Every once in a while I come across an image in my daily life that has an immediate impact on me. (You’ve already had my opinion on ‘native-themed’ costumes.) First comes the flood of feelings. Annoyance, frustration, confusion. Then I look at the image again and try to understand what the image is meant to convey. I wonder if the person who put the image together has any idea of how it just made me feel. Generally I assume that no, the creator of the image is likely quite clueless on that front.
Let me show you an example. I came across this ad in a local print magazine (Nightlife.ca) last year and scanned it in.
The picture was cut off a bit on the left. It says Méchant Pow-wow. Sort of slangy attempt at ‘bad-ass party’. The ad is for a bar called Saloon.
So how do you react to this image? I showed this picture to a number of native friends, and they all rolled their eyes. Some asked if this was a McGill ad, because McGill University has become somewhat infamous for their stereotypical portrayal of aboriginals. We all seemed to have the same annoyed, ‘this is typical’ reaction to the image.
I just don’t get it. What does this image have to do with the bar it is being used to advertise? To me it seems obvious that with a name like Saloon, the bar is playing on the tired old Cowboys and Indians theme. If so, what is the implication in a bar named for a western theme? They are supposedly inviting people to a ‘bad ass pow-wow’. What does that mean to non-native people? The Indians are taking over the Cowboy’s party? I don’t know, I’m stretching here. Who are the Indians, who are the Cowboys…what the heck is this image trying to say?
I don’t like the mixture of a traditional headdress with an enticement to come get drunk at a bar with a pseudo ‘Western’ name. I am generally suspicious of stereotypical portrayals of natives, because those portrayals are so often racist. Sometimes the racism in the portrayals is very easy to point at and see. Sometimes…it isn’t.
Which brings me to the following image. This is a cartoon that appeared in a McGill University Law Faculty publication called Quid Novi. It is a cartoon by first year law student, Patricia Nova. Before I say anything about it, I’d like you to look at it for a while, and figure out what YOUR reactions are to this image.
My reaction? Shock. This is the creation of a law student. I realise my reaction is silly on that point. I attended law school at the University of Alberta, one year at McGill University, and I am currently brushing up on civil law part time at the Université de Montréal. I’ve written about my alienation as an aboriginal person in the halls of legal learning. I have no romanticised image of law students (neither do I cast them as villains). Yet despite my own experiences I guess I expected…more tact?
This image is the source of some current controversy which I’ll detail in a moment, but first, I wanted to share some responses to this cartoon. I asked a number of non-native friends to give me their interpretations of the image. Some of these friends have been very understanding of native issues, while others have (respectfully) disagreed with me rather strongly at times. I asked non-natives because I wanted to see how this cartoon impacted them compared to how it has impacted me (which I will discuss in a moment). Here are the reactions. When I’ve clarified with them, I put my questions in green.
- “Makes the indians seem stupid.”
- “It’s funny. And racist.” Funny how? Racist how? “It’s funny in the whole trick or treat play on words. It’s racist in the stereotypical portrayal of Indians.”
- “I think it’s funny.” Can you explain what you find funny about it? “Trick or treat = treaty. I think it’s a funny pun. I guess it’s probably racist in the way it’s portraying Natives. It’s probably in poor taste the way they made them talk. I still think it’s a little funny though…because of the pun.”
- “It’s racist in exactly the same way drawing big-lipped black people speaking pidgin English is.”
- “Just simply the caricatures are racist. Nobody looks like that. It’s hateful- makes them look like an alien species or something. It reminds me of the way jews were drawn in the 30’s. It’s “othering” to make a race look so alien. It makes then non-human. Also I didn’t find it that funny or clever.”
- “I don’t know if the intent is racism, it doesn’t seem like it, but it does seem like they are playing on stereotypes to make clear they are talking about indians from the distant past. Probably because they can’t draw very well. It seems more like the intent is to talk shit about treaties. I don’t think they mean to disparage the intellect of the native community as much as they are trying to highlight the idea that they were too trusting of the settlers.”
