Voices: Thanks for trying to honor my culture ... but please stop

Voices: Thanks for trying to honor my culture ... but please stop

My name is Dean Dempsey and I was born for the Towering House Clan and the Bitterwater Clan.

I am Dine, more commonly known as Navajo, Native American, Indigenous and to some people, simply "Indian." My census number, the number the U.S. government gives to all us "Injuns" — or "chiefs" as I'm sometimes referred to when someone forgets my name — ends in 869.

This federally recognized number, given as proof that I'm authentic, is similar to the counting system that Hitler tattooed on the Jews he imprisoned.

I moved to central Illinois six years ago and found a wonderful community of friends and family here.

Apparently my culture moved with me.

Lucky me to see my native pizza place in Vermilion County — aptly named "Indian's Pizza" with a traditional headdress on the sign.

Each morning, "The Chief" greets me on the radio as he connects me with the prayers and songs of my ancestors. Yes, it seems, my historical prayers always begin with "Stairway to Heaven," 'cause the "The Chief" says they do.

If I want to go to a traditional dance, I simply need to track down the pro-Chief Illiniwek supporters and find out when the next Return of the Chief dance will be. It so reminds me of sacred ceremonies when a white person runs out to the roar of a crowd and demonstrates their gymnastic abilities as people whoop and holler to encourage the "warriors."

If I miss home and the rich arts and crafts that my people have perfected, I only need to go the local "Indian" store to buy a handcrafted rug, a plastic turquoise necklace or sand painting. Curious, though, why each is stamped with "Made in Mexico." And here I thought America didn't want anything coming from Mexico.

It seems that anything marked "Indian" warrants an awe and respect that my people and all indigenous tribes didn't get when we were forced from our homes, imprisoned and slaughtered in the name of progress more than 150 years ago.

It seems that those same fights are going on today.

For as our various cultures and people were wrongly portrayed as beggars, thieves and murderers back then, we are now wrongly portrayed as pizza makers, cheap jewelry craftsmen or gymnasts in headdresses.

There is a persistent belief that our culture died and has left a need for the non-Indigenous to pick up and honor simply by putting feathers on a costume and dancing around or by painting the words "Indian made" on a sign or making a pizza and calling it Indian.

Thank you for your efforts to honor my culture.

But please stop now.

I am still alive, as are the estimated 3.8 million indigenous people today. We don't need you to capitalize on a culture you know nothing about in a way that only serves to insult us.

Instead, please offer your support as we work to preserve our culture, our language and our traditions in a manner better consistent with our past.

Dean Dempsey was born and raised on the Navajo Nation. He moved to Danville in 2007, where he lives and works today. He can be reached by email at tcoakville@gmail.com

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misterg wrote on May 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Ahéhee Mr Dempsey. Very well said.

It's never really surprised me that people in this country were so ignorant about the actual history of this place they call home -- they teach next to nothing about it in the schools after all  -- but that they are so possesive and defensive of that ignorance . . . that's difficult to accept.


sunnyman3 wrote on May 20, 2013 at 8:05 pm

 Native American culture is alive? One only has to drive through reservations and see the high level of acholism, drug abuse, suicide, and obesiety. The recent winner of the jim thorpe atheletic award was one quarter cherokee. One quarter! Tribes with caisnos are throwing members off their tribal rolls to hoard more money for themselves. I think Indians should lecture themselves about what it means to be Indian before they lecture whites. I think its time that Indians understand that every group of people experiences some form of oppression and being conquered. For instance England was conquered by the vikings and assimulated. England did quite well after. Maybe Indians should do the same?



militantlibertarian wrote on May 20, 2013 at 8:05 pm

How exactly does a pizza store or radio station belittle your culture? There are 1000s of places named after white or black historical figures or people and no one complains about that. If that is the case stop naming schools after dead presidents or roads after black leaders. Political correctness is running amuck as usual.

suzicue wrote on May 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm

So, militantlibertarian, I suppose that means you'd also be ok with someone dancing around in black face in front of a roaring crowd, or a radio host who calls himself "Massa"? Or how about "Negro Pizza"?

You're right, there are 1000's of buildings and roads named for important figures from other cultures, but that's the difference. Those 1000's of places are named as a sign of respect to specifically named individuals, and are typically presented in a manner that honors the authentic traditions of that culture. They're not public displays of crass generalizations perpetuating stereotypes. If there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a building named after MLK Jr, they wouldn't have a bunch of black people dancing around a fire pit in loincloths with spears.

I think Mr. Dempsey is just trying to say that if people are going to try to "honor" his culture, do it in an authentic and culturally sensitive way, or don't do it at all.

militantlibertarian wrote on May 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm

You comepletly skirted my question of explaining how this name offends Native Americans. This business has been there for several decades and one person brings up it bothers them so let's get rid of it. From my understanding the original owners had Native American origins, I too have some myself and I can't see how its offensive. The pizza place does not have cartoon looking native Americans running around selling pizzas so I don't see how its offensive. The radio station is named after the once proud symbol of our state college which was removed cause of a small minority of politically correct hacks that had nothing better to do. My opinion is the chief honors our state and past native American culture, if you have problem with it then we need to change most of the states, rivers and other places that are named after native Americans.

localgirl2 wrote on June 03, 2013 at 4:06 pm

As i do value your opinion, have you ever stopped to think about why these places are named what they are? For instance, Indians Pizza was originally owned by a family with native ancestors. It was well known for this and for the great product they took pride in making. The couple that recently purchased this business decided to honor the family and the heritage of them and keep the business under the same name. As far as the sign, in no way is it offensive. A simple headdress only symbolizes the pride of the origin, not as an insult to your herritage. If there was a picture of torture or hangings then I could see this supporting your point. Not everyone and everything is negative or to ridicule your heritage or anyone elses. Since when do we live in a world of such politcal sensitivity??? I supposed ever child who has ever played a game of cowboys and indians is on your offender list as well. I have never once associated ridicule or slander with any of the companies that you listed, just the pride they feel by choosing such a wonderful and strong character for their logos.