Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonialism
Michael Yellow Bird
White domination is so complete that even American Indian children want to be cowboys. It’s as if Jewish children wanted to play Nazis. —Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race Colonialism is the invasion, subjugation, and occupation of one people by another. In Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction(2001), Robert J. C. Young concludes that the United States of America, the world’s last remaining signiﬁcant colonial power, continues to dominate external territories without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. However, one does not have to go abroad to analyze the practice of American colonialism since the exploitation and control of Indigenous Peoples in the United States continues unabated. This essay examines cowboys and Indians as part of the colonial canon asserting white supremacy and Indigenous inferiority. I begin by telling how my encounter with a bag of toy cowboys and Indians reminded me that Indigenous Peoples face the humiliation of American colonialism on a daily basis. I next recount how a master cowboys and Indians narrative was used to support and maintain the oppression of people in the tribal community where I was raised. I end with a discussion concerning the importance of decolonizing cowboys and Indians.
TOYS OF GENOCIDE
It seems I am constantly offended by the colonial representations and words used to describe (or more accurately subjugate) Indigenous Peoples in the United States. Images such as big-nosed Indian sports team mascots and words like “redskins” and “squaw” quickly come to mind. Cowboys and Indians have, for me, come to symbolize America’s past and present infatuation with colonization and genocide. For the past year, I have been accepting invitations from an Indigenous colleague and her family to come to their place to visit and have dinner, go hiking, watch cult videos, celebrate birthdays and holidays, and meet relatives from out of town. The drive from my place to theirs generally takes about a half-hour when trafﬁc is light. Dinner is always good, and visiting includes a number of interesting topics. Sometimes we discuss global or tribal politics or the environmental degradation of Mother Earth. Other times we talk about our responsibility as First Nations intellectuals and the microassaults we experience from everyday colonial society or about our teaching and research in the academy and the effects that resistant students and colleagues have on our attempts to decolonize their thinking and our academic disciplines. Inevitably, our conversation always turns to how American colonialism has damaged our reservation communities: alcoholism, poverty, poor health, internalized hatred, social factionalism, and the brain drain (the exodus of our most talented tribal members from our communities due to the lack of opportunity or challenge, being from the wrong family, or jealousy). It seems we frequently imagine how we might return home to help our people. But this dream usually ends at about 9:55 p.m. when I am saying good-bye and getting in my car to go home. One of my favorite things to do before I visit my friends is to pick up a half-gallon of gourmet ice cream, usually cookies and cream, for an after-dinner dessert. I would consider ice cream to be the only true beneﬁt of colonialism, except many Indigenous Peoples are lactose intolerant and diabetic. I am almost always late when I arrive, but it never fails that I am met at the door by the children, who scream out my name and give me a big body or leg hug. This past Christmas my partner and I brought gifts for the family. Neither of us celebrates this holiday so it is a challenge for us to think of ways we can counter American corporate consumerism and sweatshop imperialism. Imbued with this holiday spirit, we purchased presents from some socially responsible-looking artists in a parking lot near the organic food market where we shop. We looked at several gifts before deciding that we would get everyone a turtle pendant to wear around their neck, a symbol of long life among many tribal peoples. Mom and Dad got glass turtles while the children’s were carved from stone. As part of the children’s gift pack, we gave them each a gender-specific toy, made by some multinational conglomerate, which sparked more excitement among them than the stone reptiles. A couple of weeks ago, on my way over for my ritual dinner and visit, I stopped to get the ice cream. Remembering the children’s delight when they received their toys at Christmas, I ﬁrst went in search of a present for each. I walked down the toy aisle until I found the Matchbox car section where I picked out one for each of the two boys, and then carefully sidestepped my way farther down the aisle looking for an appropriate gift for the daughter. I stopped at the bubbles section and picked out the largest bottle, which was on the highest shelf. Pleased with my selections, I turned toward the freezers of ice cream and came face-to-face with several near-identical plastic bags full of little red toy Indians and blue cowboys. I was momentarily stunned as I gazed at this nauseating display of Americana. However, a panoply of interactions between the receptors and neuropeptides in my gut and brain caused me to smile with delight because I had been talking about these little genocidal toys just a few weeks earlier with students in my Diversity and Oppression class. After explaining to them my most “neutral” scholarly disdain for these toys, I attempted to put these seemingly benign little figures into a larger cultural context that I thought might help students see more precisely what I was attempting to convey. You might call it a teaching moment. Often, I ﬁnd it is effective to help students understand the oppression of Indigenous Peoples by paralleling our situation with that of other more well-known groups of color. I said, “Imagine if children could also buy bags of little toy African-American slaves and their white slave masters, or Jewish holocaust prisoners and their SS Nazi guards, or undocumented Mexicans and their INS border patrol guards.” I paused a moment for greater effect. “Imagine if the African-American set included little whips and ropes so the white slave masters could ﬂog the slaves that were lazy and lynch those who deﬁed them. Imagine if the border guards in the Mexican toy set came with little nightsticks to beat the illegal aliens, infrared scopes on their riﬂes to shoot them at night, and trucks to load up those