A Stereotypically Objective Paradigm

To be objective is to hold assumptions about reality and the nature of truth without considering context. This is the scientific method, and it is imperfect in that it is generally understood that because of human error, truth can only be known and expressed in terms of probability when discussing human behavior. The scientific method eliminates what the researchers find to be false in order to ‘bring knowledge closer to ‘the’ truth,’ rather than proving something true. This is the reason for expressing scientific knowledge about human behavior in terms of probabilities. Furthermore, when context is taken into consideration, the generalizations that the scientific method produces may no longer hold true in individual cases. What, then, is produced by scientific objectivity in the social sciences?

Objectivity produces a mind that thinks in terms of generalizations. Classifying the world in this way also results in what social science research expert, Dr. Bagele Chilisa (2012) described as a “paradigm that becomes essentialized, compelling thought along binary opposites of either/or,” and that way of thinking underlies notions of ‘us and them’ when thinking about people (p. 25.). What this means is that when we generalize about people, thinking in terms of either/or, we are very likely to ‘otherise’ people. Otherizing takes place when we think in terms of generalizations about individuals (others), who we perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to belong to certain groups, who we then perceive (and maybe incorrectly so) to hold certain characteristics, and this way of thinking can block the way of truly getting to know and understand individual particularity. Objectivity, then, we can reason, produces a mind that is likely perceive and classify individuals in general terms concerning characteristics that we have attached to certain groups; in other words, obective thinking likely leads to the stereotyping of individuals.

Chilisa, B. (2011). Indigenous research methodologies. SAGE Publications.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

American History: Facts, Legends or Myths?

I have recently discovered that for much of my life, what I have known about U.S. history has been based on partial truths. This is because much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ of American history is based on legends and myths.

According to anthropologist, Dr. Rhianna Rogers, A legend is a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person.  Legends have important meanings or symbolism for the culture in which they originate. They include elements of truth, or are based on historical facts, but they also have ‘mythical qualities’.  They can involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originated.

Rogers also stated that a myth is a story based on tradition or legend, which has deep symbolic meaning. Myths convey ‘a truth’ to those who tell them and hear them, rather than necessarily recording a true event.  Myths may be accounts of actual events that have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Often, myths are used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years. Examples of such myths are certain creation stories.

‘American’ myths include the myth of Manifest Destiny, for example. Manifest Destiny was the notion that it was the duty of the ‘enlightened’ European people to bring ‘civilization’ to the ‘savage’ inhabitants of the ‘New World’ that they ‘discovered’. I now know that myths, such as these, began as a way for Europeans to justify the taking of the land and their attempt to exterminate the people who lived in the New World, and many of these myths have persisted over time, even to this day.

Myths, such as those related to the Manifest Destiny, many times, began as works of art that were created by non-Natives and they presented a simplified and romanticized version of the conquest of the continent and also of the Native Americans.

Image Source:  http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180

As students begin to describe what they see, they quickly realize that they’re looking at a kind of historical encyclopedia of transportation technologies. The simple Indian travois precedes the covered wagon and the pony express, the overland stage and the three railroad lines. The static painting thus conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as well as of the inevitability of technological progress. The groups of human figures, read from left to right, convey much the same idea. Indians precede Euro-American prospectors, who in turn come before the farmers and settlers. The idea of progress coming from the East to the West, and the notion that the frontier would be developed by sequential waves of people (here and in Turner’s configuration, always men) was deeply rooted in American thought.For example, American Progress (circa 1872), a painting by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the good that was supposedly inherent in the westward expansion of European notions of civilization.  This was shown by portraying the progression of technology and economic activity. Historian Martha A. Sandweiss of Amherst College explained,

Consider, also, this portrait of westward expansion, Attack on an Emigrant Train, from an advertising poster, ca 1910.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html

In this way, certain artifacts – that is, works of art created by artists who held biased views – became a sort of ‘objective’ record of history that future novelists used to expand the myths. An example of such is Beadle’s Half Dime Library. New York, Beadle and Adams. Vol. XIV, No. 350. (Mass Market Appeal 2 of 19), which according to the Bancroft Library, stereotyped Native/non-Native encounters stating that, “Amid kidnapping, drinking, and wilderness pursuits”,  author Ned Buntline introduced “Indian warriors who succumb to the wiles of ‘fire-water’ and tobacco and others who carry out a heartless massacre that forever separates the young lovers.”This is a portrait of a “Madonna-like mother and child, a Florence Nightingale version of a young woman tending to a wounded man, the heroic ‘white father’ leading the pioneers’ defense, a black man offering assistance, and the ever-faithful family dog straining to meet the attackers” (Bancroft, Mass Market Appeal 19 of 19). By representing the European immigrants as the victims and Native people as bloodthirsty savages, the creators of such works also portrayed colonial imperialism as ‘promoting peace’.