- It pisses me off that they wrote “saiz” which is pronounced phonetically EXACTLY THE SAME as says. So it wasn’t like they were trying to emphasize dialect or accent. The only thing misspelling says does is make the Indians look stupid. I found the pun somewhat clever and interesting.In my effort to assume the best of everyone I assume that the artist was trying to say Natives were too trusting and naive, and the Whiteys exploitative and manipulative. I think however that instead portrays the Natives as stupid. I do not think anyone is portrayed positively in this cartoon. I think there must have been a less racist way of making the trick or treat pun.
Granted, these people are my friends for a reason, so this is not intended to be a cross-section of non-native opinion though I’ll mention that these friends include Canadians, citizens of the US, and folks from that weird island over there across the pond. (*blows kisses*)
I have a number of problems with this cartoon. The first thing that popped out at me was of course the style of dress. Stereotypical pan-Indian images of native people. Huge noses, a spear, arrows, headdresses, fringe. The generic image so often used to represent us all, past and present. I am supremely tired of this image. If I knew that wider Canadian society truly understood the wealth of aboriginal diversity in this country, it wouldn’t get under my skin as much. Then again, if that were true, I’d expect the images would reflect such awareness.
“Whitey”. That’s the next thing that jumped out at me. In the use of that term, the artist is making her ‘characters’ racists. The term is pejorative. Oddly enough, the term is also one I rarely actually hear native people hurling, and to be honest, haven’t heard since I was in elementary school. You know where I hear this term, constantly? I hear it coming from non-natives who go on and on about how racist native people are against them. Let’s not even get into the analysis of how historical and current power structures mean “whitey” is not a term that can be compared to other racial slurs. I’ll let Louis CK discuss that.
When I see ‘characters’ using terms like this, the message I’m getting is, “you can be racist too!” Well…duh! There is nothing inherent in being aboriginal that makes us immune to being assholes, even racist ones. There is something about being the subject of centuries of racism however that makes you pretty aware of the impact of racism, much in the way that not being the subject of centuries of racism might cause you to have trouble grasping how it feels.
Why do we need to have it pointed out that we can be racist too? How is that an important message? To me it smacks of “we all do it, it’s a human trait.” If you push someone on this issue, you will often hear about how aboriginal peoples fought one another before the Europeans came, and this is used as proof that we are just as capable of treating ‘others’ poorly as Europeans did. The message seems to be, “if the roles were reversed you would have done the same thing”. Take that further into, “it’s not our fault” and you’ve understood the point.
And isn’t that the underlying fear? That if we had “the power” (however that would be manifested), that we’d do ‘the same thing’? On one hand you’d think that would be an admission of awareness that things are supremely unequal, but it usually isn’t. After all, inequality as externally imposed (state vs. native peoples) is often considered just a historical reality whereas many people believe the present is characterised by internally created inequality (i.e. native peoples at fault).
I digress somewhat. Who knows what the artist’s position is on this. Whether she used the term “whitey” to portray her characters as racists, or whether she attempted to turn a pejorative term around on European settlers, it is an unhelpful word.
Then of course there is the issue of the casual mention of ‘killing whitey’. This too is very loaded. Is he killed? Is the quick and tricky talking of the intended victim enough to save him? Who knows. All we know is that this character was ready to kill someone. No context. That’s just ‘how it was done’.
This too plays into the generic view of “Indians and Cowboys”, always at war with one another. The artist with her reference to the tricky treaty may be taking the position that violence against “whitey” was justified for whatever reason, but it misses the point. Distilling the relationship between native peoples and settlers to merely a relationship of violence and trickery is extremely prevalent and as unaware as showing us all dressed up in the same tired old garb. This country is vastly and shockingly unaware of its own history. It acknowledges only the very rough outlines of the complex trading relationships, the intermarriage, the alliances and conflicts.
It is like understanding only that at some point, your parents met and you were born, and that you had a childhood. Without any more detailed memory beyond that of yourself as you grew up and developed, what would you know about yourself now as an adult? Aargh. I’d love to explore that more, but I’m trying to stay on track.
There is the more obvious issue of whether or not the artist intended to portray her characters as stupid, or cheated. Or both. Either way it is not a particularly flattering portrayal and it is very disempowering. It is definitely a more popular narrative now than it was when I was a child, that native peoples were swindled and cheated by the Treaties. It isn’t a powerful narrative however, in the sense that it has not been accepted legally or politically as true, and there are few people who would be willing to readdress the Treaties on those grounds.