they caught.” I continued, “Imagine if the Jewish and Nazi toys included little barbed-wire prison camps and toy trains to load up and take the prisoners to the toy gas chambers or incinerators, batteries not included.” When I ﬁnished I asked for feedback on what I thought was a most brilliant exemplar and repartee to American colonialism. To my dismay no one answered or showed any emotion. Students seemed paralyzed. I waited as they remained ﬁxed and dilated giving me “the thousand-yard stare.” Their lack of response caused me to wonder if it were possible to create permanent disconnect between receptors and neuropeptides in people by sharing such toxic images and words. I set down the toy cars and bubbles and grabbed one of the bags of cowboys and Indians and carefully tilted it toward me to read the front of the package. As I read, I pulled the bag from the small metal display rod so I could see what the little ﬁgures were wearing and the weapons they were brandishing: cowboy hats and fully feathered war bonnets; six-guns and riﬂes, bows and arrows. These guys were ready for battle. I turned over the bag, interested to read who manufactured them (Magic) and where they were made (China), since half the toys sold in the United States (about $20 billion worth in 2001) are made in China under brutal sweatshop conditions made possible by the avarice or, in economic terms, the “bottom line” of several different prominent American toy companies. As I gazed at the ﬁgures, I thought about all those young Chinese women forced to work in these American toy factories for seventeen cents an hour, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for months at a time; workers who spend all day in 104-degree room temperatures around machines that cause hearing loss and chemicals that make them sick and faint on the job; workers who agonizingly perform the same job operation three thousand times a day and work an overtime schedule that leaves them with as little as two or three hours of sleep per night. Workers who are worn out and used up by the time they reach age thirty to thirty-ﬁve and are quickly removed and replaced by a constant stream of younger workers. I wondered how many young Chinese women have died or been poisoned by breathing in the toxic chemicals in molten plastic while they poured the red liquid to make the Indians and the blue to make the cowboys; all this so American kids can practice killing Indians. I decided to buy the cowboys and Indians and take them to my class for a show-and-tell session, thinking I would let my students play with them and then discuss what malevolent tendencies came alive in their play. I also thought that discussing the connection between these little genocidal toys and the exploitation of Chinese women by American multinational toy companies would be interesting, especially if I were able to input my theory that a reason these ﬁgures are tolerated is due to the subconscious demands of white American supremacy over Indigenous Peoples. I walked conﬁdently to the checkout stand, but as I got closer I began to psychologically deﬂate, remembering that I am closely related to those little red guys in the bag while the white cashiers, despite their lack of cowboy hats, dirty faces, boots, and sixguns, are relatives of those little blue guys: the ones who killed my kind. I placed the ice cream down ﬁrst and threw all the toys together hoping that the cowboys and Indians wouldn’t draw too much attention from the cashier. Everything totaled twelve dollars. Twelve dollars! I uttered an inaudible ouch as the cashier cowboy quickly colonized the portion of my economic livelihood I earned through my decolonization work with non-Indigenous university students. I mistakenly pulled out a one-dollar bill from my wallet, thinking it was a twenty. The cashier stared at me as I put it back, but not before I looked at the picture of George Washington, remembering that cowboys call this guy one of the founding fathers of the United States while the Seneca called him “Caunotaucarius” (the town destroyer). I recalled a conversation with a Seneca brother who informed me that the father of this country sent American troops through his people’s territory burning down villages, destroying all crops and stored foodstuffs, killing many, and leaving the rest to starve through the bitter winter. I pulled out a ﬁve and searched for another and a couple of ones with no luck. Ah yes, Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator pictured on the ﬁve-dollar bill, “freed” black slaves and gave orders to hang thirty-eight Dakotas following the so-called Dakota Uprising in Minnesota. This hanging was called the “greatest mass execution in U.S. history,” and, according to the Guinness Book of Records, lynching these Dakotas made “Old Honest Abe” the record holder for the largest hanging of people from one gallows.4 During Lincoln’s presidency, the Dakota were mistreated, cheated, and abused by white settlers, Indian agents, and traders who had pushed them off their lands, leaving them only one-tenth of their original territory. They were starving because the wild game was gone from their hunting grounds, which were claimed by white settlers. They were also deceived in the treaties that they made with the United States and did not get annuities and food promised to them. When Dakota chief Little Crow requested food from Indian agent Thomas Galbraith for his starving people, he was condescendingly told by trader Andrew Myrick that they should “eat grass or their own dung.” I put back the ﬁve and ﬁnally pulled out a twenty and gave it to the cashier who put it in the register while she counted my change. As I waited, I remembered that Andrew Jackson, the brave Indian ﬁghter on the twenty-dollar bill, was called the “devil” by the Creek Nation because of his wanton slaughter of unarmed Creeks. “At the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend, Jackson and his troops surrounded eight hundred Creeks and killed almost all of them, including women and children. Afterward his soldiers made bridle reins of skins taken from the corpses; they also cut off the tip of each dead Indian’s nose for a body count.” Jackson was also responsible for illegally driving the Cherokees off their homelands in Georgia and force-marching them to Oklahoma, but not before ﬁve to eight thousand (mostly elders, children, and women) died on the “trail of tears.” As I collect my change, it occurs to me that I got rid of the Cherokee/Creek killer, but now have three more town destroyers and one more Dakota executioner.
