Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Paul Chaat Smith on Team Names and Indian identity

From an interview in the Times with Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche, who recently curated an exhibit of commercial images of Indians:
The Washington’s team name is gone. The Land O’ Lakes Maiden is also gone. Should all this stuff just go away?

We wanted to avoid being prescriptive, to say, “This team name is bad. It’s a slur. But this other one is not.” Some things are obnoxious. We should get rid of some things. But we are not trying to be the police force to shame people. It doesn’t help us to eliminate everything. The problem with Native Americans is the invisibility in American life. 

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The show also re-examines four stories involving Indians that circulate widely in American culture, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. The show calls Custer’s defeat a national shock akin to the Kennedy assassination. But a few years later, some of the warriors are celebrities. And pretty soon the Plains Indians, who numbered only 30,000, came to symbolize all Indians, and even America itself. How did that happen?

It’s one of the craziest things. There was a sense of national tragedy after Custer’s defeat. But pretty soon, Sitting Bull goes on lecture tour in the East. There was a range of opinion, but a lot of people saw these Sioux folks, these Cheyenne folks, as wonderful Americans.

After Little Bighorn, people said “Hey, we kind of like Indians. It’s what makes us different, this special sauce of American Indians.” But there were still acts of dispossession happening. All these things are coexisting. 

Historians have long written about the connections between the U.S. Army victory in the Civil War and conquest of Native American territory in the West. But now the general public has become more aware of it, in part thanks to recent debates over Confederate and other Civil War monuments. Does that surprise you?

Ten years ago, you would see discussion of all these famous generals in the Civil War. Then you’d see them involved the Plains Indian warfare, but it would never be connected. They were treated as completely discrete political developments.

It’s amazing to see how fast people are making these connections, like the recent incident with the statue of Ulysses S. Grant. He was a brilliant general in the Civil War, then a president. But he was also behind some of the campaigns that resulted in the Black Hills being dispossessed. For me, that’s always eventually what you want to get to: a kind of complexity. It’s not helpful to see history in black and white.

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