December 01, 2007

"Chief" defended phony "chiefing"

Chief Henry was face of tribal tourismIt was a few years ago, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its condemnation of Native American-themed sports mascots. I was working at the Cherokee One Feather and just happened to have CNN on when the late Vernon Bellecourt, American Indian Movement activist and vocal Native-themed mascot opponent, appeared to discuss the condemnation. What caught my ear was his mention of my tribe as a supporter of the practice of objectifying Native-American culture.

Wanting some clarification, I called Bellecourt. He referred specifically to the practice of “chiefing” where tribal members dress in Hollywood-inspired regalia to pose for photos with tourists.

Bellecourt gave his side of this issue, but I needed an opposing viewpoint. Who better than the man who had attained the most fame in this practice, Henry Lambert, otherwise known as “Chief Henry”?

The practice of chiefing is controversial even in a community known for tolerance of native stereotypes, and Chief Henry was often a target of criticism. Through my interview, I found him to be a genuinely kind and gracious person.

After a straight-shooting defense of his profession, which allowed him to make a living, support his family and put five of his six children through college, he gave me a tour of his home, which was adorned with pictures of his family.
Comment:  The article doesn't say what "Chief Henry's" defense was, but it implies it. "I'm just a working stiff putting my kids through college, so who cares if I stereotype millions of my fellow Indians?" In other words, "I'm doing what's best for me, so who cares how it affects anyone else?"

Perhaps this explains why Henry was a phony chief and not a real chief. Somehow I don't see Tecumseh or Geronimo having this attitude. Not when it mattered, anyway. (Sitting Bull arguably did something similar when he performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but by then his authority had dwindled.)

Perhaps we could call this the hang-around-the-fort defense. There have always been Indians who sold out for a little money or status. Of course, they undoubtedly had to make a living and put their kids through college, just like Lambert.

See The Big Chief for lots of examples of the "chief" stereotype.

No comments: