Reviewed by Renee Ann Cramer, Program in Law, Politics, and Society, Drake University. Email: renee.cramer [at] drake.edu.
Disrespect of American Indians was a normal part of my growing up in rural South Dakota. Here is an incident I remember from the 1980s:
Our (non-Indian) high school basketball team often played the team from the Flandreau Indian School. I remember, vividly, the night we played on their court. We all stood for the national anthem – they stood on their side of the gym, we stood on ours. Then the school’s drum circle came out and played an anthem to the Sioux nation, presenting the colors of the US, the POW/MIA flag, and the tribal staff. Our teachers and coaches would not allow us to stand in respect of this tradition. Their side of the gym stood; ours sat.
And, another, from the mid-1990s:
I am not an American Indian, but am often taken for one, even by Indian folks. I am short in stature, and have a ruddy complexion with dark hair and eyes. I write about American Indian politics and law, and spend time in Indian cultural centers and on reservations. At the American Indian Museum in New York City, a Lakota man once told me I had “Brule thighs.” I’ve had “white” people apologize to me for their ancestors’ acts of genocide. So, I wasn’t surprised, once, at a diner in La Crosse, Wisconsin, when the waitress assumed I was a tribal person. I was surprised, though, that she told other diners, within my earshot, that she didn’t think “dirty Indians” had any business expecting service in her restaurant. Even though I’m not usually a quiet person, and even though I’m not Indian, I pretended like I hadn’t heard her, like she couldn’t have been talking about me.
This sort of disrespect was a normal part of the day-to-day existence of any tribal person I knew growing up, even a normal part of the day-to-day existence of anyone assumed to be tribal; and it remains a normal facet of life for most native people I talk to.
Yet, until I read Barbara Perry’s important new book, I had not conceptualized these moments as part of a continuum of activities we could label as “hate crime.” Perhaps it was a failure of my critical imagination, but I did not think of these types of individual, isolated, and trivial-seeming events as exemplars of systematic, structural racism against an entire people.
Perry asserts that these isolated incidents are indeed hate crime, and that hate crime has become normative for native peoples. This is brought home in the qualitative data she presents – in her book, we read interview after interview with American Indians who have been slighted, demeaned, disrespected, ignored, threatened, and beaten.
Perry places what is commonplace, this daily violence, into three necessary [*1088] contexts: the historical context of colonialism and genocide; the theoretical context elaborated by Iris Marion Young (1995) to understand “the five faces of oppression” (exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence); and the context of contemporary hate crimes against people of color, Jews, women, and the BLGT community. The first five chapters are stunning; before she even gets to the sixth, which focuses explicitly on American Indian experiences of hate, Perry has shown how genocide, cultural imperialism, and a proclivity to violence against the Other are endemic to some North American expressions of Whiteness.
The sixth and seventh chapters turn explicitly to American Indian experiences of hate, and the “cumulative effects” such experiences have on cultures and peoples. The book is based on four rounds of research – a pilot study in the Four Corners region (this refers to the Four Corners of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado – a region with a large native population), a survey of Indian students at Northern Arizona University (where Perry was teaching at the time of the study), and extensive interviews in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Montana. In the course of the research, 278 American Indians from eight different tribes, across more than twelve reservations, were interviewed.
This is the first study of its kind, and fills a hole in several literatures. As Perry points out in the introduction to the volume:
A review of the literature on Native Americans and criminal justice, and even a similar review of the narrower literature on ethnoviolence, reveals virtually no consideration of Native Americans as victims of racially motivated violence . . . In addition to the lack of scholarship, there is also an absence of concrete data on hate crimes against Native Americans. There is no Native American equivalent to the annual audits of anti-Semitic violence or anti-gay violence published by the Anti-Defamation League and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (p.2).
Clearly, a book such as this is a necessary correction – we learn from her interview data that American Indians experience hate crime, hate speech, and hateful incidents on a frequent, almost daily, basis. Violence directed against American Indians is normative, Perry argues. It is expected. The history of violence against American Indians, in the forms of genocide, colonization, ethnocide, forced assimilation, and continued imperialism and oppression, is so well known that its manifestations as hate crime are “unremarkable.” And, a review of the literature convincingly shows, such violence has been ignored by scholars.
Ever cognizant of the path-breaking nature of her work, and her responsibilities in authoring a text of such importance to tribal peoples, Perry’s research plans were guided by “careful ethical considerations” (p.20), and formulated in close accord with the excellent advice offered by native scholar Devon Mihesuah (1996). Perry hired tribal students to aide in the research plan, and her approach to these communities appears impeccable and culturally sensitive. Though I often yearned for quantitative data, and a sense of the proportions of people interviewed who had experienced hate crime, the interviews Perry excerpts give [*1089] a stunning picture of the range of violence experienced by American Indians, the depth of its historical roots, and the extent of hatreds’ infiltration into the daily lives of tribal people.
