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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
Delorias 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 nations 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.
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