Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 8th, 2018

The Indian Project

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A few weeks ago, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl published a rave review in The New Yorker of an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Writing of “Americans,” which focuses on the depiction of Native Americans in popular culture, Schjeldahl concluded:

The project gains drama, and a degree of peril, from occurring in the tax-funded Mall museum that is physically the nearest to the Capitol Building. Absent any correct attitude or even argument on offer, viewers will be thrown back on their own assumptions, if they think about them—and I expect that many will. The show’s disarming sweetness and its bracing challenge come down to the same thing: a Whitmanesque idea of what Americanness means not only involving Indians but as a possible solvent of antagonisms past, present, and fated.

Elsewhere, Schjeldahl praised the essay collection Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith, one of the show’s curators, as “one of my favorite books of recent years.” This inspired me to check it out myself, and I read it from cover to cover over the span of about a week, despite the fact that I had plenty of other work to do—and I agree that it’s pretty great. It’s a perceptive, often funny book that, as Schjeldahl said, “make[s] me feel smart,” and Smith gets bonus points from me for his ability to quote freely from the Pet Shop Boys. But it also made me deeply uneasy, just as “Americans” is evidently meant to do, and in a way that seems important to value and preserve at the cultural moment in which we’ve all found ourselves.

Smith’s most memorable essay, by far, is “Americans Without Tears,” which opens with a startling assertion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright. Generally speaking, white people who take an active interest in Indians, who travel to visit Indians and study Indians, who seek to help Indians, are even more not very bright. I theorize that in the case of white North Americans, the less interest they have in Indians, the more likely it is that one (and here I mean me or another Indian person) could have an intelligent conversation with them.” He qualifies this at once by saying that there are plenty of exceptions, and his real point is one that implicates all of us:

I further theorize that, generally speaking, smart white people realize early on, probably even as children, that the whole Indian thing is an exhausting, dangerous, and complicated snake pit of lies. And that the really smart ones somehow intuit that these lies are mysteriously and profoundly linked to the basic construction of the reality of daily life, now and into the foreseeable future. And without it ever quite being a conscious thought, these intelligent white people come to understand that there is no percentage, none, in considering the Indian question, and so the acceptable result is to, at least subconsciously, acknowledge that everything they are likely to learn about Indians in school, from books and movies and television programs, from dialogue with Indians, from Indian art and stories, from museum exhibits about Indians, is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.

This observation would have stuck in my head in any case, but I soon found myself living it out in practice. In the very next essay in the book, Smith quotes the artist Jimmie Durham: “Europe is an Indian project.” This essentially means that if we acknowledge that the European discovery of the Americas is the pivotal event of the last thousand years, and I think that it is, Native Americans can only be at the center of it. I loved this observation, but when I dug deeper, I found a thicket of issues that were, well, exhausting and complicated. Last summer, in response to a major retrospective of Durham’s work, a group of Cherokee artists wrote in a scathing editorial: “Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee in any legal or cultural sense. This is not a small matter of paperwork but a fundamental matter of tribal self-determination and self-governance. Durham has no Cherokee relatives; he does not live in or spend time in Cherokee communities; he does not participate in dances and does not belong to a ceremonial ground.” Durham, for his part, claims to be a quarter Cherokee, and an exhaustive look at his genealogy leaves the question, at best, unresolved. But there are questions of identity here that can’t be easily dismissed either way. In an excellent article on the dispute, Michael Slenske of Vulture quotes Gene Norris, the senior genealogist at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma:

Almost every one of the recognized tribes of the United States use a federally mandated document called a base roll, so it’s a paper trail, it’s not genes and chromosomes flowing through your blood kind of evidence. The records that we use for genealogy are not meant for genealogy. They are very ambiguous and very incomplete and imprecise but that’s all we have to go by. That’s why records don’t reflect everything.

It’s impossible to cover this story, in other words, without wading into problems of tribal enrollment and identity that can’t be adequately grasped in ten minutes of research, so maybe the prudent course of action is to keep out of it altogether. (Even Smith, a longtime fan of Durham’s, declined to be interviewed by Vulture, which quotes his sly line from the catalog of the artist’s work: “Jimmie Durham is an Indian project.”) But maybe that confusion—or what Schjeldahl calls the absence of “any correct attitude”—is exactly the place from which an honest discussion of countless other issues has to begin, which is something we tend to forget. At a time in which so many debates are inflamed by what seems like utter certainty on both sides, Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong is like a dispatch from an aspect of American culture that remains unresolved because it’s largely unseen, unless it’s the other way around. When you read it and then turn to the opinion page of the New York Times, you feel the shock of newness being restored to problems to which we’ve long since become settled and numb. Smith writes:    

Because of the centrality of the Indian experience, and because of the particular place of privilege white people inhabit in relationship to that experience, many whites have only a few choices. They can become “interested in Indians” and completely ignore that centrality; they can recognize the centrality but shy away from engaging the issue because it’s all too complicated (the smarter ones); or, if they’re both smart and brave, they can honestly engage in dialogue.

Replace “the Indian experience” with your social cause of choice—or, even better, keep it exactly where it is—and you’re left with the indispensable starting point from which real understanding has to emerge. And what Smith says about the resulting dialogue is something that we should keep in mind: “This isn’t only subversive, it’s really difficult. Few can do it at all; hardly anybody knows how to do it well.”

Quote of the Day

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Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing…He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability.

Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

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