Thursday, 9 June 2011

Indian Country

It's not often you read a poem and think, "My God, this person lives in our house..." Or, perhaps more accurately, lives in a house not unlike ours, and has seen fit to make it a metaphor. Cool. Or, spooky. I refer you to this poem by Louise Erdrich, which I found on the excellent Ordinary finds blog, which celebrates the culturally-significant births and deaths that happen to share today's date.

It seems Louise Erdrich is the latest addition to a small list I discover I have in my head, of interesting people who are of full or partial Native American descent. I'm not sure why this list exists; I think I'm simply jealous. I had a long childhood romance with "indians" which started at primary school and has continued, off and on, ever since. We had the book Indian Crafts and Lore by Ben Hunt in the school library, and I spent many happy wet lunchtimes with it. The book had seen good use -- our school was known as "that school with the totem pole".


Another page spread from Education For Living.
Yes, our school had a number of flat-roof classrooms,
and they were leakier than that tipi.


As an adolescent I used to watch the High Chaparral TV series hoping that this week Cochise's Apaches would finally come whooping down on the ranch in their stylish boots and leggings, cruelly slaughter the egregious Blue and Buck, and carry off Victoria and ... well, um, let's not go there. In college, when I was supposed to be reading Middlemarch, I was often reading the likes of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee or Black Elk Speaks, with shamanic excursions south of the border into Carlos Castaneda territory. Later, I developed a fascination for the photographic work of pioneers of the West like Timothy O'Sullivan and, of course, the inescapable Edward Curtis.


N.C. Wyeth

Most of this stuff is utterly inauthentic, of course -- mere projections of the white, western id and colonial dominance and guilt. But authenticity is always a dodgy concept, and the way stereotypes and images from a Central Casting mentality can overwhelm reality is an interesting topic in its own right -- though you do have to pity any genuine members of the Sioux Nation trying to hold onto (or reconstruct) a cultural identity in the face of the power of Hollywood. It makes the Scottish struggle with tartan seem trivial by comparison (and, at least as far as I know, the Sioux don't do the equivalent self-harm of Burns Night to themselves).

Back in 1981, we had the opportunity to visit some friends living in Oakland, California. As it happens, our friend Jim is a linguist and anthropologist, studying Native American languages. While we were staying, he had a field trip planned way up into the north of the state, to interview one of the few remaining speakers of a language of interest to him, up near Crescent City. We tagged along for the ride. A very good ride it was, too, up along the California redwood coast, staying in motels and imbibing Americana by the gallon (literally, it seemed, in the case of ice-cream servings).

I don't know what I was expecting, but the appearance of Jim's informant surprised me. He was small, rotund, and vaguely Asian -- he looked like Nikita Khrushchev in a lumberjack shirt and baseball cap, with not a moccassin or parfleche in sight. It was an enlightening experience, for me, anyway. I took a giant step out of Central Casting.*

About a decade later I had the opportunity to do a residential photographic workshop at Duckspool with Thomas Joshua Cooper, one of the great contemporary photographers, and usually described as "of Cherokee descent". This time I was ready. I had my eye open for Khrushchev.

When I finally turned up at Broomfield, most of the participants had already arrived, and were sitting around the magnificent dining table, getting to know each other. I sat down next to a sandy-haired, red-bearded guy, and said, "When's he turning up?" "Who?", he said. "Thomas Joshua Cooper", I said. "That would be me", he said.

Not quite ready enough, then. Mind you, when I met him, he was part-way on the journey from this person to this person. Despite his undoubted and enviable ancestry, I don't think he's going to be picking up any work as an extra in Hollywood.



* BTW, have you ever pondered the ethnicity of the guys standing beside Bob Dylan on the cover photo of
John Wesley Harding? It turns out they are indeed indians, but from India. They are "brothers Luxman and Purna Das, two Bengali Bauls, South Asian musicians brought to Woodstock by Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman. Behind Dylan is Charlie Joy, a local stonemason and carpenter". It astonished me, anyway.

21 comments:

Martin H. said...

Ah, John Wesley Harding raises a hand in greeting, once again. I had no idea about brothers Luxman and Purna Das. Interesting.

I have a friend in North Carolina. When she's not writing novels, she's lending a pound or two on her farm. Recently, she spoke of the various artefacts that still turn up, as evidence of the Cherokee settlements that once existed in her county.

Mike C. said...

Martin,

I don't know about you, but for decades I had assumed those guys were Native Americans, done up in a sort of pastiche 18th century fancy dress, to sort of emphasise the "hybrid roots Americana" point of that album. Maybe that's what we were meant to think, but -- Dylan being Dylan -- it seems there was also a point behind the point behind the point...

Did You Know Dept.:

Did you know there's a strong association between "meth" abuse, rural areas, and illegal artefact collecting? Apparently it's the sort of obsessive compulsive behaviour that suits the methamphetamine addict, and there ain't much else to do out in the fields... Police were puzzled why they were always finding arrowhead and pot collections whenever they busted a meth lab.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

I was aware of the JWH thing but I thought I might like to mention this. When I was driving my family around the South West of the States, we had to go to Monument Valley. Of course. Whilst being shown around a traditional hogan, I asked the guide what they preferred to be called. Ashley - for it was he - said, "We're Indians. The term 'Native Americans' is just to make a few Academics - mainly white - feel okay. I'm an Indian".

