There has long been a need for a new category in writing, call it the mythical Native -related narrative. Though this may a new revelation for some, for others it is all too familiar. In Native communities we have long been aware of fake testimonials, mediated autobiographies and the like. From the Wild West shows to cartoon pseudo-histories there is a continuum of this sort of manipulation. Let me say at the outset that I don’t know the gentleman who has sparked this elevation in the country’s awareness. I don’t put myself in a position of casting rocks, challenging identities or even really judging the behaviors. I have always had a reputation for being a bit quirky among my peers because I find this sort of thing interesting. I have a collection of dolls dressed as “Indians” whose tribal affiliations no one I know has ever been able to identify. I used to be the faculty adviser for a Native student organization that held “Bad Indian Movie Night” from time to time, most of the material coming from my own collection. At this point those friends and family members who do not share my interest just groan whenever I bring one of these cultural artifacts to their notice. This stuff is literally everywhere. Waiting for a bus yesterday my son saw the modern equivalent of snake oil pinned to a phone pole, an individual with a classic fake Indian name claims to heal everything from bloating and collapsed uterus to confusion, resentment and demonic possession. I collect these things. It’s a big file. I used to have the excuse of needing them as fodder for conversation in my university classes, but since I quit that gig I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m just interested in them. From justifications for Native ‘domestic dependant’ status to the captive narratives of the 1800s and the western films of the mid-1900s whence most folks get their knowledge of Native peoples and their cultures, I remain riveted to this material. Let’s say I’m a fan of irony.
For the last week or so my inbox has been flooded with commentary on the piece that is currently the most famous of the genre, Nasdijj’s memoir The Boy and His Dog are Sleeping. Reactions and comments have ranged from hostile to extremely hostile to homicidal and then again to indignant and possessed of some cultural axe to grind. I think that the sense of betrayal stems from the nearly universal belief that we seem to have in the printed word. For some non-Native related examples of why this trust is touchingly misplaced: remember the Maine, and more recently, weapons of mass destruction. I’m sure that Letterman has done a top ten hits list for this at some point. It’s tradition. Forgive me my correspondents, I love you all, but it seems a bit naive to expect much else. It’s called lying and it’s not all that uncommon. What is a memoir anyway? Even when the goal is to tell the story honestly the narrative is subject to all manner of distortions of perspective. I prefer to be a poet… everyone knows we exaggerate for the sake of effect. I’m not going to get into a philosophical conversation about truth here. Not only because there isn’t space, but also because I wouldn’t know where to begin. Any history is tricky, in particular those related to one’s own experience. I don’t know the guy and I am absolutely not excusing his behavior. It does, however, seem a bit of odd that we are fixating on a very small fish of an example.
When I first got to the University part of my education an amazing teacher ushered me into my love of this type of material. Her name is Dr. Elizabeth Parent. I signed up for one of her classes right away. She assigned a piece of reading, The Autobiography of a Fox Indian Woman, by Truman Michelson. Funny, Truman Michelson didn’t sound like a ‘Fox Indian Woman’. I resorted to the dictionary but autobiography did mean what I thought it did: life story written by self. Truman- not the self in the title, in the mediated Native narrative this is totally acceptable it seems. It was not the first time I encountered a reportedly Native narrative authored by a non-Native person. It was the just first time I found it amusing. This amusement may well be a sign of a deep and dangerous pathology. I don’t doubt or deny it. I’m known to burst into song with the theme from “Pocahontas” or sometimes “What Makes the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan. This probably indicates some sort of imbalance. I’m sure that there is medication available. It’s just that you have to laugh; the only alternative is a deep and persistent depression, which doesn’t interest me.
You may notice that I lump cartoons and movies in with supposedly earnest literary efforts, public policy and while we are at it those supposed chiefs who signed various treaties that gave up the rights to land, water rights, custody of children and other things that are considered part of being sovereign nations. I also have a pile of supposed educational texts that I consider part of the genre. They are frequently interesting to read. I’ve considered starting a rubber tomahawk award for the most egregious examples, but I have mixed feelings about taking it that far. My participation might actually sell more of this stuff… I’m not sure I want that responsibility.
People used to ask what my goals were for “Bad Indian Movie Night”. Did I want to forbid such material? Never. Some of the most entertaining fiction of the last 500ish years has been Indian hooey. I mean really, the outcasts and criminals of a small island off the coast of Europe flee to the “New World” only to forge it into the most powerful political entity of the 20th century by killing off or ripping off the Native inhabitants thereof… wait, that one… hmm, maybe not quite fictional. I suppose I might like it all better if it were set on some other planet far in the future, but ya can’t have everything.
To be deadly serious for a moment, all of this stuff is amazingly toxic to Native people. Just check the teen suicide rates, addiction rates, and unemployment rates. Groups of people schooled early in the hypocrisy of the rules that apply to and stories told about them will generally not do well within that system. This stuff kills my cousins and the cousins of thousands like me. Some are now suggesting that we should get legislation like the American Indian Arts and Crafts Act that would apply to writing. I don’t think that this will help. The real problem here is that aura of shivery mystery that seems to cling like unnoticed static ridden socks to anything labeled as ‘American Indian’. Do you really want to know how to stem the sale of fake Navajo blankets? Let’s try another one… if you were going to buy a Picasso and wanted to be sure that you were not getting duped what would you do? Study maybe? If people want to collect art, they should learn something about it first. Oh I know I’m just a radical, critical of everything that the dominant Euro-American community holds as true. Until Native people start seeming less mysterious we will keep seeing this stuff. I don’t know when it will happen, but I personally have been working in that direction for a long while, as have many others. My coping mechanism is what may be an inappropriate laugh reaction. It would solve everything if these people could write, film, weave, solder and otherwise construct their lie then we could put it all where it belongs, in the mythical Native-related narrative section. Then I could still get my giggle and other folks would not have to take it personally or have their work viewed with a skeptical eye every time one of these things is found to be false. Anyway, that’s what I think… I’m off now to watch a movie about a lost Italian in a Spanish ship who becomes a sadistic slaveholder… It’s supposed to be hilarious.