTIN: So native people can be more readily imagined than known?
TREUER: That's right. You know, and you see it in so many ways. It's on issues like, well, mascots for sports teams. You know, we've come a long way since, you know, Little Black Sambo, you know, effigies and things like that kind of dominated the cultural landscape in America, but for some reason Chief Wahoo has persisted.
And we're slowly moving in the direction of doing away with native people being mascots for sports teams, but you know, a team like the Redskins is dominated even by black players who might in other ways be very sensitized to issues of race and racial discrimination but when it comes to native people can very easily turn a blind eye to it. But as long as the mascots or the stereotypes persist and people of all races aren't challenging that action, this issue will linger on.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with Anton Treuer, author of the book "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." I've got to ask, Indians versus Native Americans?
TREUER: Yeah, great question, and that's usually one of the first ones that comes up. So for the terminology, this is one area where you'll find a diversity of opinions. And that's really the first disclaimer to put out there about, you know, my work or any work on any subject, really, is that I represent one person's view.
For me, obviously the term Indian is a misnomer from the Columbus experience when Christopher Columbus thought he was in China, Japan, the Indies, and these are Indians, and there it made its transition, you know, into European languages. So it's a misnomer, but all of the other terms have some sort of drawback too.
Native American is preferred in some circles. Sometimes indigenous is as well. But if you say, you know, a Philadelphia native, does that mean a Native American from Philadelphia or just someone who's born and bred? And if you say indigenous, then you also have to qualify where you're talking about because there are indigenous people to every continent.
MARTIN: But you use Indian in the title though.
TREUER: I do.
MARTIN: And there are other media outlets like Indian Country Today, for example...
MARTIN: ...that prefers Indian. So...
TREUER: Yeah, that's true.
MARTIN: So why do you prefer it? Or why do you use it in the title?
TREUER: Yeah. I use them all fairly interchangeably. I use it in the title because it's one of the most common nomers associated with this group of people. I'm aware of its shortcomings, but if you said, you know, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indigenous People," then you'd have to add "Of North America"...
TREUER: ...or something else. You kind of have to pick one in spite of its complications.
MARTIN: OK. Well, again, we hope this will be our first conversation and not our last because I'm sure there are many questions that people would like to ask and have answered, but since it's Columbus Day, I did want to ask you your perspective on Columbus Day.
TREUER: Yeah. On the one hand, I think there's a growing awareness that Columbus didn't discover America - that the place was densely inhabited by other human beings. But certainly the Columbus experience would change the entire world. But in spite of the fact that Christopher Columbus wrote lots of letters and kept many journals and by his second voyage there were many official scribes, army officers, priests, writing about the experience, over 500 years later this piece of history gets sugarcoated a lot.
And you know, we now know as a fact of history that on Columbus' second voyage the Spanish instituted a gold dust tribute whereby those who failed to bring a certain quantity of gold dust would have their hands chopped off. And we know for a fact of history that the Spanish cut the hands off of 30,000 people that year on the island of Espanola - what's now Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
And we know that within 30 years the two million people that the Spanish estimated to be inhabiting that island before contact were completely annihilated. And that is a textbook definition of genocide. And we have so successfully sugarcoated the history that we have obfuscated some of the most important parts of that story.
MARTIN: I was just wondering, what would you want the takeaway to be?
TREUER: I would want everybody to be thinking about truth and reconciliation. We have to say what happened, how it happened, why it happened and acknowledging the way that systems of privilege were established and maintained and still maintained, even today, as part of the process to heal those ancient and contemporary wounds and make things better for the next 500 years.
MARTIN: Why don't you just pick one more question, since every - you know, your book is "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask." I'm sure there are a lot of questions that people might have. Why don't you just pick one and answer?
TREUER: I guess, you know, there are many questions that come up. A lot of people don't understand what's really different about Native American experience in the Americas and native communities are different from many other cultural enclaves, like the Amish, for example, who have preserved culture, life ways, even language.
And one of the primary differences for Native American groups is the fact that they also have nations and governments and governments that predated the United States and the United States Constitution has incorporated a way to deal with native nations that's entirely different than the way they deal with all of the diverse immigrants who've come here and it really defines Native American people and their communities as sovereign nations rather than cultural enclaves. I think that gets misunderstood. And, sometimes, if there's an issue with treaty rights or with, you know, any number of things that come up, there is a tendency to say, why do native people get special or differential treatment?
And it really boils down to this. You know, if one wants to change the status of native nations, it really involves changing the entire U.S. Constitution and probably revisiting all of the treaties by which the land went from native hands to everyone else's and that gets to be a complicated process, which I'm sure the tribes would actually be pretty interested in engaging because native people have lawyers today.
MARTIN: OK. Good point. Anton Treuer is a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University. He's the author of a number of books. We're talking about his latest, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask," and he joined us from member station KNBJ in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Professor, thank you so much for speaking with us.
TREUER: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.