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The Native American Peoples of The United States
Christopher Brookeman is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Westminster, and has published widely on a variety of aspects of American culture and society. In this article he looks at the way in which native American culture and values have been misunderstood and misinterpreted by mainstream American society. He examines the conflict between their traditional values and pervasive commericalism, and the debates over assimilation versus cultural identity.
American peoples of the United States are descendants of the
original inhabitants of the American continent who crossed into
North America via the Bering Straits of Alaska from north-eastern
Asia. The date of the crossing is variously estimated at between
ten and twenty-six thousand years ago. It is thought that there
was no mass movement but rather a continuing series of migrations
by small groups over a long period of time. The 1980 Census
counted 1,418,195 Indian persons within the American population
including Eskimos and Aleuts, and it is thought that more than
half of this number lives in towns or cities, though a government
estimate of 1987 reported that about 861, 000 Native Americans
live on or adjacent to Indian reservations. This suggests that
the rural reservation remains an important focus for Indian
Non-Indians, particularly Europeans and White Americans, have consistently failed to appreciate the culture and specific identities of Native Americans, which has led to a whole history of confusion, myths, stereotypes, and misunderstanding which has been particularly destructive on the Native American side since the power of definition has historically been overwhelmingly white on red. An example of this confusion among whites is the inability of specialists and the general public to set aside their own understanding of what constitutes a political and governmental unit or structure and realise that Native American structures are not the product of economic individualism and liberal representative democracy. The most characteristic form of political discussion amongst Native Americans tries to reach a consensus; the idea of crushing rival and opposing viewpoints by simple majority votes is alien.
In order to understand the culture and organisational structures that characterise Native American communities in the contemporary United States, one must be alert to diversity. Today there are more than 170 American Indian political and social formations variously describing themselves as nations, tribes, bands, peoples, and ethnic groups. This diversity ranges from large groupings such as the Navajos of Arizona and New Mexico who number more than 160,000, to communities of less than 100 like the Chumash of California and the Modocs of Oklahoma. The kind of mixture of Indian autonomy and adaptation to mainstream American culture that many groups have negotiated, is exemplified by the eight hundred Mohawks who were living in 1970 in the North Gowanus Section of Brooklyn, New York. This community has existed since the 1920's when they came to New York to work as high steel workers on bridges and skyscrapers like Rockefeller Centre in New York City. Their sense of community was defined by residence in a distinct neighbourhood, served by a Presbyterian church whose minister preached in the Mohawk language. However, these 'jockeys of the clouds' do not regard Brooklyn as their real home. Most remain Catholic, send their children to be educated on their home reservation of Caughnawaga in Quebec and spend a long annual summer vacation there. Most intend to retire to the reservation and would expect to be buried there.
Another rich source of misunderstanding between Indian and White Anglo-Saxon cultural analysis is the different attitude of most Native Americans to such concepts as Nature, the environment, and social values, particularly a mong Indians of traditional views, but also among the generation of the 1960's who combined political militancy with ancient Indian ideas of living in harmony with the natural and animal world, as they sought to challenge the often ruthless and unbalanced ideology of material progress espoused by mainstream American society. In contrast to European and Anglo-American ideas that the world is to be understood in terms of causal connections and linear chronology, traditional Native American philosophy stresses the idea of continuity and the continuous renewal, by each new generation, of certain values that cannot be made redundant by myths of technological change and material amelioration. The fact that Native Americans have clung to a distinctive philosophy and cultural identity despite continuous attacks from a federal policy that sought for example to turn the nomadic hunters of the Plains culture with its extended family structures into nuclear-family based small farmers or more recent plans to integrate Native Americans through urbanisation (that classic, deeply flawed process of modernisation and Americanisation that has been particularly unsuccessful in the case of Indians whose rate of unemployment in the cities is chronic as is the level of alcoholism) suggests that this distinctive identity is not some set of colourful aboriginal survivals but an organic world view, necessary for survival. It may be that cultural difference is exactly what it means; a trait or concept that cannot be assimilated into the dominant Western cultural system. The usual Western way of coping with some concept or ritual that seems 'other' or strange, is to search for an equivalent that will familiarise and anaesthetise the shock that there are other ways to exist and interact. There may not be an equivalent and this is often the case when traditional Native American philosophies and the lifestyles that they generate, are set alongside their Anglo counterparts.
This organic conservatism of traditional Native American culture has been reinforced by a continuous return to the past as means of survival and defence which is also part of an overall attempt through successive leaders to right the historical injustices that the American Indian has suffered at the hands of the American state. Keeping alive the memory of ancient treaties and promises that were broken, is a crucial political strategy for the American Indian peoples and willy-nilly involves them in a deep sense of history that is not some nostalgia for a former golden age but a way of orienting pro-active late twentieth century political strategies. A concrete example of this phenomenon in which the past is continuously present, was the occupation in the winter of 1973 by several hundred Oglala Sioux and their supporters, of the historic Indian site of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They did so at the request of the Oglala traditional leaders, who gave their approval to a strategy of militant direct action after all other means of changing their conditions had, in their view, been exhausted.
