Saturday, May 25, 2019


Two revelations begin my thinking here, but they are not new ideas to me.  Maybe to others.  The first one is that "boundary studies" as a formal discipline is not a "line" as we understand the obsessively marked lines that circumscribe property and nations on maps, but rather an elastic and constantly varying wide space, sometimes miles across.  We Westerners, determined by war over territory, like our lines narrow.  We think the Bering Land Bridge was a little gangplank between continents, when in fact it was a low country, miles wide, with a population of its own, maybe motivated to move when the sea level rose -- rather like people moving out of Florida at the moment.  Bottom line: boundary studies exist between entities and create a population of their own.

The second revelation is one brought home to me by conversation on Twitter about the nature and allegiance of being descended from indigenous people and mostly continuing as identifiably indigenous -- hard to resolve -- but that's not the point.  The point is that the larger culture, which is mostly white, meaning mostly British Empire, has more to do with indigenous identity than the peoples themselves.  White machinery (particularly print culture like books) is forever telling "Indians" who they are and pressing the identity onto people who aren't, say they aren't, and dare to speak in what the Brits/Americans fancy to be the way Indians seen the world.

"The Education of Little Tree" is one of the most notorious of these examples, written by a particularly UN-liberal German who is supposed to be condemned by his real identity.  Except no one pays attention because they really LOVE the story because it fits into their preconceptions.

In addition, Germans in particular have romanticized and idealized an assortment of peoples originally differentiated by their ecosystems until they were thrown out of them, then re-constituted on television as sort of Joe Campbell archetypal heroes (but not today's weirdo Marvel versions.)  German women come to the rez and look for Medicine Men to marry.  Germans in their own country form groups imitating what they think Indians are like and create artifakes indistinguishable from the authentic historic ones.  This stuff sells like crazy.  One can hardly criticize rez people from wanting to cash in on all this popularity and even beginning to believe that they ARE different, more special, able to scent the enemy in the jungle.

Originally the problem was that the thought and experience of indigenous people was whole, if damaged by trauma, but best expressed in their own languages, not a big pan-language as English purported to be, but the various languages developed where they lived and knew the land.  They were as different as Swedish and Italian.  Often their "nations" were bigger than any European notion of a governable country, but kept orderly by custom and success.

Since I was born an American Westerner, Indians have always been part of my life in all sorts of forms: neighbor, teacher, fellow student, and fictional character.  Since in fourth grade Mildred Colbert (Chinook) took my class to the Portland Art Museum, where in the great shadowy rooms we regarded  Potlatch Canoes and transforming Raven masks, I've known they were regional.  Since "Broken Arrow", (the 1950 Jimmy Stewart movie based on real people, I've earnestly hoped for the truth of the liberals: that all humans are essentially good and can get along.  The evidence is against this, but some people had hoped Indians were like this.

In 1950 I was 11, the end of menarche when one forms morality, but in the Seventies I had just left Browning, rez town, and was in Portland again just as the Native American Literary Renaissance was going to remake the world.  We thought at least there was a little money in it.  And we learned to sneer at anyone who wasn't provably "Indian" though the ultimate authority was bureaucrats with motives of their own, who invented the phrase "blood quantum" because blood is such a powerful metaphor and "quantum" sounds like Quanah Parker  "Wiki: Comanche kwana, "smell, odor") ( c. 1845 or 1852 – February 20, 1911) was a war leader of the Quahadi ("Antelope") band of the Comanche Nation."  Quantum sounds like Indian talk since it ends in "um".  ("He smellum enemy.")

Powell's bookstore in Portland had given up on the NA Renaissance and was remaindering all the examples at $5 each. The books became the nucleus of my "Indian" library, mostly Blackfeet though Jim Welch was about the only example except for anthro books by whites.  That is, those were the books recognized by whites as Indian.  And there's the boundary problem:  indigenous people did not naturally use print or create codexes (pages bound in a cover), but white people think that's what Indians ARE, the people in codexes.

The problem of an abyss between the foundational thought and history of and by "Indians" and the white understanding of who those people were and how to tell whether they were authentic was finally solved by GoPro and other low cost video access to "writing" with images.  Now vocabulary didn't matter.  The resulting dilemma is how to distribute and where the money comes from, but that's different.  It IS a problem, since the two requirements for becoming "best-selling" is high population and enough money to buy books -- both white characteristics.

Survivor writers of the NA literary renaissance were few, even the ones whose books were made into movies, like "Skins" by Adrian Louis.  (Whites stole the title.)  Louis comes into his writing career through journalism, which has proven a good way to do it.

But then then there's the problem of Sherman Alexie, who pleases whites and still sells and speaks to make a living, but who dislikes "real" Indians.  He's in the boundary territory, occupying both sides.  It makes him cranky, tricky and arrogant.  He is defensively hostile, particularly about women and the vulnerability of rez kids.  Early, he had a powerful agent who gave him a running start.  Previously the agent had gotten published  "The Wind Done Gone," a biting parody of "Gone with the Wind" that pulled down the romanticism about the South after the Civil War, very much like the emotional ideas that made "Indians" into a trope instead of a people.

Sherman is 52 now.  He lives in Seattle.  The kids in Heart Butte think he is a successful Indian.  Is he?'s not very nice.
Here's a kinder article about this man trapped half-in and half-out of a myth.  

This post, like many of mine, is a true "blog," a log of posts that gives you links.

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