The Ongoing Problem of Racism Against Native Americans


Recent events coming out of the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion have brought aggression, discrimination, and racism against Native Americans into the spotlight again. Nationwide attention was focused most recently on the Fallin family, when Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s daughter, Christina, publicized a photo of herself wearing a Native American headdress.

The photo was titled “appropriate culturation”—a word play on cultural appropriation. The culturally significant item she appropriated was from one of the most extreme minority groups in the United States, representing less than 2 percent of the population. Native American people, who have survived genocide and cruelty to keep their cultures alive, see what she did as a grave disrespect against them, especially considering Fallin represents the decedents of the white settlers who inflicted much death and trauma on Native American families in the region.

Natives were thoroughly insulted and hurt by Fallin’s actions. Many Native Americans, upon reading Christina Fallin’s issued statement responding to their outrage, viewed it as the equivalent of “Sorry, not sorry!” rather than an actual apology.

Christina Fallin’s supporters called the Native Americans who were criticizing her “sheep,” a reference to being easily misled and influenced. Wayne Coyne of the band the Flaming Lips defended Fallin against the ire of Native Americans by posting pictures on social media of people and animals wearing Native American headdresses. What’s more, Coyne’s drummer, Kliph Scurlock, says Coyne fired him for agreeing with Native Americans and criticizing Fallin, telling him, “Go stick up for your Indian friends if it’s so important to you.”

Since then, Scurlock has become widely regarded as a heroic role model for speaking out against misappropriating Native American culture. He’s been compared in some ways with Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner who banned billionaire LA Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling for life for making racist remarks—though of course Scurlock lost a job he had held for 12 years, while Silver is still part of the NBA.

Several weeks after Fallin posted the initial photo, Fallin’s band, Pink Pony, announced in a social media post that the band members would be appearing in “full regalia” at the Norman Music Festival. This is a common Native term, so many Natives regarded the intent of Pink Pony’s single sentence, with no context, as directed at Native Americans. Pink Pony later admitted in a statement following their appearance that the social media post was their response to the Native Americans concerned about what Pink Pony would do at the festival.

On Saturday, April 26, 2014, we posted “I heard Pink Piny [sic] was wearing full regalia tonight” on our Facebook page. This was because we heard rumors about ourselves, spread by people organizing a protest at our concert, that the band would perform in “full regalia.” This was never our plan or intention. It was a rumor and a false one. That is why our post said “I heard Pink Piny [sic] was wearing full regalia tonight” not “Pink Pony will preform [sic] in full regalia tonight.”

At the festival, many Native protesters and supporters came and held signs as Pink Pony got on stage.

Pink Pony performed what many witnesses, including Native Americans, describe as more hateful displays against Native culture. Fallin showed up wearing what the protesters recount as a mock Native shawl; many Native Americans and those close to Native American culture who’ve seen the photographs and video agreed with the resemblance. People across the country took the reports of what happened seriously, and trusted that Native Americans know when their culture is being mocked by fake war dances and Native regalia.

Following the incident, both Gov. Mary Fallin and the Norman Music Festival issued an apology, but Christina Fallin still denies she did anything at the festival connected with Native American culture.

Recently, a Christina Fallin supporter who invited Pink Pony to appear at the grand opening of a salon and spa called the accounts of Native Americans “fabrications” when questioned about her choice to include Fallin in the event.

Wayne Coyne also remains strongly in support of Fallin.

While these events are harrowing when considering the scope, many people argue that actions taken by her mother—the precursors to Christina Fallin’s recent offenses—are just as awful. Native Americans living inside and outside of Oklahoma allege that prejudice against Native American sovereignty and culture started immediately after Gov. Mary Fallin was sworn into office in 2011. In May of that year, “[d]espite pleas from several members to wait and study the proposal [HB 2172],” Michael McNutt of NewsOK.com reported that the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed legislation that disbanded the 43-year-old Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission. The Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission was in charge of a formal process of communication between the 39 Tribal Nations and the Oklahoma state government. Gov. Fallin did not veto this bill or make any suggestions to restore the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission to its full staff. (Toward the final days of the commission, two Native American women had the task of juggling the needs of 39 nations.)

The Tribal Nations had only a six-day notice that the established lines of communication would be severed. The bill required Fallin to appoint a Native American Affairs Liaison by December 2011. Fallin did not appoint one until September 2012. The bill also called for the creation of a Native American Cultural and Education Authority; an audit available on the state website notes that the group suffers from “inconsistent funding, inadequate budgeting” and “mixed messages from the Legislature.”

Many Natives see the actions happening in the Oklahoma state capitol as signs that a frigid political climate exists toward Native Americans living in the state.

