PLAYING INDIAN


By Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani
No part of this article may be copied or reproduced
without my written permission.


It is rare that I present a passionate rant on a topic. However, the subject of overcoming prejudices and double messages has bothered me for many years, and I have remained mostly silent about it and watched, and read, and listened as this voice grew too loud to ignore any longer. So, here it is and I know it will not be favored in some circles, nevertheless, I feel it needs to be said.

Whether everyone is aware of it or not, the phenomenon of playing Indian is quite popular around the world. Back in the 1960's hippies really got into this and other scenes, complete with all of the paraphernalia. In Germany there are communities of tipis and Germans dressing up and re-enacting their version of American Indian's historic lifestyle. People on other continents emulate indigenous peoples by wearing talismans, donning feathers and leather loin cloths, moccasins, beads, beating drums, learning how to be shamans and learning how to live off the land. And let's not forget the ridiculous historical and stereotypical Hollywood depictions of Indians which contributed to misinformation about indigenous peoples.

Are these portrayals to be regarded as a compliment, or insult to indigenous peoples? Is it a romantic fantasy? Or is it based on something more?

I suppose what it means is largely dependent upon one's perspective. I can certainly sympathize with people who attempt to learn a foreign language and fit into a culture not of their up-bringing and how awkward one feels being that individual, or the one observing that individual. It isn't easy. And it often makes for some comedic moments wherein through the desire to learn of another, the play becomes a true reflection of what is observed. It is a learning for both sides. I feel that the place one draws the line in determining if what is done is an insult, is to see if it was intended to harm another, or to take away their freedom or sovereignty.

American Indian Vine Deloria, Sr. often wrote about racial issues and how it was easy for white people to "play Indian" because they could enter and leave that world at will." A hundred years ago this was the case. Indians were relocated, confined to reservations and missionary schools as wards of the State, and white folks were free. Does this thinking still apply today? If so, who is imposing it?

Deloria's grandson, Philip Deloria, continues the examination of what he considers to be white America's desire to become Indians in his book, "Playing Indian," which I have yet to read. (And no doubt I will have much more to say after completing the book.) But, I recently read a recent interview with Mr. Deloria about his new book, which spurred me onward into writing this article.

In the Lincoln Journal Star's interview, written by Jodie Rave, Deloria asks, "Why do so many people claim a great-great Indian grandmother? What is this thing white Americans have with Indians? Why is it necessary to bring an Indian ancestor to the front of their genealogical history?" Indeed. Just recently President Clinton claimed his grandmother had one quarter Cherokee blood.

So, why not? And what's the big deal? Why is this so troublesome and unaccepted by Indians? Why do presumably non-Indians need an Indian identity? Maybe it can be beneficial? And why not be honored that people are drawn to a particular cultural identity?

Deloria explains, "In order to do that you have to go deep into the psyche of Americans." Okay. Is Deloria an expert on white America? Does he include American Indians as Americans? Hmmm....Would it acceptable with Deloria for non-Indians to evaluate American Indian issues and their possible origins? Is anyone aware that the word "Caucasian" means "chalky Asian?" Perhaps white isn't even a relevent term?

Deloria believes that Americans lack a singular identity which prompts people to look for one. I don't completely agree. For one thing, Americans have their Americanness, or even world citizenship as an identity. There are also familial, racial, religious, gender identities. Heck, if you don't feel you have an identity, today you can find one through support groups for nearly everything that excites you. We are in a time of flux, change, where our identities are our own creations, not merely based on bloodline. However, if one wants to stick to DNA evidence, then there is proof that we are all from the same source, and it's not only from Earth.

But, the search for identity is old news and not confined to white America. It happens with great regularity within the Indian community, as well. The struggle for personal identity among breeds (half-breeds or full-blooded Indians) is growing daily and these individuals are not accepted by the Indian community, nor the white ones. When it is beneficial to be an Indian, one takes advantage of it. When it's a hindrance, one may claim they are non-Indian. Within the Indian community there is a battle between clinging to traditional values as opposed to contemporary ones.

There have been fights regarding the exact amount of blood in one's veins to determine who is an Indian. Some Indians want equal status as American citizens while others wish to remain "special." Indians who show more propensity toward whiteness are labeled "Apple Indians" (red on the outside, white on the inside). Who fits in where? (My book, American Indian Women Poets: Women Between the Worlds, addresses this serious and painful topic.) Who perpetrates these conflicts and prejudices? Obviously, it isn't only coming from non-Indian sources.

Deloria says that "Indians are like no other group of people in this country." Why? Because they are associated with the land, and nature, and reality and authenticity. "Indians are the people who possess the ultimate meanings and the ultimate truths on what America is about," which is often what he says is the white perception.

