In the spring of 2016, I proposed a research project, Indigenous Hypervisibility: Examining Frameworks of ‘Success’, to examine how we portrayed ‘success’ and the effects of that this portrayal has on my fellow Indigenous youth. I re-wrote it as a blog post.
Historical and contemporary portrayals of Native/Indigenous Peoples often exist in the margins of mainstream society. We’re considered irrelevant and our narratives are not engaged with. Images, photographs, and/or any other multimedia are seen and read within and surrounded by an existing oppressive narrative, that is part of a wider narrative of displacement and erasure.
This is most notable in the history of ‘Western education’. Photographs of Native youth/Indigenous children were used to appeal to non-Natives for public support of ‘American Indian’ boarding schools. These boarding schools insisted that ‘killing the Indian’ in the children, can save their ‘humanity’.
The instructors in these schools would strip Native youth of their indigeneity; rinsing their mouth with soaps if they spoke their language, and kidnapped/removed them from their own families and communities.
One well-known boarding school, the Carlisle Indian School, hired a photographer, John Nicholas Choate, to regularly photographed students as they arrived and then photographed them again after spending several months or longer at the school to portray their transition into ‘western society’ (Hearne, 2012, p. 21).
Unfortunately, this history of exploiting Native Youth/Indigenous children continues today, such social phenomenons like ‘poverty porn’ or ‘playing Indian’.
One most prominent example of this exploitation and continuation of appealing to non-Natives for public support is the American Indian College Fund, who uses images, and/or depictions of Native/Indigenous youth alongside statistics, and centering Indigenous voices in their various advertising campaigns for financial support. Although, these photo campaigns are well-intentioned, their impact reproduce the exploitation of Native/Indigenous youth, such as ‘Think Indian’ (American Indian College Fund, 2009), ‘If I Stay On the Rez’ (American Indian College Fund, 2010), ‘Help a Student, Help a Tribe’ (American Indian College Fund, 2012), ‘One Percent’ (American Indian College Fund, 2015), and ‘#StandWithUs’ (American Indian College Fund, n.d.). In each of these campaigns, there is an emphasis on the individual and a narrative that appeals to non-Natives for monetary donations.
Unfortunately, these advertisements reproduce and continue a structure pressure and ‘hypervisibility’ on Native/Indigenous youths’ need to succeed and thrive, despite existing in a colonized society and inheriting intergenerational trauma.
I am in no way disregarding or invalidating the participants’ stories or narratives. Rather, I am calling attention to how they are framed, how they are produced, and how they are catered to a non-Native audience.
Hypervisibility is a social phenomenon in which focal points/references to/of a community of people become constructed and regularly regulated by those outside, and sometimes even those inside, the group.
For us, the Native/Indigenous youth, we are being watched, monitored, and judged with established policies, expectations, and/or social scripts that regulate/police our capabilities and possibilities.
As Native Youths, we have a unique social position in that we are citizens of tribal nations and we are/will be the leaders and keepers of our traditions, our knowledges, and our languages.
Drawing from Tribal Critical Race Theory, written by Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy (Lumbee) in 2005, he writes that colonialism has the capacity to become internalized and thus Indigenous peoples can acquire colonialist ideas when they “fail to express [themselves] in ways that [challenges] dominant society’s ideas about who and what [they] are supposed to be, how [they] are supposed to behave, and what [they] are supposed to be within the larger population.” (Brayboy, Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education, 2005, p. 431).
It is within that capacity that I framed hypervisibility as a form of regulation and surveillance from both within and outside our Indigenous communities. There is a failure when colonial ideas, logics, frameworks of how we understand or imagine our Native/Indigenous Youths that are not challenged by older Natives and non-Natives.
Brayboy writes more.
In his article, Hiding in the Ivy: American Indian Students and Visibility in Elite Educational Settings, he writes about the potential effects of visibility. Brayboy (2004) writes that “visibility can lead to surveillance, marginalization, ostracism, while simultaneously having positive consequences that are directly related to strategic forms of activism, advocacy, and the maintenance of cultural integrity” (p. 146)
The act of being visible allows Native/Indigenous youth to challenge historical portrayals as we continue to engage in difficult conversations and create spaces for ourselves in different places. Yet, simultaneously, we are being monitored and held to higher standards, often asked to be socially responsible, because we have the weight of our communities on our shoulders.
Brayboy argues that Native/Indigenous youth are “left to choose between the lesser of two evils: retreating into the silence and invisibility that are more comfortable, or challenging inaccurate representations and sharing information about what ‘real’ Indians are, and thus becoming more visible” ( p. 144). We are either required be silent and remain invisible, or challenge inaccurate information and share our knowledges for others consumption. It’s not a win-win situation because both are exhausting and taxing on our mind, body, heart, and spirit.
We are exploited when we do something ‘successful’ and reprimanded if we don’t produce more ‘success’ or act outside our social expectations.
We no longer have the privilege or luxury to just be children and to just learn our languages, our traditions, and our cultures at our own pace.
In the face of colonialism, we lost those privileges, and are expected to survive and thrive under oppressive social conditions.
We lose our ‘innocence” because of social expectations and responsibilities that we have inherited.
Yet, with technological advancement and increase access to resources/knowledges, historical narratives of Indigenous peoples are now being challenged as Indigenous people begin to determine their own personhood, relationships, and knowledges and produce counter-narratives.
There is a need to be critical in how we reproduce colonial ideas, logics, and frameworks against ourselves, and against our community. Native/Indigenous youths’ innocence becomes extracted and erased and replaced with the need to be successful and thrive. We are framed to be the guardians of the future, and we are, yet the way that ‘success’ is framed and how we become visible needs to be critically analyzed, especially with regards to how we are monitored and policed in our behaviors, activism, and advocacy for ourselves, for our communities, and for our ancestors.
Brayboy, B. M. (2004). Hiding in the Ivy: American Indian Students and Visibility in Elite Educational Settings. Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 74, No. 2, 125-152.
Brayboy, B. M. (2005). Toward a Tribal Critical Race Theory in Education. The Urban Review, Vol. 37, No. 5, 425-446.
Hearne, J. (2012). Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western. New York City: State University of New York Press.