Indian country essays on contemporary native culture


Population and Identity

Indian Country has always been absorbed in encumbered discourse. Indians and colonists met as unequal companions, adversaries who frightened and fascinated one another. For five centuries, Indian cultures have been the objects of studies and stories, but the voices of Native people themselves were elusive. In the years when Indians were silenced by commission or omission, newcomers wrote hundreds of books describing tribal history and culture, detailing the impact of colonialism and telling about life among Indians.

The legacy of Native culture was recorded by non-Native explorers and traders, anthropologists and historians, photographers, artists, and novelists.

Indian Country

Even in recent writings on traditional practices and contemporary Native cultures, we know less from Indians themselves about the meaning of the cultural intrusion of foreigners, little about how the transformations of Indian cultures are understood and expressed and enacted in the everyday lives of Native people. For Native and other North Americans, unravelling the past in the present—personal, political, and cultural—can begin to make sense of the struggles over diffe rence that characterize both the nation-states of Canada and the United States and the Native nations, whose subjugation has accommodated these national formations.

In current conflicts over power and identity, the Indian past is often perpetuated in a historicized myth of parallel voices, expressions of a relationship symbolized in the Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Dutch, negotiated in Written into the beads of a treaty belt, it represents a pact of partition between Indians and immigrants in twodiscrete lines of blue beads that run across a sea of white, never intersecting, never imposing upon one another.

If the voices of Indians and Others were once parallel, they are not parallel now. Today, the expressions of non-Native academics, writers, and artists compete or blend with Native voices that recall oral tradition or express current culture. The conflicting perspectives that some call the narrative and the counter-narrative, actually overlap and intertwine in stories and ceremonies, art and artifacts, studies and statements. Even absorbed in the politics of difference, Natives and newcomers are bound together in the web of representations that emerge and transform to construct who we are and our relations with others.

In discourse that interweaves historical experience and current practice, Natives and other North Americans negotiate the relationships of dominance and resistance that thread through popular culture. Old narratives emerge in new forms that spiral into personal and political struggle, repositioning, transforming, or displacing traditional Indian knowledge and practice. Each account or analysis is part of an ambiguous mixture, a particular voice that can only be understood in the context of other voices that are sometimes absent, mystified, or ignored, and always incomplete.

The partiality of personal, academic or artistic accounts blends with a mixture of local and national narratives that are riddled with stereotypes and tricksters in the stories we tell, stories that we remember, borrow, and create. Indians have always known that stories are important. Kiowa author N. Stories are power. They reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture thinks. Academic writing has long recognized narratives as a window on who we are, what we experience, and how we understand and enact ourselves and others.

But resonating with the words of Thomas King, recent writing on literary, artistic, and ethnographic practice, reveals a more complex relationship between written or visual narratives and the formations of identity, community, and the alliances of power that construct our social lives. In particular, writing in cultural studies suggests that we actually construct who we are through a process that involves our individual identification with the cultural images and narratives that dominate our ways of seeing and representing the world.

Our identities are formed not in internal conceptions of the self, but in the adoption of changing representations and narratives that we generate and express in our individual and social experience.

Identity is continually contested and reconstructed in the discursive negotiation of the complex alliances and social relations that constitute community. Built in the ambiguous representations of visual and verbal stories, our communities are not cemented in unity and belonging, but in a dynamic process of change and difference that Stuart Hall ; describes as articulation.

In an interview with Lawrence Grossberg in Morley and Chen , Hall explains that articulation refers to linkages between different elements of discourse and social forces that under certain historical conditions can, but need not necessarily, be connected. These linkages unify dissimilar experiences, practices, narratives, and meanings in structured relationships that are neither determined, absolute, nor constant.

In the continual shift of social forces, relations of dominance and subordination build unities through the linkages of particular discursive expressions, historical conditions, and social realities. These unities dissolve and emerge, constructing identities and ideologies that are continually changing.

Our experiences, practices, alliances, and narratives are connected, decoupled, and realigned in the unstable processes of linkages that forge our identities, our relationships, and the meanings that we enact and express. Considered from this perspective, stories are not just the cultural glue that holds communities together or transports them over time.

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Gail Guthrie Valaskakis - Wikipedia

Stories express the dynamic cultural ground in which individuals and communities are formed through a continual process of adopting and enacting allied or conflicting representations and the ideological messages they signify. In North America, the icons and ideologies expressed in Indian communities—and articulated to different elements of history, heritage, and everyday life—became more visible to others in the s and s through the widespread circulation of pivotal Native narratives.