I ﬁnally arrived at the home of my friends and received the customary affectionate hugs and greetings from all. I handed over the ice cream to the parents to be refrigerated and dug the toys out of the bag to hand out to the kids. Forgetting the cowboys and Indians were in the bag, I took them out at the same time as the other toys. The youngest, responding like other young feral boys his age, immediately yelled “these are mine,” snatched them out of my hand before his brother and sister could react, and dove toward a corner protecting his cache while we all looked on. I quickly responded, saying, “Oh, those little toys are for my students; I have another really nice toy for you.” However, when he saw that the car I was holding was much smaller, he hunkered down on his prize and cried “no, no, no” as his mother attempted to extricate the bag from his little, powerful, white-knuckled clutch. As he and his mother wrestled for supremacy over the toys, I quickly intervened saying, “It’s OK, you can have them... he can have them,” which brought some relief for all. When calm returned, I explained to mom and dad that I would never buy cowboys and Indians for myself and that these little guys were for a multifaceted split-plot factorial experiment hypothesizing the post hoc basal levels of aggression and hypo-organic racism elicited from my students following their play with these little guys. Even though I said this with a straight face, both mom and dad said, “Oh yeah, sure you were; we know you were taking them home so you could have those little Indians torture those poor little cowboys.” Later in the evening, when visiting between us adults waned, the two boys brought me their large sky blue Tupperware container of toys and asked me to play with them. I agreed, and we sat at the dining table looking at all the different little cars, trucks, and animal figures. I cringed as I observed that they had already added the cowboys and Indians to their collection. I began to pray silently that we wouldn’t play with these guys because I knew I would want the Indians to kill all the cowboys, and it wouldn’t be pretty. As the boys looked over the toys, I sent them powerful silent thoughts intended to discourage them from wanting to play with these little ﬁgures. My telekinetic abilities failed, and the boys took them out and separated them into what seemed like positions of battle. I watched without protest even though my ﬁerce anticolonial perspicacity told me that these are the toys of genocide, icons of colonialism, and little boys should not be allowed to play with them because it will create a subconscious desire to kill real Indians. As I pondered these thoughts, I suddenly realized that I could experiment with how the boys play with these toys. When all the ﬁgures are on the table, I ask, “What shall we do with these guys?” Neither answers. Realizing I need to coach them a bit, I ask, “Who are the bad guys and who are the good guys . . . which guys are supposed to get killed?” My research questions are suddenly contaminated when the boys quickly reach into the Tupperware container and pull out a brontosaurus and a T. rex and began knocking down everybody, saying, “We have to kill them all.” Unable to restrain my latent tendencies of revenge, I grabbed a pterodactyl and started making what I think are pretty good pterodactyl sounds while I used my guy to peck out the eyes of the cowboy who most looked like John Wayne.
COWBOYS AND INDIANS: THE MASTER NARRATIVE
The colonizer’s falsified stories have become universal truths to mainstream society, and have reduced Aboriginal culture to a caricature. This distorted reality is one of the most powerful shackles subjugating Aboriginal people. It distorts all Indigenous experiences, past and present, and blocks the road to self determination. Years ago, when I was a child, my play with toy cowboys and Indians would have ended much differently than my above story. Having been inculcated with the master narrative, or what Howard Adams calls “the colonizer’s falsiﬁed stories,” my cowboys would have heroically killed the dinosaurs and then the Indians. Like many children on the North Dakota reservation where I grew up, my young mind had been intellectually conscripted by the local Bureau of Indian Affairs school to battle the delusion that we Indians were equal in standing to whites. Like most reservation schools during this era, not only was our education inferior and biased, it was also well versed in the oppression, control, and intellectual and cultural domination of us little brown prisoners. We quickly discovered that what we believed was not important unless it was about the great deeds of George Washington (the town destroyer) or Abraham Lincoln (the Dakota executioner) or other signiﬁcant dead white guys. We learned that we did not know anything of value, nor did we have anything important to contribute from our culture unless it supported the myths of white supremacy. In junior high school we continued to learn we were primitive, superstitious people who