Monday, November 02, 2009


Recently there was an uproar over a YouTube post that put “synchronized pow wow dancing” (which is already controversial) to Chubby Checkers’ twist music. Four guys wore ribbons and feathers that furiously thrashed around them as they exactly matched their steps to the drum and each other -- and the energy and beat were right with the music. I love it and so did the aboriginal Canadian grandpa, Rolland Nadjiwan, who sent it to me.

The classicists want everything Indian to remain as “pure” as it was at first recorded encounter by whites (though each tribe had no doubt evolved over millenia, always adapting to new ideas and influences), usually in the 19th century which has become the stereotype for all Indians. The realists point out that many people who self-identify as Indian can’t provide a fractional provenance big enough to make them legal members of any single tribe but may genetically be from mixed tribes that add up to close to a hundred per cent. As well, many grew up in the diasphora, urban or scattered in a way that cut them off from first-hand experience on their “home” reservation. And anyway those tribes who can afford to will stage major annual pan-Indian pow-wows where people exchange ideas. So the bottom line is that for many Indian people, pow-wows are their main focus, to the point of being “religious” or at least revivalist.

Responding to the maribou and neon satin ribbon idea of pow-wow outfits, some have tried to return to “authentic” costumes as depicted by the earliest (white) artists. Pulling wolf-skins over their heads and dangling fox and otter hides over their arms has caused the less romantic dancers to call them “road kill dancers.” The natural NA tolerance (often mingled with a little kidding) runs up against a serious, almost obsessive, desire to recapture an historical truth. One might guess that the lower the “blood” quantum, the more intense the feeling.

We used to occasionally acquire dance headgear that was invented out of pieces of pop cans, deconstructed child’s dimestore dyed turkey feather headdresses, iron-on sequin clothing decorations, and all sorts of other ingenious conversions of bits. The final effect was quite artistic, but hardly historical. Bob used to say that what made it Indian was the resourcefulness, the eye for color and movement, and the identity of the artist -- which was always what had made the artifacts of the past authentic.

The history minded will instruct you solemnly that a “grass dancer” is meant to dance on the long prairie grass of the dance arena, carefully side-stepping to trample it into a flat surface. Not much need for that on astroturf. Personally I’m still nostalgic for the old night-bonfire and daytime-dust sort of environment of the early Sixties, but most people today would rather have breathable air and good lighting. Today’s kids who do prairie chicken dances may never have seen the birds on their leks and the hoop dancers use hula hoops. The public mind is still stuck on war dances, scalp dances and rain dances.

Two objects have caught the public imagination: dream catchers and talking sticks. Each has origins in genuine tribal inventions. The idea of a dream catcher -- a hoop with a web across the circle -- is that if it hung over the head of a sleeper, it would “catch” dreams. Good ones, it is suggested usually, or maybe that it will filter out the nightmares. The principle of the talking stick is that the person who holds it in a group “has the floor” and others should not interrupt, but rather wait until the stick comes to them. Attractively decorated, both these objects are easily sold to tourists. Dream catchers are charming and maybe useful for coaxing a fearful child to sleep. Talking sticks are practical, making life easier for chairmen trying to keep a meeting orderly.

I used to work in a Portland office with an engineer whose father had once been walking down the street in Browning when he was approached by an Indian man with a rolled-up buckskin under his arm. The father nodded hello and the Indian wanted to talk to him. It appeared that the rolled-up buckskin was a “certificate of adoption into the Blackfeet tribe” that had been commissioned by someone who had not appeared as promised. The Indian man explained that he had counted on the money from this transaction and he begged my friend’s father to allow himself to be adopted. The price was a bargain.

This hard-headed engineer was convinced that the buckskin was a valid document, equivalent to a legal birth certificate. I would try to tell him that the whole thing was a bit of a con, but he would stubbornly insist that his father was a true member of the Blackfeet tribe and therefore so was he. It was emotional. In some ways that might be as binding as a legal transaction. Until he tried to collect his annual tribal Christmas payout.

When two cultures confront each other and one is inscrutable to the other, who knows what is “true” and proper. To a Protestant, does a scapular mean anything? To a Catholic does a phylactery mean anything? People are constantly coming up with small, possibly secret, practices that entail objects hard to interpret to others. Native American objects can be quite inscrutable. Consider moccasins that have beaded soles. Some say they are funerary, meant to honor a dead person as they walked to the Shadow Land. Others cynically put them down to compulsive beading -- someone just didn’t know when to stop!

As in every dimension, the material culture of the “Other” is split between the sublime beauty of a squash blossom necklace and the gimcrackery of Made in Japan cheap loom-beaded ersatz leather belts for kids. People speak of one extreme or the other, depending on their attitude at the time, but rarely stay aware of the objects and materials that are everywhere around them, part of daily life, like Indian blankets or even the landscape. Most rarely of all do they consider the evolution of culture, the continuum of innovation and tradition that stretches deep into the past beyond their ken or that of any anthropologist either.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mary, thank you for recommending Tim Barrus's Nasdijj books. I volunteer at a thrift store, and they let me unpack the boxes of book donations and shelve them.Found a copy of The Boy and The Dog Are Sleeping.Purple prose indeed,you are exactly right about that. Glad i read it, thank you.
Peggy Merrill

prairie mary said...

Thanks, Peggy. Tim Barrus has many voices because he has many personalities. Sort of like Indians. But I enjoy the "purple" tales and the poems that are even MORE so!

Prairie Mary