As the schedule for the Montana Festival of the Book is now being developed, I’m thinking back over last year’s events. I’ll read from “Bronze Inside and Out” again, I think this time the parts that are about Bob Scriver’s boyhood and therefore his good buddy Jimmie Welch, the father of Jim Welch the novelist. This time I won’t be on a panel about Indian writing -- I don’t know whether there will be one. Instead I’ll be on a panel about memoirs, though I doubt that some of the key controversies (faking a persona, legal issues about the persons remembered, the propriety of what is included) will come up. The Festival’s rather covert goal is to make books attractive, high-status, and safe -- and to sell as many copies as possible. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wish we could be a bit more issue-confrontive.
Nice people fear confrontation, even non-violent but high-decibel and possibly obscene and accusatory exchanges. In short, they will not play the game that Eric Berne used to call “Uproar,” which means that when one is losing, one overthrows the game table and scatters the chessmen. It was much beloved in post-modern, post-colonial, post-structural et al. circles. The most recent and less-ideological version is for a lot of people to use cell phones to all show up as an “instant crowd” and do something surprising, maybe offensive, then all disperse or change locations by communicating again on cell phones, thus outwitting the enforcers of order, who had previously had an advantage through their own communication system.
“Uproar” has been a game much exploited by Native Americans, especially in regard to literature and academia, and they have more or less “called out” a whole range of phony Indians, phony whites, phony transgressors and so on, accusing various other folks of phoniness and insisting on “political correctness” which means that every perceived insult be confronted with a rhetorical barrage. Right now this is happening in the “letters to the editor” section of the Great Falls Tribune over animal issues. For instance, a woman went into fits over a house filled with 300 inbred, sick, and filthy cats which the elderly owners had been crowded out of but which they returned to often enough to feed the cats. The woman was evidently deeply offended that the cats were euthanized instead of the owners.
In the context of Native American literature, the target was a sitting duck. The reality of many NA stories is not uplifting because they HAVE been oppressed, genocidally murdered, confined to reservations that can be interpreted as either ghettos or concentration camps, starved, hooked on booze and pills, and so on. The Prairie Clearances, which followed the War between the States and prepared the way for “homesteading,” were bloody and politically motivated in the same way as the Highland Clearances in Britain. The result in both cases was romanticizing and purifying the victims into powerful nobility and competence in spite of the inevitable defeat, which created a race of martyrs.
When the Native American Literary Renaissance of the not-so-distant past came along, the writers were praised when they were “authentic” and “courageous.” But then some began to use Indian humor, which can be obscene, and to demand reinterpretation, respect or, as they gained sympathizers among white liberals, even reparation. It wasn’t long before matters went into “Uproar.” Some were better at it than others. But they more or less killed the genre.
I have a friend who loves underdogs (so long as they’re not part of his life) and who films commercials. He is “afraid” to hire Indians or to have anything to do with NA materials because he can’t tell when he’ll offend them and what they might do. Blacks are easier because they have known leaders and one can bargain as with a labor union. In fact, black/white context both distorts and even represses “red” issues. Numbers count and Indians are a small proportion of the voting population except back in the West where the leaders of Montana and Alberta have frankly recognized that reservation Indians can swing a vote. If they went to Uproar, they probably could polarize resistance against them enough to be excluded again.
Last year’s panel that was supposed to be about who has the right to tell the story of the Indians was a good example. Curly Bear Wagner is the Blackfeet cultural rep, often quoted and photographed. He was my student in 1962 high school English class. His opening card was that he had been sent to the office by colonial imperialist Me because he objected to reading “Macbeth,” a useless white man’s story. The principal, an Indian, made him go back. It was in the state curriculum. I wasn’t nimble enough in those days to convince the students that Macbeth was about tribes and the overthrow of a chief.
MY opening card was that when I taught at Heart Butte, the 7th grade textbook had one story about Indians and it was dependent on the Disneyfication of Indians: Indians, like animals, are supposed to be good material for children. This is a cherished notion that white people and some Indians never consider as belittling in the way that athletic mascots can be. Anyway, that class threw out the textbook and we wrote our own novel about 7th graders falling in love and making near-fatal mistakes, which is what the class members were up to. This, of course, helped get me fired, with the consent of those Indians who think the only way to survive is to comply, to do what the missionaries said, and to violently oppose any attempt to picture them as wicked.
Curly Bear continued with a revisionist version of Sacred Cow fur-trader stories that made Curly Bear’s ancestor, Potts, into the biggest hero of all. The historians in the room looked stunned. The room had a pretty good contingent of actual Indians because of Adolf Hungry-Wolf’s panel earlier about his “Blackfoot Papers,” an invaluable “museum in a box” about old-timers, generously illustrated with old photographs. Adolf is one of the people constantly attacked for being a “wannabe” with white genetics. But Adolf has become a master ceremonialist and lives a 19th century Indian life in a remote log cabin. He married an Indian and therefore has Indian children. He NEVER plays “Uproar” no matter how outrageous the attacks on him. Such a strategy -- sort of a Ghandi/Thoreau game plan -- takes a very long time but generally wins in the end. At the Festival he was treated well and the media also did a story.
I’ve played “Uproar” myself in the past and might do it again in the future, but not at this Festival. I’m just hoping to make a few thoughtful points about memoir and might be allowed to do so if the Indians who count coup on Bob Scriver don’t come. They’re aging and mellowing, like the post-everythingists. But not so much that some people (Indians!) were afraid to be on the same panel as Curley Bear last year. And the organizers of this nice event weren’t exactly anxious to have another NA panel.