Selling the Indian

Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures
Carter Jones Meyer


One of the most critical issues facing American Indians is the persistence of a highly corrosive process known in academic circles as cultural imperialism. Non-Indians, enamored of the perceived strengths of native cultures, have appropriated and distorted elements of these cultures for their own purposes, more often than not ignoring the impact of the process on the Indians themselves. "They came for our land, for what grew or could be grown on it, for the resources in it, and for our clean air and pure water," writes Margo Thunderbird, reflecting on the process. "They stole these things from us, and in the taking they also stole our free ways and the best of our leaders. . . . And now, after all that," she acidly concludes, "they've come for the very last of our possessions; now they want our pride, our history, our spiritual traditions. They want to rewrite and remake these things, to claim them for themselves. The lies and thefts just never end." A number of prominent Indian scholars have echoed her sentiments, including Vine Deloria Jr., Ward Churchill, and Pam Colorado. Anthropologist Wendy Rose, lamenting the impact of cultural imperialism on Indians' ability to know their own traditions and spiritual beliefs, argues that the process is really "the extension across intellectual terrain of the more physically oriented nineteenth-century premise of 'Manifest Destiny.'" The net effect will be the displacing and then the replacing of Indians within their own cultural contexts. In short, they will no longer own their own identity in the same way that Indians no longer own most of the land that was theirs when whites began to settle in the New World. For many Indian scholars and activists, it is a form of cultural genocide. That this process should elicit so strong an indictment demands that we look more closely at its manifestations in the twentieth century, particularly in the hope that past injustices may be resolved as we move into the next century.

The essays that appear in this volume challenge the reader to look anew at some of the more significant ways in which American Indian cultures were commercialized and appropriated in the twentieth century. By commercialization, we mean very broadly the exploitation or appropriation of native cultures by non-Indians either for monetary profit or for some other form of personal and/or cultural gain. Although other scholars, notably Geary Hobson, Ward Churchill, and Wendy Rose, have focused on the commercial tendencies of white shamanism—the practice by non-Indian poets and writers of appropriating an Indian identity or higher Indian "powers" to convey certain mystical truths to their followers—there have been few explorations of the many other important commercial ventures in the twentieth century. This book reaches across space and time to explore some of these ventures and to uncover the extraordinary complexity that marks each of them. We have organized them within two arenas where Indians have figured prominently and where their identity has been forged most completely by and for non-Indians. Part I, "Staging the Indian," analyzes some of the ways in which Indians have been displayed to the public, beginning with the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and extending to contemporary stagings at a well-known tourist attraction and in the popular media. Part I concludes with a study of how one American Indian challenges stereotypical displays for his audiences on the performance circuit. Part II, "Marketing the Indian," explores not only the origins and motivations of non-Indian reformers involved in Indian arts and crafts, but also the role played by Indians themselves and the impact of their involvement on their own cultures and identities. Taken together, these essays suggest that the rubric of cultural imperialism is made more complex when we consider such critical issues as economic need in combination with the need for cultural integrity and self-determination. They also tell us much about the impact of commercialism on identity formation, not only among Indians but among non-Indians as well.

That there are important connections between commercialism, appropriation, and the formation of modern American identity cannot be denied. From one perspective, Americans have always defined themselves in opposition to others. Opposing Britain, opposing Mexico, opposing American Indians, opposing the Soviet Union, opposing Iraq—the list can become quite lengthy with a few moments' thought. Employing stereotypes to characterize those we set ourselves in opposition to is the simplest way to deal with them, because reduction of a human to a symbol—especially a negative one—makes fighting them, whether physically, ideologically, or both, easier. Thus, our various stereotypes and images of American Indians have changed over the centuries as our need to define ourselves in relation to them has changed. In their typological view of the New World, the Puritans cast American Indians as servants of the Devil. Convert or exterminate was the attitude of these New England colonists, and because extermination did not carry the extra work of assimilation, it was more often opted for when Satan's hand servants were encountered. In a less fierce but nonetheless destructive stereotype, Thomas Jefferson picked up ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and portrayed the American Indians as a race of noble savages doomed to extinction. This concept neatly served nineteenth-century expansionists who emphasized the Indians as relics of a time past whose very presence on the land hindered a divinely ordained progress of white civilization. John Louis O'Sullivan told the nation it was our Manifest Destiny to overtake the lands American Indians let lie fallow; basically, American Indians were "wasting" natural resources by not using them.