The Wounded Knee site had been the scene of the massacre by U.S. Government forces in 1890 of nearly 300 Indian people who had surrendered all but one of their weapons. To Indian people the site and the event in 1890 have epic significance as many of the victims of the massacre were followers of the Ghost Dance religion. This spiritual movement had swept the tribes of the West and the Great Plains with its prophecy of an imminent purification in which the whites would disappear and the earth would be made new again, with the Indian dead and the slaughtered buffalo coming back to life. To the Indians who occupied the site in 1973 the event symbolised a ritual of political and cultural bonding, a revival of solidarity and spiritual purpose for all American Indians. As the basis of the discussions with the United States Government that ensued, the defence committee that ran the occupation, used the provisions of the Fort Lararmie treaty of 1868 which the Americans had broken soon after the signing. Article XVI of the treaty states that an area of land "shall be held and considered to be unceded Indian territory, and also stipulates and agrees that no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the same." This area roughly covers the western half of modem day South Dakota and a section of North Dakota. The modern occupation lasted for 71 days and effectively brought the world's attention to the grievances that the Sioux nation maintained against the American Government.
One of the features of the occupation was the decision-making processes of the occupation committee. Although the activist leadership of the occupation were supporters of the American Indian Movement, there was a continuous referral to the wishes and views of the traditional leaders of the Oglala Sioux. This ad hoc arrangement became a more important forum and centre for decision-making than the tribal council which had the support of the main instrument of federal policy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This debate as to who is to speak for and defend Indian interests is a crucial one for the future of the American Indian in the American system. One of the reasons for placing the issue of leadership on the agenda is that despite being continually removed onto the most barren land, Native Americans control about three per cent of all US oil and gas reserves, fifteen per cent of all coal, fifty five per cent of the US supply of uranium, and about eleven per cent of all uranium reserves in the world. This presents Native American people like the Navajo who own lands which contain these resources with the dilemma of whether to lease parts of the land to commercial companies who will pay handsomely for these rights, or keep them as natural, semi-agricultural landscapes. The profits of leasing can be used to provide sorely needed resources for the Navajo; education, health-care programmes, and the wherewithal to improve conditions on the reservations. A different kind of leadership is required for leasing, one that is familiar with the capitalist commercial world, but that can also gain the support of the different factions within the Indian tribe, nation, or communal, representative unit, in order to hand over lands which some Indian group usually feels are sacred and should not be transformed by capitalist development. The experiences of Navajo chairman Peter MacDonald who has negotiated major development deals in the South West on behalf of the Navajo Nation reflects the tensions that the prospect and arrival of large sums of money that have to be shared, creates among any group. A 1989 Senate panel of Investigation into allegations of fraud and corruption in federal Indian programmes identified the suspended Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald as putting personal gain above the interests of the community. The report stated that: 'Although 46 percent of Navajos had no electricity, 54 percent lacking indoor plumbing and 79 percent lived without a telephone, MacDonald used tribal funds to pay for private luxury airplane flights for personal trips and his own remodelled executive suite with mahogany and gold-plated fixtures.' Despite this attempt to smear Native American leadership with these allegations which MacDonald denies, the major recommendation of the Senate investigation is that the government should abandon all control over the nation's Indians, tuning over billions in federal funding, buildings and land to tribes from Maine to Hawaii. The investigation also recommends that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, established in 1824, that has been the main instrument of federal policy towards the Indians, should be dismantled and the $3.3 billion it spends each year should be transferred directly to the nation's 1.4 million Indians. In order to understand this shift in policy it is crucial to have an understanding of the history of relations between the Native American peoples and the American government.
Native Americans and the United States Government.
The history of the interaction between American Indians and the American Government has been characterised by a number of conflicting policies. On the American Government side there have been policies of separation by which the American Indians were to be removed from the lands that the expansionist whites coveted. At the same time there was a recognition of the Indians' sovereign rights to their new territories. This policy was historically followed by one of coercive assimilation in which Indian ways were to be replaced by the culture of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism. An insight into this policy can be gleaned from the educational philosophy institutionalised in the boarding schools for Indians established in the 19th century. The techniques of coercive assimilation were stated in 1908 by Richard II. Pratt who founded the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania:
'The multiplicity of tribes represented enabled a mixing of tribes in dormitory rooms. The rooms held three to four each and it was arranged that no two of the same tribe were placed in the same room. This not only helped in the acquirement of English but broke up tribal and race clannishness, a most important victory in getting the Indian toward real citizenship.'
In the 1930's there was a New Deal reversal of coercive assimilation initiated by among others John Collier who was appointed Commissioner for Indian Affairs in 1932. This policy sought to protect and nourish selected aspects of Indian ways and can be summarised as one of tribal restoration. The main drift of this policy in the Indian Reorganisation Act of 1934 can be seen in a memorandum of Collier's in which he stated:
I see the broad function of Indian policy.., to be the development of Indian democracy.. .through the continued survival, through all historical change and disaster, of the Indian tribal group, both as a reality and a legal entity.'
The next broad phase of federal policy was one of termination by which all the special arrangements made by the government for the American Indian in the field of education, welfare etc., that in the eyes of the supporters of termination had created a system of virtual dependency implemented by a top heavy system of administrative bureaucracy, were to be ended. The idea that the Indian was a special case was considered to be 'un-American' in theory and practice, particularly in the 1950's. The supporters of termination argued that if the Indians were treated like any other ethnic group and not shielded and removed from the ideology of competitive individualism, they would soon be 'Americanised', to their ultimate benefit.
Termination was not popular in Kennedy's 'New Frontier' society or in Johnson's 'Great Society'. The arguments against termination and the outline of this second phase of tribal restoration, can be gleaned from President Nixon's message on Indian Affairs of July 13th., 1970:
'Because termination is morally and legally unacceptable...because it tends to discourage greater self-sufficiency among Indian groups, I am asking the Congress... to renounce , repudiate and repeal the termination policy. (Federal policy should) affirm the integrity and rights to continued existence of all Indian tribes and Alaskan Native governments, recognising that cultural pluralism is a source of national strength.' In accordance with this spirit the Congress passed the Indian Self-determination Act of 1975, which reinforced the transfer of decision-making from the bureaucrats of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the tribal councils..
