Courtesy of Brent Learned
Ledger art depicting Col. John Chivington and the Sand Creek massacre.
Chivington is the fat, alcoholic Colonel in "Dances with Wolves"
This is an open letter in response to an article called "The Scalp from Sand Creek" by Chip Colwell, editor-in-chief of SAPIENS and curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. His latest book is Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture (2017). He lives in Denver, Colorado. The article was edited by Sam Haselby at Aeon.
Actually, this letter is more based on the illustration at the head of the essay, used as a springboard for a discussion of the issue of whites talking about the original people of this continent I'm on, the one conventionally called "North America" just as the people are called "Indians" -- though Americo Vespucci was not from here nor is "here" in India.
The illustration at the top is not the one on the Aeon article. I got this one off Google Images by calling up "ledger art" -- the genre to which the drawing belongs. It was created when captured and incarcerated tribal men wanted to draw and were given old ledgers for the sake of the paper. They drew their exploits, the ones they would have painted on hides. The paper was lined and sometimes the entries are readable, but the artists just ignored that. I once spent an interesting half-hour reading old Blackfeet records through the painted figures. I knew some of the people.
Aeon used an historic drawing but the one with Chivington is contemporary, with a photo imposed. Variations seem limitless. Mother and child on lullaby sheet music, warriors on motorcycles, and so on. Some more old-time tribal, some quite contemporary and funny or political. A few unaccountably Chinese.
Linda Haukaas Sicangu
Lakota Rosebud Sioux
Darryl Growing Thunder
I'm very pleased that there is an article about indigenous people since most everything about "race" (in spite of genomics having proven by now that the concept is empty -- there IS no such thing as race) is reduced to black versus white. The possessions of white people included African people brought here AS possessions by whites. When the simple white culture accounts of battles and pitiful conditions or nobleman of nature tales with German origins are taken away, what remains is often invisible.
I resort to an open letter on my own blog instead of sending a query for an article or posting a comment on Chip's article on Aeon because my focus is somewhere in-between the two or apart-from the two venues. My thinking work is at the "meta" level, thinking about the nature of the thinking rather than the content, though it will determine the content. I don't mess around with kinds of pots or the symbolism of eagle feathers.
Euros are hoarders. Autochthonous nomads are not. The difference is wheels and horses, or perhaps sedentary culture (which is one of the breakthroughs like flint-knapping arrow points or making fire) where things can be secured. (A sad moment in one story is when Blackfeet women returned to a cave in a creek bank where they had left a stash of dry meat sewn into hide bags, but heavy rains had gotten them wet and they were moldy, inedible.) If everything has to be rolled up and packed on an animal, and if the raw materials are everywhere, there's no point in carrying much more than paint and robes, dragging poles behind.
For Euros, the more stuff you can hoard, the better a sign of status it is, and the more it is war trophies, pieces of saints, substances considered valuable, and so on, the "better" a person you are. For autochthonous people who live close to the land, one object is easily replaced by looking around and investing a little time in what's found. Euro metal changed that, slowly, gradually, one knife at a time -- until an oil-rich Cherokee's "metal" is a Cadillac convertible. At that point was he still autochthonous?
Is the vital definitive aspect of "Indians" that they are autochthonous? If so, at what point on the continuum when they are between using knives and driving convertibles have they left the definition? Better to stick to the "blood" metaphor, which is not at all genetically based but rather another white imposition when the "rolls" were listed.
The real racism is not in the particular people or the specific objects or even their "spiritual" content. It's in the lens used to look at the world. The racism is in the observer, not the observed. The method of the thinking. I am out of sync with most academics: my early method is the inhabiting of unique individuals through empathy-- "being" them -- because of early training as a Method actor. It's not just for the stage -- it's a human skill.
My later and more sophisticated method is that of consciousness of my method, reflexivity, if you like -- self-critique, an attempt to identify the lens and recognize what difference it makes. One way to speak of these two methods is that of being "inside the circle" as a true believer and participant; or outside the circle, as a stranger. I'm not making a pitch for one location or the other, I'm interested in how to move from the inside to the outside and back, why that would be valuable, and how it is that the human mind can do it.
The best part of this essay of Colwell's is when he takes the focus from the objects to the processes of managing them and allows for the variousness of people's responses to the whole idea of repatriation. Such responses are not just different from one person to another, but from one time to another, one culture-framework to another, and so on. But this means that editors looking for definitive and authoritative writing will be frustrated, because academics want definition, even finality. Certainly not mocking laughter. The latter is an indigenous method.