Gyasi Ross has a great article up on the possibilities and problems of a Native president, When Will There Be a Native American President? [Part 1] ‘Sigh,’ It’s Gonna Be Awhile… Click over to read the whole thing, because I’m only going to include part here.
Can we honestly tell our beautiful and brilliant Native children that, in 2016, they can grow up and be President of the United States of America?
Probably not. Based upon the evidence (as opposed to optimism or good feelings), America does not seem to fully accept Natives as real-life human beings — thus it will likely be a few generations before we can seriously contemplate that.
After this, Ross takes some time to explain the normalization which has taken place in regard to Black people, Hispanic people, and Women. No, things aren’t all cherries and thornless roses with these groups, but they have been included enough in pop culture, normalized enough, that it’s not a complete shock for people to see any one of these peoples in high office.
But what about Natives?
Unfortunately, it looks like that’s still a long ways off. Here are a few reasons why.
First, Americans still have not normalized interactions with Natives. This is manifest in many ways in pop culture today—pop culture is very important toward normalizing a group of people. For example, for decades there are have been movies where a black person plays a president on-screen, making folks more comfortable with the idea. There have also been movies where women and Latinos/as, Asians play presidents, and every other role under the sun. That gets rid of the sticker shock of seeing a person of that group in that position. Moreover, it’s also not unusual to see folks from all backgrounds acting as a different ethnicity or in a leading role where race is not contemplated. For Natives, though? Not so much. Natives are still a novelty, a character to be played on-screen and not just an ethnicity that a person happens to be. There is no Fresh off the Boat or Chico and the Man or Blackish or The Jeffersons or The Cosby Show for Native people. Plus, the prospect of a Native playing, for example, a President? Hasn’t been on the radar, even in the most subversive of films.
Natives have largely been only deemed competent to play a Native no matter how incredible that Native actor is. “How well can you be a Native, Native person?”
Similarly, in my work as a writer and commentator, I largely am asked to only comment or write about “Native stuff.” Now, I love commenting and writing about “Native stuff” but I’ve also found that “Native stuff” is a HUGE category. It’s ALL Native stuff! Whether we’re talking about national politics to public school funding to infrastructure and trade policy. Now, similar to acting black folks, women, Latino/a, Asians, etc. are all considered competent to speak about things that are outside their communities and universal. It is not one bit unusual for a black person, a woman, a Latino/a or an Asian to comment or write on national news. For Natives? Not so much. It’s still a novelty and Natives are not deemed competent to have opinions on matters that are universal and aren’t uniquely Native.
We can’t speak about things that are just “human” or “American.” It would be hard enough for a Native person to get a role as a doctor or teacher on TV, much less a Native President.
We also see it in regards to our tragedy. Simply stated, the mainstream largely does not care or cannot relate to Native pain or outrage. The mainstream ignores the structural and institutional barriers, for example, that allow Native women to be raped at a rate exponentially higher than other women. It likewise ignores those same structural barriers that forbid Native nations from prosecuting outsiders who peddle drugs and/or murder our people. Those same structures then, adding insult to injury, refuse to utilize its own resources to prosecute those bad actors, allowing them to prey upon our communities with impunity.
But nobody mentions that outside of our communities. If they do mention our communities, they mention the poverty without explaining how those barriers help to create and sustain that economic poverty.
As shown above, there is a perception that Natives cannot partake in these larger conversations. As we discussed, there is a lack of empathy or understanding about our communities. When those two things are combined with the mathematical fact that Natives are a tiny percentage of the population, it doesn’t bode well for a Native rising to be President anytime soon. At some point, it’s a humanity question as it was for women, black folks, Latino/as, etc.; are Natives reflective enough of America generally to sometimes not be considered “Native” and instead just “human?”
Can a Native person represent America? Stupid question. OF COURSE. The truth is, Natives are the story of America and are more America than America. Natives are America’s dental record and thumbprint and spinal cord. You cannot intelligently tell the story of America without Native people being one of the main characters. Yet, it seems like mainstream America is a ways away from recognizing that truth.