To pass liberal legislation in the Congress is one thing, to implement policies in the hurly-burly of competitive capitalism is another. An example of this contradiction is the workings of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act signed on August 11th., 1978 by President Carter. The Act states that
'Henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise...traditional religions.. .including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.'
A whole range of sites, sacred to the Indians, became controversial, particularly those that commercial interests wished to develop. Point Concepcion, a rocky headland in California, sacred to the Californian Indians as the place where all new life entered the world and from where the dead departed, became the proposed location for a huge liquid natural gas terminal that would obliterate the tranquillity of the area. A giant power consortium led by Pacific Gas and Electric with political support from many Californian-based politicians pushed for the building of the $60 million terminal. The scheme was finally cancelled in 1981 but there had to be a mass protest by Native American groups and an occupation of the site before the commercial group who wished to develop the site withdrew. then it was probably the gas price deregulation of 1980 which quickly led to profitable domestic production thereby making the building of a terminal to store imported Indonesian gas redundant, that caused the change of heart, rather than an acknowledgement of Point Concepcion's spiritual significance.
The same; issue arose over the flooding of sites sacred to the Cherokee by the Tennessee River Valley authority's Tellico Dam whose floodgates were opened on November 29th., 1979. It was argued that it was crucial to bring to this depressed area of western Appalachia, the enhanced benefits that would flow from the flooding, such as recreation, flood control, and an increase of hydroelectric power. The scheme went ahead despite the findings of a report prepared for the T.V.A by Interior Department archaeologists which ascribed 'world-wide significance to the sites that would be flooded, declaring that' the physical records of American prehistory present in Tellico cannot be matched in any other area this size in the continent.' The skeletal remains of over a thousand Cherokee buried in land that was to be flooded, were dug up by the University of Tennessee in order, in the words of John Crowe, Principal Chief of the Eastern Cherokee, 'to sack up their bones and toss them into a basement at the University of Tennessee.' This issue shows signs of becoming a major tension in federal - Native American relations. The 1989 hearings on the new Senate bill to build a national Museum of the American Indian not only touched on the question of how to handle the rehabilitation of the many sacred burial grounds that have been destroyed, or raided by collectors, but there were also signs that there would be a fairly abrasive conflict between the Smithsonian's management and the demands of Native Americans that the new Museum should be largely staffed by Indians. The strategies adopted by successive generations of Indian leaders is an important feature of the history of relations between Native Americans and the American government and needs to be identified as a background for current developments.
Native American Leadership and Activism since World War 2.
A major issue confronting Native Americans in the immediate post-war era was the continuing debate between the advocates of assimilation and those who favoured some form of traditional tribal self-determination as a basis for participation, rather than assimilation into the American mainstream. This liberal cultural-pluralism policy had been advocated by Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930's. However in the more conservative climate of the 1940's and 50's, the reformist, interventionist policies of the Roosevelt era came under attack and many groups began to question the philosophy behind the Indian Reorganisation Act of 1934 and argued that tribal assets should not necessarily be owned collectively. The whole structure of federal interference in the operation of capitalist market forces as they affected Native Americans began to come under attack from the increasingly vocal advocates of termination. For example the American Indian Federation, representing highly assimilated Indians from Oklahoma, had opposed John Collier's New Deal policies , and by 1944-5 was calling for termination. The A.I.F. strategy was vigorously opposed by the National Congress of American Indians, a lobby group that had been organised in 1944 to represent Native-Americans of all tribes. This organisation demanded that the philosophy of tribal self-determination should be maintained.
Another important issue in this immediate post-war era was the long running one of compensation. Many Indian groups had long-standing claims against the American government for lands and assets that had been unfairly seized. Liberals wanted this historic issue of injustice settled to assuage their guilt and wipe out resentments. The advocates of termination also supported compensation legislation as a first step towards the destruction of federal authority over Indian affairs. This coalition of interests lobbied until Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act in 1946. The plan soon ran into trouble. The three-person board could only give money for land; it could not take away lands that were now owned by the descendants of the original, often illegal white settlers. An example of the cultural misunderstanding that has bedevilled Indian-White relations is the case of the Taos Indians in the South West, taken up by the I.C.C. in the 1950's.
In 1906 an area sacred to the Taos Indians had been incorporated into the Kit Carson National Forest in north-western New Mexico. In 1965 the I.C.C. came to a decision that awarded the Indians $10 million and nearly three thousand acres of land near the lake, as compensation for the earlier unjust transfer. What seemed to most white Americans as a generous offer, was unacceptable to the Taos people, one of whose leaders, Paul Bernal, said: 'My people will not sell our Blue Lake that is our church. We cannot sell what is sacred. It is not ours to sell.'