For Native Americans and Canadians, was a critical year, a marker for events that those who are unaware of the tenacity of indigenous knowledge consider a Native cultural and political renaissance. The angry protests of those years were influenced by the politics of the times and empowered by the newly discernible voices of Native intellectuals. In , Vine Deloria, Jr. The narratives of those who Stan Steiner called the New Indians nurtured Native cultural and political activity on both sides of the border. Known as the White Paper on Indian Policy , it called for the abrogation of the Indian Act, the elimination of the special status of Aboriginal people entrenched in legislation, and the abolition of Indian reserves.

This new narrative of displacement and acculturation recalled the establishment of Indian boarding or residential schools in the United States and Canada in the late s, and the episodes of Indian removal, relocation, and reservation terminations in the United States.

This alliance of Native nations adopted what Indians called the Red Paper, a treatise that spoke about indigenous presence and Aboriginal rights, declaring registered Indians as Citizens Plus. In the years since, the public voices of Native Americans and Canadians have increased in number, volume, and significance, expressing narratives of cultural and political struggle that merge with pan-Indian discourse and the voices of Others.

One of the new Native narratives reconstructs the public representation of the term Indian, replacing this misnomer with First Nation in Canada and Native American in the United States. Today, the inaccurate and sometimes disparaging term Indian grates against the sensibilities of many indigenous people, some of whom reject colonial collective idioms altogether and assert the respective names of Aboriginal nations.

This book of essays attempts to negotiate the pitfalls of competing narratives, adopting the word Indian to mark historical, communal, traditional, or stereotypical references to indigenous people; and adapting Native to serve as an inclusive term referring to contemporary First Nations and Native Americans.

The cultures, languages, and environments of Native America are wide-ranging, relevant, and real, and generalizing involves the dangers of essentializing.


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But common cultural currents run through the mosaic of Native nations that constitute Indian Country, expressing similar representations of land, spirituality, and governance that grind against the dominant discourse of North American culture. In the mixture of voices—culturally specific, pan-Indian, and Other—that circulate in art istic approach, anthropological method, cultural appropriation, and Native reappropriation, we can trace the trajectories of contemporary Native culture and current practice.

My voice is here, too, recalling the understandings and experiences of an Indian insider-outsider, lived, remembered, and imagined.


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I am forever joined to Lac du Flambeau, where one of my paternal grandfathers signed the treaty that established this reservation that is my home; but I also live the heritage of a maternal grandfather, an East Coast sea captain and Dutch immigrant, who sailed commercial vessels along the colonial coast. I walk with a moccasin on one foot, a shoe on the other, allied to Indian Country and a mix of border zones, academic, urban, and social.

My voice joins others that assert, contradict, and confront. Through a blend of conjoined voices, we can begin to unravel the meaning of Native experience and approach the points of connectedness between Natives and other North Americans. The eight essays in this book reflect on treaty rights and land, media warriors, Indian princesses and squaws, pow wow, museums and art, researching Indian culture, and Native nationhood, land, and membership.

The work forms a literary kaleidoscope in which each essay stands on its own, focusing on a specific expression or experience of contemporary Native culture. Taken together, the essays reveal different facets of a common theme. Adopting the vocabulary of cultural studies, they draw on concepts that orient the writing of Native and other academics to penetrate the prismal voices that express personal and collective memory, tribal and national events, real and imagined representations.

Maggie Hodgson , former director of the Nechi Institute in Edmonton, tells a story that speaks about the significance of multiple perspectives.

University of Toronto Quarterly

The story is about a wolf, a trickster who ignores a promise on his journey through life and loses his sight. Hungry and blind, he comes upon a mouse in his travels. He pleads with the mouse for his eyes, and the mouse finally agrees to give him one eye. The wolf thanks him and continues on his way. But with his small mouse eye, he can only see one tiny bit of reality at a time, one person, one drum, one rock. Then he bumps into a buffalo. He pleads with the buffalo for his eyes, and the buffalo finally agrees to give him one eye.

With his big buffalo eye, the wolf can see the complex alliances of families, communities, and nations in which he lives. And so the wolf proceeds on his journey through life, now able to see with both his mouse eye and his buffalo eye; his sight reveals interrelated realities: individual and collective, past and present, Indian and Other.

With the sight of our mouse eye and our buffalo eye, we can begin to probe the complex experience of being Native in North America today. You ask me who I am. If you wish to know, you must seek me in the clouds. I am a bird who rises from the earth, and flies far up into the skies, out of human sight; but though not visible to the eye, my voice is heard from afar, and resounds over the earth! You wish to know who I am. You have never sought me or you should have found and known me.

Since the earliest days of anthropology, ethnographers have tried to access the experience of the researched through biography. This is reflected in the range of writings about individual Indians, the study of whose cultures has long been at the heart of ethnography. But biographies have always been marginal to cultural analysis, an interesting annex documenting individual memories, feelings and beliefs.

Unlike language, kinship systems, or social structure, narrative has not been valued as a source of scholarly analysis or as the lived experience of collectively constructed cultures.

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