Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Indians, the Cavalry, and the Tea Party

One of the issues that’s been bubbling over the bunsen burners in right-wing (anti-) science labs in recent years is the issue of voter fraud and the need to prevent it by requiring voters to present a photo i.d. when they show up at the polls. While studies show that voter fraud is not as rampant as some imagine it to be and that the only form of fraud that a photo i.d. requirement would catch, voter impersonation, is nil, stories of widespread voter fraud continue to bubble away.

from MinnPost
My goal here is not to weigh in on the pros and cons of the photo i.d./voter movement (though I will: I think it is a horrible idea aimed at disenfranchising people who would likely vote less conservatively than the proponents of such measures would like). Rather, I want to comment on part of the story that they tell and how they tell it. I frequently describe to my students the many ways that the imagery of American Indians is embedded in American culture so thoroughly that sometimes we almost don’t see it, yet it is there and it speaks volumes about the violence of racialized discourse in American culture. This happened in a story about voter i.d. activists in the New York Times on 17 September 2012. 
The TARDIS also bends time and space
in ways that casual observers
find difficult to understand
One of the memes that is cited as evidence of widespread fraud is the bus that magically appears at a polling place (presumably driven by liberals, as those voicing this meme seem to be Tea Partiests). Though election officials note that no one has been able to photograph such a bus or get its license plate number, this bus that bends space and time so that “normal” people are unable to see it pulls up at a polling place and disgorges dozens of people, some of whom don’t “appear to be from this country,” as one pro-photo i.d. proponent claimed in the New York Times story. “Do you think maybe they registered falsely under false pretenses?” another proponent asked of another supposed bus incident in the same story. “Probably so,” she answered her own question. 
Of course, any statement that someone does not “appear to be from this country” is racism—as whiteness is assumed by so many to be the measuring stick of real Americanness—as well as bad old xenophobia.
What’s interesting to me is one of the variations of this meme holds that the bus is full of Indians from a reservation. Read the subtext here: it’s if Native people lack the right to vote; it’s as if they don’t “appear to be from this country” (make up your own ironic comment here). Those Tea Party activists who are sniffing around for non-existent buses filled with Indians who are “registering falsely” to vote under “false pretenses” are working, according to the Times story, to raise what they refer to as a “cavalry” to R. V. into swing states and save the integrity of the election process from being overrun by the Indians who’ve been mustered by the forces of liberalism to topple the edifice of American democracy and reinstall the Kenyan in the White House. (Okay, I might be overreaching in portraying the paranoia of these groups with such hyperbole. Let me emphasize that: I might be.)

Rather, I’m talking about this reference to the cavalry that is currently being bandied about in some Tea Party rhetoric. Whether consciously, unconsciously, or dysconsciously the rhetoric about sending in a cavalry to preserve order, even if that cavalry saddles up by buckling into an R.V.'s six way power driver's seatevokes imagery from Hollywood Westerns that many Americans cherish—and that most every consumer of pop culture is familiar with. When settlers are under threat in those hidebound oaters it is the cavalry that rides to the rescue, brandishing their swords and shooting their rifles from the backs of their charging steeds, led by a bugle-blowing horseman while the American flag ripples dramatically over their last-minute counter-attack.

They ride faster than film can capture them
So there’s a bit of explicit racialized xenophobia in this rhetoric and there’s an equal measure of implicit racism (people who get a ride to the polls are not American; Native people upset the purity of the American vote), but there’s a few other points of interest and irony to explore.

First off, the Tea Party take their name from the famous Boston Tea Party where colonists upset with British tax policy stormed some ships and threw the tea into Boston Harbor. It’s one of the most famous political protests in American history, but what many people fail to realize or forget is that many of those protestors dressed up as Indians to hide their identities. Some argue that it was also a symbolic choice to “go Native,” asserting that the protestors used Indian garb to say no iconically to England’s meddling in colonial affairs. Indians are a symbol of America and are thoroughly non-European, a message the colonists seemed to want to send back over the water.

Nothing scarier than a bunch of wild Anglos
Indians were not a threat that night in Boston (unless you were a crate of tea, and then you were only threatened by an Anglo dressed—under false pretenses?—as an Indian); that night Indians were a symbol of proud resistance. Of course, the founders and their descendents didn’t care for actual Indians exercising actual proud resistance against Anglo American incursions into Native homelands. “Indians” fighting for American rights are good; Indians fighting for Native rights are not quite so good.

Contemporary Tea Party activist iconography seems to gravitate more towards red, white, and blue top hats and false Uncle Sam beards than the buckskins and feathers of the original Tea Partiers. Yet Indians are still present in this current Tea Party iconography. And I’m not even talking about the rumored bus from the reservation filled with fraudulent voters.

What I’ve left out of this generic cavalry scenario are the Indians who are threatening the settlers. Again, the imagery is familiar: the lone cabin of the homesteader under siege by a marauding band of Indians or the wagon train carrying settlers west that circles up in a valiant attempt to save themselves from a marauding band of Indians. (What with all the marauding Hollywood imagined Native people getting up to, it’s a wonder there was any time to raise a family and maintain community ties.) The Indians, in the cultural shorthand of the Western, threaten the purity of the American project and the cavalry is the force that arrives to preserve that purity from being brutalized by the savages that live “out there,” beyond the pale (as it were) and, perhaps, don’t even “appear to be from this country.”

What is the purity that is being preserved in these tales? Whiteness. White racial superiority is a message that Westerns continuously explore, and continuously reinforce (even in the revisionist Westerns that accord Native people their humanity it is the Indians that die; Kevin Costner’s Dunbar rides off to live his life at the end of Dances With Wolves while Graham Greene’s Kicking Bird and his entire band is killed off in a title card). Indians die in Westerns, either from their futile resistance to the oncoming force or from their inability to adapt to the strange ways and manners of the settlers. Note that it is the Indians who need to adapt the settlers ways, not the settlers who need to adapt to Native ways. It is whiteness that prevails as the ordained manner to live in North America. It is whiteness blowing the bugle and charging ahead under the flag.

Dunbar won't even let Kicking Bird have  a decent headshot
(and if you hear a double-meaning in headshot, well, that's your business)

Now Tea Party wagons are circling the polling places that they believe are under siege from forces inimical to the purity of the American electoral process. They’ve raised the flag and are calling for a cavalry to ride to the rescue of the settlers who want nothing more than a good, true vote. One that is safe from magic buses, safe from people who don’t look like they’re from around here, and safe from Indians from reservations. As I said, they are intentionally evoking the cavalry in the language they use, perhaps without even consciously considering that the word “cavalry” is embedded with a cultural history that speaks to the righteous need to kill Indians to preserve (white) American purity.

"You will not cancel her vote,
you red demon!"

Voting is a patriotic act as I see it, or at least the act of a conscientious citizen. Killing the ballot of those who don’t vote the way you do is not. This Tea Party cavalry is riding out against imagined savages who threaten the sanctified borders that preserve (conservative) American whiteness. The word "cavalry" denotes a simple reality of horse riding soldiers, but it also connotes a whole racialized and racist cultural history that romanticized the desirability of killing Indians. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this one little word, but then it is the subtle forms of racism and racialized shorthand that are the hardest to root out, especially as American culture tries to mature into the diversity of the people that call this place home.