Skin, Bones, and Red Masks

Skin, Bones, and Red Masks

Photo credit: Lehi Sanchez (APTNNEWS.CA)

UPDATED 5/6/2021

Today, May 5, 2021, people across the United States will wear red in recognition of missing and/or murdered American Indian (Indigenous) women. They will type #MMIW, #MMIWG or something similar in their social media feeds. If they are one of a few American Indians in their organizations, they may be asked (a bit ironically) to make special statements about missing American Indian peoples.

Why does “MMIW” exist? Recently, the skeleton of a Turtle Mountain Chippewa woman was found in a storage unit in Durham, North Carolina … 15 years after she went missing. All over North America, each week, murdered American Indian women are found in bushes, abandoned houses and trashcans. In 2017, in the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the disintegrating bodies of three women were found dumped on the same block within about 45 days. The many cases of American Indian disappearance and murder around North America highlight the fact that, in the United States, American Indian bodies remain disposable and invisible (not just disposable).

Campaigns like “MMIW” attempt to push against social, economic and political processes within which American Indian absence is simply accepted. This is tricky intellectual territory. American Indian peoples are present, but our presences tend to exist in very specific ways. To be American Indian is to carry a wardrobe with you that signifies genetic and cultural authenticity. This wardrobe might be as grand as traditional Indian regalia sewn with beads, shells and/or metal pieces (jingles). It might be as simple as a turquoise pendant worn on the lapel of a Ralph Lauren suit. Over the last decade, graduates of colleges and high schools have fought to place an eagle feather on top of standard, institutionalized graduation wardrobes.

However, there is a reckoning of wardrobe that is taking place in the age of MMIW. An increasingly popular act across Indian Country is to take a red-painted hand and cover your mouth in various social settings. This red hand over the mouth represents blood and silence – shed blood of American Indians which ought not to be normal, and the pervasive silences that American Indians die within and attempt to speak through. Several news articles have been written about the practice. What these stories tend to hilight is the fact that American Indian peoples are asking to be seen even as we are finding ways to step out of (or completely abandon) colonial expectations of how we ought to appear.

This has a lot to do with race. Years ago, I wrote an article about racial seeing in the Lumbee Tribe. Among other things, I made a distinction between Indian race as “blood” and Indian race as “phenotype”. In most political conversations in Indian Country, race as a blood-quantum concept is more important than race as a matter of how our bodies are shaped or how our bodies look. In my article, I made a very specific point that we (American Indians) are often not allowed to talk about how we look and how our composition (our physical substance) means a lot to the communities we are from.

A famous Lumbee folk singer, Willie Lowery, in the 1970s, composed a song titled “Brown Skin”. It was an ode to American Indian presence in a Black-White U.S. South. It was also permission to appreciate unique characteristics of Lumbee embodiment. My students often laugh when I tell them that many Lumbees say: “No baby smells like a Lumbee baby”.

Back around 2014, while teaching medical students in Chicago, I often made the case that American Indian physicians are needed because Indian people experience Indian bodies unlike other people. Part of being in medicine is being in close contact with a human being – feeling the vibrations of their body, smelling, and listening. A physician can affirm the presence of your body within the clinical space (which is the substance of good medicine) or they can abandon your body within the clinical space (which is the substance of medical harm). Diversity in medicine is about placing the right people in the clinical space to affirm bodily presences.

On that note, abandoning and disappearing (the actions that cause “MMIW”) don’t have to be murder and burial in a wretched place. They can exist in casual, seemingly innocent interactions. I recently spoke with a colleague who reminded me of the racial contexts of my being in the academy. He once heard another faculty member state that I didn’t “look Indian”. I asked him (my colleague) why he didn’t tell me what he heard when he first heard. He stated that it was tough because, on one hand, he thought that I couldn’t take the news. He thought I would be hurt. On the other hand, he didn’t know if it was ethical to make me more visible – to point out how I actually look: “David, I knew that in their eyes you would never look Indian enough, no one could be.”

My wife’s grandfather, Grandpa Ray, watched a lot of Western movies before his death in 2012.  When I was around the Lumbee community, I would sometimes join him in his living room, and we would laugh at portrayals of Indians by White actors such as Burt Lancaster in “Apache”. One day, Grandpa Ray looked over at me and said: “You know that is a White man, right?” I automatically replied: “Of course.” He laughed. “Let me tell you something; It is easy for us to tell that that is a White man playing us. But it isn’t easy for them (White people) to tell that we are Indians playing them.”

This was an eye-opening conversation. Grandpa Ray wasn’t attempting to describe how American Indians really look. He also wasn’t saying that we (American Indians) attempt to be White. No, he was making an assertion that we (all Americans) are trained to see Whiteness, and that decades (or centuries) of our being taught to see, respect and possibly fear Whiteness made it almost impossible to hide Whiteness under brown/red paint. The power of ‘red face’ (Indians being played by non-Indian people) was that you can never put on enough paint and fake hair to look Indian. At the same time, we (American Indians) always attempt to make ourselves seen in response to ‘red face’. American Indian people often change our behaviors (our gestures, our mannerisms, our ways of being in the world) for non-Indians to catch a glimpse of us.

My point here is that, in a world of racial cosplay, American Indians are constantly defaced and disembodied.