So, if it's good enough for them . . . I've tended to keep to the term 'Indian'. Which is great for Film Studies when we do films like 'The Searchers'.

Mike C. said...

Dave,

Always tricky, labels...

I was telling someone just today how the Library of Congress has periodically to revise its index of subject headings to accommodate changes in sensitivity and sensibility -- "negroes" and "Mohammedanism", for example, used to figure a lot.

I also remember how my grandmother used to collect a lot of charity money for "The Spastics"... I'm not sure why or when that word fell into disfavour.

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

I've always wanted to write a book called 'Bury my knee at Wounded Heart'.

Mike C. said...

Dave,

Forgot to say: I think the Navajo family (or a Navajo family) who live in Monument Valley and act as guides have been the subject of a photo-essay, but I can't remember who it's by just now. I'll look it up.

Mike

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

Your literary ambitions aside, one of the things that has always puzzled me about the whole "injun" thing is the unique way things have been translated into English.

Names like "Medicine Hat" or "Little Big Horn" are unmistakably Native American, yet their special flavour is given by an oddly naive, halting use of English, which bears no obvious relation to the original languages.

Notably, a lot of early place names are Anglicised (or Frenchified) versions of native names (Mississippi, etc.) -- it seems to be the "New West" where the "Me Big Chief" stuff takes off, almost as if a branding agency had got to work on the "injun" image.

Maybe it's just linguistic colonialism, trying to belittle the native inhabitants as child-like savages, but it seems somehow more than that. Must see if anyone has written about this.

Hey, what about "Knee My Heart In Bury", a tale of Kung Fu in the North?

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

Apropos nothing whatsoever, other than my own temporary annoyance-

Effing Blogger - once again, lost a comment ten minutes in the making. Any news on the migration-to-somewhere-else front, Mike?

Mike C. said...

Sorry about that, Kent, I think others have had problems, too. What is the symptom? Does the comment get lost after you submit it, or does the comment editor misbehave in some way?

Mike

Tony_C said...

Henry J. Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha was an attempt to express the authentic Native American culture and to preserve many words from aboriginal languages. I only read it a few years ago and it is one of my favourite poems.

I also love the place-names in the U.S. that are of native origin, like "Tallahatchie".

Kent,

I always paste from a pad to avoid such problems.

Kent Wiley said...

Mike-

This time, I went to "preview" the comment, got a google error message, and when I went back the comment was gone. Grrr.

Tony-

You're right, of course. But that's a couple of extra steps that take at least several more seconds!;)

Kent Wiley said...

Mike,

There's a great museum between Kennett Square (mushroom capital of the world) and Chads Ford, Pennsylvania - the Brandywine River Museum - that has three generations of Wyeths, all of them fine, albeit realistic, painters. I never saw the editions of the books that N.C. illustrated, but his is some of the best work in the museum.

The house across the street that belonged to local packrat Chris Sanderson also gave us a few good laughs.

Mike C. said...

Tony,

Hmm, Hiawatha, eh? I confess I've never read it, Longfellow's reputation not having stood very high for quite some time, but maybe I should give it a go.

Kent,

I love all illustration (in another life, I'd have liked to have been an illustrator) and especially that generation of illustrators -- Wyeth, Pyle, et al. -- though I can't afford to collect their books, unfortunately. Plenty of examples on the Web -- I particularly like Wyeth's "Treasure Island".

For fans of illustration, this is particularly good website:

http://www.bpib.com/illustra.htm


Mike

Paul C. said...

On the topic of Indians, have you ever read "On the Rez" by Ian Frazier? I highly recommend it.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Paul C., that looks like a really interesting recommendation, I hadn't come across Ian Frazier before.

Mike

t said...

Corrections and Clarifications

On June 11th we referred to the author of the Song of Hiawatha as Henry J. Longfellow. This should of course have read Henry J. Kissinger.

Tony_C said...

Mike,

Yes, you should "give it a go". It's long, but I couldn't put it down. I have a paperback copy of it as well as a copy in a 1921(?) imprint by OUP of Longfellow's complete poems, which gives a glossary of all the native American words and names.

Mike C. said...

t,

Yes, I thought you must have meant Henry Wadworth's 6X, really,

Mike

Mike C. said...

On the subject of the Library of Congress and sensitive labels, here is a real life comment I saw today from the Map Librarian at an American university:

"I am cataloging some maps of Palestinian cities on the West Bank and in Gaza.

I find that Jericho is listed at G7514.J4 (a city in Jordan) while Bethlehem, Jenin, Hebron and Ram Allah are listed at G7507, for cities of the West Bank. Hebron and Jenin receive cross references from the Jordan list to the West Bank list; Bethlehem does not have any cross reference to see the West Bank list, and as noted, Jericho is included as a Jordan city. I am therefore confused about what number properly to use for a map of the city of Jericho."

Call for Henry Kissinger...

Mike

Tony_C said...

Oh yeah, btw, re HWL's rep, he's the only American in Poet's Corner. Then again, who the Hell goes THERE?

Mike C. said...

To the best of my memory I've never been inside Westminster Abbey -- it does seem an odd collection (T.S. Eliot is sort of American, I suppose), and looking at the Wikipedia article it seems an awful lot of them only got their memorials very late (George Eliot 1980, D.H.Lawrence 1985, Oscar Wilde 1995, etc.). I have no idea what the point of it is, or how anyone gets chosen.

Mike