23 March 2015

Yeah, A Song of Ice and Fire is Orientalist

Game of Thrones Season Five premieres on April 12th! I'm excited for the show to come back, but I have unfinished business to attend to.

Remember this post?

Daenerys Targaryen as White Savior: Historical Prejudices in Game of Thrones

In the post, I criticized a disgusting "white savior" story line and portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen in the HBO series Game of Thrones. That post has more comments than anything else on this blog, both positive and negative.

Many of the people who commented told me I should keep reading George R. R. Martin's books on which the show is based—A Song of Ice and Fire. Since then, I finished A Dance With Dragons, so I did what they asked.

When you read the books, GRRM clearly does present a complex view on slavery and emancipation: Emancipators aren't always seen as heroes, freedom doesn't always bring happy results, and some people even prefer to be slaves. That nuanced, complicated portrayal is great, and very much in keeping with the gritty realism of the story as a whole. Admittedly, the books do diminish the image of Daenerys as a "white savior" that was so obvious in the show. Nevertheless, there's still one disappointing, inescapable conclusion you have to reach about George R. R. Martin and his writing: A Song of Ice and Fire is orientalist.

12 March 2015

Tina Fey's Disgusting Native Storyline in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

My wife recently started watching Tina Fey's new show, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I think it's moderately funny, (not as funny as 30 Rock), but there's one aspect of the show I find astonishing and incredibly disturbing: the storyline with Native characters.

"Native" girl (played by a very white actress)
who desperately wants to be white
The gag is that rich New York socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) grew up in rural South Dakota with Lakota parents (Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster). She constantly demeans Native ways and aspires to be a successful white woman in the big city. Multiple flashbacks show her imitating white culture and criticizing whatever values her parents try to instill in her—"values" that are little more than tired stereotypes of Indian Country.

This storyline makes a mockery of forced assimilation. It makes fun of the power of white culture while still exalting white culture as supreme. Anyone who knows Native America knows that forced assimilation is not ancient history: There are still aunties, uncles, and grandparents all around the country who grew up being told Native ways were nothing, Native identities were nothing, and white America's knowledge was the only thing that could save them. Movements turned toward cultural revitalization are young—most only a few decades old, if that—and America's public schools attended by Native children are still factories for propagating white culture, even when they pay lip service to Natives.

Sheri Foster and Gil Birmingham
Simply put, it'd probably be classier to make smallpox jokes than make a farce of assimilation like this. Seriously.

I have no idea what Tina Fey et al. were thinking in creating this storyline, but they sure weren't thinking about history or the experiences of real Native people. Using this premise in one episode would have been bad enough, but the fact that it's recurring makes me think that Fey actually believes she's fulfilling some goal of having "diversity" in her show—Indian parents with a wannabe white daughter! How hilarious and original!

Hell no. It's stuff like this that makes me feel "diversity" in popular media isn't always a good thing at all. It'd be better to have no Native characters on TV than ones like these.

[Note: There are few good pieces I found after I wrote this post that also address this issue, notably from Libby Hill and Meghan O'Dea. And, apparently Kimmy Schmidt has "a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage... one of whom had spent a year on a Lakota Sioux reservation." Producer Robert Carlock even says "we felt like we had a little room to go in that direction," so I guess the idea is that if you have Native staff you earn some wiggle room to be offensive.]

01 February 2015

The French Revolution and the Super Bowl: Roman Numerals for Years

I watched the Superbowl today and briefly lamented the Seattle Seahawks' unfortunate loss. (They're Alaska's unofficial NFL team.) After my moment of caring about sports, however, my thoughts returned to something I'd tweeted earlier:

next year's logo (source)
Well, I found out there actually won't be a "Super Bowl L." It'll be officially labelled "Super Bowl 50," basically for the reason in my tweet: "Super Bowl L" would look dumb. In 2017, though, the NFL will return to its Roman numeral ways with Super Bowl LI.

I don't know who originally thought up keeping track of the National Football League's championships with Roman numerals, or what the arguments for it were among those who decided on it 49 or 50 years ago. Regardless, I can understand it was simply a decision based on style and marketing, and it's been a steady tradition kept for 49 years, with only a short interruption next year. Who knows, maybe the practice will end before the Super Bowl C vs. Super Bowl 100 choice rolls around. Nonetheless, it's a tradition Americans are familiar with, even if it still confuses us sometimes.

