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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.