Image Source: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html

Later, popular culture and mass media expanded the myths even more. Consider the stereotyped image of the ‘savage warrior’ as it was represented in popular magazines such as Western Story.The caption for the cover illustration reads, “SUDDENLY, THE WHIZ OF AN ARROW WAS HEARD, AND THE ARM OF THE WRETCH WAS LITERALLY PINNED TO THE TREE.  Stereotypical characters assist in the generation of the ‘us against them’ narrative that creators of dramas rely on in order to engage their audiences.

Image Source:  http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/05.html

Consider, also, the stereotypical representations of the American cowboy that appeared in cinema, such as the 1934 motion picture film, The Lawless Frontier, a ‘cowboy and Indian’ action picture,  which starred ‘Western’ film icon John Wayne.

Image Source:  http://www.mikeclinesthenplaying.com/2011/09/june-1935-movie-listings.html

Consider also, the stereotypical Indian princess in the 1995 Disney animation film, Pocahontas.

Image Source:  http://www.tripleclicks.com/detail.php?item=55967

Stereotypical notions of the ‘savage warrior’, the ‘American cowboy’, and the ‘Indian princess’ dominate mainstream mass media and therefore public notions of such figures in history. Images such as these are so pervasive, that, many times, we hardly notice them:

Image Source: http://www.lemhi-shoshone.com/salmon_savages_mascot.html

Image Source: http://www.old-ads.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Marlboro_ad.jpg

Image Source: http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/4219/2912/1600/landolakes.jpg

Until someone demands our attention:

Then, perhaps we begin to see. Much of what mainstream U.S. culture ‘knows’ about Native Americans comes from sources that are less-than-credible: Our knowledge, for the most part, consists of stereotypes of American historical figures that have been commodified and perpetuated such that our ‘remembrance’ of the past is now less-than-accurate. I have come to see that, for the most part, there has been precious few portrayals of Native people as intelligent actors, who were defending their homes, family and heritage. More portrayals of Native people in all the roles in which they engage would help to balance perceptions of these marginalized, objectified, and for the most part, socially excluded group of American people.

Works such as Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-white Relations From Prophecy to the Present (Nabokov, 1999) offer their readers a much needed historical view from the Native American perspective.

Image Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54990.Native_American_Testimony

The description from the back cover reads,

In a series of powerful and moving documents, anthropologist Peter Nabokov presents a history of Native American and white relations as seen through Indian eyes and told through Indian voices: a record spanning more than five hundred years of interchange between the two peoples. Drawing from a wide range of sources – traditional narratives, Indian autobiographies, government transcripts, firsthand interviews, and more – Nabokov has assembled a remarkably rich and vivid collection, representing nothing less than an alternative history of North America. Beginning with the Indian’s first encounters with the earliest explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers, and soldiers and continuing to the present, Native American Testimony presents an authentic, challenging picture of an important, tragic, and frequently misunderstood aspect of American history.

This book has drawn me into a world and a history that, until now, I had not known existed. This is expanding my knowledge of American history.  I am no longer relying quite so much on the semi-true stories, of heroic characters of ‘American’ lore, or the creation myths of America’s origins that have dominated ‘American’ history.  I am now able to compare and contrast the stories told by many narrators, in order to develop a more complete picture of a very complex social order.  It is interesting to see that many of the Native narratives in Nabokov’s book contain the very same elements of legends and myths in the Native historical record, as exists in mainstream U.S. culture. I think that now, when I read different views of the past, I will be less interested in knowing ‘the facts’ and more engaged in seeking out ‘the truths’ that people hope to share when they create such stories.

Works Cited

 “Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (2 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/04.html&gt;.

“Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19).” Mass Market Appeal (19 of 19). N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/46.html&gt;.

