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Reclaiming the Native American voice

By Simon Moya-Smith, Special to CNN
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Wed June 18, 2014
  • Native Americans appeared in big stories in mainstream media recently
  • This visibility is rare but becoming more common, author says
  • Simon Moya-Smith: Native Americans are reclaiming our voice, and image.

Editor's note: Simon Moya-Smith is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a writer living in New York. He has a master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He tweets @Simonmoyasmith.

(CNN) -- Native Americans have been news in mainstream media recently, which is a rare occurrence.

On Wednesday, the U.S. patent office canceled trademark registrations of the Washington Redskins team name, calling the word "disparaging to Native Americans."

Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo, was one of five plaintiffs to contest the federal trademark protection of the team name. This is a great victory for Native Americans and it's indicative of the growing chorus of people who oppose the use of such racial slurs.

Last week, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation of California purchased airtime during the NBA Finals to run the anti-Washington Redskins video, "Proud To Be."

The ad, produced by the National Congress of American Indians, ran in seven major cities and aimed to visually illustrate who Native Americans are and who we are not.

Simon Moya-Smith
Simon Moya-Smith

Days after the ad aired during prime time, President Barack Obama became only the fourth sitting president to visit an American Indian reservation.

Meeting in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, the president and first lady addressed a diverse group of Native Americans: those dressed in traditional regalia (not costumes) and those in suits and ties and dresses and modern attire. They met with decorated veterans of wars past and present, and children with iPhones and iPads.

These events are significant because Native American voices are often marginalized, ignored or simply left out of the American conversation.

But the 21st century is a time when we are getting mainstream attention. We are reclaiming our voice and images.

Now, we are using platforms like social media to speak out against consistent appropriation of Native culture or to collectively oppose offensive Native American imagery.

Recently, when "Happy" singer Pharrell Williams wore a Native American headdress on the cover of UK Elle magazine, a #nothappy twitter campaign was launched. Pharrell quickly issued an apology.

It was not the first time the use of a misappropriated headdress prompted a public mea culpa. In 2012, Victoria's Secret also issued an apology and removed a model wearing a headdress from its broadcast.

Now, more than ever, Native Americans are visible in ways they have not been in the past, erasing the antiquated image of a mythical, loin-cloth-clad Tonto figure and giving voice to real American Indians.

Native Americans: We're not your mascots

New pressure on Redskins to change name
Redskins Twitter campaign backfires
Cupp: Native Americans have real problems

Native Americans are typically lumped into one large group due to the social construct of race and for ease.

But Native American nations are diverse, and recent visibility in the news offers a chance to see a wider range of who we are.

We are not "savages." We are not "injuns," and we are not "redskins."

We are the first people of this nation -- our old country -- and we have endured.

We are still here.

We have always been here, and there is better chance you will see us and hear us.

Not all Native American nations operate casinos. We do not all get free tuition. We don't get free gasoline, as Justin Bieber has suggested, and we do not all get monthly checks from Uncle Sam.

Due to a complex history and interconnected issues, many tribes face poverty unlike other American ethnic groups and have the highest dropout rates. And sadly, there are additional reprehensible social statistics.

But efforts like those the president outlined in his recent visit -- additional investment in tribal communities, improved communication between agencies and empowerment -- highlight some of the ways that the government is aiding these deeply rooted issues.

And as Native Americans are seen beyond the stereotypes, and as we use our voices to speak out, we give visibility to who we are, as well as the issues we are working to solve.

This visibility allows for a rehumanization. That is important, and not just for the sake of a brand name of a professional football team.

It is also not about an overly sensitive, politically correct Native American adult who feels the sting of racial epithets.

It's about a future where our kids won't have to face the racism we have.

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Our voices were once silenced, but we never stopped speaking.

Our land was taken, but we never stopped living.

Our children were stolen, and yet generations endure.

The 21st century is incontrovertibly a time where we have reclaimed our voice from those who would speak on behalf of us, and it is a time where we work diligently to reclaim our appropriated image.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Moya-Smith.

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