Perry argues, convincingly, that hate crimes against American Indians are likely to be “inspired by American Indian activism” (p.8). She notes that in regions where tribes have pressed for their treaty rights, violence against tribal people increased. I agree that this is likely – as tribes rally for fishing and hunting rights, non-Indians mobilize languages of rights, deservingness, tradition, and heritage; often these fights turn violent. I am curious, though, about the impact that other tribal expressions of sovereignty have. In regions where tribe successfully engage in casino gaming, for example, do we see hate crimes increase? Or, in regions where tribes have built up cultural capital, do we see less crime, even with tribal expressions of sovereignty? Because she looks primarily in regions where tribal sovereignty is contested, and Indian activism is paramount in the public eye, it is difficult to know, from Perry’s study, what kinds of tribal activism are most likely to be met with violent non-Indian resistance.
Throughout the text, whenever I encountered Indian voices telling about the violence they had faced, I could feel and “hear” the palpable exhaustion in their reporting. The respondents sounded depressed, overwhelmed, crushed by the weight of history and contemporary practices. I felt demoralized while reading about the day-to-day experiences Perry’s respondents reported to her.
In Chapter 7, Perry acknowledges this exhaustion, and offers theories for understanding it, as well as coping with it. She writes, of her respondents, that “there was a generalized sense of feeling weighed down, oppressed by the ongoing threat of harassment and other racist actions . . . the consequences of this persistent pattern of threat are manifest in an array of related behavioral practices, including withdrawal and isolation. This is, of course, the goal of hate crime perpetrators: to force their victims to give up” (pp.102-103, emphasis added).
Perry’s deep understanding of hate crime is especially helpful here. She writes about the normative violence faced by American Indians at the hands of Whites, in a way that helps us have empathy for the victims, and to understand how the constant victimization will have long-lasting cultural reverberations.
Importantly, Perry’s definition of “hate crime” extends beyond White-on-Indian violence. This book makes clear the unique role of the police (even Indian police employed by tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs) in perpetuating cultures of violence and fear on reservations. Perry also discusses the epidemic of Indian-on-Indian violence and domestic violence on reservations as part of the problem of hate crime, via internal colonialism and self-hatred. Of such violence, she writes, “the victim is punished for reminding the perpetrator of their shared, discredited identity” (p.118). This is a potentially revolutionary way to think about reservation violence; reframing domestic violence, in particular, as evidence of internal colonialism, and residual of [*1090] White violence against Indians, opens paths to violence reduction that might work in particular community settings.
Ultimately, of course, a deep desire for the reduction of violence is what motivates Perry to write. She tells readers that she is interested in influencing policymakers, and her final chapter is devoted to elaborating ways that hate crimes against American Indians could be reduced. Perry draws her ideas from programs that already are in operation and working, as well as from the ideas presented her by interview respondents. As such, she gives us indigenous ways to reduce violence and offers plenty of good ideas. Her prescriptions include education (both for Indians in their own lifeways and cultures, and for Whites, of the value of indigenous history and contemporary culture), positive inter-group interactions facilitated by tribes themselves, and exercises of tribal self-determination. In my own research (Cramer 2005), I have noted that tribes who use the press to their advantage, who invite the non-Indian community to join in their cultural celebrations, and who exercise their self-determination in ways that benefit both tribal and non-Indian communities, tend to avoid attacks on their collective identity and economic growth. Perry argues that such activity can also help to mitigate individual acts of violence and the blight of hate crime on reservations and in border towns.
Although I felt pessimistic by the time I reached her concluding chapter, “Responding to Anti-Indian Violence,” I was able to be convinced by Perry’s optimism. She writes:
While anger and resentment are understandable [responses to hate crime], the opposite is also possible; that is, those who have experienced hate violence can and do develop a sense of defiance and ultimately pride in their identity. Yet defiance need not culminate only in the type of reactionary anti-white sentiment previously noted. Rather, it may take a constructive form, by which one stand up to the racism and violence that confronts oneself (p.118).
This book is both incredibly necessary, and profoundly disturbing. Perry does a beautiful job at respectfully excerpting from her extensive interview data, but the voices of the American Indians that we encounter in this volume offer a portrait of a group of people profoundly hurt by historical and contemporary practices; they remind us that the hurt, humiliation, and violence they suffered is on-going, and that solving the problem is a daunting, collective, responsibility.
Cramer, Renee. 2005. CASH, COLOR, AND COLONIALISM: THE POLITICS OF TRIBAL ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Mihesuah, Devon. 1996. AMERICAN INDIANS: STEREOTYPES AND REALITIES. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press.
Young, Iris Marion. 1995. “Five Faces of Oppression,” in D. Harris (ed.) MULTICULTURALISM FROM THE MARGINS (pp.65-86). Westport, CO.: Begin and Garvey.
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Renee Ann Cramer.