In the Oscar-winning film, Forrest Gump’s mother said life was like a box of chocolates – a package of delights offering a never-ending series of surprises.
But for North American Indians, life is more like a box of crayons, a container in which there’s a predictable slot for each and every shade.
Sheila Pratt, a primary school teacher from Maple Ridge, B.C., got her lesson in the Aboriginal facts of life when she noticed that one of the crayons in a box of 64 was labelled “Indian Red,” although it was clearly a brownish hue.
“I would have a very hard time explaining to any of my students, whether of First Nations, South Asian, Europeans or other descent, how a brown colour could be labelled any shade of red,” she wrote in a letter to Binney & Smith, the Pennsylvania-based manufacturers of Crayloa crayons. “I am very disturbed that your company seems to be practicing this type of stereotyping. It does not promote respect amongst members of our community, nor does it build self-esteem in the individuals who might consider themselves the object of this label.”
The corporate response to Ms. Pratt’s inquiry was stereotypical in its own right. First, consumer affairs manager Ellyn Scott expressed surprise that anyone could possibly take offence: “In naming our indian red crayon, it was not our intention to make reference to Native Americans in describing the colour.”
Step two; it’s a tradition: “Most of our colour names are taken from the ‘Universal Color Language and Dictionary of Names’ published by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. Also, Webster’s Dictionary defines indian red as a ‘strong or moderate reddish brown.’”
And, finally, blame it on somebody else: “At Binney & Smith, we are constantly striving to develop new products and improve our existing items to meet consumer needs.”
Okay, Ms. Scott. What happens if there’s a ground-swell of support for some new crayon shades, say, “negro black,” or “japanese yellow”; do the Binney & Smith scientists don their lab coats and whip up batches of these new hues to keep up with consumer demand?
As for relying on textbook definitions to justify the use of such outdated racist idioms as indian red, the dictionary on my desk contains some colloquialisms that would turn Ms. Scott’s cheeks cherry pink, and would never make it past the watchful eyes of
the editor scanning this article. If the fact they have been published made words acceptable, Hitler would have worked until normal retirement age, and the Ku KJux Klan would be the Alabama chapter of the Rotary Club.
Some people say Amerindians are overly sensitive about such things. What difference does it really make if the official Boy Scout Handbook until I960 said that pioneers fought Indians to protect their families from “savages”? Does it really cause any harm for a professional football team to call themselves the Redskins? Are Indians just being too touchy when they complain about landmarks known as Squaw Valley or Mountain or Rivier?
The people who ask these questions are seldom those who have ever experienced personal exclusion because of their racial origin, their skin colour or their beliefs. Their perspectives might change if they saw teams take to sports fields wearing sweaters identifying them as the Buffalo Blackskins, or the Wyoming Wops. What would British Columbia’s Asian community think if tourist brochures referred to the provincial capital by its whispered sland-name of “Hongcouver”?
Name-calling can have far more lasting ramifications than sticks and stones. Many inner-city gang members got their start as youngsters who grew embittered by the racial slurs they heard on street corners and in school yards.
The unchecked epithet becomes a building block to bigotry. Journalists graduate from making cute comments about embattled politicians “circling the wagons” against their foes to employing more deep-rooted anti-Aboriginal stereotypes.
A Globe and Mail reporter describes the chief of a band accused of financial mismanagement as literally dripping with diamond jewelry. She bought her rings for $40 from a pow-wow vendor. A Southam columnist talks about government money not reaching the “destitute Indians” because it is “pocketed by Native intermediaries in Armani suits.” There are still too many mainstream journalists whose idea of researching Aboriginal issues must be renting a video of Dances with Wolves.
Like all other human beings, Indians come in all shapes and sizes, temperaments and talents. We are neither the savage nor noble savage stereotypes protrayed in the media.
We are as diverse as 64 different crayons in a box, and impossible to categorize as one simple shade of colour.
Maurice Swftzer Is a member of the Mississaugas of Rice Lake First Nation at Aldervllle, Ont., and director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa.