Native symbols at Thanksgiving and beyond: Honoring Richie Plass

Richie Plass
By: 
Ryan Winn
Columnist

Editor’s note: Our columnist and CMN faculty member celebrates the life and work of a Menominee activist who confronted problematic indigenous emblems.

While COVID-19 limits this year’s Thanksgiving celebrations, homes throughout America will still be decorated with inaccurate Native American imagery. The romanticized origins of a communal gathering between weary colonists and sympathetic Indigenous people goes largely unspoken beyond the grade school classroom, yet consumers of all ages keep the story alive with largely inaccurate depictions of America’s first citizens. Symbolically speaking, Thanksgiving imagery is hardly an outlying example.

Americans’ yen for creating Indian emblems predates the nation. From drawings of Indigenous maidens decorating colonial maps to Paul Revere celebrating The Stamp Act’s repeal with publications of Indian images, these symbols institutionalized views of the original Americans that rarely were accurate.

The country’s oldest official visuals depict Native nations and the new republic interacting tranquilly. Thomas Jefferson’s 1792 “To Peace and Commerce” diplomatic medal portrayed a wealthy “Indian Queen” to underscore “developing commercial ties with Europe.” The “George Washington Peace Medal,” issued the same year, shows the first president as an emissary of civilization and dispenser of bounty handing the fruits of a harvest to an unassimilated Native.

Racial tensions came to warp images of America’s first residents. In 1846, Congress commissioned a study of tribes. The publication’s cover featured “The Death Whoop,” a Native warrior holding a slain white man’s scalp. In 1860, the Ladies of Powhatan County, Virginia, created a flag to honor their namesake, who was the father of Pocahontas. Volunteer regiment Company E, soon to be part of the Confederate Army, flew the sachem’s likeness during the Civil War.

Coins and military insignias featuring “Indian heads” abounded in the 20th century. Native heroes such as Olympian Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), Iwo Jima flag raiser Ira Hayes (Pima), and Code Talkers from several tribes were honored. Sitting and future presidents Calvin Coolidge, FDR, and Richard Nixon posed wearing feathered headdresses. Smithsonian curator and Comanche tribal member Chaat Smith encapsulated the meaning of America’s love of Indian emblems: “It’s the country saying to Indians, imaginary and real, past and present: Without you, there is no us.”

My late friend Richie Plass, a Menominee and Stock-Bridge Munsee activist and performer, challenged America’s misguided fascination with Native symbols. Long before he became a hilarious media personality lauded for his touring exhibit of problematic Indian images, Bittersweet Winds, a then 16-year-old Plass portrayed the Shawano Indian mascot at the behest of his high school principal. Plass sought the advice of elders, and with their blessing, represented Native people with honor and vibrancy that echoed the performances in the famed Menominee theatre pageants. Local crowds, especially his fellow tribal citizens, loved seeing him dance. Yet at his first away game, the racists reared their ugly head and jeered and flung refuse at him. Plass left the court in tears and quit being the mascot non-Natives wanted him to be.

Still, Plass told the story as one that helped transform him. “I’ve never felt anger towards the people who threw things at me, because they didn’t know any better,” he said. “My exhibit helps to teach people by starting a conversation.”

Bittersweet Winds showcased authentic Native families and art alongside misguided Indian imagery and stereotypical representations. The gamut included Plass family mementos, toy tomahawks, food marketing, and non-Native sports’ teams in headdresses. The result was arresting to behold. “It’s fun to watch people walk through it, see what stops them, what they can’t believe is real,” Plass said. “Then I like to approach them and crack a joke. If I can get them laughing, we can talk.”

Richie Plass journeyed to the spirit world on Nov. 7, and he used humor to challenge stereotypes until the end. Two weeks before, Plass told me he recognized things were serious when a slew of doctors surrounded his hospital bed. He recalled telling his medical team, “Wow, six whites circling an Indian dude,” adding, “What, you all think I’m a blackjack dealer?”

This Thanksgiving, let’s acknowledge that America wouldn’t be America without Native American people, and that we all need to accurately honor their culture and continuing contributions to the wellbeing of our nation. This transformative dialogue doesn’t have to be somber. As Plass showed us, difficult conversations can be both humorous and sincere.

Ryan Winn teaches Communication, English, and Theatre at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school visit www.menominee.edu.

 


 

Ryan Winn teaches Communication, English, and Theatre at College of Menominee Nation. For more information about the school visit www.menominee.edu.

 


 

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