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The Lost Tribe that Never Existed By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Sunday, August 25, 2002


The race hacks have struck again. The YMCA has just announced that it is changing its 76-year-old Indian Guides program that brings parents and their children together for hiking, fishing, and crafts. The reason? The Indian-inspired headdresses and feathers and face-paints the Guides use have been deemed offensive by professional Indians, those plastic medicine-men who have selected themselves as the official purveyors of "Indian" culture and sensibility to whites.

The Guides were started in 1926 by a YMCA official and his Ojibway Indian fishing buddy, who obviously wasn't aware of the pernicious insensitivity of the program. Their intent was to create an organization that called on Indian culture and traditions to promote family values. But all that doesn't matter to some modern Indian organizations that exist to search for opportunities to flex their political muscles in the increasingly crowded victim-derby. Get the YMCA to change a program, coerce a high school or university to change its mascot, and you've demonstrated some clout that can be politically useful.

It's tempting to shrug off such actions like the YMCA's as unimportant. Let the Indian Guides be the Saxon Guides or something equally inoffensive. Let the high school call themselves the Vikings instead of the Mohawks, since Scandinavian-Americans haven't received the government seal of victim approval. But larger issues are involved that should make us all concerned.

The first is our therapeutic obsessions with sensitivity and making people feel bad. Of course sensitivity to others' feelings is a good thing, but not if it gets in the way of other goods. In a free, open, democratic society, the willingness and ability to speak political truths and opinions are crucial. This democratic conversation is often indecorous, brutal, and insensitive. After all, the truth often hurts. But getting at the truth publicly — a difficult process in any case — can only be inhibited and compromised if we are all trying to calibrate and finely tune our speech to avoid offending people. Hurt feelings are the price we pay for a free political speech that is the most efficient means of getting the best ideas publicly aired.

Anyway, feelings are notoriously subjective. What offends today's activist Indian obviously didn't offend the Ojibway who helped found the Indian Guides and probably thought he was celebrating Indian culture by introducing it to whites. My local Indian casino uses Indian motifs, including the sacred feathers, in its advertising, whose slogan is "Catch the spirit," playing off the presumed Indian deity the "great spirit," all in order to lure people to their casino and take their money — a baser purpose than the Indian Guides' goal of promoting family values. I suppose cultural insensitivity is okay if Indians profit.

The vast range of subjective feelings is even greater in an increasingly multiracial and multi-ethnic society, where the possibility of inadvertently giving offense increases exponentially. But rather than trying to master an ever-growing list of potential taboos, instead we should make it clear that getting along in a multiracial, democratic society that treasures free speech requires all of us to have thicker skins and a more developed sense of humor.

Another problem with our cult of sensitivity is that it is highly selective. Those minorities officially recognized by the government are off limits, but others not so designated are fair game. You can get a big laugh in just about any university faculty lounge by making a joke about fundamentalist Christians or Republicans or poor-whites. In my part of California, "okie" is an insulting epithet to many Dust Bowl migrants, representing the disdain and contempt they frequently experienced when they came to California. But I don't know how many times I've heard sensitive professors who carefully enunciate every syllable of "Chicano" use the word "okie" with undisguised relish.

The long-term political effects of sensitivity, however, are what should trouble us the most. Once you enshrine the vague, privately calibrated, subjective feelings of even the hyper-sensitive as the standard of public speech, the only direction you can move is toward greater and greater censorship, since just about anything can potentially offend anybody. Just look at what has happened in private businesses, where fear of sexual harassment suits have led to draconian prohibitions on what employees can put on their desks. Ban everything and you know for sure you'll avoid costly litigation and a government commissar poking around in your desk drawers.

Or consider the way the sensitivity imperative has complicated our response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11. We've all been in line at the airport and watched as 10-year-old black kids and octogenarian grandmothers have been pulled aside and aggressively wanded. And we all know why —to avoid any implication that young Arabic men are being singled out or "profiled." So instead of offending one innocent young Arabic man, we will inconvenience and insult thousands of innocent travelers.

The second problem with the YMCA's capitulation is that the "Indian" culture it supposedly is insulting is a noble-savage fiction concocted mainly by romantic whites, what Mark Twain called the "lost tribe that never existed." There's no such thing as "Indian culture" —there were scores of different cultures and societies with a vast array of practices and customs and religious beliefs. So which ones are the Indian Guides offending? The fact is, most of what passes for "Indian" culture today is no more authentic and historically truthful than the headdresses and face-paint of the Indian Guides.

Again, the issue is one of control. Historical truth doesn't matter as much as keeping the Indian "heritage" — a resource more valuable than oil or coal, since this imaginative "heritage" is inexhaustible and endlessly recyclable — in the hands of those organizations that profit from victim-politics. Consider Disney's cartoon Pocahontas, a ridiculous compendium of romantic cliches about Indians that should insult every Indian alive and dead. Yet one of the most successful professional Indians, Russell Means, pronounced it the best movie Hollywood had ever made about Indians. But of course, Means provided one of the voices in the movie.

Once more we see the pernicious effects of identity politics. The serious problems faced by many Indians today are not going to be solved one bit because the Indian Guides change their name or a university changes its mascot. For all their ill side-effects, casinos have done more for Indians than all the obsessing over the superficial "insensitivity" of whites put together. Increased economic development is what the reservations need, not more peddling of a fake Indian "heritage" and "culture" to guilty palefaces.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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