I often feel invisible. When I tell people that I grew up on an Aboriginal reserve, they look at me like I’m a mythical unicorn, even though more than a million people in Canada identify themselves as First Nations, Métis or Inuit. I probably wouldn’t have thought we existed either if I hadn’t grown up on the Six Nations reserve in Southwestern Ontario. Back then, I only saw people who vaguely looked like me on CBC’s North of 60. It was slim pickings as far as cultural references were concerned.
But today, instead of homages rooted in realism like the CBC offered in the ’90s, all I see in the mass market is a shiny commercial version of “Native Americans” rooted in stereotypes from westerns, Disney cartoons and sports mascots.
It’s disheartening that so few people are aware that headdresses, bonnets and totem poles are still spiritually relevant to vibrant Native cultures. To glamorize—or make light of—the misuse of dated and cartoonish images is to support a legacy of genocide and racism. The after-the-fact apologies aren’t enough. While groups like No Doubt may say they never meant to “offend, hurt or trivialize Native American people, their culture or their history,” they did.
How can anyone assume that referencing “Indian” motifs without care or caution wouldn’t be hurtful, trivial or, indeed, racist? I was dumbstruck when I saw the spring/ summer issue of AnOther Magazine. The biannual fashion and culture publication photographed Michelle Williams wearing black braids, a sad expression and what could arguably be considered redface. (Imagine your reaction if she’d been wearing blackface and cornrows.) In response to an immediate backlash, the magazine echoed those other apologies, writing “While we recognize the seriousness of this debate, the image in question in no way intends to mimic, trivialize or stereotype any particular ethnic group or culture.”
You see, I think the current voting rights fight isn’t just about politics. Instead, I think of it as just one more battle within a larger war over who gets to be an American, and who among Americans gets to control the meaning of America. That war is not just about political rights, it’s about who controls our culture, and that’s something to be very concerned about.
Why? Because culture is at the heart of identity. Our identities, how we are defined, whether or not we are recognized as who we believe ourselves to be and found worthy, drives our politics. When our identities are threatened, we will do almost anything to protect ourselves.
Food, especially food that “swings American,” is a great gauge of American culture and identity. For instance, we think of hamburgers as an all-American food. But hamburger is named after Hamburg, Germany. The hotdog also has German roots. But these are, truly, American foods. Just as American as choy suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies, all also invented in America but that we, nonetheless, think of as Chinese.
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, back when that La Choy commercial was considered about as offensive as selling water softener as an “ancient Chinese secret.” That was a much more naive time for whites. That naivete was rooted in the unquestioned dominance of whiteness. In fact, so dominant were whites that American was synonymous with Caucasian.
But the racial equity movements of my childhood would soon shatter that naivete, pulling whites into a struggle to maintain their cultural dominance that made the contours and vulnerabilities of whiteness visible to whites, perhaps for the first time. Until then, being the assumed racial and cultural norm of America was fundamental to white identity and to the ethos of American exceptionalism.
But when white cultural advantage was challenged, white folk mobilized. KKK membership grew, White Citizens Councils formed, and the Republican Party stepped in to provide a political vehicle for white backlash that is still in effect today.
And now, as the racial demographics of the U.S. and the world turn to the increasing numerical advantage of non-whites, the backlash movement that peaked in the 1990s is resurgent. Membership in racist Patriot groups and vigilante border patrols is on the rise, and Tea Parties and groups like True the Vote are wreaking havoc on our political process. And they’re not nearly done yet. The global scale of white conservative ambitions can be measured by the body count in what increasingly appears to be a permanent war against the so-called Muslim world, the popular support for which is founded in Islamophobia.
It is in this context that the current voter suppression efforts we are seeing around the country should be understood. Overcoming these efforts in this election cycle is only one among many battles. Unless we see that battle as connected to the battles for immigration rights, religious freedom, racial equity and gender equity, reproductive and sexual freedom, and the battle to curtail the ambitions driving the expansion of American empire, we are missing the dynamics of the larger war and may soon find much more than voting rights among its casualties.
Rather than wrongly lump all nomadic peoples under the umbrella term, “gypsy”, here is a guide of appropriate terms to use.
Terms to not use when referring to nomadic people or nomadic sub-ethnic populations:
gypsy [jip-see] noun
Usage note: The term gypsy is a degrading pejorative for persons who belong to the Romani ethnic population.
