Note: all original writing (presented here) is copyrighted by the Library of Congress to Mary Magoulick. It may be used only according to copyright law and by permission of the author.

Indian / White Relations II

Persistent Refashioning

Responding to Roland Barthes= idea of the striptease as Adesexualized,@ and based on a Apretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration,@ Vizenor continues:

Tribal cultures are colonized in a reversal of the striptease. Familiar tribal images are patches on the Apretence of fear,@ and there is a sense of Adelicious terror@ in the structural opposition of savagism and civilization found in the cinema and in the literature of romantic captivities. Plains tepees, and the signs of moccasins, canoes, feathers, leathers, arrowheads, numerous museum artifacts, conjure the cultural rituals of the traditional tribal past, but the pleasures of the tribal striptease are denied, data bound, stopped in emulsion, colonized in print to resolve the insecurities and inhibitions of the dominant culture.                ~ Gerald Vizenor, 1990


The miraculous survival of distinctive Native American cultures to the present day despite intended and unintended policies of genocide, sociocide, and forced acculturation is usually attributed to racism, marginalization, benign neglect, and periodic waves of benevolent protectionism in the face of national and international disgrace. Less apparent to the general public are the internal strengths of Indian societies as expressed through the idiom of kinship, in the abiding sense of community, in the adaptive significance of what we derogatively view as factionalism, and in the political and legal effectiveness of native advocates. However, the factor that may prove most decisive for Indian persistence is a highly developed level of historical consciousness, a continuing sense of identity as separate peoples for whom power resides in maintaining their distinctness. History, so viewed, is not something that happens to Indians; it might better be conceived as a potent force that they actively utilize, refashion, and manipulate as a survival mechanism.

~ Raymond D. Fogelson, 1989


An Indian renaissance is quite within the realm of the possible and the attainable if certain conditions are fulfilled, if the Indians are permitted to determine what the renaissance shall be and if this is not left in the hands of well-meaning whites or romantic and unrealistic white governmental bureaus. Whether these conditions will be fulfilled still remains uncertain. However, if they are not, it is perhaps not only the Indians whose fate will then be sealed. 

~ Paul Radin, 1944 

We had the gold rush wars

Didn't we learn to crawl

And still our history gets

Written in a liar's scrawl

They tell ya "Honey, you can

Still be an Indian

Down at the Y

On Saturday nights"


Bury my heart at wounded knee

Deep in the earth

Cover me with pretty lies

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee


~ Buffy Sainte-Marie (1970's)

(emphasis mine) 

Part I

Images of Indians

The sentiments of Native American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and Native American scholar and writer Gerald Vizenor (quoted above), echo those of many Native Americans who believe that Western scholarship regarding the indigenous peoples of this continent is neither trustworthy nor useful. Additionally, Sainte-Marie=s song expresses frustration at the hegemonic attitude about when and how someone can be Indian that Fogelson also addresses. Such mistrust and anger stem from collective experiences of oppression, scorn, and subtle and overt racism. Many documents, articles, books, essays, films, and programs in popular and academic realms demean or romanticize Indians. Rarely are Native Americans appreciated realistically or at the moment. Yet Native American writers and subjects abound today. The American fascination with Native Americans has been consistent, even if it has wavered in character.

In Native American studies, ethnological work often stemmed from a presupposition that Native American cultures were vanishing and needed to be remembered and preserved before they were gone. Such a perspective is consistent with a larger American worldview regarding Native Americans. Many scholars demonstrate that Americans have throughout our history vacillated between romanticizing and vilifying AIndians,@ without ever really focusing on them as they exist among us in the present reality. So we have competing notions: the racism implicit in the statement, Athe only good Indian is a dead Indian,@ and the romantic idealization seen in movies like Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Both attitudes deny Native Americans the possibility of being viable, valuable, and real as a culture or as people in today=s world.

Indians as Villains and Primitives

One need not search very deeply in the popular or scholarly literature to find evidence of negative portrayals of Native Americans. Scott B. Vickers summarizes the situation: AThe images that have been projected onto American Indians from the >outside= fall into two distinct categories: one >positive= (that of the Noble Savage) and one >negative= (that of the Ignoble Savage)@ (1998, 4). Robert Berkhofer offers ample evidence and demonstration of both negative and romantic (which is equally unrealistic) images and attitudes regarding Native Americans in The White Man=s Indian (1978).

