By Ellie Miller
In 2010, when Peter Pan peanut butter was recalled, I wasn’t surprised. Peter Pan always makes me sick. Not because of fake ingredients and preservatives, but for the racism that it spouts in the movie’s infamous “What made the Red Man red?” scene. In your list of greatest Disney memories, this song probably falls pretty low. And I’d say that’s a good thing. In this short scene, Disney captured the stereotypes that millions of Americans held about Native people. Natives were portrayed as overly sexual, stupid, and lazy. Decades later, these stereotypes still exist, one of the more prominent being the stereotype of laziness. Needless to say, that has not been very good for Native women in the workplace.
According to The American Association of University Women, in 2015, Native women made only 59 cents for every dollar a white man made. Once you pick your jaw up off the table at the shock of these numbers (I know that’s exactly what I did), you may be thinking, “I thought women make 77 cents for the male dollar.” You would be right- but that’s only if you look at white women. The severe racial discrimination that Native women experience in the workplace compared to any other groups highlights the ways racist ideas of laziness, drunkenness, and promiscuity consistently create unsafe spaces for Native women to work.
These numbers aren’t new, however. Nancy Shoemaker, in her book Negotiators of change: Historical perspectives on Native American women, explains how historically Native women have been given the lowest paid jobs. This trend stems from change resistant belief that Native people are unable to effectively participate in society.
This leads me to the thing we really need to know: These power imbalances and pay gaps didn’t happen by accident.
When colonizers first encountered Native people (the ones they mistakenly called Indians), Native people, who happened to be more advanced than the Romans (and way less dead), were labeled as uncivilized labors with their heads and hands in the mud. The colonizers also ignored the fact that traditional Native societies valued women’s work, and viewed Native women as protectors and bearers of life.
So in American history, we had a clash of two cultures, one that valued women’s work–more specifically, native women’s work– and one that didn’t. I’m afraid you know how the story ends.
In order to make sure that colonizers’ ideas about work won out over native ideas, colonists ensured that the future–that is the youth–only learned colonizers’ ideas of work. They did this by removing kids from their families and culture, and sending them to boarding school. According to J.E. Simenson, in their book Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, Native women were specifically taught “female occupations”, like cleaning or milking cows, while men learned industry and management techniques. This distinction set up Native women to only ever be laborers for white society.
In the face of this oppression and disavowal of work, Native women remain resilient. As culture protectors, Native women have been able to use their cultural value passed to them by their ancestors to resurrect aspects of traditional Native work. This matters not only for Native women, but for all women. Because understanding this situation historically makes it clear that our ideas about work and “the way things are” isn’t the way they have always been, and isn’t how they have to be, should be, or will be in the future.
We should know the name of Winona LaDuke who created the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which recovers traditional modes of agriculture and sustainability and reducing toxins from local farms. We should know to buy real Native earrings, not the $15 dreamcatchers hoops from Urban Outfitter- they’re probably the same price, but one supports Native women and the other child slaves in China, so you decide.
Knowing these names and this information reminds us that we can support Native women who assert the value of their ways of living and working, and we can also follow their lead by asserting the values of our own way of living and working.
So what made the Red Woman unemployed? Clearly the colonizer. But what made the Red Woman thrive? The answer to that is simply this: Red women.
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