The transformation of Indianess into a disembodied reality – into a costume to be worn – began during the emergence of military operations in the United States. In elementary school, you may have learned about the Boston Tea Party of 1773. However, I doubt that your teacher was prepared to explain why White politicians dressed in brown paint and feathers as part of their participation in this critical colonial event.

By the 1800s, during the Civil War, the famous outlaw Jesse James disguised himself as my grandfather, Henry Berry Lowry, during a bank heist. His theory was that my grandfather had become so infamous (he had a bounty on his head larger than Jesse James) that no one would follow after them if they disguised themselves as my grandfather’s gang. During World War 2, the US military used American Indians as decoys (in addition to using Indian languages within “code talking”) during assaults on islands in the Pacific. By the Vietnam War, planes and tanks were named after American Indian communities and persons.

Placement of American Indians as a skin on top of the American colonial project mirrors an equally powerful intellectual project within the United States to re-racialize America within Black-White, immigrant-citizen dichotomies. Recently, sociologist Nancy Yuen, when asked about the roots of Whites portraying Asians in Hollywood, stated that this practice came out of minstrelsy (White people playing Black people). I disagree. White portrayal of non-White people was first and foremost based in White portrayals of American Indians from the mid-1700s to today.

Meanwhile, American Indians are defaced. For example, our bodies are easily confused for Puerto Rican, Italian, South Asian, Colombian or Asian bodies. We look like everything and nothing, simultaneously. When Deb Haaland was announced as the Secretary of the Department of Interior, my friend who lived in India part of his childhood stated in humor: “As long as she keeps turquoise necklaces on and not gold, we will remember that she is the other Indian”.

The defacement of American Indians – our identities being attached to cultural realities rather than to a physiologically recognizable self – is becoming especially problematic in an age of artificial intelligence and facial, biometric security. When I was at MIT directly after 9/11, my wife (then girlfriend) warned me to shave “appropriately” before I went to Boston’s airport. Her fear was that newly improvised security (there were rumors back then that the FBI used facial recognition) might have seen me as a potential Arab threat. In 2020, in the midst of COVID19 and tumultuous conversations about racial recognition and artificial intelligence, MIT’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences published a series of discussions by faculty who spoke from the conditions of their research about the meaning of masks. I was quickly reminded that MIT didn’t have American Indian faculty present to critique or offer insight within MIT’s academic debates about artificial intelligence. American Indians were not present as scholars or subjects of AI scholarship. There were no concerns for how or when American Indians were written into software codes. The recent removal of the R-word mascot seemed to end any chance of American Indians being facially recognized.

At that same moment, I was regularly present on social media asking for anyone and everyone to pay attention to Major League and National Football League teams who manufactured and sold face masks adorned with American Indian mascots. In the Lumbee Tribe (my home community) teachers in the local school system notified me that Black teachers wore masks with the R-word mascot. “They don’t care,” one Lumbee teacher told me, “it is like they know we can’t say anything about their masks because (their masks) are for health and safety. One of them (a Black teacher) even had a Black Lives Matter shirt on with an (Indian) mask.”

Image: During the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, online shops like have become central hubs for the circulation of face masks featuring American Indian mascots. I tend to call them “red masks” because of their over celebration of American Indian caricature, genocide and marginalization. 

This is an especially important conversation in the midst of emerging policy changes across the United States that seem solely focused on relationships of the American police-state to Black bodies. As “Black Lives Matter” and similar frameworks of racial testimony help frame journalist accounts, academic awards and other streams of influence, and as George Floyd and other Black victims of police shootings become the faces of racial justice in America, we are pushed to forget that the American Indian Movement (AIM) began in Minneapolis as a response to police violence directed toward American Indian bodies.

The emerging devotion of Americans storytellers to Black-White politics is affecting conversations that, just ten years ago, would have placed American Indians at the center. The Guardian and other newspapers recently published accounts of a controversy that has been brewing at Princeton University over the use of “bones of Black children” to teach anthropology. Upon first reading Guardian’s article, I shouted:

How, in an article about the role of anthropology in the use of bones from murdered children, do you not mention the fact that the bones of murdered American Indian children established the discipline of anthropology?

I was once again reminded that American Indian death is not prioritized within institutions of social justice. As we have seen with countless videos of Black men shot by police over the last few years, Black deaths are hyper-visualized. American Indian deaths are not.

In the meantime, American Indian bones have been moved from evidence of a crime (colonialism and genocide) to a symbol of entrepreneurship and social movement. There are many stories of all-White fraternities at Yale and other places that used Indian skulls for ceremonies. More recently, as fashion entrepreneurs have selected symbols to represent their work, Indian skulls have become aesthetically pleasing medallions worn by American consumers. This over-representation of Indian death and disfigurement on clothing parallels under-representation of Indian identity and perspective in the clothing/fashion industry.

During one of my recent exchanges on Twitter about Indian mascots, a White man from Tennessee interjected:

Don’t you realize by getting rid of references to Native American culture (i.e. Indian mascots on sports uniforms), you are the one advocating for genocide. In fact the final genocide where they are no longer even talked about in society

I quickly responded:

You sound like a drug trafficker suggesting that the end of drug dealing will be the end of the American economy. You sound like the head of the KKK suggesting that the end of his organization will be the end of community service.

We cannot allow American Indian bodies to be transformed into a fossilized fuel for the colonial project. As we put away our masks – which we have worn faithfully over the last year of pandemic – we cannot forget what they have taught us about mattering in America…we cannot forget what they have taught us about what we wear and how we are worn.