Friday, January 01, 2016


North American Indian Days, 1962. I took the photo.

If I had been writing about “Indians” in 1961, I would have been presented with several options:  mostly anthropological information about material culture (which was important to Bob since he was portraying them with sculpture in the contact days of the middle 19th century), the existential despair of a broken culture portrayed as a bad joke, like “Stay Away, Joe,” or the mocking columns in the local paper that were written by John Tatsey and admired as “true” though they weren’t.   Or maybe the fond patronizing of Doug Gold who used the pattern of frontier myths built on the mistakes and minor tragedies arising from conflicting cultures.  There was a parallel stream of stories by Frank Bird Linderman or James Willard Schultz, as different as the personalities of the two men but not particularly Blackfeet, and the romantic portrayals of Charles Marion Russell, whom we locals called simply “Charlie.”

Likewise at the time — actually a little earlier than myself — were photos posed and dressed up with artifacts that the people had long since sold to whites in order to eat, or the peaceful domestic scenes of Walter McClintock who came out to live with his friends every summer and brought crates of stuff.  

Actually, my real pattern was Tangled Waters” (1936) by Florence Crannell Means, the wife of a trader on the Navajo rez.  ($1.37 on Amazon just now)  (Not related to Russell Means, I think.)  It was realistic in terms of many things, still from a sympathetic — yet white — point of view.  That is, it was about the dilemma of having to sell one’s heritage in order to eat, which F. Means would solve through education.  (It’s unclear what R. Means thought the answer was.  Hollywood?)

When AIM and Red Empowerment formed, they saw that their lives and material culture were of great value to some white people, but that the brokers who made the profits were also white people.  Their resentment soon came out politically — whites are selling our heritage! — but the true nature of the value or what to do about it was never really explored.  The American Indian Literary Renaissance tried to create a category that added value to novels and poetry, and it was partly successful, but the core problem of educating Indian people to write their oral language was never really addressed.  The missionary complex that reduced everything to “correctness” was a killer.  But so were political storms of indignation on behalf of "the po' Indian."  Too much trouble for most publishers.

Beyond that, publishers dubious of big sales never really promoted more than a few people, mostly the ones who were most “white,” which immediately set up a new jealousy between the full-bloods and the mixed bloods, even those who could pass for white.  These were vicious and based on the dubious legality of tribal membership, which was based on arbitrary provenances from a transient and fluid historic population, identified at a time when the uniqueness of tribal ecologies had already been broken.  They never had hard boundaries anyway, because they valued newness.  Promoters and defenders of NA books have not been able to find another mode beyond pity for massacre, the controlling trope of much writing about indigenous people as well as environmental writing.  The two tend to be conflated.

David Treuer

People like David Treuer have effectively integrated their own backgrounds (legal and Jewish) into a doctrine about Indians, mostly focused on injustice and oppression.  They recognize the accurate dimension of Holocaust, but don't see how many German survivors emigrated to Manhattan and became a new elite, though one with a conscience.

Wiki:  David Treuer was born in Washington, D.C. His mother, Margaret Seelye, was an Ojibwe who first worked as a nurse. His parents met when his father, Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, was teaching high school on her reservation. When they were in Washington, his father worked for the federal government and his mother attended law school. They returned to the Leech Lake Reservation, where the young Treuer and his two brothers were raised. Their mother became an Ojibwe tribal court judge.

Treuer attended Princeton University; he graduated in 1992 after writing two senior theses, one in the anthropology department and one in the Princeton Program in Creative Writing. . . his thesis advisor in that program was the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1999.

Margaret Seelye

(These are all characteristics admired in the white world.)

Law is teleological: that is, focused on the end goal.  The Great Problem of the native indigenous peoples is that their land, labeled and circumscribed in the European way, governed by documents that are largely ignored, prevented from citizenship, maintained as clients of the government, on land exploited by outsiders, has neither forced them to change entirely nor let them be who they once were, which frankly is not possible.  Even David Treuer, a brainy philosopher, is not able to produce a goal for the future of the NA.  Or maybe I just missed it.

“While also praising Mr. Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Indian, for his abilities as a novelist, Mr. Treuer compares him to Mr. [Forrest] Carter. The characters in Mr. Alexie’s novel “Reservation Blues,” Mr. Treuer says, are like those in “Little Tree”: burlesques, with prose full of mixed metaphors and far-reaching similes. For example, in “Reservation Blues,” when someone speaks, Mr. Alexie writes that “his words sounded like stones in his mouth and coals in his stomach.”

Alexies’s riposte is, “What he’s saying is that the identity of the writer doesn’t count,” . . .“That eliminates the way books work in the world.”  But Alexie has not been able to offer any future for Indians except to move to the city and make money by writing and doing stand-up comedy.  He plays the Indian card, but is he one?

Treuer, on the other hand, pursues a city literary life mixed with rez life and addresses the local future by trying to preserve his tribal language.  We are not told whether he speaks it (or writes it) nor whether he serves on his tribal council.  This is in contrast to Greg Sarris, also assailed for being “insufficiently enrolled” but who is the chief of his tribe.  The more legalistic it gets, the more it is a shell game.

Greg Sarris

Western education teaches logic, accurate categories, and the pursuit of facts, all of which have now been thrown into doubt.  Tribal education and people at large without higher education make decisions on the basis of emotion, popularity and gossip.  This may elect Trump to be the next President of the US.  In Valier it has already elected a scandal-monger who capitalized on complaints in order to become the white Mayor, but only lasted two weeks, in part because he couldn’t lead the Pledge of Allegiance that begins every town council meeting.  He was a high school graduate in the county seat.  They evidently did not teach him parliamentary procedure.

John Trudell and the family he lost.

At this point I need someone to praise.   John Trudel, a name easy to confuse with David Treuer, had lived a more coherent and future-focused life in spite of his family being massacred by fire.  Dead now from cancer, he used literary and movie media for political ends.  He was the leader of the occupation of Alcatraz. Remarkable to think of, even more remarkable to make real.   

A reservation is like a stick game.  People who didn’t grow up with it never quite understand what’s going on: the signs are too subtle, what’s really at stake is not quite known by anyone.  It is a game of relationship and shifting. 

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