This use of Roman numerals got me thinking: Who else has labelled years with Roman numerals, ever since the widespread adoption of "Arabic" (Indo-Persian-Arab) numerals began centuries ago? There's just one answer I can think of—the French.

a French Republican calendar
Yes, here's a short history lesson for those who weren't aware: During the French Revolution, the revolutionary government decided to adopt a new, radical calendar that did away with all references to religion and neutralized impractical crap like having inconsistent numbers of days per month. (I discuss related issues in my post "Decimalization: New Ways Forward.") Additionally, the French began counting their years from when their Republic was established—September 22nd, 1792. The calendar was adopted near the beginning of the year III, and the French kept counting from there. Had the Republic lasted, the French might be in the year CCXXIII today.

As it turned out, though, Napoleon sent his country from the year XIV back up to 1806, where the rest of Europe and European America was, and France has stayed with us ever since. The experiment in Roman numeral years was short-lived, and in the end there's just one takeaway:

The NFL has been a lot more hard-headed than the French.

20 January 2015

Fun With Duolingo

my levels on Duolingo
Lately I've been having a lot of fun with the website Duolingo. It's a gamified language learning website where you can choose one or more languages to learn, take placement tests if you know something already, and move up a learning tree lesson by lesson.

Before I discovered Duolingo, I used the website Livemocha. It also has many languages to learn (more than Duolingo) and has all sorts of lessons to go through. After Livemocha was bought by Rosetta Stone and revamped their website, though, I lost interest. Tied in with Rosetta Stone's business, it seems to have lost its focus on website accessibility and intuitive learning.

One area in which Livemocha still excels is in pairing learners with native speakers. (Duolingo has no equivalent.) Livemocha facilitates finding, chatting with, and getting feedback from native speakers of whatever language you're learning. You can also give others feedback on submissions in whatever your own native language is. It all goes back to the kaffeeklatsch ("coffee gossip") idea in Livemocha's name.

my progress with Duolingo Swedish
Nevertheless, for the time being I definitely prefer Duolingo. The learning progress you make is all clear-cut, with lessons you have to go back and practice later in order to boost the "strength bars" that fade over time.

Just recently I began Swedish on the website, and it's been very nice to learn and practice it a few words at a time. I did a Swedish learning CD years ago, and it seemed it just threw a whole bunch of words and phrases at the learner to be memorized, without explaining any of the language's structure or logic. Duolingo does explain things, gradually, and in many cases you can hover your pointer over words to see translations and explanations.

In short, Duolingo's an awesome website to start a language with, and a good one for continuing to practice a language you already know. I expect I'll keep using it well into the future, leveling up and keeping my strength bars up in French, German, and Swedish.

17 January 2015

West Coast vs. East Coast City Choices, Round One

Wherever you might live in the United States—north, south, east, west, or middle—it's important to know whether you're a West Coast or East Coast person.

Choose which city you'd prefer to live in out of the following pairs to determine whether you're a West Coast or East Coast. (Keep track of the number you choose on each side.)

*Note: These cities are not meant to be perfect counterparts to each other, just interesting choices.

Here's round one:

Is it East or West that's winning so far? Let's settle the question once and for all in an upcoming round two.

Unhealthy Obsession with the "First Americans"

Just yesterday I saw National Geographic's current magazine cover at a grocery store checkstand.

There's nothing particularly offensive or disturbing about the cover—or the story in the magazine, I'm sure. (I didn't read it.) Still, I couldn't help but think that this is yet another example of a weird American phenomenon: We are obsessed with finding out who came to the Americas first, when they did it, and how.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I've gotten the feeling over the past few years that Americans (and Canadians too, probably) are far more invested in archaeological finds related to the first people to arrive where they live now than people anywhere else on earth. Non-academic non-archaeologist Americans seriously argue about whether the Bering Land Bridge theory is legitimate or not, or whether people arrived in the Americas 10,000, 15,000, or 20,000 years ago.

Does any other society today have an equivalent? Is there controversy in China concerning the genetic background of the first people in the Yangtze River Valley? Do South Africans lose sleep wondering when humans first made it to the Cape of Good Hope? Do Germans dread the notion that other people might have passed through their lands before their ancestors arrived? My guess is no.

