Pre-emptive note: Please let me know what you think defines an 'american,' because I really have no idea...
The Politics and Implications of Traditions
I have always pondered (and I’m sure a lot of people have) what America is, and what defines an “american.” The book “Playing Indian,” by Phil Deloria (Vine’s son), was recently recommended to me. Although not as powerful as his father, he further articulates that “american” identity lacks any structure. I have always thought that American identity is best defined by outlining what an American is not. For a long time I thought that this personal definition stemmed from my personal beliefs and assumptions of having a positive identity. I am not american, I am Navajo. At least from this reading I now know that these speculations about american identity have been pondered by others.
The rhetoric of american identity is even more important in this time of “change.” People are using the american identity to discuss politics that cater to an ill-defined section of the population known as “americans.” I am not equipped to ponder such questions and outline any semblance of an answer, but I challenge others to do so.
During this self-reflection and in my course of readings I am continually reminded of a social, political, and very personal struggle for Indigenous communities – the belief and imposition that any Native American culture must have a tradition that has been stagnated in the late 1800s to be considered ‘authentic.’ I think this is a result of a century old brew of 2 parts otherization (both savage and noble) of Native Americans, 1 part white guilt, 1 part ignorance, 2 parts paternalism, and ½ part of New Age fascination. If you take out a tad of white guilt this is also a great mix for Native American appropriations.
“Playing Indian,” among other writings, detailed the need for early american settlers to delineate Native American tradition in order to create a solid sense of otherness and to help solidify what america is not. The result was not just centuries of political oppression and social exclusion, but also a stagnation in the actual physical definition of Indianness. The colonial definition of what Indianness should be has survived and still permeates contemporary thought of identity. Personal experience has shown me that the general population has no idea that Indians still exist, and have no concept of an Indian identity – except for the colonial one taught in schools. If I only had a dollar for every instance where somebody told me that I was the first Native American they had ever met, or asked if I grew up in teepee, or requested dollarstore spiritual advice, then I might not be in the mountain of student loan debt that I’ve accrued further colonized my education.
American Indians have never had the chance to define American Indian identity to the majority of the population. We have always had tribal identities but nobody ever asks us what they are. I think in some ways we’ve been so brainwashed that we get confused about who we are and what we’re allowed to do. I have asked people what they thought Indian art is. I once put together a slideshow of art (all made by Indians) and asked people to identify the Indian art of the presentation. Alarmingly, people disregarded art that did not explicitly have Native American motifs or themes. Few were courageous enough to ask if the artists were Indian, and those that did classified all the art as Indian art. This showed me that even in our freedom of expression we are circumscribed within a colonial definition of what Indian art should be. Politically we can’t decide what an Indian should be. I’ll leave the blood quantum debate for another article, but there’s no denying that the institution of blood quantum is a colonial imposition.
We have been fooled into thinking that we can’t determine who we are, and who we should be. We have been tricked into believing that Indianness and authenticity is not allowed to evolve as the century progressed. I’m not sure which is worse – that the colonial definition has been internalized or that it’s been taken and is now used by people who genuinely what to be Indians.
I have seen a fair share of white people dawning turquoise jewelry with southwestern designs, Pendelton vets, and leather pouches around their necks. I have overheard one too many stories of sweatlodges and vision questions, and spirit animals. I once had a white roommate lead a ‘weekend warrior training camp’ for men. So weekly, I would see a hoard of middle aged white men with their leather pouches come into my house and smudge themselves. One weekend I learned that they held retreats that culminated in sweatlodges, and each new inductee received their leather pouch containing ‘a sacred Native American object.’ Of course, when they all first met me it was a mix of awkward awe and I tried so hard to bite my tongue (after all, it was actually a really nice house). In between sessions or on casual evenings they would talk Feng Shui or overseas trips or spirit water or any one of their sheddable identities that they carried around like keys on a keychain – unlocking compartments of ‘others’ that could be a quick fix to their emptiness. It pained me. No, it sickened me. It made me want to believe in the Ghost Dance so that they could vanish and leave these sacred things behind that they carried like toys. Not only did they buy into the Native American colonial definition, but they appropriated it to the extreme for ‘spiritual healing.’ They perpetuated the idea that our traditions should not evolve and they added money into that definition. They capitalized on traditions and teachings that they don’t own (which is one of the core definitions of colonization).
The glaring contrast of New Age appropriation of Indianness is best exemplified by the Cleveland Indians. It is the savage side of the colonial definition of Indian otherness and is one of the hardest monsters of offensiveness to take down. Although, it is always amusing (and ironic) to hear the phrase “The Indians are Winning,” because such declarations don’t happen in real life. I don’t entirely understand why there are not more people that find that symbolism ridiculously offensive, but now I realize how much of it has to do with the early colonial definitions of the Indian other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that supporters of Indian mascots are also individuals that place a lot of effort into the concept of ‘moving on.’ The phrases “oh, that was in the past,” or “oh, don’t blame me, those were my ancestors” would be more powerful if they held any truth. If they want me to not be angry and to let go and move on then WHY WON’T THEY LET ME? Why do they limit the definition of who I am and who I can be? Then again, maybe circular logic is how Columbus got lost in the first place.
The difference between New Age spiritual warriors and real Indians is that New Agers have the luxury of shedding that identify whenever they wish. The rest of us are left here to create divisions amongst ourselves. The rez Indian versus urban Indian battle is one that I don’t know how to tackle. Although I think the one thing that we can all agree on is that we want to find ways to better our communities. The ‘how’ is the tricky part. I think that in many ways we are getting better at finding the balance between maintaining and recovering parts of our culture that are important to our survival and progressing in a way that best suits the needs of our people. We are not stagnant. We should not be held to colonial definitions of an ‘other.’ We are not your mascot and we are not your savior.