Nabokov, Peter. Native American testimony: a chronicle of Indian-white relations from prophecy to the present, 1492-2000. Rev. ed. New York, N.Y.: Penguin, 1999. Print.

Rogers, Rhianna. “Interpreting the Past and Present: Myths and Stereotypes in US History.” U.S. History Throuogh Ethnology. Empire State College. May 2013. Reading.

Sandweiss, Martha A.. “John Gast, American Progress, 1872.” Picturing US History All. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2014. <http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/item.php?item_id=180&gt;.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Stereotyping Native Americans

The view of native people by the mainstream and dominating culture of the U.S. has changed over time.  The composers of early images and descriptions of native people in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkley, for example, tended to overtly objectify the subjects of their compositions, presumably with full support from mainstream society.  One way that the native people were objectified in this way is that they were not necessarily represented in an accurate way, but rather they were represented as an exotic novelty, and their way of life and their image (accurate or not) was something which could be consumed as a form of interesting entertainment by the dominating mainstream culture.  Sometimes this consumption took the form of education as in the example of the Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916 (n.d.).  Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yano (Yahi) group of Native Americans.  The caption that described this image of Ishi explained that he was posed and that the many photographs designed in this way “may tell us more about the photographers than they do about the subject” (Lantern Slides, n.d.).  Other times this sort of cultural consumption took the form of stereotypical notions of native people as a means to sell products, as evident in the image on the advertising labels for “Mountain Chief”, which offered a romanticized and noble depiction of North American natives as a positive image for selling oranges (Schmidt Lithograph, n.d.).

These are only two examples of the many ways in which native cultures have been historically ‘consumed’ by a dominating culture that wishes to capitalize on their uniqueness. More recently, the mainstream and dominating culture in the U.S. has become more aware of the harmful nature of this sort of attitude and actions toward native people.   This is evidenced in the recent negative attention given to team mascots that represent native people in unwanted fashion.  No longer does mainstream society so readily embrace the overt exploitation of ‘others’.  In response to this new understanding, there is effort to represent native people “simply as people” and “like any other people” with “strengths and weaknesses as well as valuable contributions” to society (Sutton, 2012, p.17.).  Even though many of the stereotypical notions and exploitation of native people still exist in contemporary society, awareness and change toward a more accurate representation, a greater equality and social justice for all is finally beginning to take shape.

Sometimes, different historical views may conflict with one another, perhaps one may be considered more ‘accurate’ while another has been proven to be a less-than-accurate depiction of past events such as the above mentioned stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans.  Yet, thinking in terms of accurate or inaccurate depictions of history may be a stumbling block in an effort to gain a deep understanding of the past.  What I mean by this is that when looking at historical artifacts, it would be good to think of them not so much as truth or untruth, but rather as perspectives of a larger historical record (only a small part of a more complete story).  For example, the paintings by George Catlin of romanticized and idealized Native America and Native Americans, which are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Campfire Stories, n.d.), are an example of the perspective and purpose of the specific man, George Catlin. We can learn from those paintings about one perspective that can then be compared and contrasted to other perspectives of both then and now.  Perhaps Catlin’s work can be compared to other ‘American’ artists or other male artists, and likewise they can be contrasted to Native-American or feminine depictions of the past and/or of the present, this, in order to discover similarities and differences in the many historical perspectives.  Compiling and combining information in this way, and comparing and contrasting the many perspectives or stories over time, allows for a more complete picture of a very complex social reality.  Therefore, it may at first seem logical to disregard historical views that have proven to be less-than-accurate, but to do so would limit our ability to learn about and learn from the past.  Instead of disregarding certain aspects of the historical record, we can understand that there are many historical views of history and when these differing views are combined, a more complete understanding of both the past and the present may then emerge.

Reference:

Campfire Stories with George Catlin.  (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html

Lantern Slides Relating to Ishi, ca. 1911-1916. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library:  Portraits of Native Americans – Early Ethnography. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/23.html

Schmidt Lithograph Company Records. Advertising Labels, Volume VI., ca. 1950.. (n.d.). The Bancroft Library:  Portraits of Native Americans – “ Mass Market Appeal. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/Exhibits/nativeamericans/35.html

Sutton, M. Q. (2012). An introduction to native North America (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.