The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America – Thomas King (2012)

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“While the hardware of civilization (iron pots, blankets, guns) was welcomed, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – original sin, universal damnation, atonement – was not and Europeans were perplexed, offended and incensed…”

This was a fascinating read about the troubling history of Native Americans in both the U.S. and Canada and written by an eloquent English professor who is also Cherokee (and Greek, as it so happens) so it was a perspective that was very unusual for me. It was also so interesting especially after having learned so much about the U.S. historical background of African-Americans last month. There are a lot of overlaps unfortunately – not the same, but definitely some issues in common.

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

It was also interesting as I happen to live in West Texas which was/is the large original home for the Apaches, the Comanche, and the Arapaho, and so our local history is peppered with references to battles and treaties developed throughout time. (It must be added that the history tends to reflect a very one-sided perspective of things… Guess which one?)

(If you’re curious to know more about the Indian Nations of Texas, this is a good introductory site from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s much more complicated than a John Wayne movie, let me tell you.)

This title was actually more of a collection of thoughtful essays with the common theme of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the U.S.

Goodness gracious me – how this group has been mistreated by governments over the years. Coming as it does through the author’s eyes, it’s not a straight history but more of a conversation over coffee with the author, and I think that this worked really effectively as you, the reader, were exposed and immersed in the anger and frustration of the author as he reflects over the events.

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One of the Native Americans at a local tribal celebration here in West Texas.

Essays covered a wide spectrum from how the early settlers set treaties with a particular tribe (and then broke them very easily) and this was a thread throughout the whole collection, really. It was tough to read the endless broken agreements over the years, and knowing this now, it’s more understandable to me how some of the Native American nations are mired in poverty, unemployment and other social ills.

One of the essays covered how Hollywood used the Native American and created a particular image for its own ends. According to the author, between 1894-2000, Hollywood made more than 300 movies featuring Indians (an accepted term for the author) as characters but rarely using a Native American as the actor. Producers were seeking “real” Indians and “authentic” Indian culture. To get a picture of the most frequent image of Native Americans for Hollywood, think of the well-known sculpture, “The End of the Trail” by James Earl Fraser in 1915. (See below.)

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

Other tidbits:

  • At one point, Canada produced a dollar coin that featured a totem pole with a raven in its design. Some of the Indian groups viewed this design as very insensitive and called this the “Death Dollar” as the raven is a sign of death for some tribes.
  • Will Rogers (U. S. actor/satirist) was a Cherokee, but in all his films, he never once played an Indian. (Compare with the painful effort that Johnny Depp did in “The Lone Ranger”.)
  • Re: the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the stars in the pavement project): there are more cartoon characters and dog actors represented in this than there are Indians. There are only two stars for actors who were selected to play an Indian character, and one of those was actually Sicilian.
  • There are more than 600 individual and recognized tribes in Canada and more than 550 nations in the U.S.
  • There were two main foci to “handle” the Indians in the early years: Extermination or assimilation.
    • Extermination of Native peoples was “acceptable” due to the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (i.e. “this new land is meant only for us” [i.e. Christians]). It was justified by the concept of “natural laws” and “survival of fittest” (twisting of Darwin’s evolution idea which was pretty new at that time).
    • Assimilation: Indians were seen as “savages” who had “no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language and lacking civilized manners”. White people (and mostly religious groups) saw the savages as needing to be saved from themselves and made into the image of white people (or how they saw themselves). There was no compromise.
  • The crux of the problem, according to the author (and many others) was land as Will Rogers said: “Buy land. They ain’t making more of the stuff.”
  • King notes that land was “the defining element of aboriginal cultures” whereas for white people, land was only a commodity which had value only for what you can take from it or for what you can get for it.

So – this was a powerful book that was really well written (although I would have like a bibliography). It wasn’t a scholarly book with footnotes or anything (and very openly reports that it’s not at the start of the book) , so through that lens, it really worked as a perspective of someone who has been in the trenches and knows of what he speaks. It was a fascinating look into Native Americans and their history.

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One of the Native Americans at a recent tribal celebration in Lubbock, Texas.

Travelin’, Travelin’, Travelin’ ….

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I recently was traveling with family to see more family in the beautiful city of Santa Fe in New Mexico. It’s a remarkable small community in quite a compact space that is stuffed to the gills with art of all descriptions and turquoise jewelry of every stripe possible.  

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

Driving to Santa Fe from West Texas means lots of sky!

I’ve been to Santa Fe quite a few times, but it wasn’t until this time around that I decided to learn about the history of the area and how the town became like it is. As seen in the first photo, it’s a community of adobe dwellings (at least in the downtown plaza area), and this is by design. Back in the 1920’s, community leaders came together with a goal of increasing tourism and agreed to have building codes only allowing certain architectural styles, mostly adobe around the plaza. There are of course other architectural styles but downtown is strict on its zoning and building codes. All of this uniformity makes a very pleasing atmosphere actually, and at least it represents and respects the Native American (or First Peoples’) history within these parts.