One representative example from 19th century naturalist Comte de Buffon suffices to demonstrate the popular and still persistent negative attitude:

For, though the American savage be nearly of the same stature with men in polished societies, yet this is not sufficient exception to the general contraction of animated Nature throughout the whole Continent. In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more cowardly and timid. . . . (qtd in Berkhofer 1973: 43)  

Many such examples abound to demonstrate that from the outset Indians were more often seen as Asavage@ and inferior B a separate species almost B rather than a vast number of individual, complex, vital human peoples.

Surely everyone has encountered popular cultural, historical, and literary images of Indians as dirty, rotten, stupid, untrustworthy, mean, brutal, and easily discarded. Naturally Native Americans encounter such images as well. When they go to the historical or popular literature and read about themselves they are understandably disturbed by such racism and hatred (as Sainte Marie=s song lyrics confirm). Such sentiments and scholarship only intensify a deep-seated mistrust of non-Natives who would study Natives and their resulting scholarship. Joseph Bruchac III feels the negative effect of such stereotyping: Ait seems as if Native people are either being presented as one stereotype or another B either as brutish ignorant savages or as wise, all-knowing spiritual caretakers. I do not believe that Native American people are wiser than any other group in America. They are human beings like everyone else@ (1993, 18). Bruchac offers a hopeful affirmation in light of the centuries of damage such stereotyping has caused.

At least until the early to mid-twentieth century (which may have changed then due to the influence of Boasian-trained ethnologists), most encyclopedias and other reference works regarding Native Americans defined them as savage, primitive, wild, and morally, emotionally, even physically deficient. The world of museums varies greatly and continues to change, yet there too stereotyping has left Native people feeling wounded. Franz Boas explains that museum exhibits serve various groups and purposes, including Ato entertain the masses@ and to serve as educational tools for various groups, including Athose interested in special studies@ (Stocking 1974, 299). Boas recommends exhibits arranged by geographic groupings focused to show the most important cultural traits of each group. Such arrangement is necessary for Adetermining what is characteristic of a tribe@ (Stocking 1974, 63). The important thing is that the exhibits should teach. Boas influenced many museums to present their collections with just such geographical, tribal, and pedagogically-based arrangements. While the arrangement and function of such museums are laudable, they still rest upon notions as the culture as it was in the past.

A disturbing thing about museum exhibits of Native American cultures stems from the basic placement of most such exhibits in natural history museums. Up to the present time many museum exhibits regarding Native Americans are found in natural history museums alongside other specimens of the natural world, like dinosaurs, rocks, insects, animals, and Neanderthals. Karen Coody Cooper, in discussing American Indian museum exhibits, confirms that presuppositions of exoticism or environmentalism are troubling: AFrom the beginning of American museum history, Native objects were treated as strange materials. . . . American Indians were treated as >curious beings= in a side show manner . . . . The institutions [museums] . . . boldly relegated American Indians to the status of flora and fauna of the >New World=@ (1997, 403). Cooper notes as well more recent efforts at returning artifacts to tribes, and tribally controlled museums and exhibits. These hopeful signs come after long years of implicit and explicit racism in museums. Western (European and American) people were typically not represented similarly in such museums. Their cultural productions were displayed not as Anatural history,@ but as Aart.@ By implication, Western Civilization is less primitive.

Many 19th century Aethnologists@ and Indian agents were geologists or other scientists of nature.[1] Pioneering anthropologists Powell and Morgan distinguished AAmerican Indian peoples in terms of cultural patterns . . . interpreted as steps in a developmental sequence by which humankind rose from savagery to civilization@ (DeMallie 1994: 3). The implications are clear B Native Americans are portrayed on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder than modern Western people, and can be studied like other animals or rocks, as part of Nature, or as part of our past.[2]

Other more mundane examples of Native people being treated as lower on the evolutionary scale occur as well, as in the case of a woman I knew on the reservation who told me of people routinely having their heads measured in school to check their brain capacity. This left them feeling humiliated. We have also heard stories of being forced into orphanages or boarding schools, of being taunted, mocked, shunned, or mistreated. Such stories are all too common. Although there have been changes since the civil rights era, racism, classism, and evolutionary theories continue to have negative consequences for Native Americans.

