Gratuitous displays of ignorance



Yesterday morning I got sucked into a vortex of reader comments on several articles about Native American issues. One story by NPR echoed our January feature story by Andrea Appleton, "Blood Quantum," describing the controversy over what percentage of Indian blood is required to enroll in a tribe. The second, from the Great Falls Tribune,  described the Little Shell tribe's struggle for official recognition and its accompanying benefits. The third,  from The Missoulian, reported Congress' second attempt to formulate an official apology to Native peoples for their treatment by the U.S. government.

All three articles inspired lively discussions. Some of the comments were well reasoned and thought-provoking. The majority were un-researched and inflammatory. Reading them reminded me of trying to hold a conversation with someone high or crazy -- if you're not careful you'll start doubting your own sanity. Anyone who reads much online news and participates in or reads discussion boards will recognize this kind of comment, written in response to the Missoulian article about the proposed U.S. apology. This is one of the milder, more coherent examples.

"NoFreeSpeec" writes: 

"And who's going to give me an appology for being white and labled a racist everyday of the week, my ancestors where in europe being persecuted back when all of this was supposedly happening to the indaians and now I'm getting lumped in and held responsible...It's like taking my money away to pay for something my friend's great grandfather MIGHT have done, and MIGHT have even done in good cause because someone had killed his family...Maybe we should just send all these minority groups off to fight wars to 'presever of freedom" seeing how they are the only ones who get to keep it, because I sure don't, I open my mouth and I'm called a racist. NO wonder no one trusts our government anymore."

And so on. 


It's a gorgeous spring in Paonia right now. The lilacs are blooming and it is easy to forget about the hyperventilating, drooling beasts of nonsense and bigotry that roam through cyberspace. Who cares what they think, anyway? 

That's an easy answer, and I wouldn't have questioned it, much less drawn further attention to the offending post, had its overwrought, defensive tone not been shared by a slew of other comments. They clearly feed on one another. Although it is tempting, and probably wise, to ignore them most of the time,  taken together the comments reflect an identity crisis about who non-Native Americans are in relation to Native Nations. They also reflect a state of education and awareness in this country that has not provided many citizens with the basic facts of American history. Commenters express disbelief and lack of concern over grievances "hundreds of years old," which "may or may not have happened."

These posts reinforce the importance of programs like the Indian Education For All initiative in Montana, which strives to include more tribal history and education in public schools. The same initiative was rejected in Wyoming this year.  It also calls into question the purpose and value of online discussion forums. Personally, I'm all for inclusive media that invites all to have their voices heard.  I truly believe that valuable information can be shared in online discussion forums. Even inflammatory and factually inaccurate material is thought-provoking. 

However, I also believe that there is something cowardly and disturbing about the mean-spirited, gratuitous venting that such freedom and ease of expression so frequently inspire, particularly when it hides behind a pseudonym.  I'd like to hear what HCN readers have to say about this. 


Undead Abbey
Undead Abbey
May 12, 2009 10:49 PM
 My impression of why any journalism and subsequent debate on subjects involving tribal politics causes such vitriol, boils down to 2 things. Greed and an inability of Native Americans to cooperate within tribal communities.

 Jealousy over land, money, and political clout, a legacy of oppression coupled with recent monetary gains (in some cases)and the toxic effect of poverty and reservation life has left Native communities ill equipped to play nice with each other, let alone the rest of the non indigenous population. I have personal contacts with local tribes and frankly some are bitter, isolationist, bigots. Many are not. Unfortunately it is human nature to remember the negative and create stereotypes, hence the unfortunate internet chattter.

(I will only reference what I am familiar with here[…]/15135982.html)
My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage
Tom Schweich
Tom Schweich
May 14, 2009 08:38 AM
I hope, for you, that it's another beautiful spring day in Paonia. Today promises to be spectacular here in the San Francisco Bay area. Flowers are out, including my Calochortus in the dry bed, and the Epipactis (stream orchid) in the bog out front.

I think "NoFreeSpeec" has a valid point, altho' it could have been worded in a less dramatic fashion. I really don't understand why should feel compelled to make up for something that was done before my grandparents arrived in this country, or something they had no part in after they arrived.

Generally, though, it seems to me that we're all caught up in being outraged, and asserting that our outrage is somehow superior to every one else's outrage.

In my own little burg, this week's outrage is the once-a-year 45 minute lesson the school district wants to teach about respecting differences in families, with outrage on one side that we're teaching homosexuality (and worse), and counter-outrage that someone would be so bigoted that they wouldn't want their kindergartener to hear such a lesson.

I suffer from outrage-fatigue. Let us give thanks for Spring.

Bigotry repeating
May 14, 2009 11:08 AM
The new blog era has brought some disturbing filth to the surface, which is hard to comprehend for many of us that this is what people actually feel. Unfortunately I've heard the same argument that "NoFreeSpeec" uses, but directly from a peer in religion class during college. I'm white and my ancestors were slave owners. I don't apologize for my ancestors, but I have to understand and admit my own history. Hopefully I can try to mend wounds that they've caused by advocating for and celebrating diversity and teaching my kids to do the same.

When I was 15 I stayed on Navaho and Hopi reservations in Arizona, which was one of the most valuable experiences I've ever had. I saw first hand the third world living conditions that some of the populations lived in, especially the Hopi. I experienced racism and resentment there. I was heckled and called derogatory names. Although I did not personally force tribes to live on arid and harsh land or sabotage their culture with alcohol and drugs, I have to be aware of my privileged life where I have the luxury of visiting a place like that and then going home to middle classes comfortable life. I have the choice of forgetting that experience. I think that is where the tribes' and other disadvantaged or disparate groups' resentment comes from.

Anonymously espousing hatred and ignorance on the internet is cowardly. However, I think it is important for the rest of us to understand that we're not as far along in the pursuit of equality as the mainstream PC culture makes us feel we are. Hatred and racism aren't behind us. They're festering in many people, which is far more insidious and dangerous. It's absolutely imperative that we in this country start engaging in very candid (and possibly painful) conversations all around - Native American, African American, Muslim American, Mormon, Evangelical, or whatever - in order to gain a better understanding of the ignorance people have about one another. The ignorance is not a bad thing, as long as it's temporary. We're all ignorant about other cultures, races, ethnicities and religions. It's time that we do as kids do naturally, not be afraid to ask people why they're different and find out more about them before judging them.

Ignorance Is No Excuse
Oct 20, 2009 03:02 PM
Native Americans are NOT just another minority group. The are sovereign nations, albeit limited sovereigns. This special status is conferred by the US Government, through its Congress, by treaties made with many tribes (some were established through Executive Order) in EXCHANGE for valuable concessions (most tied to giving up land and resource holdings). And while these treaties favored the U.S. and its citizens, these legal agreements have been summarily ignored and broken.
The tribal nations have long struggled with the form of government imposed on them by the U.S. Many of their traditional systems of governance are in conflict with the new system, hence the inner turmoil that that they are experiencing. I encourage those who easily dismiss the responsibilities the U.S. Government accepted through the treaties as "Not My Problem" to educate themselves - treaty rights are not up for negotiation, but must be upheld and honored.
Next, find out about the murders, the displacement, the starvation, the sickness brought in by foreigners, etc. Perhaps you will begin to see through the eyes of the Natives. Ignorance is no excuse for irresponsible behavior and comments, and it is offensive to Natives at the deepest levels.