Wanna try this Sioux for size?

Playing Indian
May 21, 1999

And we thought we were just enjoying ourselves! Stealing lipsticks for face-paint, scavenging feathers for head-dresses, and lighting a fire at the bottom of the garden as the centrepiece of our pow-wow. But, Philip Deloria argues, nothing is so ideologically weighted as a seemingly innocent pleasure. Playing Indian speaks volumes, and it says much more than "How"!

The popular image of Native Americans, resplendent in glass beads and tasselled jackets, ready to go down the warpath, seems an unchanging icon of exotically charged difference backed by physical and spiritual power. The strength of Deloria's book is to show that this idea of stability is as spurious as the image on which it is based. The story he wants to tell is the variety of ways white Americans have, over time, literally played at being Indians as a means to fix a seemingly ever-elusive, ever-changing concept: American identity.

A constant tension for these actors has been how to resolve the contradiction of praising values supposedly upheld by the aboriginals and seen as essentially "American", while rejecting those regarded as non- or even anti-American.

Deloria's tale begins with the very beginning of the American revolution. Those otherwise staid Bostonians who poured the tea into the harbour were not dressed as faux Mohawks to disguise their identities (everyone knew who they were) but to exploit the unconstrained freedom Indians were then taken to embody. Deloria argues that the Tea Party and similarly unruly acts in subsequent decades by befeathered tenants warding off landlords, celebrated the revolutionary ideals of individualism and supplied the fledgling country with its first American customs.

But as a desire for republican order replaced revolutionary zeal, the Indian came to represent not anarchic possibility but the vanishing aboriginal. In strictly hierarchical Indian fraternities, modelled on freemasonry, lower-class immigrants expressed a nostalgic patriotism by performing "Indian mysteries".

This anxious search for identity through costumed incorporation of the Other also led the more intellectually curious among fraternity members to research and catalogue the "disappearing" customs. It even led one of them, Lewis Henry Morgan, to assist in the creation of academic ethnography.

At the beginning of this century, "acting Indian" became purposeful play for children when adults, concerned by the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism, instituted summer camps where indigenous customs laid down the order of the day. Now that the character-building frontier had gone, life in these camps was meant to hold the promise of providing their charges with an integrative identity, one resilient enough for them to face the challenge of a corrupting, alienating modernity. Some camps recruited Native Americans, who used the opportunity to attempt to refigure white stereotypes of their people.

The adults come to the fore again in cold-war times, as angst-ridden individuals became hobby-Indians to gain unmediated experience of the "authentic" Other. Dressing and dancing with the indigenes on their reservations, these pueblo-hopping tourists acted as weekend warriors flirting with an inter-cultural identity that was both excitingly creative and worryingly unstable. Deloria argues that teaching these two-day drop-ins may well have helped some indigenes to consolidate a native sense of life, then under threat from the aggressively assimilationist policy of the government.

To the hippies and other flora of the counter-culture, historical Indians were turned into symbols of resistance, useful for critiques of United States imperialism. Geronimo competed for iconic status with Che Guevara.

In this crazy world, where whites continually appropriate the native and the natives try increasingly to dictate the terms, "culture" becomes a commodity in a market of conceptions, so ensuring that "identity", of whichever party, will remain as slippery as ever. But if there is one certainty in this tale of constant exploitation, occasional collaboration and increasing resistance, it is that any sense of Americanness that does not accommodate its aboriginals, to their satisfaction, will always be unfinished. There will be white Americans playing Indian for some time yet.

Jeremy MacClancy is senior lecturer in anthropology, Oxford Brookes University.

Playing Indian

Author - Philip J. Deloria
ISBN - 0 300 07111 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 247

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