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The American Indian Quarterly 29.1&2 (2005) 228-238

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Indigenous Voice and Vision as Commodity in a Mass-Consumption Society

The Colonial Politics of Public Opinion Polling

Since March 2002 when Sports Illustrated published "The Indian Wars," two public opinion polls concerned with controversial athletic mascots and sport team names have claimed to represent the views of American Indians.1 Both polls—one conducted by the Peter Harris Research Group for CNN/Sports Illustrated and another carried out by the Annenberg Public Policy Center for the National Annenberg Election Survey—were commissioned to accurately measure points of view found among all American Indian people.2 Unfortunately, both polls failed to do so.

Widespread use of public opinion polls dates to the New Deal, when Franklin D. Roosevelt employed a first-generation Finnish American named Emil Hurja to conduct polls for his 1932 and 1936 campaigns.3 Subsequently, polling has been crucial during political seasons, as even the most casual observer might notice in broadcast and print media. Polling public opinion also is an essential tool for the development of public policy, market, and social science research in the fields of criminal justice, law, economics, psychology, sociology, social work, and statistics.

Two principles shape public opinion polling: probability sampling and equal probability of selection. Probability sampling (in theory but not necessarily in practice) is the basis for all public opinion research. This principle assumes a randomly selected, small percentage of a population can represent the attitudes, opinions, or anticipated behavior of the entire population—if the sample is selected correctly. The goal of public opinion polling is to come up with the same results that would have been obtained had every single member of a population been interviewed. The key to achieving this goal is the principle of equal probability of selection. This principle assumes that if every member of a population [End Page 228] has an equal probability of being selected in a sample, then that sample will be representative of the population.

Shamefully, neither the Harris nor the Annenberg polls were tolerably guided by either of these two principles. The effect is antidemocratic and a form of white privilege (if white racial hegemony is understood as both a highly organized system and a continuous and dynamic process of social control rooted in public policy and private prejudice in ways that ensure whites wind up on top).4 Pollsters rushed to produce results from troublesome samples not randomly selected from the entire population of American Indians. For a number of reasons, all Indians did not have an equal chance to contribute their views to the sample. The results, moreover, undoubtedly include the views of individuals who are not American Indians (and who may not even claim to be).

One problem related to the dreadful research ethics involved in the Harris and Annenberg polls is the manner in which the results from both circulate through print and broadcast mass media to communicate the illusion of agreement among all or most Natives. An undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for instance, cited the Harris poll in September 2004 to defend the notorious cheerleader Chief Illiniwek, outrageously—and incorrectly—declaring, "81 percent of American Indians support mascots like Chief Illiniwek."5 The example this Illinois undergraduate offers powerfully illustrates how the Harris poll, deliberately or not, has intervened since 2002 in local political disputes over who represents Natives and how Natives are represented in expressive culture and in a democracy.6

Both polls allow non-Natives, such as the undergraduate in Illinois, to speak for Natives; misrepresentations of aggregated research findings stand in to represent the views of actual human beings. These polls make it exceedingly more difficult for Natives to be heard as their results move through media to substitute for our many voices a shocking homogeneity.7 Thus, the lingering residue of colonization moves from functionaries at Harris and Annenberg through media communications into local politics, which in turn function...


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