Thursday, June 30, 2011


Quotable: "a riot of vastly different cultures"

Five hundred years ago we were Seneca and Cree and Hopi and Kiowa, as different from each other as Norwegians are from Italians, or Egyptians from Zulus. ...

America pre-Columbus was a riot of vastly different cultures, which occasionally fought each other, no doubt sometimes viciously and for stupid reasons. If some Indian societies were ecological utopias with that perfect, elusive blend of democracy and individual freedom, some also practiced slavery, both before and after contact. Yet the amazing variety of human civilization that existed five centuries ago has been replaced by one image above all: the Plains Indians of the mid-nineteenth century. Most Indians weren't anything like the Sioux or the Comanche, either the real ones or the Hollywood invention. The true story is simply too messy and complicated. And too threatening. The myth of noble savages, completely unable to cope with modern times, goes down much more easily. No matter that Indian societies consistently valued technology and when useful made it their own. The glory days of the Comanches, for example, were built on European imports of horses and guns. ...

I suggest that a powerful antidote to the manufactured past now being created for us is the secret history of Indians in the twentieth century. Geronimo really did have a Cadillac and used to drive it to church, where he'd sign autographs. Quanah Parker, the legendary leader of the Comanches, became a successful businessman after the war. He was part owner of a railroad, and endorsed farming and Jesus. At the same time he was leader in the Native American Church and advocated the use of peyote. One of the most instructive lives is that of Black Elk, one of our greatest heroes and most revered spiritual leaders. His astonishing life included a stint in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and surviving the Wounded Knee massacre. An impresario-anthropologist named John Neihardt wrote of his fantastic visions in Black Elk Speaks. ...

I found it fascinating that despite hearing about Black Elk for many years, I had no idea he spent most of his life as a Catholic. I learned that many believe that Black Elk and white assistants sat down and invented practically a new religion, explicitly designed to blend teachings of Christianity and Lakota spiritualism. At the time he was working as a catechist for the Roman Catholic Church of Nebraska. Essentially he was a lay priest. I also learned he had a first name, and that it was Nick. ... Do any of these facts about Nick Black Elk invalidate his contribution to the Lakota people, or his spiritual teachings? I think that to say they do is to say the invented, impossibly wise sages are preferable to the people who actually lived. Nick Black Elk, an extra in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, a paid employee of the Catholic Church, only becomes more interesting, not less, and his accomplishments even more remarkable. Those who would have it otherwise cherish the myth more than the genuine struggles of real human beings.

Source: Paul Chaat Smith in Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong (Minneapolis, Univ of Minnesota Pr., 2009) pp. 19-22.

See also: "A Brief History of Native Stereotyping" on the Blue Corn Comics site.

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