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Thanksgiving ad reinforces stereotypes

I am writing about the “Happy Thanksgiving” ad that was in the Bemidji Pioneer  Wednesday for the Paul Bunyan Mall.

As a member of the Ojibwe community, I think it was a mistake to have a young child dressed as an “Indian” in the ad. I also say this as a psychologist who studies and writes about stereotypes and its effects on both the native and non-native communities.

The image chosen is offensive to many native peoples on several levels.

1. The “costume” the child was wearing is clearly an inauthentic replication of historical American Indian dress and the fake feathers on the headband are a mockery of the spiritual significance of eagle feathers in American Indian culture.

2. This image depicts a stereotypical myth that forever associates American Indians as happy participants in the “first” Thanksgiving. Historical documents show that the Wampanoag and the “pilgrims” were not the best of friends and tremendous atrocities and trauma nearly wiped out the Wampanoag tribe within a decade after the so-called first Thanksgiving.

3. The use of imagery is a powerful tool at creating and maintaining stereotypes in societies. By choosing this image, it continues to depict American Indian people as a part of the past, ignoring the modern-day issues and representations of American Indian people. This is what we call a microaggression in psychological terms. It sends a message to American Indians and non-Indians that we are “not real anymore,” “we are only historical relicts,” “this is how Indians look and dress,” “it is OK to dress up like an “Indian.”

4. American Indians are 19 percent of the population in the Bemidji area. That is a real economic issue. We most likely make up a significant proportion of the consumers to the mall merchants. Any given time I go to the mall I see significant numbers of American Indian people in the mall – we are your customers.

I talked to the mall manager the morning the ad was published, and of course she informed it was not intended to offend anyone – which is usually the case with microaggressions. However, that does not make it alright. Even if the intent was not there, the end results are the consequences I laid out above.

I hope that the Paul Bunyan Mall management will issue a public apology to the native community and be more respectful in the future.

John Gonzalez, PhD

Associate Professor, Psychology Department

Bemidji State University