Casino gambling on reservations has given rise to a new stereotype of American Indians: as wealthy. Jim Northrup shows the fallacy of such thinking by explaining that "only a small percentage" of Indians profit from gambling and that "each Reservation decides how to spend its gambling profits. Some people get a lot of money and some don't. I think it is creating a class-based society." Northrup adds, "I don't think gambling contributes to racial harmony either. Since the casino always wins, there are more losers walking out than winners. I can just about picture the losers saying, 'Those God damned Indians got all my money again.' Since the experience is negative, I don't see how they can think positively about us."

In contrast, as Americans have come to realize, at least intellectually, that natural resources are not endless, the stereotype of American Indians as the original environmentalists, respecting and living in harmony with nature, has surged. A related stereotype, developed by the New Age movement and promulgated by white shamans, has imagined Indians as spiritually in tune with all of life. Many Americans, instead of placing themselves in opposition to Indians, want to be associated with what they perceive to be a positive aspect of Indianness. So despite ongoing mistrust, misunderstanding, and discrimination toward American Indians, many people seem eager to claim Indian heritage. Philip J. Deloria addresses this topic in his book, Playing Indian, by probing "the connection between 'the Indian' and American identity" and seeing playing Indian as "a persistent tradition in American culture," one in which Americans "reinter[pret] the intuitive dilemmas surrounding Indianness to meet the circumstances of their times." Statistics support these observations about the recent surge of identification with Indians: The number of American Indians recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau doubled between 1980 and 1990 (all one has to do is claim such heritage to be counted). Non-Indians participate in Indian ceremonies, wear American Indian religious symbols on clothing and jewelry, and purchase smudge bundles and dream catchers for use in their homes. A commercialism that operates on the view of American Indians as spiritual reduces a wide variety of cultures and individuals to a flat image. And it is an image of the consumer's own making: In purchasing sacred items or paying to participate in a sweat-lodge ceremony, we are adopting rituals that we had in part projected upon American Indian cultures through our beliefs about what those cultures embody or represent. Also, as Deloria reminds us, "At the very same moment that it was suggesting Indians' essential place in the national psyche, playing Indian evoked actual Indian people and suggested a history of conquest, resistance, and eventual dependency." In this kind of commercialism and appropriation, non-Indians who reinvent American Indian traditions for their own use are committing cultural imperialism.

In chapter 1, Nancy Parezo and John Troutman discuss how, in 1904, a contingent of Cocopa Indians left their homelands in northern Mexico and southern Arizona and traveled across the country to participate in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The group of families was showcased within a living exhibit of American Indians hired to wear "traditional" clothing, demonstrate their daily routines, and sell their arts and crafts to an eager crowd of rubbernecking tourists. "The 'Shy' Cocopa Go to the Fair" reveals how the Cocopa culture as presented in the exhibit became a commodity of exotica for the millions of tourists who visited the native village, yet the essay also shows that the Cocopa by no means lost control over their own experience at the fair. At a time when economic and subsistence opportunities were shifting and dwindling at home, the Cocopa negotiated their own terms for traveling to the fair and used the opportunity of their own exhibition to place themselves in a better position economically through the selling of their wares within an increasingly receptive market of native crafts. Parezo and Troutman demonstrate how the Cocopa, living in a compound within the largest world fair ever held, tried to make the best of a situation full of gaping crowds, racist rhetoric, and nationalistic propaganda.

