Putting on a brave face

June 25, 1999

Native American identity is constantly shifting and redefining itself to survive the challenges of different ages, says Jonathan King

In a 1996 American movie Mars Attacks!, Martians are portrayed as brutal exterminators, anthropomorphised beings of a different species, laden with racial attributes depicted in the crudest racial terms. If Martians arrived here today, we would know what to think of them. We have at least a century of image-making to which we would make them conform. When Europeans arrived in the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries, they found, to their amazement, peoples who reflected many, if not most, of their own views of wild men or woodsmen - the green men portrayed covered with leaves in ecclesiastical sculpture. It is a positive stereotype that survives today, constantly interacting with and replacing that of the Indian, the other construct of the 15th century.

Indians are Indians because Columbus thought he had arrived in India, rather than, in fact, the Bahamas. No other aspect of contemporary native North America is so contentious, or so interesting, as the naming of peoples. In a sense, nothing is more important than the ability of individuals, peoples or nations to maintain their own name rather than accept that imposed by outsiders. Yet in North America there has been little consensus about what these names should be. For example, the most generally used term for the indigenous population of North America is Native, as in Native American. But in the US, Natives often refer to themselves as "Indian people". And in the 19th century, the concept "Native American" referred to old-stock European Americans, in opposition to the influx of Irish and Germans, for instance, in the 1840s.

Of paramount importance is language. The media concentrates on destruction of habitats, environments and species. But little attention has been paid to the disappearance of numerous languages on a monthly basis. North America was once home to some 62 known language families and it is certain that many languages existing at the time of European contact have disappeared without record. It was estimated in 1992 that of the 300 pre-Columbian languages in Canada and the US, some 155 were still spoken. Of these, only 20 were still spoken by all generations.

Ethnic identity arises from a sense of shared difference and is expressed by the maintenance of fundamental, constantly shifting cultural symbols deemed essential to the survival of the group. Language provides an underlying cultural unity requiring little additional symbol constructs. With the disappearance of languages, identity focuses on diverse and complex symbolic systems, such as Pan-Indian identity or art.

There has been a growth in Pan-Indian identity throughout the US and Canada, across ethnic and national boundaries. Contemporary Indian identities are marked, for example, by artists putting their nation or tribe in brackets after their name, without further explanation - for example (Modoc/Creek). The Modocs were the last nation in California to hold out against the US army, in northeastern California. After their defeat in 1873, some were removed to Oklahoma while others were combined with the Klamath people in Oregon. Oklahoma was originally Osage land, designated as a homeland to which the "Five Civilised" tribes were forcibly removed in the 1830s. So it is perfectly reasonable for Creeks and Modocs to have intermarried over a period of three or four generations, although the Modoc were traditionally hunters and foragers in a marginal environment, whereas the Creeks were agriculturalists organised in a confederacy 2,000 miles away in the rich agricultural lands of Alabama and Georgia. And they spoke or speak languages from entirely different language groups. A shared late 20th-century identity would include forced removal to Oklahoma, a shared sense of place and a shared sense of history since removal, particularly in relationship to the federal government. Most significant would be a shared sense of the loss of language.

Yet a history of victimhood is only part of a complex process of identity. There are other, more positive symbols. Most significant of these is the evolution of the pow wow - communal gatherings at which competitive dancing is combined with festivity, feasting, prayer and relaxation.

The pow wow costume and its variants now spread across the continent, coast to coast. Elements of the costume are standardised - the eagle feather war bonnet, for instance, probably comes from a Lakota form of head-dress developed in the second half of the 19th century, but now symbolises a generalised Native identity.

Another aspect of ethnicity is toponymy and the recovery of control over Indian names. We all know Oneida cutlery, Pontiac and Cherokee cars. More pernicious is the use of the names of spiritual war heroes such as Crazy Horse for alcoholic drinks. Current controversy focuses on the use of native names for sporting teams - the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves. A French newspaper called into question the rectitude of calling a smart missile "Tomahawk". A US government paper on the nomenclature of aircraft says army aircraft "should be named after Indian terms and names of American Indian tribes and chiefs" to highlight the "mobility, agility, flexibility, firepower and endurance" of equipment.

Apache helicopters are produced reasonably close to Apache country in Mesa, Arizona, but the journalist Ben Greenman in the New Yorker wondered whether an anti-ethnic cleansing device used in Yugoslavia should be named after a people once ethnically cleansed. He answered his own query by pointing out that when the British army recently took delivery of an Apache Longbow, Apaches blessed the craft and presented the Brits with a bow and arrow.

Ethnicity, in multi-ethnic society, is often situation-specific, multilayered to ensure acceptability on varied occasions. Often renowned non-Native interpreters act as important links between the Native and non-Native worlds. Most recently, the death of Iron Eyes Cody, the Italian-American interpreter of Indian roles in 80 movies, was commemorated in the Native press as "probably the best representative of Native Americans that we've had in the past 50 to 100 years".

In both the US and Canada, more and more Indians or Native Americans are defining themselves as such. In Canada in 1986 there were 415,000 Natives; ten years later there were 610,000 - a rise far above population increase.

Native ethnicity thus presents itself as a series of conundrums. Natives marry out - more than other ethnic groups such as African Americans. Increasingly, North Americans identify as Natives. Language extinction continues at a catastrophic pace. But Native, Indian and the various Arctic identities appear to be growing stronger. Pan-Indianism is a phenomenon that creates the seeds of its own perpetuation.

In part, this is, from a European point of view, because the Indian is a medieval concept, an aspect of our own culture, whether appreciated as a green man or New Age man. In a sense we are all Indians. And we all continue to create identities for people who do not exist. When Native Americans appeared in the 16th century, we knew them already. They cannot disappear because they are part of us and, for better or worse, their identity and ours are inextricably linked.

Jonathan King is an assistant keeper of the British Museum.

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