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The Invisibility of Native American and Alaska Natives

It is an in-your-face truth that Native Americans are not commonly represented in America, despite being the original inhabitants of this country. In the entertainment industry and even in conversations about diversity and racial equality, they are knowingly or unknowingly neglected. Just recently, they have been found to have been excluded from major coronavirus outbreak data, simply being categorized as “other”. This kind of omittance from research is not new; it has been recurring for years.

Maryland Covid-19 cases by ethnicity/race, data via Maryland Department of Health

The National Congress of American Indians points out on their site that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are sometimes referred to as the “Asterisk Nation”. An asterisk in racial and ethnic data indicates possible errors that can affect its statistical significance. This term is a reflection of how routinely Natives are left behind, even when it comes to studying the national population. And this phenomenon comes with significant consequences. 

Because policymakers refer to existing data collections, the inaccurate and indistinct data on Native populations hamper politicians from making the appropriate decisions. As a result, Native communities – especially rural ones – are left out from funding while experiencing some of the nation’s highest poverty rates. The United and South Eastern Tribes organization cites research revealed that a mere three-tenths of the 1% of foundation funding goes towards Native Americans. 

Cult-favorite films and TV shows rarely feature a Native American character, much less a Native American main character. Many of the existing portrayals of these characters are historical, and still they are not accurate. The vast variety of tribes and their cultures is instead grouped into a single image of uneducated, feather-bearing people that live in houses held together by sticks and animal hide.  Even modern portrayals are clearly based on misguided stereotypes that the non-Native public promoted and perpetuated through their cinematic works.

In fact, some Native American students have even surrendered to the standards perpetuated by the media, and have purposely tried to mold themselves accordingly because, to them, some representation is better than none. Others began to doubt their potential and self-esteem after watching these characters on their screen displayed as victims of addiction, poverty and lack of education. 

Speaking of education, school curriculums in the U.S. hardly acknowledge the feats or suffering of indigenous people and minority immigrants in their social studies and history classes. Instead, they narrow their focus on the colonizers and then on the white Americans fighting to take back sovereignty of “their land”. This fails to shed light on problematic practices and policies that systematically oppressed Native Americans while white Americans claimed to be liberating their nation; some of which continue to oppress them now. 

Based on a 2016-2018 report, in a whopping 27 states not a single Native American figure is mentioned in their entire K-12 education curriculum. One of the major hindrances to widespread education on Native American history is a lack of state funding – however; only a third of 28 states surveyed in a study by the National Congress of American Indians were found to gather funding for this purpose.

An underlying nationalist view in American history education continues to create a discrepancy between the content minorities are taught and the perspective they grew up with. Oftentimes this one-sided distribution of information has had negative emotional impacts on minorities. It can also contribute to the persistence of racial stigmatization, stereotypes, and ignorance to historical trauma in society.

In a UK study, students of African/Caribbean descent actually had negative psychological responses to history lessons intended to promote inclusivity in the classroom and beyond. The content, being primarily centered around their ancestors as victims and slaves, reportedly generated discomfort and a sense of being alienated. This reaction was a result of microaggressions within the content taught and backs the understanding that much of the efforts being made to correct a lack of awareness are counterproductive, or are only superficial. 

Historically, the U.S.’s indigenous population had, for a time, plummeted in number with disease and genocide following European colonization. And since then, they have been subjected to both very direct and indirect injustices on the land that once was peacefully their own. And even as immigrant minorities settle down, they are constantly pushed back into obscurity by society to the point where even the government fails to serve them. 

Multiple activists, organizations, and journalists describe Native Americans and Alaska Natives as “invisible”. A student in Montana, in a conversation about her school experience, also used the term, saying, “I feel invisible”, referring to the administrators and teachers’ disregard of her requests to gain educational assistance. All this evidence shows how far society’s ignorance towards indigenous people has come, but active change – not even greater awareness – is yet to be seen. 

Featured image via Unsplash

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Idie Park
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