Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Chaat Smith

Wounded Knee and the Achilles heel

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On February 27, 1973, two hundred Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were protesting against the unpopular tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, along with the federal government’s failure to negotiate treaties, and the ensuing standoff—which resulted in two deaths, a serious casualty, and a disappearance—lasted for over seventy days. It also galvanized many of those who watched it unfold, including the author Paul Chaat Smith, who writes in his excellent book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong:

Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians—some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations—actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels. That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

Smith dryly notes that the protesters “lost points” with observers after this episode, which overshadowed many of the more significant aspects of the occupation, and he concludes: “I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn’t invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.”

I got to thinking about this passage in the aftermath of Elizabeth Warren’s very bad week. More specifically, I was reminded of it by a column by the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank, who focuses on Warren’s submissions to the cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, which was edited by her cousin three decades ago. One of the recipes that Warren contributed was “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” which leads Milbank to crack: “A traditional Cherokee dish with mayonnaise, a nineteenth-century condiment imported by settlers? A crab dish from landlocked Oklahoma? This can mean only one thing: canned crab. Warren is unfit to lead.” He’s speaking with tongue partially in cheek—a point that probably won’t be caught by thousands of people who are just browsing the headlines—but when I read these words, I thought immediately of these lines from Smith’s book:

It presents the unavoidable question: Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived? Authenticity for Indians is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic. Part of the measurement is about percentage of Indian blood. The more, the better. Fluency in one’s Indian language is always a high card. Spiritual practices, living in one’s ancestral homeland, attending powwows, all are necessary to ace the authenticity test. Yet many of us believe taking the authenticity tests is like drinking the colonizer’s Kool-Aid—a practice designed to strengthen our commitment to our own internally warped minds. In this way, we become our own prison guards.

And while there may be other issues with Warren’s recipe, it’s revealing that we often act as if the Cherokee Nation somehow ceased to evolve—or cook for itself—after the introduction of mayonnaise.

This may seem like a tiny point, but it’s also an early warning of a monstrous cultural reckoning lurking just around the corner, at at time when we might have thought that we had exhausted every possible way to feel miserable and divided. If Warren runs for president, which I hope she does, we’re going to be plunged into what Smith aptly describes as a “snake pit” that terrifies most public figures. As Smith writes in a paragraph that I never tire of quoting:

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…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 leads him to an unforgettable conclusion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” But that’s only because most of the others are prudent enough to stay well away—and even Warren, who is undeniably smart, doesn’t seem to have realized that this was a fight that she couldn’t possibly win.

One white person who seems unquestionably interested in Indians, in his own way, is Donald Trump. True to form, he may not be very bright, but he also displays what Newt Gingrich calls a “sixth sense,” in this case for finding a formidable opponent’s Achilles heel and hammering at it relentlessly. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most interesting people to consider a presidential run in a long time, but Trump may have already hamstrung her candidacy by zeroing in on what might look like a trivial vulnerability. And the really important point here is that if Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage turn out to be her downfall, it’s because the rest of us have never come to terms with our guilt. The whole subject is so unsettling that we’ve collectively just agreed not to talk about it, and Warren made the unforgivable mistake, a long time ago, of folding it into her biography. If she’s being punished for it now, it’s because it precipitates something that was invisibly there all along, and this may only be the beginning. Along the way, we’re going to run up against a lot of unexamined assumptions, like Milbank’s amusement at that canned crab. (As Smith reminds us: “Indians are okay, as long as they meet non-Indian expectations about Indian religious and political beliefs. And what it really comes down to is that Indians are okay as long as we don’t change too much. Yes, we can fly planes and listen to hip-hop, but we must do these things in moderation and always in a true Indian way.” And mayonnaise is definitely out.) Depending on your point of view, this issue is either irrelevant or the most important problem imaginable, and like so much else these days, it may take a moronic quip from Trump—call it the Access Hollywood principle—to catalyze a debate that more reasonable minds have postponed. In his discussion of Wounded Knee, Smith concludes: “Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult.” And we might be about to find out how difficult it really is.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

The unique continent

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Early in 1939, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote to Lester del Rey to propose a story idea. As Del Rey recalled years later: “The idea was that maybe [Neanderthals weren’t] killed off fighting Cro-Magnon, but rather died of frustration from meeting a race with a superior culture. I didn’t exactly accept it as good anthropology, but the story took shape easily.” The result, “The Day is Done,” appeared in the May 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it moved Isaac Asimov so much that he wept as he read it on the subway. To a modern reader, the most striking thing about it is probably the unsigned editorial note—clearly written by Campbell—that followed the story on its original publication. The magazine didn’t usually provide this kind of extended commentary on specific works of fiction, so many readers must have read it closely, including the following passage:

Anthropologists believe today that, as Lester del Rey has here portrayed, the Neanderthal man died out due to heartbreak…Incredible? Senseless to attribute such feelings to them? We have on earth today an exact and frightening duplication of that cosmic tragedy. The Bushmen of Tasmania are gone; the aboriginal race of Australia are going, become useless beggars without self-respect hanging on the fringes of the white man’s civilization, unable to reach understanding of man’s higher intelligence, and paralyzed to hopelessness thereby. Those who have not contacted white men continue in their own ways, but any missionary, any government protector sent to them—brings death by hopelessness! There is no help for them, for help is death.