Noble Savages

It is little comfort to most that concurrent with this persistent negative attitude another attitude existed B that of romantic idealism B which was ultimately equally condescending and harmful. Berkhofer demonstrates that the Indian as Anoble savage@ par excellence is evinced by Thomas Jefferson among many others:

The indian of North-America presents to us man completely savage, but obliged by the nature of the forest which he inhabits, and the variable temperature of the heaven under which he lives, as well as by the enemies with which he is surrounded, to employ both courage and address, for his subsistence and his defence. He is of savages, therefore, the most noble, in whom the unaided powers of human nature appear with greater dignity than among those rude tribes who either approach nearer to the equator, or farther removed towards the poles. (Berkhofer 1978, 41)

This view offered by as authoritative a figure as a founding father (generally admired for his intelligence) helps set and reveal the other side of the temperament of American people regarding Indians. Jefferson=s assertion assures us that America is a noble country, evidenced by the noble people who populated what was sometimes referred to negatively as a savage wilderness.[3] This Amost noble savage@ image appears throughout American history up to the present day in the most recent blockbuster movies with Native American themes: Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Both movies represent Indians as glorious but disappearing fast. Since these films are set in the past one may easily assume that there are no Native Americans today, at least none of the good, noble variety.

Winona LaDuke understands the problem of white appropriation of Indian identity as problematic as well, in her discussion of Hollywood=s Indians within her novel Last Standing Woman:

By and large, Indians were mostly action figures, evil characters and backdrops to the drama of the white man. They were occupied with riding horses back and forth on the horizon, burning wagons or farmhouses, and making the all-important smoke signals . . . . They babbled away in Indian talk, memorable oratory punctuated with phrases like, ASo long as the grass is green and rivers flow, so long as the sun shall rise and set,@ and other lines that reaffirmed the eternal status of Indians in America=s psyche. (1997, 108-109)

Examples of romanticism are easy to find. One may wonder why positive images of Native Americans should be a matter of concern.

Romanticism is harmful because it exaggerates or fabricates, thereby distracting American attention from the reality and persistence of the peoples whose continent we have co-opted. Berkhofer demonstrates that public opinions and policies result from centuries of distorted imagery regarding AIndians@ (a term which for him represents a harmfully incorrect image as opposed to ANative American@ which he considers less offensive):

Far too many Whites still see an AIndian problem@ rather than Native Americans with problems as a result of the long-time White image of the Indian. . . . All anyone who surveys the two centuries of United States Indian policy can be certain of for the future is that the Native American will continue to pose an Indian problem in White policy makers= minds.  (192, 194)

As long as Native Americans are misunderstood, mis-represented, simply overlooked as a real and persistent part of American culture, and co-opted as an Aother@ that we must define, we will not treat them fairly, understand our own culture and history, nor will we understand or benefit from the positive aspects of their culture.

Berkhofer=s prediction from 1978 is born out by 1990's policy=s regarding Native Americans. In Michigan, for instance, in 1995 Republican Governor John Engler supported legislation to overturn the Comstock Agreement which for over 20 years had allowed all Native Americans to attend any college or university in Michigan for free. Engler=s legislation has not been overturned since, although many colleges and universities have made provisions to continue honoring the agreement on their own, and Native people in the state lobby state legislators to honor the agreement. Such situations and policy battles occur throughout the Indian world today.

How to Study AIndians@

Getting Beyond the AOther@

William Simmons discusses the problem of misconceiving Native people today in AEthnocentric Bias in Historical Writing@:

In early modern times such ideas about manifest destiny continued to influence historical writing about native people and why it was legitimate or inevitable that they be displaced. American Indians were described as  AStatic and unprogressive@ while Europeans were Adynamic and acquisitive@. . . . Another approach was to ignore indigenous people altogether. This mythconception appears in early as well as recent writing. (1988, 2)

The underlying problem in all such Amythconceptions@ of Native people is the assumption and relegation of them as Aother.@ The concept of the Aother@ stems from inauthentic power relationships and, in addition to controlling and oppressing the other, limits the oppressor=s (or user=s) own understanding and potential. Wilcomb Washburn suggests as much in his analysis of Indian-White relations: AIt seems obvious that one must treat cautiously observations of later and different Indians for a precise, or even poetic, understanding of Indians of a different century and a different place. Indeed, it may be that the differing ideas concerning the Indians are, in part, products of the changing power relationships between the two groups@ (1957, 54). The fact that ideas and images of Indians do vary so much demonstrates that such images are used by a given group in power to serve its own purposes.

