The myths of Native American identity

  • Four glass slides, (above)1930s, photographer unknown. Rev. Robert Chaat, the author's grandfather, used these images to raise money for the Comanche Reformed Church.

    Images courtesy University of Minnesota Press
  • Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong

  • Nahwats, one of the author's Comanche ancestors, wearing cross and holding rifle. Date and photographer unknown.

    Images courtesy University of Minnesota Press
 

Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong
Paul Chaat Smith
193 pages,
hardcover: $21.95.
University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

We approach the millennium as a people leading often fantastic and surreal lives. The Pequot, a tribe that's all but extinct, run the most profitable casino in the country, and tribal members become millionaires. But guess who's still the poorest group in North America? Vision quest retreats and sweat lodge vacations are offered in the pages of Mother Jones… and that Dances with Wolves -- I'm warning you, don't get me started -- not just the novel but even the shooting script said it was about Comanches and they only changed it because the production manager couldn't find enough buffalo in Oklahoma and they made the Comanches Sioux just like that -- poof -- and everyone in my family liked it anyway!!!!

--Paul Chaat Smith

If Paul Chaat Smith ever needs another job –– he's currently a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian –– he would make an excellent stand-up comic. Unexpectedly, his latest book, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong, is a funny and painful collection of essays about a deeply serious subject: the ways in which Indian stereotypes infiltrate culture, damaging Indians and Non-Indians alike.

"We are reputed to be stoic," Smith writes, in regard to the myth of the strong, silent Indian, "but in reality it's hard to get us to shut up."

It's lucky for us that Smith, a Comanche born in West Texas, refuses to shut up. His insights on film and art are sharp and startling. Language and image -- especially photography and film -- often portray stereotyped responses to everything Native American, at home and abroad. "Some Westerns demonstrate a real interest in Indians, but in most we exist as metaphor," writes Smith. For example, in the John Wayne film The Searchers, "The Comanches (Wayne's) been fighting for two hours are simply a plot device to get to this moment of terrible pain and alienation."

Smith illustrates the love-hate relationship between Indians and photography as well as the film industry. "The movies gave us planetary fame," he writes. "Without them, the Comanches would be an obscure chapter in Texas history books. With them, we live forever." It's like advertising: Even bad press is good for the subject. For Smith, invisibility is the worst curse of all.

"We, you and I, must remember everything," says Jimmie Durham, a Cherokee, one of Smith's favorite Indian artists. "We must especially remember those things we never knew." Smith interprets Durham this way: "History promises to explain why things are and how they came to be this way, and it teases us by suggesting that if only we possessed the secret knowledge, the hidden insight, the relevant lessons drawn from yesterday's events, we could perhaps master the present."

While Hollywood will doubtless continue to use (and misuse) Native Americans, Smith is the bearer of good news in the matter of contemporary art. Little-known artists like Durham, Erica Lord and James Luna prompt readers to hie immediately to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian or other Native art venues for a dose of hope.

Lord, a filmmaker, makes films that upend the romanticized and simplified celluloid Indian. "An Indian film will star the beautiful losers, belligerent drunks, failed activists and born-again traditionalists who make up our community," writes Smith. "It will be brave enough to engage issues like the civil wars that tore through some communities in the 1970s, the terrible plagues of isolation, alcoholism, and poverty. It will not turn away from complex issues like debates over identity."

Indian identity will clearly be Smith's subject for a long time to come. He cites Palestinian intellectual Edward Said in his closing pages: "In the end, the past possesses us." Smith answers: "Okay, Eddie, I get it. But is it supposed to possess us this much?" Answering his own question, he concludes: "Once considered so primitive that our status as fully human was a subject of scientific debate, some now regard us as keepers of planetary secrets and the only salvation for a world bent on destroying itself.

"Heck, we're just plain folks, but no one wants to hear that."

Despite the leavening humor, Smith's ultimate message is a warning to all of us: "Good intentions aren't enough; our circumstances require more critical thinking and less passion, guilt, and victimization."

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