Under the influence of the general rise of militancy associated with the Civil Rights Movements of the late 1950's and the 1960's, more direct action protest began to characterise the new generation of activist Native Americans who were often urban-based and college-educated. The complicated, slow process of seeking compensation through the courts or working through the B.I.A. began to be seen by this new generation as appeasement 'uncle Tomahawk' strategies that did not expose the abuses that many American Indians suffered on the streets. It was out of this form of routine harassment of Indians by authorities such as the police that the American Indian Movement, known as AIM, was born in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1968. Under the leadership of Chippewa Indian organiser Denis Brutus, AIM members began to patrol Minneapolis and St. Paul streets after dark in order to intervene on behalf of the many Indians who were being harassed by the police without justification. As a result of this activity, the number of weekend arrests dropped from a regular number of around 200 to just a few. AIM also addressed the blatant discrimination against Indians in the workplace and pressured Honeywell Corporation, a major Minneapolis employer, to their number of Indian workers by 450. In the area of federal funding, AIM was instrumental in gaining a $4.3 million grant from the Housing and Urban Development Department to build 241 homes for Indians. AIM was also successful in making the educational curriculum more sensitive to the values and cultural achievements of Native American peoples, and conducted a seven year campaign to establish a centre for Indian Culture which eventually led to the city of Minneapolis raising $1.9 million for a public institute that acted as a focus for the study and enhancement of Native American culture. AIM's cultural policy saw value in the past achievements of traditional Indian culture but was wary of the tendency of some Indians and many of their Anglo supporters, to concentrate on a romantic study of aboriginal survivals. AIM wanted American Indians to make a living, dynamic contribution to a pluralistic modem American society.
AIM inspired a whole range of direct-action sit-ins and occupations, from the taking over of Alcatraz Island in 1969 to the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. A statement issued by the Alcatraz occupiers before they were evicted in 1971, embodies the flair of this T.V. generation of assertive Native Americans for gaining world-wide publicity that embarrassed America, and reminded the world of the historic and contemporary grievances of the American Indians that simply would not and cannot go away. With heavy irony the manifesto began with a generous offer by the Indians to the White inhabitants of the island of Alcatraz:
'We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the Bureau of American Indian Affairs and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity - for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilisation.' They then listed the qualities that made Alcatraz a model for the concept of a reservation:
'It is isolated from modem facilities. It has no fresh running water. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great. The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.' etc.
AIM did not speak for all Native Americans. More conservative Indians maintained their support for organisations like the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Indian Rights Association. But AIM had shown that direct action could bring American Indians a greater share of the fruits of American capitalism and an enhanced sense of political power.
Throughout the 1970's and 1980's the American Government struggled to legislate their way out of their ambiguous relationship and responsibilities with regard to the American Indian, a relationship that was an uneasy mixture of a benign trustee and a frustrated parent who wants to be rid of responsibility by allowing their 'adopted children' to become independent through their own commercial skills. It was the old conflict between termination and a concept of federal supervision which carried with it a continuing responsibility to treat American Indians as wards, needing special protection of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1978 the Carter Administration passed the Acknowledgement Project through Congress, a special programme administered by the BIA to evaluate the claims of Native American groups unrecognised by the federal government as legitimate tribes. In 1981 the federal government formally recognised 283 tribes entitling them to both federal and state grants. But nearly 175 Native American groups, especially those east of the Mississippi River, remained unrecognised.
One of the problems for Native American leadership strategies is how to negotiate with outside bodies like corporations or federal government with a collective pan-Indian voice while preserving the autonomy of a specific tribal or nation people. The rise of pan-Indian groups such as the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, the National Tribal Chairmen's Association, the American Indian Movement, and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes is a clear sign of an aspiration for national leadership and combined political pressure on an agreed agenda for all American Indians. One issue that has been a thorny bed of controversy between the collectivists and the supporters of the retention of decision-making by the individual tribal or nation group, has been that of the exploitation of the considerable energy resources that exist on Indian-owned land. In 1982 the Council of Energy Resource Tribes accepted the invitation of the BIA to draft, in co-operation with major oil and gas trade associations, a series of regulations governing tribal severance taxes on mineral deposits. Many Indian groups feared that CERT would become an agent of multi-national corporations, signing away rights that individual tribes should control.
The advent of Reaganism and Reagonomics in the 1980's brought particular pressures to bear on economic developments and philosophy within the American Indian community. This new emphasis on a more vigorous, unregulated capitalism combined with tax cuts, can be seen in the American Indian policy statement issued by President Ronald Reagan on January 24th., 1983. While broadly endorsing the principles of tribal self-government that were signed into law in 1975 as the Indian self-determination and Education Assistance Act, the statement went on to declare that:
'However, since 1975, there has been more rhetoric than action. Instead of fostering and encouraging self-government, federal policies have by and large inhibited the political and economic development of the tribes. Excessive regulation and self-perpetuating bureaucracy have stifled local decision-making, thwarted Indian control of Indian resources, and promoted dependency rather than self-sufficiency.
This Administration intends to reverse this trend by removing the obstacles to self-government and by creating a more favourable environment for the development of healthy reservation economies.
The main agent of this policy of promoting 'healthy reservation economies' was James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, who early in 1983 suggested that the main cause of the economic and social problems of Native Americans such as low wages, a concentration of employment in unskilled occupations, a tuberculosis rate six times the national average and a similar suicide rate in comparison to other ethnic groups, was the federal government 'socialism', that dominated attitudes on the reservations. Watt wanted to open up more public and Indian land to commercial exploitation. Many Native Americans began to see the signs of a revival of termination policies in these public utterances, particularly when the Reagan tax cuts clearly favoured the well-to-do and the cuts in welfare programmes disproportionately hit minority groups, exacerbating the scale of exactly those social problems listed above. Native American leadership in the 1980's has been put on the defensive by these policies which have given support to the many economic pressure groups who feel that the energy resources currently underneath the reservations are national assets. Reflecting this point of view, the American Farm Bureau Federation passed Resolution 621 at its January 1983 convention as follows:
We support legislation to establish the rule that all people have equal rights and responsibilities under the law. All citizens should be required to obey the laws of local, state and national governments. The "nation unto a nation" treatment of native Americans should be abolished. We favour abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and termination of special treaty rights to purchase or negotiate for fair compensation.'