The impact and status of Indians on the American psyche has influenced scholarship as well. For over a century most ethnography of Native Americans has followed a similar pattern B going to a community, finding the oldest members who still remember the culture as it used to be, collecting from them, and ignoring the present reality of the community in favor of a Apurer,@ more Aauthentic@ past. Such motivations were simply a desire to capture the pre-contact past, the truly aboriginal, and may often have stemmed from Native people themselves. Yet ultimately this perpetuates an attitude of cultures as disappearing and invalid in the present. From one perspective, the fact that this pattern has continued for so long up to the present shows its lack of logic B the old people today were the young generation who was ignored 50 or 80 years ago. After considering all this, I set out to do fieldwork in a Native American community in order to experience, observe, and record it as a living reality.

My research resonates with a long history of folklorists studying Native Americans narratives among the Ojibwe and related groups. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was an Indian agent and early fieldworker among Ojibwe people in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. While the quality of his data and methods is debatable, he is historically important as an early fieldworker and collector among the Chippewa, and he left much data. Dell Hymes reveals the weakness of many of his translation, according to standards of ethnopoetics. Yet Schoolcraft=s collections are still published and widely read by Native and non-Natives alike.[4] Students of Boas have worked among related groups of Native Americans B notably Paul Radin with the Winnebago of Wisconsin (and some work with Ojibwa texts) and Ruth Landes with the Ojibwa in Canada. Victor Barnouw collected folktales from Chippewa in Wisconsin, offering cultural analysis based on his psychoanalysis of the tales. Gerald Vizenor presents narrative accounts of Ojibwa discourse and practice from simultaneously folk, insider, and scholarly perspectives. Perhaps Richard Dorson=s finest contribution to folklore, Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers, is based on fieldwork he did in the U. P., partially among Native Americans.

Concomitantly to folklore undergoing a sort of revolution which opened the discipline to new perspectives in the 1960's, Native Americans experienced a renaissance of their own during the sixties. They gained civil rights, pride, and a new sense of their identity and culture, which prompted literary expression as well. Momaday=s House Made of Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969; since then there have been numerous Native American writers. Before then Native American literature was primarily old tales, autobiographies, usually transcribed and translated, and generally expressive of the culture as disappearing fast, and speeches (also transcribed and translated and generally revealing defeat). All of these forms of Native American literature represent Indians as in the past and of the past.

Since Momaday=s groundbreaking success, Native American literature has flourished. As contemporary, English-speaking members of American culture, concurrently members of a sub-culture, Native Americans have offered some of the finest literature of our generation. The works of Erdrich, Momaday, Silko, Welch, Hogan, and others often combine traditional, folkloristic elements of American Indian culture with modern, Western artistic and literary forms. This literature also offers Americans a new way to conceive of and appreciate Native Americans more realistically. This is especially true since some of these works focus exclusively on Native Americans as they exist today on reservations or in cities, without self-consciously connecting them to their traditions and ancestors (e.g. Jim Northrup, Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and David Treuer, for example). For years the important work in Native American literature was a fight for recognition and entrance into the canon. Now, I believe, it is a matter more of learning to see and understand the literature as representative of modern Native American life. Hence I discussed Louise Erdrich=s novel of the experience of cultural renewal, The Antelope Wife. Her works speak symbolically with a rich voice from this new tradition of Native Americans writing in English.

In many ways Ojibwe people today seem identical to rest of us. Some of the distinctions of their culture may seem artificial or subtle to the outsider. But to them the notion of Abeing Nishnaabe@ is real, efficacious, and important. Rather than impose artificial measures of whether or not this culture bears adequate resemblance to one which existed in the past, I focus upon the present reality and expressions, the practice and discourse, of Nishnaabe people in the Easter Upper Peninsula, and in the literary work of Louise Erdrich, and appreciate it in terms of its effects on real lives in the present day.

