Mongolians “R” Us

by LeAnne Howe

03/12/2015

For me there will never be another travel adventure like Japan. I was one of four guest speakers at the International Forum on Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights. It had been publicized all over Japan and the organizers were expecting hundreds of people to attend. One of the major sponsors of my trip was the Buraku Liberation Research Institute of Okayama. After the forum on human rights I was scheduled for more homestays with Burakumin people and travel to other cities to give lectures about contemporary American Indians in the U.S.

Probably about this time in the story I should confess I was feeling a bit haughty about being invited to Japan. In a way, I felt the Japanese were partially responsible for driving me out of the securities business and into the hands of a university position (at a greatly reduced salary). In my mind the visit was fate, recompense, providence. A strange and perverse way to think, but I had once been in the pay of Wall Street, one twisted sister. “The Street” is selfish, narcissistic, and ravenous and was always gobbling people, small and large corporations, other country’s currencies, and sleep. Apparently I still carried this perversion.

By the mid 1980s, Wall Street was in distress, reeling and convulsing over the import-export disparity that affected the value of the U.S. dollar. Japan, a major exporter of goods to the United States, was cutting their own profit margins rather than raise the dollar prices of Nintendos, fax machines, Canon cameras, and Sony televisions to U.S. consumers. In the last quarter of 1985, U.S. imports of nonpetroleum products exceeded U.S. exports of nonagricultural goods by 74 percent. This trend led to an ever-increasing absolute deficit. Everyone from President Ronald Reagan to Secretary of Treasury James Baker III and Wall Street blamed the Japanese for the U.S. economic woes. The deficit also forced our firm to trim its buy-low, sell-high strategies.

The truth is I didn’t need the president of the United States or even Wall Street to tell me how to think about the Japanese; I was predisposed to blame them by members of my own family. Two days after Pearl Harbor was destroyed, my Cherokee grandmother in Ada, Oklahoma, broke all her Japanese Blue Willow china, plate by plate. She pounded them into porcelain paste with a Sears and Roebuck claw hammer, all the while cursing a blue streak. My grandfather intervened and she spared the last two dinner plates. After her death we found them wrapped in an old newspaper at the bottom of a chest that was jumbled with WWII memorabilia. The faded headline read: “Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor.” (It seemed Grandmother was a committed nationalist.)

Let’s see, where was I? Scary, isn’t it, how one narrative bleeds into another—from Wall Street to Ronald Reagan to Pearl Harbor to my grandmother’s Japanese china. Back to those early days of 1985 on Wall Street, our morning briefings from the New York trading desk went something like this:

“Japanese led again yesterday.”

“Industrial production in Japan beats expectation.”

“Bullish sentiment among traders down for the third straight week.”

“Totally unconfirmed chatter about Plaza Accord, the plan by G-5 nations to manipulate exchange rates by depreciating the U.S. dollar relative to the yen and Deutsche mark.”

“Here are the talking points of the day…”

As soon as New York’s lead analyst signed off, Ed Hardy, our Houston bond trader, would come on the squawk box and dump on the briefings with his pithy one-liners:

“Goddamn Japs.”

“Ah well, payback. Next time, next time.”

“Hiroshima, mon amour?”

Some of you may be thinking that I should have stood up against the racist remarks of my co-worker, and you’d be right. But without realizing it, I’d slipped into solidarity with thieves.

There was another equally felonious reason I wanted to go to Japan. Owing to a poor education in the sixth grade in Oklahoma (my teacher also coached the junior high football team), I wanted to know if the Japanese believed they were related to American Indians. Mr. Bill (a white male) said, according to scientists, the Indians in Oklahoma were Mongols. This came as quite a surprise to my grandmother when I told her. “Mr. Bill says Indians are related to all Orientals.” Grandmother raised her eyebrows and started to speak but accidentally broke the handle of her coffee cup. Lukewarm Sanka spilled all over the floor and we had to clean it up. She swept up the broken pieces and threw them into her trash. I mopped. Afterwards we went for a walk.

Looking backwards into the minds of Oklahoma’s top thinkers in the mid ‘60s, I see that Mr. Bill was telling what he’d been taught in college. He didn’t go into any details, of course, because we were in sixth grade. Yet the question remains, why did I even consider what I’d been taught about American Indian ancestry? Perhaps I didn’t fully realize the mischief of the colonizer’s muse. She could make a Cherokee woman break her Japanese china in solidarity with the very nation-state that had stolen her homelands. Or tell stories to Native sixth-graders that our origins are elsewhere, not America.

A few months after I returned from Japan, I looked up the history of how American Indians became Mongols. Here’s what I discovered: George Cuvier, a nineteenth-century French naturalist and zoologist, first applied the term “Mongolian” to American Indians as a racial classification. The Mongolian nomenclature stuck to us like glue. Later, English biologist Thomas Huxley applied Mongol to not only American Indians but also to Arctic Natives. In 1940, anthropologist Franz Boas included all Indigenous peoples of the Americas as part of the Mongoloid race. So drunk was Boas on wistfulness that he scooped up the Aztec and Maya and stirred them into his bowl of Mongolian alphabet soup. Maybe that’s why the U.S. government forced American Indians onto reservations — to suppress the Mongols. I know, I know, a ridiculous idea.

But, after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps on or near Indian reservations. Meanwhile, anthropologists still insist that Indigenous peoples of the Americas came from Asia. For Natives the most important story is yet to emerge, our memories of how we are related.


Appeared in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 4, February 15, 2015. From Choctalking on Other Realities by LeAnne Howe. Copyright © 2013 by LeAnne Howe. Reprinted by permission of Aunt Lute Books. More information at www.auntlute.com.