The future prospects for America's original inhabitants revolve around whether the American people will continue to acknowledge the special dual status of the American Indian as both a full voting citizen with theoretical access to the competitive capitalist American mainstream, and as persons with special rights to economic resources and rights other Americans do not have. These rights were clearly acknowledged in President Reagan's Indian Policy statement of 1983:
'The Constitution, treaties, laws, and court decisions have consistently recognised a unique political relationship between Indian tribes and the United States which this Administration pledges to uphold....We shall continue to fulfil the federal trust responsibility for the physical and financial resources we hold in trust for the tribes and their members.
However, the underlying mood of Native American response to Reaganism, its policies and promises, can be judged from the adverse response of the traditionally conservative National Tribal Chairmen's Association to the hardships caused to the American Indian community by the cuts in social programmes, initiated by a President they described as 'the great fork-tongued liar and the great deceiver who sits in the White House'.
Native Americans: Cultural Myths and Realities
One of the most important means of sustaining ethnic identity is through a cultural system and a language. Despite the various Government policies that had the aim of erasing 'Indian-ness', the diverse traditional beliefs and practices of American Indians have survived and have continued to develop, as a culture must if it is to be more than just a decorative surface.
Most Indians live in two cultures, the Anglo-American mainstream and their particular Native American tribal or national group. This is reflected in various statistics such as that around 65 percent of Indians speak English, 4 percent speak Spanish and 30 percent speak a Native American language such as the Athapascan of the Navajos and Commanches. As you drive into the area covered by KTNN radio station, the Navajo tribal radio station, broadcasting from Window Rock, Arizona, across the 25,000 square miles of the Navajo reservation, you hear bi-lingual, bi-cultural disc jockeys slipping comfortably between English and Navajo, as the Beatles or Phil Collins alternate with tribal chants. Forty native Though it is dangerous to generalise, such is the importance of the idea of a core of traditional beliefs and cultural practices as constituting a social grist and foundation around which American Indians can still orientate themselves, that any discussion of Native American culture in the late 20th century must begin with an a description of this traditional social grist and organic scaffolding. In the pots, blankets, moccasins, saddles, cradles and all the varied artefacts of traditional North American Indian culture, there is an implicit philosophy and world view. The era of European contact could radically alter and/or render extinct, a whole way of Indian life by the ruthless exploitation of particular natural resources. The destruction by white hunters of the buffalo upon which the Plains Indian way of life depended, or the building of the concrete state highways north to south down the length of Florida which destroyed the east-west river culture of the survivors of the Seminole Indians, are part of a process of extinction which is an epic of shame.
The traditional, communal Native American world view integrates the separate realms of religion, art, and utility, creating a holistic inter-relationship between activities which under Western capitalism, have become specialist, individualistic skills. This synthesising, integrative ideology of Native American culture is comprehensively expressed in the traditional artefacts of the differing tribes and nations. For example the iconographic decoration and symbols that constitute the design system, engraved on a Navajo pot or dyed into a Commanche blanket, celebrate and propitiate the power of natural and supernatural forces, or record some essential human activity which is necessary for communal survival, like hunting. A Navajo pot has a break in the encircling design round the jar, symbolising the 'exit trail of life'; a Plains Indian child's moccasin is embroidered with a zig-zag snake pattern as a protection against snake bite. Many of these traditional skills have been preserved through the programmes of cultural revitalisation that have developed alongside political policies of tribal self-determination and restoration. The preservation of ancient craft skills and the making of traditional artefacts for sale, has placed Indian artists in a contradictory position; many of the items on sale to tourists once had both a utilitarian and cult value within Native American culture, a concept which is clearly transformed transgressed by their new status as commercial commodities, to decorate the homes of white Americans and also of the many Europeans who have an interest in the American Indian, often stimulated by the romantic portrayal of stereotypical Indians in Hollywood Westerns that were extremely popular world-wide in the heyday of a genre that petered out in the late 1960's.
Underneath the common ritualistic and religious purposes of traditional Native American cultural expression is a mosaic of historical, stylistic diversity which often has a regional base. The cultural expression that developed as the original hunters who crossed the Bering straits and then moved south into the Eastern seaboard and developed settled agricultural communities, is known as the early woodland period. The arts of this period, discovered in burial mounds and religious sites particularly in areas which are located in the states of Mississippi and Ohio, include effigies, pipes, and the famous Hopewell serpent effigy, found in a mound in Ohio. The serpent is made out of mica and its production involved a technology that included whetstones, grindstones, hand hammers, chisels, and flint knives. The Hopewell artists also made ornaments, often with bird imagery, from stone, flint, and pearl. They are also credited with the first human-shaped form of cultural expression in Amerindian art with their miniature clay figures often with infants on their backs. This woodland culture was among the first to be displaced and virtually destroyed as a living system by the westward expansion of European colonists, but not before the original Hopewell and Mississippian culture of the Woodland peoples had developed to include animistic propitiatory forms in which medicine bags were made from the pelts of sacred animals such as the otter, muskrat and the water panther. One important cultural artefact that survives from this Woodland culture, is the mantle of Powhatan, the leader of the Algonquin peoples at the time of the coming of the Puritan colonists in the early 17th. century.