A contemporary situation of American Indian display is assessed by Katie N. Johnson and Tamara Underiner in "Command Performances: Staging Native Americans at Tillicum Village." Tillicum Village is a four-hour spectacle of Northwest American Indian traditions, performed in a state park a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle. Described as part "ancient culture," part dinner theatre, the authors say the event raises questions that are not easily answered: Is Tillicum Village a recent example of a long and lamentable history of natives appearing as cultural artifacts on the (white) stage? Or is there, perhaps, more to Tillicum Village than meets the tourist gaze? Johnson and Underiner situate this tourist attraction between the politically charged history of such performances and the increasingly global nature of tourism, where perceiving groups as Others can occur along axes of privilege as well as ethnicity. Combining performance and cultural analysis with informal interviews, they consider the varying degrees to which cultural appropriation and commodification are both hidden and revealed by the event's rhetoric of authenticity. Finally, they consider the participation of American Indians themselves as conscious, politically significant subjects in the coproduction of Tillicum Village's many (mixed) meanings.

S. Elizabeth Bird extends the discussion of spectacle and display by analyzing how Indian men and women have become sexualized in relation to the white gaze—an important component of colonial domination. "Savage Desires: The Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media" traces this gendered way of seeing American Indians from captivity narratives through anthropological discourse to contemporary representations in popular media such as television, movies, and romance novels, all of which appropriate these images to ensure commercial success. Many Americans will never encounter a real, living Indian, and media fill a knowledge vacuum with outmoded and limited stereotypes. As Bird discloses, the 1990's lovely Princess, Wise Elder, or Stud may be more benign images than the earlier Squaw or Crazed Savage, but they are equally unreal and dehumanizing.

Pauline Tuttle's "'Beyond Feathers and Beads': Interlocking Narratives in the Music and Dance of Tokeya Inajin (Kevin Locke)" provides good insights into one American Indian's response to the commercialization of his culture. Thus far, scholarship on American Indian music and dance has been slow to move beyond the descriptive mode and to bring us closer to an understanding of the complementarity of the life-work of the ethnographer and that of the performer, or their roles in reinscribing notions of how the sharing of song, dance, story, and performance space give form to cultural knowledge, social progress, and individual agency. Tuttle builds her theoretical approach on studies of the performing arts in Africa, and her work is rooted in modes of consultation and collaboration that aim to give voice to the performer at the heart of this chapter, Kevin Locke. Locke, a preeminent figure in the revitalization of both the Hoop Dance and traditional courting flute repertoire, strives to extend the contextual and conceptual parameters of performance beyond the rigidity and stasis of what we have come to think of as "tradition." Locke performs an almost exclusively traditional repertoire and is dedicated to the preservation and development of ancestral heritage. However, when donning the traditional regalia of his Hunkpapa Lakota ancestry, Locke is quick to take his audience beyond a simple collection of feathers and beads in motion—beautiful, but void of meaning if not coupled with a deeper understanding of both their cultural and spiritual significance and their historical and contemporary representation in popular culture. Tuttle's study of the integration of Lakota and Bahá'í teachings in Locke's performance fills a void in an ethnomusicological discourse that has all but ignored both the "sacred space" and "intersubjective time" that is integral to much American Indian dance, music, and ceremony and that is marked by the confluence of past, present, and future, of this world and the world of the spirit.

In Part II's "'The Idea of Help': White Women Reformers and the Commercialization of Native American Women's Arts," Erik Trump discusses Indian reform organizations that advocated Indian arts as a means of developing economic self-sufficiency for Indians and promoting philanthropic enthusiasm among whites. Trump argues that these organizations differed from commercial marketers in their attention to the gendered nature of the production and consumption of Indian arts. He describes the negative images of Indian women that late-nineteenth-century Indian reform organizations initially used to guide their activities, and he shows how after 1900 numerous voices, many of them feminist, began to revise those negative images. Trump analyzes how one reform organization, the Indian Industries League of Boston (1893-1922), adopted the new image of Indian female artistry and used it to spur the consumption of Indian arts by reform-minded white women. His examination of the rhetoric of the league's public appeals demonstrates that these organizations challenged the injustices of an economically exploitative commercial market by creating a complex image of Indian women's labor that featured women's struggles.