In spite of these strides in Native American expression and studies, we continue to struggle with the harmfulness of the image of American Indians constructed by others, whether that image is positive or negative. Vickers supposes that all outsider imaginings of Indians are harmful: A>It should be emphasized that >negative= and >positive,= or >good= and >bad= appellations regarding these stereotypes are entirely relative to the preconceptions and needs of the dominant culture, and that the use of any stereotype in the portrayal of Indians is considered here to be contributory to their dehumanization and deracination@ (1998, 5). As existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir noted early in this century, anytime Aotherness@ is the focus of defining a human being or group, the resulting understanding or relationship will be inauthentic and harmful to both parties.

A flexible, emergent approach to culture and identity is thus much more satisfying and useful, as N. Scott Momaday realizes in his considerations of identity: AWe are all, I suppose, at the most fundamental level what we imagine ourselves to be@ (1998). In imagining or realizing ourselves, we accept responsibility for ourselves, there authenticating our lives. This process is fundamental to all human beings, though it may be more or less successful from person to person.


Vanishing or Persistent?

The Western, mainstream, Hollywood attitude regarding Native Americans has been so persistent and pervasive that many people believe in the demise or inauthenticity of Native cultures today. As recently as the 1970's most scholars agreed that Ojibwe culture had disappeared. We have already noted Vecsey=s pronouncement of the death of Chippewa religion and a resultant anomie. Ethnohistorian Harold Hickerson states: AIn fact, there is no >Chippewa culture= that can be described at this point . . . . If one can no longer watch the corpse [of the culture] die, one can read its epitaph@ (1970, 120, 123). Such scholarly attitudes and pronouncements are substantiated and transmitted to the general public by Hollywood, as we have seen.

Such sentiments filtered down to Native people themselves. Over one hundred years ago Andrew Blackbird, a Michigan Ojibwe, related the history of his people. In his book he states: AThe Indian tribes are continually diminishing on the face of this continent . . . into nothingness . . . . My own race, once a very numerous, powerful and warlike tribe of Indians, who proudly trod upon this soil, is also near the end of existence. In a few more generations they will be so intermingled with the Caucasian race as to be hardly distinguished as descended from the Indian nations, and their language will be lost@ (1997 / 1887, 24). While Blackbird=s lament seems to focus on biology and language, he clearly feels strongly that this loss means an absolute loss of his people in all senses. At other points in the book he calls for the mixed bloods to embrace education and Christianity as the means to salvation (98). Without their own culture, they needed something else to fill the void. He ends with a heartfelt and lengthy ALamentation of the Overflowing Heart of the Red Man of the Forest.@ Clearly he feels his culture is on the cusp of being gone forever: AAh, never again shall this time return. It is gone, and gone forever like a spirit passed@ (102).

Similarly, William Warren, a three fourths Ojibwe from Minnesota, opens his 1885 history of his people with a sentiment of loss: AThe red race of North America is fast disappearing before the onward resistless tread of the Anglo-Saxon@ (23). Both Blackbird and Warren feel the need to record the history of their people because it will soon be gone, and has not been adequately understood by White people. Warren states: Awe do not fully understand the nature and character of the Red Race . . . . We know him only by his exterior. We have judged of his manners and customs, and of his religious rights and beliefs, only from what we have seen. It remains yet for us to learn how these peculiar rites and beliefs originated, and to fathom the motives and true character of these anomalous people@ (24). As a fluent Ojibwe speaker and relative of many tribal members, Warren has the means to interview people. He undertook to offer a history based on the words and explanations of Native people themselves. In this sense he presents an ethnography. Though his sense of his culture as in demise was not as absolute or ultimate as he worries, Warren=s feelings are representative of his day. Based on a notion of culture as fixed and static, his views fail to take into account the vitality of the human spirit.


Native people today continue to write and offer their own view of themselves and their culture, though with less pessimism of late. Throughout her novel Last Standing Woman, Winona LaDuke supports a vision of Native people as resilient and strongly connected to traditions. She offers positive examples for how to live today, including embracing political activism when necessary. She ends with a scene of Native people reclaiming artifacts from a museum to properly bury them. Her vision is in some senses as romanticized as the Hollywood portrayal. Yet overall her vision is rooted in the experiences of culture as living and emergent:

It was not that Claire was reckless, it was just that since her turn to traditionalism she preferred to avoid most parts of American society, including the newspapers, TV, and town but excluding the lottery and, of course, Indian bingo. These she continued to play religiously to demonstrate her continued commitment to what she called Athe two paths of the Anishinaabeg@ B Christianity and traditional spirituality . . . .

