In the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the surprise reveal of a blonde Upper East side trophy wife character being secretly Native American gave energy to the storyline--and part of the humor for me as a Native woman was the sick truth of it (I wrote about it last year here).
To a certain extent, being Native American is always a secret even when you look phenotypically Native American because no one ever expects to meet us in real life. I’m not exaggerating when I say the most common response I get from other Americans is “Wow, I didn’t know you still existed.” Foreigners want to grasp my hand or my arm as if to prevent me from fading away before their eyes.
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Yes, we are strangely magical creatures but for a decidedly unmagical reason, genocide. And that genocide allows many sins from Columbus and the Washington Redskins, which the series takes on.
The first episode begins with Jacqueline, the “secret Lakota” character played by 30 Rock veteran Jane Krakowski, returning to New York City after failing to fit in back home on her reservation. Guided by a “vision” she has while trapped by the “prisoner locks” in the back of a police car, she decides to use her skills with “her other tribe” in New York city to raise money to help her people.
As talented and comic actress Krakowski is, it’s hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the scenes of her as a Lakota woman who is afflicted with an almost tourette-like inability to cease spouting out ridiculous misinterpretations of Native culture. It was gratifying, though to seeing actual Native actors like Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster addressing the ignorance and absurd ideas most Americans hold about us because Native people rarely get to respond to such ignorance on television. Really, almost never.
When Jacqueline finally has her benefit event for “First Peoples for Turtle Island” she rattles off a list of injustices against Native people and is shocked when the $24 purchase of Manhattan receives a warm applause from the wealthy white men and their mistresses in attendance.
One of the men quickly calculates, “If the Lenape invested in 1626 … Let’s see the rule of 7 and 2 doubling roughly every 8 years … Today, that $24 would be $8.6 septillion dollars.” Another concludes, “Sounds like it’s the Dutch that got screwed.”
However, the real story is that the tribe that “purchase” was negotiated with actually had no claim to the land and the Dutch later had to negotiate with the real owners, so $24 was not the actual price paid. The $24 story is just an oft-repeated story told by the invaders that belittles the original people who lived on the land for thousands of years before them.
The only comparison to being a Native person who cannot enter Central Park without passing by a monument to Columbus 75 feet in the air, is a dystopian world where the Nazis had won and Jewish survivors had to live in a world filled with monuments to members of the Nazi regime.
And, when I (and I think many Native people do this) am in Manhattan I often find myself wondering about the Native people and their much longer and deeper history. I also have deeply conflicted feelings when confronted with a statue of Columbus. As a Native American--a survivor of a monumental holocaust--I live in a world where the architects of that holocaust are memorialized everywhere and the stories of how we once lived on these lands are forgotten or trivialized with stories like the $24 sale. I found the scene, gratuitous as it may seem to many, of Jacqueline threatening the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle, a necessary part of her character’s growth and remapping of her world (Manhattan) in terms of her once secret identity.
The only comparison to being a Native person who cannot enter Central Park without passing by a monument to Columbus 75 feet in the air, is a dystopian world where the Nazis had won and Jewish survivors had to live in a world filled with monuments to members of the Nazi regime. A world where the horror we hold for the holocaust is instead normalized, rationalized and forgotten.
In light of this, Dan Snyder, a Jewish American businessman’s 1999 purchased of the NFL team that used to represent the Old South is puzzling. In the 1960’s, it was the last team to integrate — a move supported at the time by American Nazis, swatsikas ablaze who marched with “Keep Redskins White!” signs. The team’s 1959-1961 fight song was, “Braves on the warpath! / Fight for Old Dixie! / Scalp 'em, swamp 'um — We will take 'um big score.”
Even the term “redskins” is more than a benign reference to the supposed color of our skin. It was also used to describe the bloody body parts of Native men, women and children sold to the U.S. Government for bounty. And studies show the negative impact stereotyping and mascotting have on Native youth.
The writers chose to draw the lines between the two holocausts in a very interesting way. Jacqueline gets competitive at an auction and blows all her money on a $12 million Mondrian painting “Composition of Burgundy and Gold” ( ironically, the colors of the Washington NFL team), then finds out that she must return the painting to the actual owners, a Jewish family named Wiener (yes, many puerile jokes are made of this), who had the painting stolen by the Nazis. The family are represented by attorney Russ Snyder (David Cross aka Dr. Tobias Funke on Arrested Development).
Jacqueline is typically dismissive (“I’m not giving anything to those whiners!”), but after her failed fundraiser she realizes the harm against Jewish victims of the holocaust cannot be overlooked like that of her own people and she gives back the painting even though it means losing the majority of the money she gained in her divorce. She refuses to be part of a system that monetizes pain and theft.
It’s that strange dichotomy in Tinay Fey’s characters (she is one of the shows writers), which are written in such broadly comic terms, that the growth of a character can be so profound--particularly about an issue many Native people struggle with on some level and Jewish people like Snyder do, too. The question is both how do we recognize each other’s suffering and how do we disengage from a system we want so much to be part of when that system is so intrinsically wrong?
Which brings me to the Columbus Circle monument to Columbus. Certainly, like many Native people I cheer every time another city chooses to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Celebrating the achievements of Columbus necessarily means endorsing his methodology which according to Spanish records from the time period were horrific. But curious about the history of that statue, I looked up the history behind this statue and found out that it was paid for by the Italian American community in 1892 in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Carlo Barsotti, the owner of Il Progresso, an Italian American newspaper, led the fundraising campaign. He had also led the 1891 protests against the largest mass lynching in America which was of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans.
Jacqueline speaks often of fundraising to right 400 years of wrong against her people and in this sense she is a latter-day Barsotti who used his paper to fight back against negative stereotypes of Italian immigrants and saw the creation of a holiday commemorating a countryman (a recent study found Columbus may actually have been a Catalan Jew) as providing his people with a bulwark of protection from the hostility they faced from a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority.
It is this rejection and the stories each new group brings to the collections of stories that is America, that so fascinating. These stories of Columbus, $24 and lacrosse are told to ensure survival or both people and ideas and as such, they need to be reviewed and rethought every generation.
Jacqueline pursues Russ romantically as a solution to her financial ruin and is, of course, discover his family are the Snyders who own the Washington NFL team. At a Thanksgiving dinner at her home, they don burgundy and gold jerseys and chant, “Heil to the Redskins. Scalp the other team. Celebrate with firewater Help Germany win the war. Redskins!”
The choice she makes proves she’s more than a “dumb hick” or even a “secret Lakota” when she says, “I’d rather live on the street than be with a man who sings that song” and wonders, “the Washington Redskins, how is this still a thing?”
With that Jacqueline gets her man and they declare, "Together, we can take down the Washington Redskins!”
Let’s hope that happens in the next season and Native people everywhere can get a glimpse into that world not-so-dystopian world where the R-word is history.