A member of a nomadic Indo-Aryan people of generally dark complexion who migrated originally from India & Pakistan, settling in various parts of Asia, Europe, and, most recently, North America.
vagabond [vag-uh-bond] adjective
1. Wandering from place to place without any settled home.
2. Leading an unsettled carefree life.
3. Disreputable, worthless, shiftless.
vagrant [vey-gruhnt] noun
1. A person who wanders about idly and has no permanent home or employment.
2. An idle person without visible means of support, as a tramp or beggar.
drifter [drif-ter] noun
1. A person who goes from place to place, job to job, etc.
2. A boat used in fishing with a drift net.
hobo [hoh-boh] noun
A tramp or vagrant.
tramp [trӕmp] noun
1. A person who travels about on foot, usually with no permanent home, living by begging, doing casual work.
2. A long hard walk.
3. An iron plate on the sole of a boot.
4. (slang) A prostitute or promiscuous girl or woman.
pikey [paiki] noun
Usage note: A slang pejorative used in the United Kingdom to describe members of the Pavee sub-Irish ethnic population; commonly known as Irish Travellers.
1. A vagrant.
2. A member of the underclass (possibly derived from the term turnpike).
Words you should use when referring to nomadic people or nomadic sub-ethnic populations:
nomad [noh-mad] noun
A member of a people or tribe that has no permanent abode but moves about from place to place, usually seasonally and often following a traditional route or circuit according to the state of the pasturage or food supply.
An Indo-Aryan people who migrated from the Rajasthan & Punjab regions of India & what is today part of the nation-state of Pakistan following the invasion of the Persian Muslims and now live primarily in Europe and the Americas.
An Indo-Aryan people who migrated from the Rajasthan & Punjab regions of India & parts of what is now the nation-state of Pakistan shortly after the invasion of the Persian Muslims who now live throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and across North Africa. Very closely related to the Romani.
An ethnic group living in north-central Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley. The language of the Hazda is most closely related to the Khoisan language family, though they are genetically isolated from neighboring ethnic populations.
An ethnic people from the Rajasthan region of India. They live primarily in north-west Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and the Eastern Sindh province. They are divided into two tribes; the Maturia & the Labana.
A sub group of the ethnic Turkic people who live primarily in Turkmenistan & Afghanistan, northeastern Syria, Iran and Iraq. The language is Turkmen, of the Oghuz dialectal branch of Turkic. It is closely related to Turkish, Azerbaijani, Qashqui, Gagauz, and Salar.
An ethnic people who live between the Guaviare & Inirida rivers within the Amazon basin in the nation-state of Columbia. The Nukak are seasonally nomadic. Their language is a dialect of the Nadahup language.
Commonly known as Irish Travellers, the Pavee are a sub-ethnic group of Irish who live mostly in the Republic of Ireland & the United Kingdom. The Pavee speak a dialect of the Shelta language, as well as Irish Traveller Cant; which derives from Gaelic.
An Arabian sub-ethnic population who live mostly throughout the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in Egypt. The Bedouin are divided into various tribes, each of which generally speaks one of three Arabic dialects; Najdi, Hassaniya, or Bedawi.
The Yupik are a people indigenous to regions of Alaska and the Russian far east. They include the following tribes; Alutiiq, Central Alaskan Yu’pik, Siberian Yupik, and the Nuakan, Chaplino, and Sirenik. The Yupik language is still widely spoken in both Alaska & Russia. There are five Yupik dialects.
The Hmong are an ethnic population living in regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, & Thailand. The Hmong have many ethnic sub-divisions & speak their own language; Hmong.
A sub-ethnic group of the Nilotic people living in Kenya & Tanzania. The language they speak is Maa, which is a member of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Many Maasai also speak Swahili & English fluently.
The Lori are an ethnic population who live in Pakistan & Iran. They are divided into two sub groups; the Sarmas-Lori & the Zabgisgahi. The Lori are speculated to have migrated from India. They speak the Balochi language.
This in no way accounts for all peoples who were ever once or are still nomadic by culture, tradition, oppression, or necessity. Each nomadic population belongs to a certain ethnicity. Certainly, not all nomadic peoples are related, and thus, we cannot be placed under umbrella terms & misappropriated words.
It is most respectful to always ask what a particular individual prefers to be called. Self identification is important to all human beings no matter to which race or ethnicity we belong. Ascribing English adjectives, derogatory terms, or pejoratives from the English language to various nomadic peoples is insulting & ignorant.
We are more than nomads. We are people; human beings with emotions who identify with & embrace a particular heritage & culture. Please respect us as such.