While so-called civilization had come from the East to the Aishinaabe, this wind came from the West. Wabun, the East signified the beginning, and Ningaabii=anong, the power of the West, signified the end of the day and the changes brought by this. Wabun would be the making and Ningaabii=anong would be the unmaking. Others with less perspective might have resented the latter and favored the former; but the Anishinaabeg understood that both the making and the unmaking were essential parts of life and necessary to keep the balance. After all, what was dawn without dusk and what was life without constant change? (1997, 286-287).


LaDuke seeks to build a picture of her people as enduring and strong. Regardless of what particular aspects of White culture Native people may choose to retain or discard, the essential message here is one of recognizing the emergent, fluid nature of life and culture, Awhat was life without constant change?@

Fergus Bordewich, like many other scholars, recognizes the damage of creating an image of Native Americans based on either idealizing or villainizing tendencies:

Until now, each age has imagined its own Indian: untamable savage, child of Nature, steward of the earth, the white man=s ultimate victim. Imagining that we see the Indian, we have often seen little more than a warped reflection of ourselves; when Indians have stepped from the roles to which we have assigned them, we have often seen nothing at all. There will be no end to history, but an end may be put to the invention of distorting myth. With that may come a recognition that Indians are not, at last, poignant vestiges of a lost age, but men and women of our own time, struggling to solve twentieth-century problems with the tools of our shared civilization. To see Indians as they are is to see not only a far richer tapestry of life than our fantasies ever allowed but also the limitations of futile attempts to remake one another by force. (1996, 343-344)


Perhaps it is futile to hope for such universal enlightenment and understanding of the human condition. But I hope that as Native people continue to prosper economically and embrace the challenges of imagining and enacting their ethnicity, we will grow to live with them.

As we try to do so, both Native and non-Native people will continue to struggle to understand various images of Native people and our shared history. Wilcomb Washburn notes that even Berkhofer Aconcludes that the reality is constantly reshaped by the image even though that image misperceived the original reality@ (1983, 65). In other words, Native people sometimes buy into and thus complicate the images that are responsible in some measure for their oppression. Washburn concludes: ATo sum up, one can give no final answer to the questions of the >reality= of the >noble= or >ignoble= Indian. Both concepts exist, and have existed, in the white mind and continue to shape the character of the Indian and to shape white treatment of the Indian. Perhaps this split image demonstrates the difficulty of relating subjective perceptions to objective reality@ (1983, 65). Indeed I offer only awareness myself, not resolution.

Professor of Native American studies Kimberly Blaeser, who also happens to be Ojibwe, offers a metaphor in summary: ALike the dandelions, Native Americans of this country have been seen as a nuisance cluttering up the landscape; like the >weeds,= Indians of this country have been pulled up by their roots and expected to die; but, again like the globe of dandelion seeds, the tribal heritage, though frail, has proven itself indestructible, has endured and continually renewed itself@ (1993, 3-4). Somehow, Native Americans have hung on to life and continue to endure and even flower.  Native people express in their stories the struggle and gains of returning to life as Native Americans. The more specific examples available of individual lives, the richer will be our tapestry of scholarship in Native American ethnography and folklore. Fortunately, today we have many voices of Native people themselves to listen to on all these issues, voices of artists, scholars, and ordinary people.

Native Voices Today

A recent exhibit on APowerful Images: Portrayals of Native America@ at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, included commentaries from various Native people today. They discuss the vitality of their culture, as well as problematic portrayals of them by the mainstream culture. Janine Pease Pretty on Top offered these words for the exhibit:

I think that the marketplace has tended over the years to adopt images that are either romantic, convenient, caricature, even cartoon about Native Americans. I think it=s a real challenge for Native American young people to look at media images that are presenting sort of global homogenous images, and somehow appreciate the unique qualities of their own life.

She pinpoints as problematic the very bounded, homogenous, fixed notion of culture that scholars are likewise trying to work beyond today.