I beg to differ. First of all, there is evidence that Indians were not the only indigenous peoples in America. There were those who came before them, and Europeans and Asians who came to America often during the past 50,000 years plus and interbred with Indians. American Indians may not be such a pure race, after all. Even though there has been the discovery of a white mummy (Kennewick Man) that offers some proof of non-Indians on this land long ago, most Indians don't want to accept this possible reality.

Is it possible American Indians learned what they know from others before them? Or, do American Indians claim to be the originators of everything? Are they immune from whatver the rest of humanity, or any being in the cosmos, experiences? Caution: Thinking any one race, gender, religion, is the know-all, be-all of the omniverse is incorrect and dangerous; it only spawns more hostility and prejudice.

Deloria's comments about the Indian's connection with the land, reality and authenticity are not practices limited only to Indians. How can we forget about the other people the world over, like pagans, who also have the same associations as Indians with the land? While we're at it, what about the Maori? What about the Aborigines? The Celts? The Egyptians? The pre-Judeo-Christians? The Sumerians? The Dogon? Tibetans? Any people, anywhere? It is absurd to believe that only Indians possess these connections and/or abilities.

Knowledge is NOT confined to one race of people! It is available for anyone, anywhere, at any time. One merely needs to connect with their true self in order to find that out. And I know that the true shamans of the world already know this.

A "mixed-blood" friend of mine truthfully says, "Prejudice is an equal opportunity destroyer of minds." Every person and race has their justifications for keeping their prejudices. Every culture has had horrors perpetrated against them. Where does it originate? The song in "South Pacific" says it all - "You've got to be carefully taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade..."

And American Indians can be just as prejudice as anybody else. For example, have other whites ever been to a powow? How often has an American Indian approached you and asked who you are and ask why you were there? At some powows Indians poke fun at white people, and white people are forbidden to join in most dances. Not exactly a welcome mat. If powows are open to the public, and the public attends and supports it, at least show some respect for that. Help bridge cultures instead of further separating them.

Many years ago I stayed on a Hopi Reservation. I was treated like scum the minute I walked into the dining room only because I am white. My husband and his family, who are Yeminite-Israeli (yet could pass for American Indian), were with me and were treated very well. Let's face it, just because one is an American Indian doesn't mean they are automatically spiritual and respect all life as being sacred and interrelated.

Deloria believes that, "The dynamic at work is to get rid of Indians; then you become Indian." Does Deloria think that the people and corporations destroying the rain forest and animal species, moving Indians out of their ancestral lands, do it just so they can "play Indian?" I don't think so. That is merely for greed and control over the Earth and her resources. Does Deloria's view also apply to Indians who are part of exploiting the land or their own people, refusing to pay taxes and be equal American citizens?

What we can address is the American Indian's (or any people's) own actions in getting rid of themselves through fear, isolation, separation, greed, drug and alcohol abuse and violence, along with the need for many to continue to play the role of righteous martyr, always having the holy scapegoat as an excuse for their lack of self-determination and responsibility. It is a two-way street. One can forever wallow in self-pity and blame, or change it.

Why else would outsiders play Indian? I don't believe it is always a game. It could very well mean people remember other lifetimes when they were Indians. I wonder if Indians ever remember being a white person in another life. What if today's American Indian was one of Custer's men, yesterday? Can you imagine what this could mean? I remember being an Indian in many lifetimes. I also channel White Buffalo Woman. Does that mean the information I recall, or channel, is invalid because I'm not an Indian now? Note: Remembering does not justify harming people today, harping on the past, or neglecting self-responsibility. If I'm a first generation American (in this life), am I responsible for what other Europeans, unrelated to me, did to Native people a few hundred years ago, and do I have to make apologies and pay reparations? I don't think so. Presently it IS my responsibility to not create, or contribute to horrible things, or repeat past mistakes - no matter who made them.

Deloria said interpreting from afar by playing Indian, "actually hinders the development of the social, political and economic relations between whites and native people." I feel this explanation is myopic. I feel by identifying with any culture, especially one so prominent in our heritage, and however we do it, we are on a bridge moving one step closer in reaching an understanding of, and with, that other culture. By doing so we learn more about who we are. It enables us to connect and ultimately realize that no matter what color we are, no matter what religious beliefs we hold dear, we are all people. We each hold a puzzle of life on Earth - and what affects one, affects us all.

Charles Caleb Colton once said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." By truly trying to walk in another's moccasins, shoes, sandals, toga, sari, sombrero, or body, is where one begins to eliminate the false precepts, learn about a people, gain (at the very least) some tolerance, and maybe even true compassion.

Tsonkwadiyonrat (We are ONE Spirit), so say American Indians. Hypocrisy, or truth? Can we see and move beyond the illusions of fear, separation, false superiority or humility, and elitism into embracing unity with diversity - an authentic Oneness?



© Copyright 1998, Estelle Nora Harwit Amrani


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