Another important regional culture that developed a distinctive identity was that of the Plains Indians which began to develop around the horse and the buffalo in the 17th century. Many of the tribes that developed the semi-nomadic Plains way of life that came to characterise the grass lands west of the Mississippi river stretching down from Canada to Texas, were hunter-warrior societies. The Sioux, Commanche, and Blackfeet evolved a complex system of honours, rewards, and rituals which were visually expressed by pipes, feathered bonnets, horse-hair war-shirts, and medicine hoops, all decorated with signs and emblems. Battle and hunting scenes were painted on to skin robes and rawhide with paints made from coloured earths. Beadwork was an essential part of Plains cultural expression. Twenty thousand beads have been counted on a single Commanche cradle.
At the south-western edge of the Plains area another distinctive culture evolved among the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo peoples who occupied lands in New Mexico and Arizona. The Native American cultural system that evolved in the Southwest is one of the longest-lasting in North America, stretching in a continuous arc of change and continuity from circa AD 400 to the present day. Traditional crafts of blanket and basket-making, pottery, and jewellery are practised today, as are the unique techniques of the sand-painter. The designs of these paintings are formed by sprinkling coloured powders made from earths, rocks, and charcoal, by hand onto the floor of a medicine lodge. The artists are medicine men and the paintings are part of a healing ceremony. The different powdered colours are sifted and sprinkled through thumb and forefinger and the design is from memory. After the ritual the painting is rubbed and brushed away.
The final regional culture in this brief survey that by no means exhausts the range of traditional Native American artistic expression takes us up through California to the striking expressionistic culture of the coastal peoples of the Northwest, Kwakiutl, Bela Coola, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit. One of the most vivid forms of this Northwest culture is based on the Potlatch feast that celebrates Nature's abundance. A connected symbolism and iconography of human and animal forms, abstracted parts of the body such as eyes, ears , paws, and tails, appear in masks, totem poles, blankets, baskets, and bracelets. Further north is the Eskimo culture in Alaska which represents its myths and values in a variety of carvings in ivory and wood, in ritual masks, and decorated sealskin bags. These traditional cultural forms constitute a bedrock of imagery, mythology and philosophy, which are now passed onto Native American children in the many schools which have a bi-cultural and bi-lingual curriculum in which the past achievements of the American Indian are not devalued or made invisible but seen as the first man-made culture to be developed on the American continent. Another feature of these kinds of curricula is the way children of one tribe study the history and beliefs of other tribal cultures in order to encourage a spirit of pan-Indian community and respect
Another dimension to contemporary Native American culture which proceeds from a traditional ancient base is the great variety of modern religions within the Indian community. Despite the unremitting efforts of many Christian missionaries and schools to replace the native religions with Roman Catholicism or one of the varieties of Protestantism, a diverse range of native religions survive or have been attached to Christian forms. Many Sioux still look for comfort in the life-giving spirit of Wakan Tanka, which emanates from the Black Hills of South Dakota. A form of worship known as the Native American church, which originating among Mexican Indians in the late 19th century, has spread to other Native American peoples in Oklahoma, and the Midwest. It has begun to attract adherents from among the Navajo and maintains a pan-Indian National organisation.
A central ritual employs the hallucinogenic fruit of the peyote cactus and fuses Christian and native ceremonies and symbols. Another example of this fusion are the ceremonies at the Our Lady of the Sioux Catholic Church at Pine Ridge, where such native images as the buffalo, peace pipe, and thunderbird have been added to and substituted for the Christian images of Christ on the cross, and the wine and wafer of the Eucharist. In the Southwest native religions have maintained themselves without radical change or adaptation. The Hopi have continued to participate in kiva ceremonies, in which the sacred hole in the kiva chamber symbolises the emergence of the ancestral twins from whom all Hopis are descended. The Taos in New Mexico revere Blue Lake as the epicentre of the universe. These Indian myths of origin and rebirth are often seen as alternatives to the major creation myths of Wasp America, that from the Puritan colonists in the 17th century to the westward-moving immigrants of the 19th century in their wagon trains, have stressed the providential mission of the chosen Protestant people to build a new Christian society in the wilderness, with trail-blazers like Daniel Boone often mythicised as Moses. Many native religions have a psychotherapeutic role. For most Pueblos, the Katcina Cult remains a powerful vehicle for bringing rain and curing sickness. All these many elements indicate that Native American culture whether in religion, tribal rather than individual concepts of rights, is a viable way of life which has just not been understood or acknowledged by the increasing number of Anglo Americans who wish to cancel the special status of the American Indian and argue for full-blooded assimilation.
One of the problems is that the American Indian has probably been the most stereotyped figure in the history of American cultural representation. In literature, folklore, painting, photography, and Hollywood cinema, most Native Americans have appeared as variations on one of two themes; the idealised noble savage, or the treacherous, cruel defiler of captured white women who always try to keep one bullet for themselves rather than fall into the hands of polygamous braves. Outside of Hollywood, in the genre of investigative documentary where one might possibly find alternatives to the racist imagery of Hollywood, another reductive stereotype has been constructed; the Indian as tragic, eternal victim. Consequently much of the literature produced by Native American writers since the second world war (the scale of Hollywood production costs has been beyond the reach of any project that might have been controlled by the Native American community, though a number of Indian actors have worked in Hollywood), has been motivated by the desire to rescue the representation of Native American culture from the caricatures that have been lodged in the white imagination. The two sides of this cultural coin need to be investigated; both the history of Anglo-Saxon cultural views of the American Indian including their liberal revision, and the attempts by Native American writers and artists to undo the effects of this pernicious mythology. The attitudes towards Native American culture generated by Hollywood, in particular by the Western are representative of most of the issues at stake.
