Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Paul Chaat Smith, "Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong"

Paul Chaat Smith is a curator at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC; I wrote last year about an exhibit he curated on commercial images of Native Americans. I thought his take on that topic was fascinating, so when I saw this 2009 book on my sister's shelf I snatched it up and took it home with me.

Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong consists mostly of individual essays, talks, and exhibition reviews written or given between 1992 and 2007. But it has a consistent theme, which is the wrenching confusions of being an Indian in the modern world. (Chaat Smith almost always uses "Indian," especially when he is speaking rather than writing.) The book starts with a little essay about Indians and the camera, in which he says that Indians love being photographed as much as the rest of the world loves pictures of them. The notion that taking pictures of Indians like Sitting Bull was stealing something from them, he finds ridiculous; Sitting Bull loved being famous, loved being able to sell his autograph for spending money, happily dressed up in his old battle gear for anyone who would pay him to pose. And when movies came along, Indians loved them, too. Chaat Smith mentions that in 1991, when "Dances with Wolves" was up for the Best Picture Oscar, one of the networks got an elementary school full of reservation children together for a watch party so they could film the kids' ecstatic reaction when the film won.

But the impact of movies might be even deeper than that. Down into the late 1800s, Chaat Smith says, people didn't think of themselves as Indians. They thought of themselves as Lakota or Navajo or Seneca. So how did they learn what it meant to be an Indian? He says, from the movies. He points out that one of the first commercial films ever made, by Edison himself, was called "The Sioux Ghost Dance," and that this was followed by a steady stream of westerns that ran strong down into the 1980s. So when the American Indian Movement emerged and swept up Indians from all across America into one cause, what did they have in common? Movies. 

The idea is typical of Chaat Smith: an arresting juxtaposition of Native and Euro-American culture, leading to a fascinating idea that might not be exactly true.

Chaat Smith has a lot to say about romantic depictions of Indians as deeply spiritual and noble guardians of the land. Mostly he despises it, calls out its fakeness. He complains that it roots Indians in the past and ignores the contemporary reality of their lives. He points out that some of the most famous books and speeches about romantic Indians were actually by white people. But then he points out that those fake, written-by-white-people books about noble, spiritual Indians guarding the land are best-sellers among Indians, read by far more people than books by serious Native intellectuals. Nobody falls for this myth more than Indians themselves.

It is when complaining about this romantic nonsense that Smith says something that struck me as doubly important:

The ultimate result — the continued trivialization and appropriation of Indian culture, the absolute refusal to deal with us as just plain folks living in the present and not the past—is the same as ever.

But, really, Chaat Smith does not think Indians are "just plain folks." He wants being an Indian to be central to his own identity, and he wants the rest of the world to recognize the unique vision of Indians and grant them an important place in world culture. He exists between two poles: on the one hand the noble Red Man of Chief Seattle's Speech or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, on the other disappearing into just plain folks society in our big cities and suburbs. Neither fits, neither makes for a sensible, fulfilling life.

The ambivalence shows in Chaat Smith's writing about art. He loves Native artists who have wrestled with questions of identity and objectification, who turn their relationship to history and the land into something memorable or even shocking. But his standards of art are very modern; he heaps praise on artists who have made it into the Venice Biennale, which so far as I am concerned is where art goes to die and be reborn as money. He wants art to spring from the Native American experience, but he wants it to be recognized in New York and Basel.

But it is all consistently interesting, with surprising revelations in every piece. In Chaat Smith's hands the Indian's tortured relationship with history and contemporary civilization makes for a steady stream of insights that often apply just ask much to the rest of humanity, and I highly recommend this book.

The most personal essay comes near the end. It starts,

If you are Indian and live in the city you basically are screwed. This is because a large flashing neon asterisk floats above your head, which turns into a question mark, before again becoming an asterisk. You are in the wrong place and you know it.

Chaat Smith's mother is a full-flooded Comanche. His father is a member of the Choctaw nation but 7/8 white, and he chose to become a professor and live in suburban Washington, DC. Growing up in the suburbs, Chaat Smith thought he lived in hell itself. Not only was he torn away from the native world where he ought to have grown up, he traded that birthright, not for excitement and riches, but for a bland middle class existence in Prince Georges County.

I felt persecuted by history, tortured by fate. I wanted it all to be one thing or the other. I hated being half-white and half-Indian. . . . The truth is that I longed to be a stereotype. Mainly I wanted to be the full-blooded Comanche, secure in his own Comancheness, raised on the stories of his people. (Somehow the full-blooded Comanches whom I had known my whole life, who had never moved away from southwest Oklahoma, who almost always married other Comanches, would not suffice. They were Christians and not traditional enough. I think over the next rise I imagined more suitable Comanches.)

Ambivalence runs rampant in his feelings:

I believe blood quantum is a bunch of racist nonsense, but I also bitterly resent individuals who discover they are Indian as adults and then become Indian experts or Indian artist or writers or whatever. Saying you are Indian or not sounds good, but it also makes people choose one ancestry over another. I don't see urban Indians as second-class citizens, or reserve Indians as the epitome of all that is truly red, but if the land question is not central to our struggle and the reason for our continued survival, then I don't know what is. I despise the whole concept of tribal certification, but I have to admit I felt all warm inside when I picked up my own Comanche ID card.

At the end, the same words show up again: "Heck, we're just plain folks." In a sense, that is true. But Paul Chaat Smith seems to me like something much more than just a plain person.

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