Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Token Indian

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 3, 2015

If you hear someone talking about the token Indian in the group, it’s an offensive comment.  It means that there was need for at least one person to be included regardless of qualifications, and so someone was chosen to be that token person.  The reason for having a token person in a group is to give the appearance of being inclusive and to deflect any allegations of discrimination.  The bottom line, however, is that it’s extremely discriminatory and not inclusive in the least.

Father Theo’s Blog on WordPress on August 5, 2012 talked about the passage for Aboriginal professionals.  Theo Collins is a blogger, writer, educator, parent, musician, and historiographer living in British Columbia (Canada) and his blog focuses primarily on planet and climate change, Aboriginal issues, the blues, history, people and himself.  The entry that day was entitled, “I Was A Token Indian.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviewed “American Outlaw” in their newspaper edition of August 17, 2001.  Written by Post-Gazette Book Editor, Bob Hoover, the immediately took pity on the American Western which he felt had been assailed in the movie.

It’s not that he felt that the movie was terrible (because he didn’t feel that way about it at all) but rather that the movie showed no respect for the cowboy tradition of John Ford, John Wayne, and Sam Peckinpaugh movies.  The problem was, according to the reviewer, that the movie looked more like “The Sopranos” in spurs (yes, that’s what he wrote).

And, that’s really what this movie’s about — lookin’ good.  It’s got the Western outfits, the steam-engine trains, the dynamite blasts, the shirtless studs and the token Indian.  Some of the jokes are funny, too.

Sixteen years earlier (almost to the day), on July 6, 1985 the Gettysburg Times published a news story written by Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press about sculptor Michael Naranjo.  In 1967, he was drafted into the U.S. army and the following year, a grenade cost him his sight, a little finger, and the dexterity of his right hand when he and his squad were ambushed in a Vietnamese rice field.   The article was titled, “Blind Indian Sculptor Seeks The Impossible” and explained how Michael Naranjo sought the impossible.  The article read in part:

I don’t want to be just your token Indian, or your token veteran, or your token handicapped artist.  I just want to be a plain old, good artist … Foremost and first, I am a sculptor,” he said at the opening of a month-long exhibition of his work in Pittsburgh.

The Montreal Gazette edition of April 30, 1980 also spoken of token Indians when it ran an article about what the president of the Indian Association of Alberta, Joe Dion, had to say about setting up a national legislative body to negotiate with the Canadian federal government.

“Indians want to make their own laws, administer justice, control resources, and look after social services within Confederation,” Dion said.

He also suggested that Indians also be allocated a block of seats in Parliament, with members elected by Indian constituencies.  And the Senate should have more than the one “token Indian senator.”

The term token Indian can be found littered across newspapers, magazines, and books over the decades and it’s understood what’s meant by the term.  However, it was in a 1946 coin collector’s almanac compiled by Hans M.F. Schulman and Hans Holzer where Idiomation found mention of a 1795 half-cent Washington token Indian head coin.

History shows that the third president of the United States and founding father Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) strongly encouraged commercial enterprises to extend credit to Indigenous peoples in America to create a debt situation that could only be satisfied by forcing Aboriginals to cede land to the U.S. government.  When an Indian did not have a debt, but rather, had a credit coming to him, he received a token since there was a shortage of coins in circulation during this era.

Three images were most often used to differentiate three tokens of differing values, and each had a pictorial that was recognized not only by settlers and colonials but by Native American Indians as well (a buffalo on the plains, a side-wheel steamer, and a warrior on horseback).  These tokens were meant to prove good faith trading and when accusations of unfairness by commercial enterprises surfaced, it was the Indian with the token or tokens who was named as proof that the commercial enterprise in question was fair to all, including Indians.

In other words, the Indian with the token became the known as the token Indian.

The practice dates back to the late 1700s when the U.S. government decided to involve itself in the Indian trade, hence the minting of tokens as well as half-cent token Indian coins that were put into circulation as real coinage.  Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom token Indian to the late 1700s.

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