The Hollywood Western is historically the major genre in one of the world's most pervasive forms of popular culture. Since The Great Train Robbery in 1903 more than 7,000 Westerns have been made in the U.S.A., and since the late 1940's several thousand episodes of Western series have appeared on television. In order to gain mass popularity, commercially-produced popular culture needs to implant in its audience patterns of recognition and expectation through repeated formulas, narratives and stereotypical characters. The consequences of these factors of repetition on the presentation of Native American culture and history have been far-reaching. The Western formula demands that the Indian should be expendable since one of the main stories that the Western tells, is of a superior white Anglo-Saxon Protestant people triumphing over an inferior Indian one. The other demand of popular culture at the time of the coming of Hollywood genre production, for instantly recognisable stereotypical characterisation, meant that, instead of portraying individual members of the many ethnic and cultural groups within the Native American community, one unrepresentative figure came to stand for all Indians in Hollywood production; the mounted, war-bonneted and painted, Plains Indian. This stereotype broadened somewhat to include the invariably 'cruel' Apache or Commanche whose excellent fighting skills boosted the self-esteem and prowess of the white cavalry when they finally and inevitably defeated these redoubtable savages.
As attitudes in American society became more liberal, moving away from notions of manifest destiny and coercive assimilation, Hollywood began to experiment with other images of Native American culture. From the 1950's a series of Westerns were produced which dealt more sympathetically with such issues as race relations, and the territorial and cultural rights of particular tribes such as the Seminole and Sioux. Often the old values co-existed with the new as in John Ford's 1956 Western, The Searchers. In the film John Wayne's Indian-hating Ethan Edwards is set alongside his sympathetically portrayed niece played by Natalie Wood, who, despite having been captured by the Commanche, is received back into white society at the end of the film. Ethan also reluctantly comes to accept the mixed race orphan originally adopted by his massacred brother and sister-in-law, played by Jeffrey Hunter with whom he has, somewhat reluctantly at the start, set out to conduct the search for his captured niece that is the main story and title of the film. Despite these revisionary tendencies, the film's assumptions, encoded in the polygamous, sexually threatening and cruelly primitive character of Scar, the Commanche chief, remain racist and Euro-centric.
This revisionary trend that began in the 1950's, was taken further by Arthur Penn's 1970 eponymous film-adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel, Little Big Man. The audience is left in no doubt as to the film's depiction of a corrupt, expansionist, U.S. imperialism which is prepared to justify genocidal policies against indigenous peoples who the march of progress. As with many films of this era, the historical fate of Native Americans is likened to that of Communist Vietnamese. A further symbolic critique of America's refusal to accept its historical and continuing maltreatment of the original Americans, was made by Marlon Brando when in 1973 he refused to accept his academy award, asking Native American actress Sacheem Littlefeather to read a speech castigating U.S. racism and imperialism instead. Despite all this revisionary liberal criticism from a generation of directors within the Hollywood system, savage Indian warriors still bite the dust particularly on America's T.V. screens which recycle to successive generations the old story of the manifest destiny of white America to sweep the Indians into the Pacific. So structural seems this mythology to white America's popular idea of its history that the entertainment, featured as part of the opening of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was a spectacular re-enactment of the opening and settlement of the West. Once again in front of a world-wide audience of millions, the American Indians were metaphorically swept away.
The other side of this reflecting coin of images of Native American culture since the second world war, is the side increasingly created, particularly in literature, by American Indian writers themselves. Instead of the lives, times, and culture of Native Americans being taken down and edited for publication by white writers in an ethno-historical spirit, Native American writers like Kiowa-Cherokee Scott Momaday have taken control of their English-language versions of the historical and literary records of the American Indian. In novels like House Made of Dawn 1968 and The Names: A Memoir 1976, Momaday has recorded the way Native Americans see themselves and white America, without the need for a white American witness or intermediary. A cultural critic like Hunkapa Sioux Vine Deloria, jr., in such books as We Talk, You Listen has wittily and devastatingly exposed the inadequacies of so-called 'scientific' accounts of the public and private lives of Native Americans, written by a type of white anthropologist Deloria describes as follows:
'Pick out a tall gaunt white man wearing Bermuda shorts, a world war 2 Army Air Force flying jacket, an Australian bush hat, tennis shoes, and packing a large knapsack incorrectly strapped on his back. He will invariably have a thin sexy wife with stringy hair, an IQ of 191, and a vocabulary in which even the prepositions have eleven syllables.'
Deloria's point is that a form of cultural imperialism has taken over from territorial conquest, in which concerned white liberal writers are given access to the inner workings of Native American culture, become more important than the Native American cause they wish to serve, and their royalties become a kind of blood money. These books become best sellers, giving their readers an illusory understanding of the American Indian. An example of this process by which a sympathetic white writer becomes a culture-broker mediating and interpreting the life and thoughts of a particular American Indian, was the 1971 reissue of the 1932 classic, Black Elk Speaks. The book is a collaboration between the poet John G. Neihardt and an Oglala Sioux holy man called Black Elk. The 1971 Pocket Books reissue became a best seller, with Neihardt appearing as an expert interpreter of Indian culture on the Dick Cavett Show. The problem with both the original text and Neihardt's expertise is that the whole idea of an unbiased white American collaborator is full of contradictions. Firstly in a 1971 interview Neihardt admitted that:
'At times considerable editing was necessary. The beginning and ending are mine; they are what he would have said had he been able.'