So – loads of museums to go to: George O’Keefe Museum, Museum of Folk Art (tons and tons to look at with such amazing detail and very enjoyable curating), a children’s museum, and then art dealer shop after art dealer shop showing pieces of almost every school of art, it seemed, including art from Dr. Seuss himself.

BookshopAnd then, of course, I happened to find a book shop. (Quelle surprise!) Called Collected Works, it was slightly off the beaten tourist path, but well worth the walk. It’s a charming lovely indie book shop with an extremely well curated selection of books (including a wide selection of titles in translation which was interesting.)

Of course, I had to buy a book – support an indie bookseller today!

Had a lovely coffee shop and comfortable furniture so we had a nice sit-down and browse, along with some laughs. And on the way home we came across the following sign which made me wince a bit…

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Had a good stay and will definitely return to Santa Fe again. It’s only a five-hour drive which is close by Texas standards. (Distance in Texas is usually measured in the number of hours it takes to drive somewhere else from where you are. For example, Houston is a ten-hour drive from where I live, and Austin is a good six hours.)

Fun weekend. You should go if you can…

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit – Leslie Marmon Silko (1996)

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This is a collection of more than 20 essays that cover author (and English professor) Marmon Silko’s perspective on life for Native Americans (or First Peoples) in the U.S.  toward the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the essays were pretty eye-opening, as despite being an independent minority population of their own, it was clear that this Native American First Peoples tribe of the Laguna Puebla has social justice problems and public health issues akin to other minority groups who have faced colonialism of different types across the world.

Mormon Silko grew up in the Laguna Pueblo tribe and witnessed how the tribe has reacted to modern issues as well as how the group has tried hard to maintain its history and traditional ways. As with any group who has a mostly nomadic history, traditions were mostly passed down orally from, in this case, her grandfather and via the tales of the Spider Woman who was the basis of the Pueblo Creation Myth.

(Side Note: I personally adore this story of how the world was created and how we continue to be linked with one another, no matter who or where we are. (See the myth here for details.) In fact, I love the myth so much that I used it in a speech that I gave on campus just the other day and any time that I’m referring to the importance of collaborative work and everything/one is connected, it comes up.)

Articulate and angry, Mormon Silko’s personal essays are diverse in subject, covering topics from her childhood to Pueblo culture to abuses by the Border Patrol to land and water rights. The introductory essay was pretty academic and needed quite a lot of concentration on my part as a reader – challenging when I’m on the elliptical at the gym! However, the remaining selection of essays was more on the level of a General Reader (as opposed to academic writing for a tenure packet) and so the tone does vary substantially throughout the book.

The vague overall tone was one of anger, and I could empathize with the author on this. I’m sure I’d feel similar emotions if my descendants (and current family) still faced ongoing discriminatory practices off the tribe’s reservation. However, steps towards improvement must have been made since the book was written?

As with the varying tone, the quality of the essays was variable as well – not that there were some weak ones, but I do think that there were some that were much more powerful and strongly written, and the level seemed to decline as the book progressed. (Or was it reader fatigue?)

As with almost any collection of essays, especially those written by an academic presumably enmeshed in the tenure process, and then combined with the usual formulae of a typical university creative writing program, there was some repetition where it was obvious that one essay had been retooled slightly to meet a different objective or journal. I tend to find this repetition annoying as I would argue that doing so was the result of being lazy/too busy/on summer break. Some careful editing would cut this problem out, but who’s the editor when one is a creative writing faculty? Both judge and the jury at times, I think, unless you’re careful.

So overall, a fairly well presented selection that portray a way of life that’s arguably disappearing over the years. Just a few content problems, but nothing that a good editor could not have mended.

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival – Velma Wallis (1993)

Life in Alaska can be challenging for the Athabasken Indians who live close to the Arctic Circle. Living off the land and leading a nomadic life would mean frequent challenges for the tribe – and when life got very harsh with starvation at the door, it was traditional to abandon the older weaker members for the good of the group.

This tale is of two such old women. It sounds very grim, but under the pen of this author, the reader is faced with the characters’ surprising (and admirable) courage and wisdom as the two elderly women vow to “die trying” to survive.

A short tale of some brave women who face tribal taboos to learn of a strength they did not know they had. A very encouraging read, especially if you’re looking for another perspective to balance the generally held stereotype that “old = weak and useless”….

From the ILL at the library.

On another (rather different) note, I do have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying the reading of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E. M. Delafield, and only wish that I had got to it sooner. It’s exquisitely funny in places.