Cowboys and Indians: Toys of Genocide, Icons of Colonialism
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Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 33-48



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Cowboys and Indians

Toys of Genocide, Icons of American Colonialism

White domination is so complete that even American Indian children want to be cowboys. It's as if Jewish children wanted to play Nazis.
—Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race

Colonialism is the invasion, subjugation, and occupation of one people by another. In Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001), Robert J. C. Young concludes that the United States of America, the world's last remaining significant colonial power, continues to dominate external territories without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants.1 However, one does not have to go abroad to analyze the practice of American colonialism since the exploitation and control of Indigenous Peoples2 in the United States continues unabated. This essay examines cowboys and Indians as part of the colonial canon asserting white supremacy and Indigenous inferiority. I begin by telling how my encounter with a bag of toy cowboys and Indians reminded me that Indigenous Peoples face the humiliation of American colonialism on a daily basis. I next recount how a master cowboys and Indians narrative was used to support and maintain the oppression of people in [End Page 33] the tribal community where I was raised. I end with a discussion concerning the importance of decolonizing cowboys and Indians.

Toys of Genocide

It seems I am constantly offended by the colonial representations and words used to describe (or more accurately subjugate) Indigenous Peoples in the United States. Images such as big-nosed Indian sports team mascots and words like "redskins" and "squaw" quickly come to mind. Cowboys and Indians have, for me, come to symbolize America's past and present infatuation with colonization and genocide.

For the past year, I have been accepting invitations from an Indigenous colleague and her family to come to their place to visit and have dinner, go hiking, watch cult videos, celebrate birthdays and holidays, and meet relatives from out of town. The drive from my place to theirs generally takes about a half-hour when traffic is light. Dinner is always good, and visiting includes a number of interesting topics. Sometimes we discuss global or tribal politics or the environmental degradation of Mother Earth. Other times we talk about our responsibility as First Nations intellectuals and the microassaults we experience from everyday colonial society or about our teaching and research in the academy and the effects that resistant students and colleagues have on our attempts to decolonize their thinking and our academic disciplines. Inevitably, our conversation always turns to how American colonialism has damaged our reservation communities: alcoholism, poverty, poor health, internalized hatred, social factionalism, and the brain drain (the exodus of our most talented tribal members from our communities due to the lack of opportunity or challenge, being from the wrong family, or jealousy). It seems we frequently imagine how we might return home to help our people. But this dream usually ends at about 9:55 P.M. when I am saying good-bye and getting in my car to go home.

One of my favorite things to do before I visit my friends is to pick up a half-gallon of gourmet ice cream, usually cookies and cream, for an after-dinner dessert. I would consider ice cream to be the only true benefit of colonialism, except many Indigenous Peoples are lactose intolerant and diabetic. I am almost always late when I arrive, but it never fails that I am met at the door by the children, who scream out my name and give me a big body or leg hug. This past Christmas my partner and I brought gifts for the family. Neither of us celebrates this holiday so it is a challenge for us to think of ways we can counter American corporate consumerism and sweatshop imperialism. Imbued with this holiday spirit, we purchased presents from some socially responsible-looking artists in a parking lot near the organic food market where we shop. We looked at several gifts before deciding that we...