Pretty on Top continues:

I guess I also worry about the idea that the images that they would see would be so empty, or even so static, frozen in time if you will. So often times the images that are chosen are ones that are more of a past long ago, and to have a young person in the 1990's look at that image, it associates him or her with a static past that doesn=t move. A static past that could in fact be dead, when of course, their lives are vital. Their lives are full of friendships, and loves, and emotions, and actions, and relationships . . . .  Sometimes I wonder if people are looking at me like some static thing on a mantelpiece, or a museum piece in a stuffy, dusty, old showcase, rather than the person I am, a vital, living human being struggling with life just as they are. (1999)


By concluding with an affirmation of herself as Aa vital, living human being struggling with life,@ she focuses on the same emergent quality of life that this dissertation supports.

Like the consultants who shared their words and stories with me, these words rest in favor of humanity.

Tom Hill, an Iroquois curator of a museum, adds his voice to those who want to appreciate Native people today on their own terms rather than as stereotypes. In refashioning oneself, one may live in the present, and need not worry about an idealized past. He calls for de-mystification to extend even to his fellow Native people:

I think it=s important to demystify some of our ideas about who we are. So often we are thought of as the stoic Indian riding on the plain or riding off into the sunset. That is such a romantic, stereotypical image, the kind that people love B these images help people evade dealing with some of the other social issues of native identity. We often encourage that image of >the Indian= ourselves. For instance, if I go on parade I=ll put on my leather fringe jacket, my war bonnet, and stand by a tipi. I=ll do all the things you want me to do in order to convince you I=m an Indian. We have sometimes perpetuated stereotypes of Indians, and that has to change. And changing means looking at ourselves and recognizing that we=re like everybody else in this world B we have good guys, we have bad guys. We have a spiritual mantle as well as a sense of humor. Maybe because we tend to idealize it, I think we sometimes look at our cultural past too seriously.

We native people have idealized ourselves. We tend to think that our world view is pristine, untouched, uninfluenced by European culture. And that=s not true. In any kind of living culture, that culture is constantly changing and evolving. . . . Our culture is not static but dynamic and ongoing, and we were placed on Turtle Island to re-create the good works of creation.

In spite of the demands of the highly technological society in which we now live, our culture is still flourishing as it was meant to, in the legacy of our ancestors. (1994, 190-191)

As culture changes, people continue considering and expressing their lives. Some considerations and expressions may fall into the stereotypes that Hill and others recognize. In refashioning themselves, Native people may succeed to a lesser or greater extent in negotiating the tricky shadows between creativity, inspiration, tradition, and stereotype. Hence many Native people are noticing that painting a realistic, honest, contemporary picture of their own culture is no easy task. They also realize that connecting to traditions does not mean divorcing oneself from the contemporary world. Authentic means connecting to the past and the proper way of doing things, but it does not mean living in past. Authenticity and tradition bridge the past and the present. Better understanding the universal processes of human culture and imagination might help alleviate the burden some people feel to live up to or represent idealized notions of Indians fashioned by others.

Sereotyping continues to occur inside and outside the culture itself, perhaps even finding its way into some of the expressions and life stories I have examined. Gerald Vizenor calls for people to stop validating how others have fashioned and imagined Native people. Such Ainventions and historical plunders@ have Ainhibited@ the very processes of life that he celebrates as a Atheater for tribal events in mythic time@:

The inventions and historical plunders of tribal cultures by colonists, corporations, academic culture cultists, with their missions, reservations, deceptions, museum durance, have inhibited the sovereign striptease; racism and linear methods of perception have denied a theater for tribal events in mythic time. (1990, 84)

Since dissertations are not myths, I do not expect Vizenor would approve of my study any more than other Aacademic culture cultists@ whom he condemns. Yet the Atheater of events in mythic time,@ tribal or otherwise, is part of the human experience. Myths and interpretations of them are central to the human experience. Studies such as this one celebrate the Asovereign striptease@ and implicitly encourage it to continue. Vizenor=s own life demonstrates that academics and the understanding, celebration and appreciation of tribal life need not be at odds.


Years ago, when I planned my fieldwork for this project, I hoped I might learn about the experiences, hopes, and expressions of contemporary Native Americans. I wanted to understand reservation life, to bring to life what I had learned from textbooks, novels, poetry, and myths. I thought that focusing on younger people made sense, and hoped they would share with me their experiences and stories of being and becoming Native American today. And I hoped to collect narratives in English. Oddly, while I was doing fieldwork, I sometimes thought I was accomplishing something completely different from what I had planned and hoped to do in the field. Now I think that what I experienced and heard in the Eastern U. P. fulfilled my expectations and communicates to the world at large, via this work, some of the practices and discourse of coming to life today as Nishnaabeg. So I give space to some characteristic expressions.