A different view of the marketing of American Indian arts is given by Carter Jones Meyer in "Saving the Pueblos: Commercialism and Indian Reform in the 1920s." While the federal government was intensifying its efforts to detribalize American Indians and incorporate them into the larger American culture, a small but influential group of Anglo intellectuals began a massive campaign to save native cultures and turn back the policy of assimilation that threatened them. Although much is known about the political thrust of the campaign, led by John Collier, little attention has been given to its cultural component, molded and shaped by writer Mary Austin and archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett. Meyer explains how through their respective organizations, the Indian Arts Fund and the School of American Research, each based in Santa Fe, Austin and Hewett worked to resurrect the ancient arts and crafts of the Pueblo Indians, seeing in this work a means by which to educate the American public about the value of Indians as Indians. Only in this way, they surmised, could the assimilation policy be overturned and Indian self-determination established. Their work did help increase Americans' general knowledge of the Indians, and their defense of Indian self-determination provided an important foundation for postwar Indian activists. Nevertheless, Meyer reveals that excessive infighting and competition, in combination with persistent paternalism, undercut much of their work on behalf of the Indians and brought confusion to the more immediate reform campaign. Austin and Hewett should be regarded as transitional figures in the early phase of a larger cultural reorientation in twentieth-century America, a reorientation predicated on the shift from an Anglocentric to a multicultural ideal.

Sarah H. Hill provides another stepping stone in this progression toward valuing the artisans, not just their products, in "Marketing Traditions: Cherokee Basketry and Tourist Economies." Hill's examination of Clark Field's 1940's collection of Cherokee baskets allows us to view multiple processes at work in the lives of weavers. Whereas the containers point to market trends and the interests of collectors and scholars, they also inform us about women's work, environment, and values. As a source of recorded prices, they document the economy of Cherokee weavers in the era of the arts and crafts revival, the work of Indian reform groups, and the interventions of the federal government. Although all initiatives undertaken in the first half of the twentieth century promised economic relief to Eastern and Western Cherokees, the experiences of basket weavers reveal how slowly economic change came even in the face of persistent efforts to shape their markets. Hill looks at current enterprise as well, to show that as the twenty-first century begins, basketry is a more viable industry among Eastern Cherokees, where a crafts cooperative has helped insure a year-round market and higher prices.

In "Crafts, Tourism, and Traditional Life in Chiapas, Mexico: A Tale Related by a Pillowcase," Chris Goertzen looks at weaving in a contemporary Indian culture. Goertzen works outward from the genesis, appearance, and sale of a single handmade souvenir to explore the conditions under which crafts made for outsiders can meet the psychological and practical needs of the tourist and, under the best circumstances, not abuse the letter or spirit of tradition living in modern craftspeople. He shows how the negotiated identity of the craft object relates to the embattled complex of identities of the modern Maya. Sales of crafts make these Indians more visible to foreigners and to a historically hostile state government—this factor has made a previously despised (and defensively maintained) ethnicity economically indispensable to the state. Craft sales have a modest but real impact in easing dislocations caused by religious conflict in the highlands and are helping shift gender relationships in Maya families. By lessening pressure to ease the strain of burgeoning populations through the usual means, massive outmigration—these sales help families and communities stay intact.

The essays presented in this anthology reveal that the commercialization and appropriation of American Indian cultures were a naggingly persistent practices of American society and culture in the twentieth century. According to many prominent Indian scholars, these trends are part and parcel of cultural imperialism, and their continuation may eventually cause the destruction of native cultures and identity. Yet, as many of the authors suggest, there are important issues that make for a more complex interaction between Indians and non-Indians in the commercial sector, among them economic need and its relation to cultural integrity, self-determination, and the formation of native as well as non-Indian identity. In spite of cultural imperialism, it seems, many Indians still manage to negotiate autonomous voices and identities. We offer these essays as a new step toward understanding this complex process and hope that the dialogue begun here will continue.

Copyright © 2001. Arizona Board of Regents.

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