Of course, this phenomenon—if it really is one—must have everything to do with the last 300 years, and not the past several millennia. It has everything to do with the fact that the United States and Canada are settler societies—the most massive and the most "successful" settler societies on earth. After annihilating and marginalizing indigenous peoples, these settler societies then developed a compromise with the survivors: They could maintain identities as "sovereign" nations (given lip service as such, but not treated as such), but only while belonging to the settler nation as well, and only because they were here "first".

What does that do to a person's thinking if society says their legal rights and cultural identity need to be predicated on facts about their long-ago ancestors? I'm not saying Native peoples shouldn't feel proud of their ancestors and connect with them in as many ways as possible; of course they should. I'm just saying Natives spend way too much time talking about their ancestors to settlers, and settlers spend too much time asking.

It's not just white people who get weird ideas about this, either.
There's even been a recent upswing in the idea that the very first Americans (tens of millennia ago) came across the Atlantic from Europe—the Solutrean hypothesis. While the progenitors of the idea may claim it's based solely on their quest for truth and beliefs about the archaeological evidence, it shouldn't need mentioning that white supremacists love the Solutrean idea. America belongs to white people after all!

All the while, white archaeologists fight back and forth over results of DNA samples taken from Natives and ancient artifacts and remains taken from their ancestors. Overall, it's a pretty sad state of affairs, all concerned with this question of the "first Americans." In the end, the answer isn't even that relevant to the history of North America, let alone our lives today.

There's not much I can do about all this except write about it, and make a resolution as a history teacher: I promise to never fixate on the "first Americans" in my classroom.

It's still an interesting question, sure, and archaeologists should keep exploring it—hopefully in the most respectful and responsible ways possible. But do teachers expound on the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe before they discuss the Roman Empire? Do students need to learn about paleolithic China before they study Qin Shi Huangdi? Hell no. Teachers, let's focus more on the importance of indigenous history in the last two thousand years—and especially the last few hundred—before contributing any more to an unhealthy obsession.

12 November 2014

Collection of Posts for Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States, and I figured I should share a selection of my blogging on indigenous knowledge, history, and education. Without further elaboration, here's my selection of posts:

Maps That Infuriate Me: European Claims to North America
Percentage of Indigenous People in Each Territory, Province and State
Mapping Indigenous Autonyms Coast to Coast
Mapping Indigenous Autonyms in Canada

Quick Alternate Histories: A Post-Beringia Pre-Columbian Migration
Two Research Ideas from Northwest Coast-North Pacific History

College assignments:
Movement, Diffusion, Diversity and Stateness: North American Historical Patterns Before 1519
Native Worlds of New Spain: The Diversity and Power of Indigenous Communities in Colonial North America

An Indigenous/Non-Indigenous or Western/Non-Western Art Dichotomy?
Visiting 'Ksan in Hazelton, British Columbia
Red: A Haida Manga and the Possibilities of Graphic Novels

Why Black Bears and Brown Bears Aren't "Bears"
Will the Redskins Change Their Racist Name Soon? They'd Better.

A Future Beyond No Mascots: A Vision for Indigenous-American Relations
Indiana: Thoughts on Indigenous Revitalization

07 November 2014

Alaska's Closest Election: District 36's House vs. Gubernatorial Races

Compilation of the four candidates
discussed here: The colors alternate nicely.
Both District 36's state house race [Chere Klein (R) vs. Dan Ortiz (I)] and the race for Alaska's governor [Sean Parnell (R) vs. Bill Walker (I)] featured one independent candidate and one Republican incumbent or pseudo-incumbent. (While she's never served in office before, Chere Klein effectively assumed the mantle of retired Representative Peggy Wilson, at least among fellow Republicans.) Among other similarities, both races are very close right now and will be decided by absentee and early votes. Along with many Alaskans, I'm very anxious to find out the results.

When considering the races for governor and state house in District 36, I expected most people would consistently vote the party line—or the non-partisan line, as it were: Most everyone voting for the independent Walker/Mallott ticket would also vote for independent Dan Ortiz; those voting for the Republican Parnell/Sullivan ticket would also vote for Republican Chere Klein.

As it turns out, there were many hundreds of voters in District 36 who bucked my expectation, and almost every precinct bucked the expectations differently.