Refashioning identity occurs throughout all human lives and cultures, from within and without. While non-Native imaginings of Native people remain problematic, Nishnaabe people=s own refashioning connects them to all human beings and demonstrates their perseverance. Whereas being imagined by others implies loss of autonomy and inauthenticity, imagining oneself is the necessary work of life.[5] Like all people, Nishnaabeg today have a variety of practices and discourse that contribute to their identity and ethnicity. Their culture and worldview comprise their various life experiences, which often include involvement in the mainstream American culture, urban culture, the culture of the Upper Peninsula, and many other possible Asub-cultures@ like the military, other communities, reservations, cities, states, or countries, the media, education systems, jobs, churches, and many other possible institutions with which they might have been involved. Each of us forms our identity from many experiences and relationships. And, as Momaday affirms, we imagine ourselves. Individual inspiration matters.

I have avoided determining or drawing a definitive, characteristic portrait of a community so influenced by many factors and involving many diverse individuals. As the scholars whose words I presented in the introduction have noted, drawing boundaries to define any culture is problematic. So instead of defining via boundaries, I have offered the creative expressions, commentaries, and life stories of some individuals who are imagining themselves as Nishnaabeg today. Rather than fashioning my own image, I have aimed to let the (re)fashioning(s) be the image, from the perspective of consultants within the culture. Erdrich, John Cappa, Ogimakwe, Benton-Banai, and others all communicate symbolically, in narratives, to express coming to life as Nishnaabeg. Art reveals more than any ethnographer=s study could do. Art also invites interpretation, which should be undertaken in good faith, and with knowledge of the discourse and practices of the community from whence it came. So I have tried to negotiate the path of interpretation and appreciation by presenting as full a contextual portrait of the community as possible, using the words of consultants, other Nishnaabeg, and scholars. My fieldwork offers the contextual information that performance theory recommends in order to understand these stories.

Thus I provide empirical data for discussions on identity, culture, performance, myth, narratives and other universal processes. Rather than definitive answers, these stories and voices from the community resonate with eternal human processes of imagination and expression. As Vizenor recommends, I have tried to draw out the Aevents in mythic time@ (especially in Erdrich=s mythic novel), which emerge with clarity and resonate more soundly based on the understanding and examination of the cultural revitalization expressed in the lives and narratives of Nishnaabe people in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The various voices heard here are not all in perfect accord, yet they paint an appealing portrait of the real lives of a  community of people expressing the struggle and the joy to imagine themselves as Nishnaabe today. People living as Nishnaabe celebrate the potential and emergence of life with hope, even as they puzzle it out. They connect to the past while helping to shape the future, and they tell stories of the process, affirming that we all imagine ourselves, coming to life again and again.


     [1] De Buffon was a naturalist, as were pioneering Aanthropologists@ George Bird Grinnel, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Lewis Henry Morgan, John Wesley Powell, and others from the 19th century who studied and/or worked with Native Americans.

     [2] In fact many museums are having to re-think their exhibits and policies thanks to new laws regarding reclamation of archeological goods, and rules governing archeological excavations. Yet such issues are far from settled, or unclouded, and many museums and lawmakers struggle against change, or puzzle how to continue their work amidst profound changes.

     [3] Note that the very term Awilderness@ has a negative connotation in 17th and 18th century Europe. Wild is opposed to civilized, or untamed, and hence unappealing. Jefferson sought arguments to convince Europeans that America was a worthy, noble place in spite of the wilderness and savages who occupied it. Furthermore, Rousseau=s formulation of a romantic Anoble savage@ was changing ideas about nature versus civilization. Such romanticism was ultimately of little benefit to Native Americans.

     [4]  See Schoolcraft=s Indian Legends edited by Mentor L. Williams, and The Hiawatha Legends in recent reprints. His Narrative Journal of Travels is also readily available in paperback.

     [5] Though both imaginings from within and without oneself are fundamental and probably eternal parts of human life.

Bibliography for references