Friday, May 15, 2009
SHAPE-SHIFTERS: AMERICAN INDIANS
A landscape restoration specialist once remarked that everyone wants the landscape to be restored to what they first encountered. Since landscape is constantly transforming, as a group they can’t agree on what is “right.” One guy’s shocking dandelion invasion is another guy’s field of gold. Something like that happens with populations like Native Americans, who are a succession of generations influenced by time and circumstances. When I first came to Browning, Montana, in 1961, there were several distinct “types” of “Indians.” (One of the things that changes over the years is nomenclature.)
At this point in history, Bob Scriver had created his sculpture to “freeze frame” three generations by portraying three people still living. One was Chewing Black Bone, the Aku Pitzu of James Willard Schultz’s tales and a very ancient man. He had been in a real war party, he had seen the buffalo disappear, he had dressed in buckskin and a Sioux headdress to meet dignitaries, and now he lived in a lodge by his granddaughter’s reservation allotment ranch house. He had survived one of the largest displacements of a people in history, a refugee in time but not in place. His culture had been removed but his location remained.
Mae Williamson was half-assimilated. A Blackfeet speaker, she had been married to a lawyer and was the first woman on the Blackfeet Tribal Council. The boy’s name has been lost. If he is alive today, he is over sixty, a grandfather or great-grandfather. He may be one of those who completed the assimilation to white ways, losing his Blackfeet ways but becoming competent in modern society. I’m sure he still self-identifies as Blackfeet.
In addition to these three groups, I was aware of what we now call “street people,” which is to say hard-core alcoholics, and because of being around off and on for fifty years, I’m aware that though many died, some of these people sobered up and became productive family members again. And I was aware of those who were part of the mostly white manager/shopkeeper/clerical/rancher classes who would send their children to college to become today’s Blackfeet middle class.
In the public mind the “shape” of the American Indian comes from the Prairie Clearances, the huge land-grab that rested on the reservation system, powered by a corps of Civil War veterans suited for frontier war. Horseback, mixing guns with arrows, this picture of Indians is reinforced by indelible art and books mostly created by white men, like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which listed the many violences without much nuance. Every time I go to the CM Russell Benefit Auction I run into white men, usually middle-aged but lately older, who can recite amazing amounts of detail and who are emotionally invested in a certain point of view. Clearly they encountered all this at a time of their life when they became deeply invested in a certain way of seeing it.
A boy who came here with his missionary father during WWII tells me proudly his father was a member of the tribe because Chief Bull (Dick Sanderville) gave him an adoption certificate. The fact is that such a ceremony means about the same as a Hallmark greeting card. It is honorable, affectionate, and indicates a wish to stay connected, but it has no legal significance and would not be recognized by any other tribal member or the federal government. Chief Bull was one of two brothers descended from a Mexican family, mixed with Indian, who acted as cavalry interpreters, political leaders, and civil or ceremonial icons in “full buckskins.” But for a small boy, and possibly for a romantic father doing his best for a damaged people, it meant everything to have this relationship. They want to recognize it, valorize it, and keep it in mind. They ought to.
The small Blackfeet boy of those times would have a different “take.” His sons or grandsons may have been exposed to the ideas of the post-modern/post-colonial/redemptionist point of view that declares only genetically descended have the right to describe Indian knowledge. (Well, at least government-confirmed pedigree-descended, since no one had genetic tests and everyone had to go by the commodity rolls first listed by some 19th century clerk with a little table and a dip-pen, trying to get an accurate account of who-was-who out of people who didn’t speak English and only knew that getting one’s name on the list meant food.)
The idea that Indians who write about Indians should be privileged when it comes to publication and authority was a powerful one that fit into the Sixties Counter-Culture resistance to Old White Rich Men Dominating Everything. Women, Blacks, Indians, what is (rather disconcertingly to me) called Queers or GLBTDS (I never get that right), all benefited from a turning of the tables that’s still incomplete. But it created a couple of new “shapes” of Indians. One was the “white Indian” who pretended to be Indian -- maybe casually and maybe so seriously as to take up a 19th century Native American lifestyle -- and the “ultra Indian,” the person who really was enrolled and used that fact not only to write as an Indian, but also to drive white Indians out of the “commodity line” that publishing briefly provided. The very fight to preserve the right created so much uncertainty and so many lawsuits that publishing fled from the trouble.
By now those few decades have been submerged by globalization. We speak of authochthonous or indigenous people of the world and read books by oppressed minorities in Africa, China, the Middle East -- some of them held captive since before the Americas were even known to Europeans, inhumanly ghastly and ongoing today. American Indians of today are mostly baffled by all this. They are used to being privileged by their identity and suffering and don’t always have a strong sense of the planet, though continental alliances, the Pan-Indian movement, is strong and Incas and Aztecs now sometimes attend pow-wows.
Today the Chewing Black Bone patriarch is gone. Even the Mae Williamson/Chief Bull transitional figure is just about gone. The boy probably remains living, but he himself may have changed over the years. I see my former students slipping in and out of guises, according to what will help them survive, because this is what has kept the generations alive. Still, the common denominator is the place, the land, whether or not it is called a “reservation.” It has its own agenda.
I am -- right here before your very eyes -- a white woman writing about Indians. I defend the idea that all people have the right to write about what they know: this place and its people is something I know. Not just that: love. But not paralyzed into some stereotype. Rather, the real and constantly shape-shifting of a real people.