These admitted facts of editing and invention indicate that the process of collaboration involved a degree of transformation on Neihardt's part, making the idea that these are the unadulterated direct thoughts of Black Elk (which was the basis of the book's mass appeal) a questionable one. Secondly Neihardt organised what he was told by Black Elk into the form of a first person narrative autobiography, an individualistic European literary form that assumes an overall temporal framework of linear chronology. Such ideas and forms are alien to the collective, tribal consciousness of Native American culture. By calling attention to the inherent problems of cross-cultural communication, cultural critics like Deloria have made all the many non-Indian supporters of the Native American cause a little more circumspect in their well-meaning rush to claim they understand Indian values and points of view.
Nevertheless the late 1960's and 1970's saw a considerable increase of literary activity about Native American culture. The tradition of the non-Indian collaborator/translator continued with the work of poets like Jerome Rothenberg and Gary Snyder. Rothenberg was welcomed into a community of Seneca Indians in upstate New York and was allowed to create poetic, English versions of Seneca songs. His two collections of tribal poetry - Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, Asia, America, and Oceania (1969) and Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas (1972) - drew attention to a rich diverse body of traditional Native American poetry, that should stand alongside the oral epics of western culture like the Odyssey. Gary Snyders collection of essays and poems of 1974 Turtle Island, took as its title a revival of the name for the American continent derived from Native American creation stories. Another important non-Indian supporter of the attempt to move beyond stereotypes towards a more detailed understanding of past and contemporary Native American literature was Jerry Gamble, the editor of Akwesasne Notes. This newspaper provided for a national readership of Native Americans and others, investigative coverage of important issues affecting all Native Americans like land and fishing rights, articles on Indian culture and history, and a back page regularly devoted to poetry. Again a number of Native American writers have been doubtful of the usefulness of all this interest by non-Indians. Leslie Marmon Sillco, a Native American women writer, author of LagunaWoman(1975), in an article entitled 'An Old Time Indian Attack', questioned:
'the assumption that the white man, through some innate cultural or racial superiority, has the ability to master the essential beliefs, values, and emotions of persons from Native American communities.'
Despite this fear that the often genuine interest, respect, and scholarship of non-Indians represents another form of desecration and theft of traditional Native American culture, an increase in the number and quality of writings by Native Americans in English coincided with an increased general awareness of the cultures of ethnic groups outside the traditional Wasp mainstream such as Afro-American and Hispanic. However respect for someone's culture does not necessarily lead to that person gaining greater political and economic power.
The emotional and thematic range of this new Native American writing includes clashes between individualistic white, and Native American tribal ideologies, internal conflicts within the Native American community itself, and the invariably tragic situation of the urban Indian. There is also a distinctive theme which compares the spiritual conservationist values of the Native American peoples to the polluting materialism of white technology and capitalism. A flourishing genre is the exploration of traditional and contemporary Native American culture and history by Indian women, which ranges from the calm celebration of Native American culture amidst major external historical change in 'Belle Highwalking: The Narrative of a Northern Cheyenne Woman' (1979), to the anger at the oppression of Native Americans which characterises 'Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel' (1975). Born in 1892, Belle Highwalking wanted her life story to be recorded for her grandchildren. She was not involved in politics nor did she have any special insights into tribal ceremonies or religion. The book was not intended to be a best seller and was published as an educational tool by the Montana Council for Indian Education. Bobbi Lee's story takes the reader from a childhood in Canada to work in the Californian vineyards and political activism as a supporter of Red Power during the fishing rights disputes in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1960's. Although Bobbi Lee, a quarter-blood Metis, contrasts the passivity of her ancestors who accepted an inferior status within a dominant culture, with her own assertiveness and refusal to submit, she does much to clear away the stereotypes of the submissive Indian woman as in the following passage describing a political demonstration in which the powerful role in tribal decision-making that Native American women have always exerted, is clearly signalled:
'Most of the militants there at a demonstration in Olympia, Washington, were women and three of them did most of the speaking They were traditionalists so there was nothing unusual about women acting as spokesmen for the group. In fact, they told me they were having trouble getting the men involved. The only man who spoke was Hank Adams, who's been to university and wasn't traditional.'
This brief survey of the contemporary situation of Native Americans and their culture, has had to illustrate main issues and themes with selective evidence. The usual way for a non-Indian 'expert' to conclude a sympathetic book or article about Native Americans, is to quote some venerable 19c. visionary Native American spokesperson, expressing compassion for mother earth and then contrasting it with the whiteman's violent aggression towards the land. Instead I want to end by quoting a late night quip by a Native American Tribal Council chief friend of mine that has nothing to do with 'white' or 'red' philosophy, but just appeals to my philosophical sense of the world and clearly is an expression of his:
'When my ship comes in, I'll probably be at the airport.'
© Christopher Brookeman 1990
There are two other articles on Native Americans in American Studies Today On-line. Follow the links if you would like to read them.
From War to Self-Determination: A history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs this article traces its development from attempts to obtain tribal neutrality during the Revolutionary War in 1775, through the assimilation policy of the late 1800's to the modern policy of Self-Determination.
The Dancing Ground: David and Valerie Forster describe a day course in Navajo culture which Dennis Lee Rogers, a Navajo artist and educator conducted at a local adult education college.
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