November is Indigenous Heritage Month, and in celebration the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) put together a series of events, performances and screenings to recognize the experiences of native people in the community and around the world.
The keynote presentation was given by Stephanie Fryberg ’94, a Kenyon alumna, social and cultural psychologist and university diversity and social transformation professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Fryberg is also a member of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington.
Carlos Lopez Martinez ’23, who is indigenous but not of North America, said he came to Fryberg’s lecture because it presented a rare opportunity to think and talk about the indigenous experience, which is often either made invisible or ignored in the popular culture.
“It’s hard in a space like this [Kenyon] to find space in which indigeneity is brought up, so I thought it was important to come and learn, because it’s something that’s not prominent in spaces like this,” Martinez said.
Fryberg focused her talk in Cheever Room last Wednesday on the reclaiming of native truths. She discussed how social representations of Native Americans influence mainstream cultural beliefs about and support for Indigenous peoples. Social representations, Fryberg said, allow us to orient ourselves within a society and communicate with one another, but they also lead to the cultivation of unfounded stereotypes.
According to Fryberg’s presentation, there are three dominant representations of Native Americans. First, there is the Romantice “positive” representation—think Pokehannes, or the friendly Indian figures in the Thanksgiving myth. These purport to be positive representations, but Fryberg says they are anything but.
Second, there are negative stereotypes: that all Native Americans live in poverty, are drunkards or are unable to make their own decisions. Third, there is the idea of the vanished or invisible natives—widely held beliefs that indigenous people have dissipated into the white world and don’t really exist anymore.
Fryberg explained that all of these tropes, no matter how harmless they appear on the surface, have actually been proven to lower the self-esteem, community worth and achievement-related aspirations of Native people. More disturbingly, they at the same time make white people feel better about themselves.
Fryberg laced her speech with facts and statistics, mixing hard data with personal anecdotes—including a story from her time at Kenyon when a classmate asked her if she had needed to buy new clothes to come to college—all of which conveyed a true passion for her work and for the next generation of Native people.
“The reason I do this work is because I want [my children] to go into a world where they can be absolutely anything that they want to be,” Fryberg said. “Changing these representations does not rest solely with Native Americans. In fact, what underlies everything that’s going on actually has nothing to do with us. In order to really make change, we need allies; we need people to step up. At the very least, do not allow us to be invisible. … We have to stop the invisibility, and we have to stop the denial of racism and we have to allow native people to be all that they are today, which is very much contributing members of American society.”