David White: Deconstructing “The White Man’s Indian” In Favor of Cultural Respect and Equality for All

10444379_712734498788545_9102908171576252971_nDavid White is working on his MA in Individualized Studies at Goddard‘s Graduate Institute.

My work has always been about exploring the ways in which identities are constructed, and how those constructions shape the beliefs and experiences of those who choose – or are forced – to embody them. For example, I’m currently working on my thesis, which is an analysis of the primitive/modern dichotomy created by white America during the industrial age (1860-1920) in an effort to establish the modern American identity. Though this process was really quite complex, I believe that its success depended heavily on Western society’s cultural construction of a binary opposite that wasn’t simply an Other, but an anachronistic Other – and there was arguably no better symbol of pre-modern America than the Native peoples who inhabited the land before first-contact.

Simply put, through stereotype, myth, and rhetoric, the dominant culture created a universal Indian (primitive, savage, and decidedly non-Christian) to symbolize the past that they were attempting to define themselves apart from – or in some cases embrace – during the push towards modernity.

While this is in many ways a historical research project, my goal is to not simply belabor the sins of America’s past, but rather my hope is that I can demonstrate how this now archetypal “white man’s Indian” was constructed and perpetuated, to shed light on the variety of ways that it has impacted the lives of Native peoples and cultures, and emphasize how it can and should be deconstructed in favor of cultural understandings that are more realistic and respectful.

Despite being separated by over one hundred years, there are many similarities between the industrial era and the present day, particularly when it comes to white constructions of ethnic or racial identities. So, while I do hope that my work can contribute to the academic, social, and political dialogs around Native or Indigenous representation, autonomy, and self-determination, my goal is to emphasize that these cultural constructions of the Other are not unique to Native/Western relations, or limited to the past, but rather they remain an all too common element of American culture that carry profound and lasting effects for the individuals and groups onto whom they are applied.

As someone who is not of Native heritage, and whose work has until recently been focused on mid-to-late 20th century American history and culture, this work has had a significant impact on my perspectives on everything from research methodologies and federal policy to cultural appropriation and the construction of historical narratives. Though, if I was asked to identify one thing that surprised me the most, it would have to be when I began to accept that I am no more immune to falling for or creating unrealistic identities of an Other than anyone else would be. While I was well aware of the complexities of colonial history and the nuances of the American empire, it was only after months of research that it occurred to me that I had been relying on my own version of the Native/Western binary system in which I had cast the Western majority as the tyrannical villain and the Native minority as the peaceful and unfortunate victim. Though this perspective was certainly well-intended, it also reduced hundreds of enormous and wildly diverse groups into two inaccurate and unrealistic camps that are no more useful than the archetypes of cowboy and Indian. It was somewhat startling to recognize this in my writing, but I think that this is the point at which my work took a turn away from romantic and idealistic rhetoric, and towards becoming what I hope it will be: the kind of honest analysis that is capable of contributing something important to the struggle for equality in the United States.

Having always been the type of person that needs to figure things out for themselves, rather than follow a prescribed list of resources or course syllabus, and the environment and faculty at Goddard have offered the flexibility and patience required for taking a somewhat esoteric or under-developed idea and turning it into a solid work that is the culmination of my own ideas and passion, rather than just something that meets some universal criteria for graduate education. My thesis goals are ambitious, I admit, but if there’s any institution that will give me the tools and support needed to achieve them, it’s definitely Goddard.

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This entry was posted in Activism, Anthropology, Cultural & Cross-Cultural Studies, History & Political Science, Identity, Methodology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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