Selling the Indian: Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures

Selling the Indian: Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures

J.V. Powell

Selling the Indian: Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures. Edited by Carter Jones Meyer and Diana Royer. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. 279 pp. $22.95 (pbk), $45.00 (hbk). ISBN 0-8165-2148-4 (pbk), 0-8165-2147-6 (hbk)

American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. By Joni Adamson. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. 213 pp. $19.95 (pbk), $45.00 (hbk). ISBN 0-8165-1792-4 (pbk), 0-8165-1791-6 (hbk)

Surviving Through the Days: A California Indian Reader (Translations of Native California Stories and Songs). Edited by Herbert W. Luthin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 651 pp. B/W illus. Maps. Music. Tables. $24.95/16.95 [pounds sterling] (pbk), $60.00/39.95 [pounds sterling] (hbk). ISBN 0-520-22270-9 (pbk), 0-520-22269-5 (hbk)

Three books relating to the American Indian: all three address complex topics and yet provide enough introductory material to make them appropriate for class use. I admit that I am usually a cranky reviewer, given at times to hyper-criticality, but readers should know immediately that I enjoyed all three of these books. Enthusiastically presented, the authors clearly recognise that there is no excuse for a boring social scientist. These are an engaging trio that deserve wide readership. For those interested in the complex processes affecting North American native cultures, if you read fifty-two books this year, all three of these books should be on the list.

Meyer and Royer’s book, Selling the Indian, is probably the most predictable of them in content. This is not to say that the material is trite but, rather, that the “crisis of appropriation” has been discussed by regular sessions at learned society meetings and in print over the past two decades. The eight essays are divided into two groups of four: Part I, “Staging the Indian,” which considers the ways in which Indians have been displayed to the public; and Part II, “Marketing the Indian,” which explores the motivations and impacts of both Indians and non-Indians involved in native arts and crafts. Taken together, the essays provide a thought-provoking but incomplete overview of the politics of representation and cultural imperialism.

Nobody argues that there are connections of effect between appropriation, commercialism, and the formation of both contemporary American and native American identity. The essays severally make the point that the images of Indians have changed over the decades and centuries as the national need for Americans to define themselves in relation to them has changed. The goal of these stereotypes was to provide a historic rationale for extermination, national expansion, and policies of assimilation, or a contemporary template for environmentalism or commercial profit. There are some very persuasive reconstructions of motives and outcomes here. It is true that the authors have hindsight to help them presume the intentions and interpret the actions of those who have been in charge of staging the presentation of native peoples and their cultures. However, the essayists support their analyses and generalisations in a way that is uniformly satisfying and convincing, and that leaves the impression of sensitivity rather than political correctness. The editors have chosen well.

The essays review instances of “staging the Indian” during the twentieth century, starting with the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, in which the Cocopa Indians were used in living exhibits (Nancy Parezo and John Troutman), the tactics of a Lakota presentation of dance and its cultural context (Pauline Tuttle), a discussion of how and why native Indian women and men have been sexualised in presentations (S. Elizabeth Bird), the staging of a native cultural spectacle for tourists at Seattle’s Tillicum Village (Katie Johnson and Tamara Underiner). In Part II, the articles consider the “selling of the Indian,” focusing on one instance of how reform organisations (largely feminist) advocated Indian arts as a means of developing economic self-sufficiency for Indians (Erik Trump), resurrecting the Pueblo arts as part of the shift from an Anglo-centric to a multi-centric ideal (Carter Jones Meyer), the multiple processes impacting the lives of Cherokee weavers (Sarah Hill), and how Mayan crafts of Chiapas serve to make Indians more visible while meeting the psychological and practical needs of tourists (Chris Goertzen). The essays make it clear that appropriation and commercialisation of Amerindian cultures were persistent social processes during the last century. It is also clear that these corrosive activities were strategically used as a tactic of cultural imperialism. Good scholarship well argued.

Joni Adamson’s powerful and immensely readable American Indian Literature is also a series of essays, all by the author. The book reads like a set of discrete lectures that logically follow one another, but that can each stand alone. Adamson situates herself within an emerging field of ecological literary criticism or “ecocriticism.” She also argues patiently for a broader recognition of the effects of environmental racism; that race is often behind political decisions including the location of hazardous waste facilities and the exclusion of people of colour from leadership In the environmental movement. Adamson presents much of the material as a set of coming to awareness vignettes on her own part. Teaching a first-year literature class for native students in Arizona, she found that her comp-lit generalisations about the values in Indian fiction, poetry, descriptive prose, and oral traditions were generally different from the responses of the students to the course readings. The students’ reactions were based on their own life-experiences of the social and environmental consequences of living in “the middle place,” which she defines as the contested area where interrelated social and environmental problems originate.

The book is a pilgrimage of awareness on Adamson’s part, in which she deftly relates the reading(s) under discussion to the lesson she has learned. It helps to know the readings that she is discussing but, in fact, one needs no background to come along with her from one realisation to the next. There is an evangelistic quality to the exposition. Like good sermonising, in each essay-like chapter she goes from text to interpretation and exhortation logically and maintains reader interest with an admixture of first-person incidents. Adamson tells it from the perspective of her own middle place, “situated between scholarship and experience, reporting on the conjunctions.” There is an element of literary criticism in her presentation, and she is very good at it. There is thoughtful discussion of writers such as Simon Ortiz, Joy Hargo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ofelia Zepeda, Terry Tempest Williams, and lots of others. But her real point is the history of ecocriticism and the persistent reality of environmental racism. Adamson’s own prose is a pleasure to read. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more intellectually satisfying way to make her points.

Best for last! Herbert Luthin’s California Indian reader Surviving Through the Days took seven years to pull together. He used his time well. It is a compilation of oral narrative and song lyrics of the California Indians in translation. And it is a treasure, as well as a treasury of native literature. Never mind that it is a reader! Do not worry that it will leave you with the unfulfilled sense of a show-me-the-good-parts half-picture. In fact, I read it through and then, without putting it down, went back to reread my own choice of the good parts.

Luthin gets the informed reader’s attention on the first page by listing the experts who helped him in the effort, and the list includes a who’s who of those with first-hand experience in recording and translating California oral literatures (mostly anthropological linguists). This comprehensive anthology of classic and contemporary works in translation presents material arranged geographically, by groups from north to south. There is poetry, song lyrics, stories, first-person narratives, mythic accounts, and humorous anecdotes. Finally, there are essays on native California languages and oral literatures. It is a book of bits and pieces that, nonetheless, provide a sense of seeing a complete picture. I put the book on my bedside table. This is a good one! I wish Luthin would progress around North America from culture area to culture area doing the same thing for the Northwest Coast, the Plateau, the Sub-Arctic …

J. V. Powell, Emeritus Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

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