Yet the ‘innocent and naive natives getting cheated by the treacherous Europeans’ theme here is also incredibly simplistic. It infantalises us rather than acknowledging different worldviews and suggests that whatever intelligence we had was no match for the wiles of the settlers. It is another all-too common approach that paints us merely as victims. It denigrates our experience as peoples who made Treaties for thousands of years before any European set foot here.
The argument is going to be two-fold when people defend this cartoon. One, that it’s not racist (either at all, or that the racism is satire). Two, that the humour expresses an important and true message.
I see a repetition of a series of stereotypes, and whatever shock value the whole ‘Canada tricked them into it’ viewpoint may have had surely has worn off by now? I think that’s me engaging in wishful thinking though. I agree with one of the quotes above in that I think the message could have been achieved in a less disturbing way. I think the stereotyping detracts from the intended message. In fact, I think the unintended message of ignorance is much stronger. Perhaps that is only obvious to some?
I think I’ve narrowed down why I was shocked, actually. This cartoon displays only the surface image of nuance while representing an utter lack of actual complexity. Yes, I do expect better, and I think I’m going to keep my expectations high.
We do not live in a country where the history, culture or present day reality of aboriginal peoples is well understood or discussed. We live in a country that has relied upon stereotypes for hundreds of years to prop up and form legal, political and social policies towards natives. Those stereotypes have changed only slightly. Often they are less overtly and recognisably racist and pejorative, and merely reflect the appalling lack of progress this country has made in coming to terms with its relationship with aboriginal peoples. Playing up those stereotypes is not radical, nor is it successful satire in this situation. It is status quo.
My final thought on this is: if you do not understand why this comic is offensive to me as a native person, it is because you probably do not understand the history, culture and present day reality I referred to above, and that is what I am reacting to right now.
You can see the original comic here (PDF) on page 28. A number of responses to the comic were sent to the Editor, and a response from the Editors in Chief can be found on page 2 here (also PDF). After that are some of the responses, followed up by the artist’s view of the whole thing.
Eden Alexander is a law student at McGill University, a good friend, and a member of the Aboriginal Law Student’s Association of McGill. She has invited the editorial staff of Quid Novi and the artist Patricia Nova to a lunch in order to discuss the various issues surrounding the creation and publication of this comic. Both have accepted. Eden indicates that the situation has become very adversarial and is hoping that talking about it will help. I will also be attending the meeting and will follow up here with what comes out of it.
I think it is incredibly important to have these discussions, even though it can feel sometimes that we’ve had them a million times already. There are so many wider issues at play here, including the societal contexts I’ve mentioned, but also the specific context of McGill University and the various portrayals of aboriginal peoples that have been as controversial or more over the past few years.
Let’s see where this takes us.
Update, November 15
The Quid Novi has published another editorial response to Patricia Nova’s cartoon as well as a slough of responses to both the cartoon itself and Patricia Nova’s justification for it. The responses are well thought out and interesting and can be found here. The paper has engaged a former ombudsman to address the issue and make recommendations on Quid Novi’s publication practices.
Update, November 22
A description of the meeting between Quid Novi, Patricia Nova and members of the Aboriginal Law Student’s Association was published today (along with some disgusting ‘oh you’re just thin-skinned’ opinions). You’ll find it here on page 9.
I did not actually attend the meeting, due to a mix up in scheduling, but my friend Eden Alexander did, and felt very positive after the discussion. She asks, however, “where do we go from here?”
Aboriginal students were able to ‘get through’ to one person though it took an enormous amount of emotional energy. As can be seen in some of the awful comments made before the meeting description, there is a much wider problem that is not being addressed properly. These are the students we share the halls with, who tell us things like, ‘if you are offended, it says as much about who you are as what the cartoon was depicting’, etc. People who completely dismiss our concerns and champion the right to continue exercising power over us in this way.
So while the meeting settled some personal feelings among individuals, it merely highlights how much farther we have to go…and how it shouldn’t always have to be us going through all the effort while the privileged sit and fold their arms and demand, ‘convince me it’s even a problem first’.