For example, in October of 2013, U.S. Marshals arrived in military-style vehicles to force Dusten Brown, an active duty soldier, and the Cherokee Nation to give his 4-year-old Cherokee girl, publicly known as Baby Veronica, to white adoptive parents from South Carolina. Gov. Fallin intervened before the U.S. force crossed into Cherokee Nation jurisdiction by signing extradition papers to place the father in jail for wanting to continue to raise his daughter.

All Native American children are protected under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which respects their rights to remain citizens of their respective Tribal Nations. The Indian Child Welfare Act was established in 1978 to end the forced removal of Native babies and children from their families and ethnic groups. In part, it was meant to end the wicked residential school system that was created to force assimilation on Native children and destroy indigenous cultures.

Baby Veronica was born to a non-Native biological mother and a biological Cherokee father, Dusten Brown, a soldier in the U.S. Army National Guard. The biological mother put Veronica up for adoption after civil communication broke down between the two biological parents. Veronica was transported to her prospective adoptive parents as soon as she was born. But paperwork that the law required to notify the Cherokee Nation of the adoption was not filled out properly. Dusten Brown began fighting for custody when he was notified that Veronica had been placed for adoption. In December 2011, after two years of legal wrangling, Dusten Brown and his parents were able to bring Veronica back to Oklahoma. Veronica remained with her biological father and extended family from the time she was 27 months old until she was a few days past her fourth birthday. Her prospective adoptive parents, the Capobiancos, took their outrage at having lost in their case to keep Veronica, after the South Carolina courts said ICWA applied to the Cherokee girl, to the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court ruled that parts of the Indian Child Welfare Act had not applied to Dusten Brown specifically, but Veronica was considered a Cherokee Nation citizen and that ICWA still applied to her placement in other regards. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor‘s dissent stated that custody rights of the grandparents and other Cherokee Nation citizens could be considered. 

When the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted the stay that had been preventing the removal of custody of Baby Veronica from the Browns and the Cherokee Nation to the prospective adoptive parents, a dissenting justice, Justice Gurich, stated: “There was not one shred of evidence presented to indicate how such a custody transfer would affect the rights and well-being of Baby Girl [Veronica].”

Justice Gurich also pointed out that South Carolina had been ignoring similar custody orders from Illinois. Gov. Fallin could have called attention to South Carolina’s recent past of ignoring orders of custody from Illinois in order to let South Carolina courts have time to decide cases where a child’s best interest needed special care. Calling attention to how the South Carolina courts system had acted would have been reason enough for Mary Fallin to not capitulate to Haley’s demands and stand by the State of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. Instead, Mary Fallin signed extradition papers for Dusten Brown after initially saying she would not.

It was revealed last week in an Associated Press article that Fallin’s spokesperson, Alex Weintz, had communicated with the office of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, at the time when the governor “sought to speak with advisers about repercussions with the Cherokee Nation as she considered intervening” in the case. According to the AP, Weintz wrote in an email to Fallin on August 14, “Just FYI I spoke with (South Carolina’s communications director) and explained our position.” Weintz added: “He said thanks, they understand. Also said they weren’t doing any national media appearances on this subject and were conscious of avoiding a Gov vs. Gov storyline.”

It is unclear how Fallin felt about the outcry from the state’s Cherokee Nation citizens, from other Natives, and from supporters across the country who were devastated by the forced removal of a Native child by a U.S. government institution.

The United Nations issued an advisement letter to Gov. Fallin and the state government to respect the child’s rights. Natives have pointed out that forced removal of children is a violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and what happened is an act of genocide. One Oklahoma senator was very critical, and stood alone, when he called Gov. Fallin and the state government’s actions a violation of federal law. Lawsuits were filed against Fallin to force the release of more emails, phone call recordings, and memos.

In addition, a heinous killing of a Native teen occurred in December 2013. Wilbur and Melissa Goodblanket called the Custer County Sheriff’s office for help regarding their son, a Cheyenne-Arapaho teenager, who was distressed. According to the Goodblankets, within minutes of two Custer County sheriff’s deputies arriviving at their home, the officers shot their son, Mah-hi-vist “Red Bird,” seven times, which an autopsy confirmed. Both parents say the teenager was unarmed. The deputies say he had a knife. Native Americans protested in the streets and called for justice. Gov. Fallin has not gotten involved in this small town’s disaster with full press coverage, as she often does in the case of tornadoes and other events that tear a community apart.

This is the hostile climate that exists in Oklahoma. Discrimination and racism against Native Americans can be connected to the disconnect and outright apathy of the family in the Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion. Native Americans and supporters announced they will be protesting the way they have been treated on May 19 by coming to rally in Oklahoma City and delivering a petition sponsored by Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, a group that is comprised of Native American parents and allies that have resolved to see the end of racism and discrimination of Native Americans, and RH Reality Check to the office of Gov. Mary Fallin herself.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.