I was reminded of these lines after Susan Goldberg, the editor of National Geographic, published a remarkable essay headlined “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.” The magazine has taken a commendable first step—although not the last—to coming to grips with its legacy, and Goldberg outlines its history of reinforcing or creating racial stereotypes in devastating detail. As an example of the ideas that were quietly passed along to its readers, Goldberg cites an article about Australia from 1916, in which pictures of two Aboriginal people carry the stark caption: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” And when you examine the article itself, which is available elsewhere online, you find language that is so reminiscent of Campbell that I wonder if he might not have read it:

The blackfellow is not a “degraded savage,” but rather a primitive man placed in an unfavorable environment. When food and water are abundant the aboriginal is kind to the infirm, and even shows traits of generosity and gratitude. When the struggle for existence is severe he becomes an animal searching for its pretty. Mentally he is a weak child, with uncontrolled feelings, without initiative or sense of responsibility. In many respects he is intelligent and profits by education, but abstract ideas are apparently beyond his reach. His ignorance, superstition, and fear, rather than viciousness and evil intentions, make him dangerous to strangers.

And as an excellent article by Gavin Evans of The Guardian recently pointed out, this kind of “race science” has never disappeared—it just evolved with the times.

Goldberg doesn’t identify the author of “Lonely Australia: The Unique Continent,” but his background might be the most notable point of all. His name was Herbert E. Gregory, and he was nothing less than the director of the geology department at Yale University. He was an expert on the geography of “the Navajo country” of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; he extensively documented his studies of “the Indians and geology of Peru”; and shortly after the article was published, he became the director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the home of the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world. Gregory, in other words, was “interested in Indians,” to use Paul Chaat Smith’s devastating phrase, but he was also a distinguished scholar whose career amounted to a guided tour of the areas where contact between native and colonizing peoples took place. In a government publication titled The Navajo Country, which appeared the same year as his piece for National Geographic, Gregory wrote:

To my mind the period of direct contact with nature is the true “heroic age” of human history, an age in which heroic accomplishment and heroic endurance are parts of the daily routine. The activities of people on this stage of progress deserve a place among the cherished traditions of the human race. I believe also that the sanest missionary effort includes an endeavor to assist the uncivilized man in his adjustment to natural laws…This country is also the home of the vigorous and promising Navajos—a tribe in remarkably close adjustment to their physical surroundings. To improve the condition of this long-neglected but capable race, to render their life more intelligently wholesome by applying scientific knowledge, gives pleasures in no degree less than that obtained by the study of the interesting geologic problems which this country affords.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I know only as much about Gregory as I’ve been able to find in a morning of research. But I know something about Campbell, and I feel justified in pointing out a common pattern. Both Campbell and Gregory were intelligent, educated men in positions of authority who were trusted by their readers to provide information about how the world worked. Astounding was the news of the future, while National Geographic, in the minds of many subscribers, represented the past, and you could probably perform a similar analysis of the magazines on which people relied for their understanding of the present. For all their accomplishments, both men had unexamined ideas about race that quietly undermined the stated goals of the publications in which their work appeared. Campbell undeniably did a great deal for science fiction, but by failing to see that his views were excluding voices that could have elevated the entire genre, he arguably did just as much to hold it back. Try to imagine an editor in the thirties who believed that he had the ability and the obligation to develop a diverse range of writers, and you end up with a revolution in science fiction that would have dwarfed everything that Campbell actually accomplished. And this isn’t a matter of projecting our own values onto an earlier time—Campbell actively conceived of himself as an innovator, and he deserves to be judged by his own high standards. The same holds true for the National Geographic Society, which was founded “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” but often settled for received notions, even if it expanded the horizons of its audience in other ways. Goldberg quotes John Edwin Mason, a professor at the University of Virginia: “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.” This was equally true of Astounding, which defined itself and its readers in ways that we have yet to overcome. And these definitions still matter. As the tagline once read on all of the ads in National Geographic: “Mention the Geographic—it identifies you.”

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.”

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