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Discover Mid-America — June 2005

Identity based on ‘Indianness’ constantly remakes Americans and Indians

Playing Indian by Philip J. Deloria; Yale University Press: New Haven and London (1998); 262 pp., 27 b/w illustrations; $16)

The climactic moment of Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian occurs in the fifth chapter when Anglos, who made a hobby of replicating “authentic” Indians to create a link to a mythic past, find themselves under native threat.

After World War II, “hobby Indians” — Anglo enthusiasts of native life and belief — had developed an elaborate system of powwows, local Indian reenactment groups and even companies to meet the growing demand of the craft that went into the creation of “authentic” native dress. Actual Indian people found their way into these gatherings and activities, performing at powwows, selling “authentic” Indian crafts or consulting on costume and ritual.

But though natives participated, Anglo ascendants to “Indianness” took at face value that what the natives said was true. They never suspected natives were saying what these newly minted Indians wanted to hear. Of that the natives were giving them the show they wanted to see or delivering those mystical feelings Americans so desired. Hobbyists, then as now, saw native presence as legitimacy of their pursuit or, at least, in the “authentic” details of ceremony and costume.

At the same time, native presence also affirmed a racial boundary, making hobbyists uncomfortable when they understood their Indianness mostly excluded Indians, or took natives at the value assigned to them without actually taking into consideration individual feelings, emotions and needs. But natives consistently displayed (and display) their own descriptive and ascriptive ways. This made it difficult for hobbyists to define Indians in terms of the hobbyists’ dominant culture — either as a way of wanting to eradicate it or join it (which mostly winds up being the same thing).

Americans, in short, wanted the Indian without the person. Hobbyists had attempted to connect with a uniquely American past based on something other than its immigrant roots. Such is the recurring theme of Playing Indian.

Deloria argues that from faux Mohawks dumping British tea into Boston Harbor to New Age pursuit of “large scale change in human consciousness and a utopian era of peace and harmony — savage Indians served Americans as oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self.”

But by using “savage Indians” in this way, Americans have displayed “an awkward tendency to define themselves as what they were not.” Further, Americans have consistently “failed to produce a positive identity that stood on its own.” Americans wanted to “savor both civilized order and savage freedom at the same time.” Thus, use of Indianness — preferably sans Indians or with cooperative, ego-stroking natives — has created an incomplete, self-conscious Americanness that has not completely resolved itself.

Native participation in hobbyists’ activities also is central and metaphoric to Playing Indian. Americans both created and then inherited historical attractions to and repulsions from the noble savage. But this was a stereotype that natives, by their very behavior and relations with each other and whites, have consistently resisted. People who played Indian sought the positive aspects of noble and savage but held onto their own view of actual natives as inimical to national progress: People attached to the land and intimate with it, yet, powerful, free, independent and democratic were impediments to development of a civilized, white male national vision.

Playing Indian, Deloria argues, is “a persistent tradition in American culture from the very instant of the national big bang into an ever-expanding present and future.”

Deloria constructs the book in a smart and cohesive topical manner, each chapter overlapping, and each supporting his thesis in astounding and interesting ways. The six chapters of Playing Indian each develop around cultural development tied to playing Indian — from the use of Indianness in fraternal organizations to the background radiation warming the Camp Fire and Boy Scout organizations, to organizing principles of the New Age. The workings of these chapters are decidedly reflexive — Americans influence natives by playing Indian; Indians play Indians for Americans. The conclusion a is powerful reminder of the ways Americans perceive race — a construct separate from the people it is supposed to belong to.

Central to this, playing Indian has also become a part of American culture imbued with the insecurity of having actual natives around.

“The indeterminacy of American identities stems, in part, from the nation’s inability to deal with Indian people. Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants.”

Deloria, however, demonstrates that the “original inhabitants” have not been destroyed. Instead, through American propensity to resort to Indian play and their ambivalent relations (preservation and eradication) with natives in the past and present, natives hold a great deal of sway over Indian play. Americans seek an identity based on Indianness, but Indians continue to live and change, both themselves and the people who seek so desperately to build a unique identity.

Real Indians have always demonstrated how use of “Indianness” in creative self-shaping continued to be pried apart from questions of inequality, the uneven workings of power, and the social settings in which Indians and non-Indians might actually meet. Thus, continued Indian presence in American life exposes the contradictions in assuming Indianness without thought or care to Indian people, the racial over and undertones of American society, and the choices Indians have make to live in such a society.

“While Indian people have lived out a collection of historical nightmares in the material world,” Deloria writes, “they have haunted a long night of American dreams.”

The same can be said for a myriad of ethnic and race distinctions that live above and beyond the individuals they are attached to.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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