Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Tact Is For Heathens Edition


The appropriation of another community's sacred cultural items (or your own interpretation of those items) to promote your own agenda is bad enough. (More on that here.) However, today's edition of Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday also comes with  history lesson, so you can realize just how terrible it actually is.

When growing up most people in the US learn about some major events in Native American history. We learn about manifest destiny, wars, and the establishment of reservations. But there is another aspect of Native history that many don't know, even if it existed right in our back yard.

In the small town in which I was raised, there is a public liberal arts University. A few of the buildings on campus are much older than the others. One in particular has a historical marker in front of it. Upon reading it, you learn that the historical significance of that building is that it is one of the original buildings from the original school campus. But the original campus wasn't a liberal arts school. It wasn't even an agricultural school. It was an Indian boarding school.

In the post Civil War era, a number of Americans began to focus on what could be done with Native populations. The conclusion was that the best way to deal with the Native Americans was to establish a national policy of "civilizing them." The goal was to introduce them at a young age to white culture, teach them white occupational practices (sewing, farming, baking, etc), English, and Christianity. To achieve this end, in the late 1800s, Indian boarding schools were built. The goal was assimilation through education. One of the best known of these schools, which set the standards for many others, was Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Founder, Captain Richard Henry Pratt, was infamous for his motto "kill the Indian and save the man." Along with these government established schools, there were also missionary schools, run by Christian churches. (The school in my hometown was initially established by Catholic nuns and later turned over to the government.) Regardless of the type of school, the goal remained the same. These schools are usually the source of photos such as these:

These kids were taken away from their families, sometimes at a very young age, and allowed limited if any contact with them while at the schools. There children were forbidden from speaking their native language or engaging in traditional cultural/religious practices. To do so often led to severe punishment. Rather than places of education, many of these institutions became places of abuse. 

In light of the fact that our nation established an official policy of taking people from this community and forcing them to attend schools where their own language and culture would be replaced with English and Christianity, to say that this shirt is in poor taste is an understatement. This culture continues to be overlooked and neglected today when many Christians seek to minister to reservations. (Greg Boyd has an interesting take on that in this piece.) There are still some Christians that insist that native objects need to be destroyed because they have demonic ties. Many of the assumptions tied with all of these practices are rooted in the idea that there culture in someone inherently more sinful or demonic than our own, which makes it all the less tactful to put an image that will immediately be seen as Native with the words "chief sinner" across the face. It was that very belief that was center of many of these policies.

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